Farewell to The “Sweet Kentucky Babe”

July 16, 2017

Vito “Babe” Parilli, the first of the truly great quarterbacks to play professional football for the Boston/New England Patriots,  lost his battle with cancer and passed away on July 14, 2017 at the age of 87.  The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston honored Babe as its Man of the Year in 2006.  I was Master of Ceremonies and program editor for the Man of the Year Dinner. Before the dinner, I spent some time with Babe and learned the story of his life in football, which is appears below.  If you’re a fan of football, especially of Patriots football, you’ll enjoy getting to know Babe. He was one of a kind. 

By Tom Burke

Vito “Babe” Parilli, Boston Patriots’ quarterback

Back when he was in college, lunch hour was always a singular experience for Vito Parilli.

Rather than sipping sarsaparilla and munching burgoo with fellow students on the campus green at Lexington, Kentucky, Vito would report to the office of the university’s head football coach, Paul “Bear” Bryant. They would sit across from each other and engage in a nerve-wracking board game of the Bear’s personal design, a daily test that made organic chemistry look like basket weaving.

“It was a simulated football game. He’d say ‘I’ll give you a down and distance. What play do you call?’ Then after I answered, he’d say, ‘Okay, you gained three yards. Now what do you call?’” explained Babe recently.

“Sometimes I’d even stay over to his house and play it. The Bear programmed me.  He never sent in the plays, but I always knew what he wanted. In every situation. In four years there, I don’t think I ever got a delay of game penalty either,” he adds proudly.

 

Babe led the Wildcats to the most successful three-year stretch in the school’s football history.  They rolled up a 28-8 record and appeared in the 1950 Orange Bowl, the 1951 Cotton Bowl, and the 1952 Sugar Bowl. In the Wildcats’ 13-7 Cotton Bowl upset of mighty Oklahoma, Babe completed nine of 12 passes for 105 yards and was named the game’s top offensive player. In the Sugar Bowl his senior year, Babe had two TD passes and was MVP in a 20-7 win over TCU.

The Rochester Rifle

Babe in action at Kentucky

Parilli’s father August emigrated to America early in the 20th century, just in time to don an American army uniform and head back to Europe to fight the Kaiser. He was wounded in the Argonne Forest but made it home and went to work for the Phoenix Glass Company in Rochester, Pennsylvania just north of Pittsburgh.

Vito was the youngest of three kids in the Parilli family. There was no television in those days, and every high school boy lived for Friday nights and football. Vito was a fullback in a single-wing backfield. Bryant did not recruit him, but he had always wanted to be a Wildcat. He tagged along on a couple of campus visits to Kentucky with a high school friend who eventually enrolled in a Big Ten school.

After seeing Parilli in a high school all-star game, though, the Kentucky coaches got interested and invited him back down to Lexington for a workout.  They decided that he could become the quarterback to follow George Blanda.

Babe worked out all summer long in Lexington before enrolling, taking in strategy sessions in the morning, field drills in the afternoon, and practicing faking and ball handling in front of a mirror at night. By the time sophomore year rolled around, he was more than ready.

Babe as a Kentucky Wildcat

Known as the “Rochester Rifle” after his home steel country, Parilli set four NCAA passing records – for touchdown passes in a season and a career, and most passes competed and passing yards in three varsity seasons. He was twice a first team All-America selection and finished third and fourth in Heisman Trophy balloting.

Bryant called Parilli the best fake-and-throw passer he’d ever seen, with hand strength so formidable that he could pump three times before releasing the ball.  One sportswriter said “Parilli could take an elephant out on the field and, told it was a football, hide it.”  Another opined, “He handled the ball with the skill of a trans-Atlantic card shark, and can dot a receiver’s eye (right or left as the occasion demands) at 80 yards.”

Parilli was in Army ROTC at college, but he did not have to go into the service upon graduation. Drafted by Green Bay and its new coach Vince Lombardi, he split the quarterbacking with Tobin Rote for two years. Then came the call to military duty.

“I think we were called up because of Senator Joe McCarthy. One of the things kept saying was that the country was not going to give any special privileges to professional athletes,” said Parilli.

Babe spent an uneventful two years in Rabat, Morocco as a traffic controller at an air defense command center. He was able to cross the Mediterranean while on leave and see his grandmother for the first time at her little village near Naples. One poignant memory of that visit was a sign that simply read “October 17,” commemorating a day late in World War II when Nazis bent on retribution stormed into the village and killed all the young men they could find.

Babe returned to pro football in 1956, but his full brilliance as a passer and field general did not emerge until 1962, the third year of the American Football League and Babe’s second campaign with the Boston Patriots. It was a lengthy and sometimes painful route to stardom for the kid from Beaver County.

The first stop was Cleveland, who had traded for his rights when Babe was in the service, hoping that Parilli would take the mantle of the retiring Otto Graham. Five games into the 1955 season, however, Colts’ defensive end Gino Marchetti blindsided Parilli and battered his throwing shoulder so badly that Babe could hardly move the arm.  Six months of convalescence and little response followed.

“I went to a doctor in Kentucky who gave me a cortisone shot and just said to go out there and throw as hard as I could.  That was the way to break it up,” said Parilli.

The straightforward remedy worked, and 1957 found Parilli back in Green Bay. He shared the quarterback job with Bart Starr for two years. The 1959 season rolled around, and Parilli got word that he’d been traded to Philadelphia to be Norm van Brocklin’s understudy. Sick of playing second fiddle, Babe went to Canada instead where he put in a season with the Ottawa Roughriders.

In 1960, the American Football League was born, and Parilli went to Oakland where he and Tom Flores divided the qb duties. Traded from Oakland to Boston after the 1960 season along with Billy Lott for Dick Christy and Hal Smith, Babe shared the quarterbacking duties with Butch Songin in 1961.

Holovak Puts Babe in Charge – at Last

Babe in action as a Boston Patriot

The Pats sent Butch to the New York Titans for 1962, and Babe took over the number one slot. Ably backed up by Tom Yewcic, Babe at last had a team he could call entirely his own.

“It was really the first time in my career that I didn’t have to split the top job with someone.  Mike Holovak was the first coach who gave me that opportunity, and I’ll always be grateful to Mike for that,” said Babe recently.

For the next six seasons, Parilli’s schooling under Bryant paid back all the accrued dividends that Babe’s previous coaches in Green Bay, Cleveland, Oakland, and Ottawa might have collected for their respective teams.  With a talented receiving corps that included Gino Cappelletti, Jim Colclough, Artie Graham, Tony Romeo, and Larry Garron out of the backfield, Babe directed an exciting offensive show in virtually every game.

Parilli set every passing record in the young club’s history during over seven seasons, and his stats have endured in the Pats’ record books where he is now fourth all-time behind Drew Bledsoe, Steve Grogan, and Tom Brady. Babe threw 2,410 times as a Patriot and completed 1,140 passes for 16,747 yards and 132 touchdowns.  His 31 TD tosses in 1964 was the team’s single-season record until Tom Brady surpassed it with 50 in 2007.

The Patriots had a winning record in five of Parilli’s seven seasons and posted an overall mark of went 50-39-9. Babe was a three-time league all-star and the comeback player of they year in 1966 when he led the team to a record of 8-4-2 after a 4-8-2 campaign the previous season.

“He was just a very smart quarterback. Not a scrambler. It was the way he conducted himself out there, and way he called the games,” said Gerry Philbin, a defensive tackle and member of the AFL all-time team who played against Parilli as a member of the New York Jets. The two became teammates for 1968 and 1969, the final two years of Babe’s career when he served as backup and mentor to the Jets’ young quarterback, another Bear Bryant protégé from Pennsylvania named Joe Namath.

“Babe was a tremendous athlete. He ought to be in the Hall of Fame. He was a good punter, and he was the holder for Don Maynard, our kicker. It was very comforting to us, knowing that Babe was there if we needed him,” said Philbin.

The Jets, of course, made football history by upsetting the Baltimore Colts 16-7 in the 1969 AFL-NFL championship game, the first such contest to be dubbed “Super Bowl.” Namath’s brash guarantee of an upset was the most memorable episode of Joe Willie’s entire career. But the prediction and outcome of the game did not surprise Parilli.

“We were lucky to beat Oakland [27-23] in the AFL championship game. But I remember watching films of the Colts along with Joe. We turned to each other and agreed, “Hey, the Raiders are better than these guys. We can beat ‘em,’” recalls Babe.

One other title game in Parilli’s career is not such a good memory for long-time Pats’ fans. The San Diego Chargers won the 1963 AFL West division outright. The Pats and Bills tied atop the East and had a playoff game in snowy Buffalo. The Patriots won 26-8, but then had only three days to prepare and fly cross-country to meet a well-rested foe. San Diego had had two close wins over Boston, 17-13 and 7-6, during the season. It should have been a good match up, but the Patriots were at a hopeless disadvantage and lost 51-10.

Babe and Gridiron Club of Greater Boston president Dave O’Brien in 2006

After his playing days ended, Parilli remained with his beloved game as a coach and front office executive. Babe tutored Terry Bradshaw for three years as a member of the Steelers’ staff.  He also put in three years at Denver and one with the Patriots before casting his lot with the World Football League.

Gridiron Club historian Ned Cully points out that Parilli is the answer to the trivia question, “Who was the first coach of the Charlotte Hornets?” The Hornets were a reincarnation of the New York Stars of the short-lived WFL. Babe was coach of the Boston Bulls, Stars, Hornets, and Chicago Fire of that league. Later on, he got into arena football in venues that included New England, Denver, Las Vegas, Anaheim, and Palm Beach.  He has also worked in real estate, public relations, and as owner of a golf course. He now resides in Denver.

“I really liked working with the arena ball players. They’d play for $500 a game, and they were looking to make their mark. It was just like us, back in the old days,” he smiles.

 

A Boston Baseball Story

June 9, 2017
Piersall2

Jimmy Piersall

The recent passing of Jimmy Piersall brought back a load of memories. If you’re a New Englander of my generation, you automatically think “Piersall” when somebody says “center fielder.” He patrolled that sector of Fenway Park all through my childhood, from 1952 to 1958. I was shocked and confused when the Red Sox traded him for Vic Wertz and Gary Geiger in December of ’58. How could they do that?

Jimmy’s personal problems with a bipolar disorder, which were depicted in the film “Fear Strikes Out,” were well documented. When he came up to the Sox in 1952, he dubbed himself the “Waterbury Wizard,” a reference to his home town in Connecticut. His teammates didn’t care for that one.

The Red Sox were decent all through the 1950s. They usually had a winning record but never finished higher than third place. Their outfield was pretty damn good, with Piersall between Ted Williams in left and Jackie Jensen in right. Piersall was twice an All-Star – which meant a lot more then than it does now – and won three Gold Gloves.

I met Jimmy once, in 1964. He was playing for the Los Angeles Angels at the time. He stopped by Waterman’s Funeral Home in Kenmore Square for the wake for my uncle Walter. My father was there with me, and he asked Jimmy to come over and shake my hand. That was a thrill.

DON GILE HEADSHOT

Don Gile

But now to my Boston baseball story. Jimmy Piersall is a supporting actor in this one. The star of the story is a journeyman player named Don Gile (pronounced Jee-lee.)

Several years ago, my company had a luxury box at Fenway Park. I went there one night when the “legend” host happened to be Dick Radatz. Contemporaries will remember Dick, the unhittable – for a few years – closer whom Mickey Mantle once dubbed “The Monster.” Dick was perfect as a host – nice guy, erudite (he went to Michigan State and was, as he told us that night, only the 25th major leaguer to have attended college at the time he was playing.)

Dick Radatz

Dick Radatz

Dick told me a great tale about the 1963 All-Star Game, which I wrote up here. I happened to mention that one time I’d met, among other Red Sox of that era, Don Gile. It was at the Cottage Park Yacht Club one Sunday evening in the summer of 1962. We had heard that a bunch of Red Sox were around, and we went out to the floats to get their autographs.

The players put down the cases of adult beverages that they were loading onto the docked cabin cruiser and signed, obligingly. Yes, things were different back then. I still have those autographs. One of them is Gile’s. When Radatz heard this he said,

“Ah, Don Gile. Let me tell you about Don Gile.”

It was September 30, 1962, the second game of a doubleheader (remember them?) and the final game of the year. Gile, a reserve catcher and first baseman, was in the lineup. In 17 previous games, he’d not had a hit. He was rather down on himself.

Autographs

1962 Red Sox autographs: Don Gile, Mike Fornieles, Bob Tillman

During pregame warmups, a bunch of the players from the two teams were chatting on the sidelines. The opponents were the Washington Senators. Piersall was their center fielder.

Jimmy listened sympathetically to Gile’s story of frustration. He said, “Hit one to me in center. I’ll short-leg it for you and we’ll get you a hit.”

Sure enough, that happened. Gile hit a soft fly ball that Piersall pretended mightily to chase and catch.  But the ball fell in, and Gile had his first hit of the season. Thank you, Jimmy Piersall.

Came the last of the ninth. The score was tied. There were two runners on base. Gile came up. He swung hard. The air was shattered by the force of his blow.

Shattered too was the baseball. It flew high over the nets in left field for a walk-off home run.

Gile circled the bases, kept his head down, crossed home plate, and made a beeline for the dugout.

“By the time we got into the clubhouse, he was gone,” said Radatz. “We never spoke to him and never saw him again. He never played another game in the majors.”

I have no reason to doubt any of this story. Gile’s final year in the majors was that season of 1962, when he was 27 years of age.  He had two hits in 41 at-bats: a single, a homer, and three runs batted in.

Gile became the second Red Sox player of all time to hit a home run in his final at-bat. Two years earlier, Williams had done it on that day, famously chronicled by John Updike in The New Yorker,  that “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.” It was Williams’s 521st career homer; it was Gile’s third.

Other than Don Gile, who’s 82, they’re all gone now: Piersall, Radatz, Williams. May they rest in peace. And thanks to all of them for those baseball memories.

And now you know the rest of the story.

Book Review and Reflection: Disturbance of the Inner Ear

June 6, 2017

disturbanceWhen a best-selling author recommends someone else’s book, you listen. That’s what happened to me recently, and I’m glad it did.

The book is Disturbance of the Inner Ear by Joyce Hackett. I was surprised to learn that it was Hackett’s first book; it’s so beautifully written and masterfully crafted. I enjoyed Hackett’s writing style and learned a great deal about music, about human nature, and about a subject that’s of particular interest to me, The Holocaust. Hackett is both a gifted writer and a thorough, meticulous researcher.  This book won her the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize when it appeared in 2002.

The author who made the recommendation to me was Jacky Collis Harvey, whose smashing debut book Red: A History of the Redhead, came out two years ago. My review of that book is here. Jacky, with whom I’m connected on Facebook, made the suggestion after learning of my interest in The Holocaust.

Jacky didn’t know that I’ve also been trying to learn a little bit more about music – its history, its techniques, its people. I’m totally ignorant about all things musical, but even I know how important that music has always been and will always be to humanity. Disturbance gives deep and informed insight into the motivations and mindset of the musically gifted and into the instruments that they play.

Joyce Hackett

Author Joyce Hackett

The protagonist of Disturbance is Isabel Masurovsky, daughter of Yuri, who was a survivor of the Nazi concentration camp at Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. That camp was smaller and somewhat less well known than the giant complexes like Auschwitz, Dachau, and Buchenwald. It was a Potemkin Village, a “model ghetto” that the Nazis spiffed up on the surface for visits by the International Red Cross. The Nazis had promoted the place as a resort or spa; they even conned many elderly Jews into paying large sums of money for “lakefront” locations that did not exist. Yuri’s parents were among those that paid up in this manner.

Yuri makes it out of the camp, aided by his musical talent and by the several favorable twists and turns of fate that we hear in many survivors’ stories.  He settles in Brooklyn, where Isabella is born. She becomes a child prodigy on the cello, making her debut at Carnegie Hall at age 14. But her parents get killed in a car accident and she gives up playing.

Ten years later, she’s adrift in Milan, Italy.  The elderly Signor Perso, her teacher, guardian, and the last person on earth who knows her story, suddenly dies.  Isabel takes up with the smooth and seductive Giulio Salvagente, a surgeon and a part-time male prostitute who is carrying his own heavy load of emotional baggage.  She also gets a gig teaching the viola to the American teenager Clayton Pettyward, whose father happens to own a priceless cello that she calls The Savant.

In an article in Bella Online, Hackett said that she interviewed about 400 cellists before writing.  She also visited the city of Terezin, where Theresiendstadt is located, and spoke with many Holocaust survivors. That’s the type of research that I imagine is done by another of my favorite fiction writers, Jodi Picoult. An author who works that hard obviously has great respect for her readers as well as for her subject.  Hackett, who doesn’t play an instrument, stated

“I think research is mostly about, not being ‘right,’ but about being ‘not wrong.’ So often it introduces a vocabulary for a life and a set of concerns and a way of perceiving, but once a writer knows everything, she is able to write very little on a topic.

“…While I was doing my research, at a certain point a cellist I was interviewing, Gary Hoffman, quoted a sentence to me almost word for word that I had written the week before in the voice of my narrator. He said: ‘When you are playing in that perfect zone, the notes come in slow motion, like a series of home run pitches you can smack–one after the other.’ Well, my narrator knew nothing about baseball, but I’d written in a line about how in a perfect performance the notes come in slow motion, and time stops.”

Giulio and Isabel need each other, but it takes a while for them and us to realize it. Hackett’s descriptions of their erotic encounters are alone worth the price of the book. They’re refresher courses in the facts of life, imparting new insights into lovemaking while giving the reader palmar hyperhidrosis and tachycardia.

Isabel neatly links Giulio’s sexual performances with her own musical performances, musing, “I wondered about the sex he had with the women he hung around with. Having to sweep away one rich, dead-bored woman after another seemed to me like having to perform the same program, over and over, to one tone-deaf music hater at a time.”

She brings in another musician-analogy when she jumps into the driver’s seat of Giulio’s new standard-shift automobile and teaches herself, on the spot, to drive it so that she can make a climactic escape to Theresienstadt with the precious cello:

“But I was not about to hand myself over to Giulio. Driving a car, I told myself, could hardly be more difficult than playing the Rococo Variations. I occurred to me to listen for the sound I wanted, the smooth, rhythmic groan from the groin of the engine that Giulio had made, and work back toward the movements. This was the secret: in second, my limbs had molded themselves to the needs of the machine. I managed to circle the parking lot without chugging, and then I was coasting up the exit ramp as if I’d always known how.”

We see more of Hackett’s elegant descriptions in Isabel’s climactic escape. She steals Giulio’s car and dashes from Italy through Austria and Germany into Czechoslovakia. She has no papers or passport, but manages to get through the border crossings with luck and guile. With the tension of the chase building, she approaches the Brenner Pass into Austria and says

“I was approaching the border with no passport but Clayton’s…There was no break in the rail, no exit to make a U-turn.  The slopes beside the highway were thickly covered with sharp, spiky evergreens that looked as if they’d impale you if you pulled over and jumped. “

But she makes it to Czechoslovakia. In the grimy town of Litomerice, adjacent to Terezin, she muses,

“I wandered around the won for what seemed like hours. Litomerice looked as if it had aspired to charm for fifteen minutes during the Hapsburg reign, then gotten drunk and let its face go to hell. Most of the buildings were decrepit and peeling: a few had been refaced in gooey apricot. There was not one tree in town.”

This is great writing. It not only paints pictures; it evokes strong, visceral reactions. You’re there, and you feel what she must have felt.  Hackett’s style here reminded me of Catherine Marenghi’s elegant yet gripping descriptions of everyday phenomena in her superb 2016 memoir Glad Farm – which, like Disturbance of the Inner Ear, was also its author’s first book.

Isabel and Giulio do exorcise their respective demons. She makes peace with her past. As she does so, Hackett gives the reader much food for thought about The Holocaust, about the people who survived it, and about their descendants who keep memories alive.

Of her own experience in the research and writing of the book, Hackett later wrote in Boston Review,

“More than anything else my book turned out to be about the task of living after trauma, about accepting that there is no mastery of the past, or another’s experience, while also facing the stark ethical imperative that is adulthood: to extricate ourselves from the warped narratives we inherit in order to avoid doing damage to others in the present. I wrote my way out of a past that was not my own by hurling myself back into its reality…”

She cites Holocaust survivor/author Imre Kertesz’s writing of the prisoners’ greatest fear, that the truth of history would not be told and recorded.  She also points out that when she took her trip to Terezin, “Still, all over Europe, the battle for the story was still being waged.”

That would have been close to 20 years ago, and I’m afraid that the battle for the story of The Holocaust is still being waged. Maybe the battle will never be over. That’s why books like this will always be important.

Remembering a One-of-a-Kind Fireman on International Firefighters’ Day

May 4, 2017

Jack Kirrane, 1960 Olympic Team captain and toughest defenseman

Today the world honors the brave first responders who every day put their lives on the line in service to those whose own lives must be preserved and protected when fires break out – at home, at work, on the road, anywhere.

It’s fitting that we do this – thank you to all firefighters for your service.

No better day than today to remember one special man was not only a lifelong member of the firefighting profession. He also served his country on the battlefields of Korea, and he led an unlikely contingent of his countrymen to an improbable and storied triumph in the world of sport.

Jack Kirrane of Brookline, Massachusetts is that man. He was captain of the 1960 United States Olympic Hockey Team that won the Gold Medal at Squaw Valley, California.

With all due respect to Mike Eruzione and his merry band from the 1980 games at Lake Placid, the 1960 Olympic victory was the real Miracle on Ice. The Americans ran up a 7-0 record in those games. They went 4-0 against the three best teams in the world: 7-5 vs the Czechs, 3-2 vs, Russia, 2-1 vs. Canada, and then 9-4 vs. the Czechs again for the Gold Medal.

Mitt Romney and his Salt Lake City Olympics organization took the easy way out in 2002 when they had the 1980 team members light the Olympic Flame. They should have given that honor to the 1960 team. Kirrane and coach Jack Riley were both still alive at that point, and they were both in Salt Lake City along with several other team members.

It was a minor miracle that the 1960 team held together and even made it to Squaw Valley in one piece. Just before the games, Riley got the OK from USA Hockey president Walter Brown to add the Cleary brothers, Bill and Bob, to the squad. The team desperately needed more scoring and playmaking. The Clearys had not gone through the pre-Olympics grind with the rest of the team, and some of the players threatened a boycott.

Jack Kirrane would have none of that, telling everyone that if he had to go to California alone to represent America, he’d do it.

As it turned out, that last-minute personnel move made all the difference. The Clearys played brilliantly. There would have been no Gold Medal, and probably no medal at all, without them.   The last man cut to make room for them was Herbie Brooks, who coached the team to Gold 20 years later.

Kirrane had been playing on the international stage as far back as 1948 at St. Moritz. He was the youngest player on his team then. He was the oldest player in 1960.

After the 1948 games he played for the Boston Olympics, which was a feeder team for National Hockey League players. Fernie Flaman, among others, played for the Pics. Kirrane never got an NHL shot, however. He was drafted into the army and shipped off to Korea.

Brookline honors Olympic hockey captain Jack Kirrane.

After serving in Korea, Jack joined the Brookline Fire Department and kept playing high-level amateur hockey. When the tryouts for the 1960 team came along, he took a four-month unpaid leave of absence. He also sold his pickup truck to pay his own way to the tryouts. When he returned to work, he had lost his seniority and had to start at the bottom.

Jack worked as a firefighter for 38 years and retired as a lieutenant. He also managed Harvard’s hockey rink for 15 years. He’s a member of the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame, and there’s a rink named for him at Larz Anderson Park in Brookline.

I never knew Jack Kirrane. Everyone who knows and loves Boston sports and ice hockey ought to know who he was and what he did.

I wish that I’d had, at least, the honor of shaking Jack Kirrane’s hand. So today, on International Firefighters’ Day, I’d like to given him a special thank-you, as we all express our gratitude to his teammates on those hook-and-ladder trucks all over the world.

Great Men and Great Guys

April 23, 2017
grinold

Jack Grinold

This week’s passing of Northeastern University’s and Boston sports’ beloved Jack Grinold, my good friend and good friend to countless others, brought back so many memories. Here’s one, a recollection of one his personal anecdotes, that’s not only a fond memory. It’s also instructive.

Jack lived in Brighton, about a block from Boston College. One of his walking routes, for those infrequent days when nothing was going on in his life, took him through the campus.

It was a mid-summer Sunday afternoon a few years ago. BC was deserted. Summer session was over, and the students had not begun to arrive for the fall semester.  Boston College’s middle campus is a landscaping gem; the trees, greenery, flower beds and walkways have been beautifully maintained for many years.

Jack was strolling through campus when he saw a man hunched over, close to the side of one of the buildings. Coming closer, he realized that the man was a gardener, digging with a hand spade and pulling up weeds that had begun to sprout through the mulch.

monan

J. Donald Monan, S.J.

Coming closer still, he recognized the lone gardener. It was J. Donald Monan, S.J., former president and then chancellor of Boston College.

“Hey, Father, what you up to?” cried Jack.  And if you knew Jack, you know exactly how that high-pitched greeting sounded.

“Hello, Jack,” came the reply. “I just saw these weeds coming up, and I figured I’d better do something about them.”

Then they had a nice little chat, just the two of them, and each proceeded along his way.

Kipling once wrote something about walking with kings but not losing the common touch.  The late J. Donald Monan’s station in life made him one who frequently walked with kings. But how many of those of his social rank would – literally – stoop to pull weeds from a garden in the realm he ruled for so many years?

More importantly, Father Monan sought out and valued the company and conversation of people of all stations in life. He also knew that he had a kindred spirit in Jack Grinold. That’s a quality that makes those who rank as “great men” truly great.

In that respect, Jack Grinold was J. Donald Monan’s peer. And both of them knew it. Jack’s place on life’s organizational chart wasn’t as lofty. He wasn’t a king. But kings sought him out and valued his advice. So did students, and athletes, and writers, and historians, and everybody else.  Jack Grinold always had a kind word and genuine, sincere interest in others, no matter what their station. So too did J. Donald Monan.

I can imagine the two of them now, meeting up in the Second Balcony and looking down on the rest of us. There will be no weeds to pull, no press releases to get out. Still, they’ve got plenty to do up there, legions of old friends and acquaintances to catch up with.

But I suspect that each February, perhaps, they’ll get together for another little chat. Fierce competitors that they are, they’ll root for their respective schools’ teams in the Beanpot. But only if it’s a BC-NU matchup. Otherwise, I bet, they’ll be pulling for each other.

After all, that’s what great guys do.

History I Never Knew: Table Manners

March 14, 2017

In the end, you’ve got to give the credit for the rise of dining etiquette to the Italians. Not surprising. But it wasn’t always that way.

Here’s (some of) the rest of the story, taken from the latest National Geographic  History issue.

Dogaressa Theodora Anna Doukaina

By the end of the first millennium, knives, spoons and cups – usually shared – were available at dinnertime. But the fork had a terrible time getting established as a third utensil. One of the earliest recorded uses of a fork was by Theodora Anna Doukaina, a Byzantine princess who came to Venice in 1070 to marry Doge Domenico Selvo.

Dogaressa Anna brought a two-pronged fork with her, and she used it to put food into her mouth. The horror!  The Venetians, seeing themselves as cultured and sophisticated, were scandalized.  The Vatican’s representative (surprise, surprise) to Venice suggested that the fork was a diabolical instrument.  Maybe it looked like Satan’s pitchfork.  But Anna’s new tool caught on, and its use started to spread through Italy.

The rest of Europe continent was slower on the uptake than were the Italians. Some other Europeans tried to put some class into dining manners. Spanish theologian Francesc Eiximenis  wrote in 1384, “If you have spat or blown your nose, never clean your hands on the tablecloth.”  But if the diner did need to spit during a meal, he advised “do it behind you, never on the table or anyone else.”

Erasmus

Erasmus, the great humanist of Rotterdam, also took a crack at table manners. In his De Civilitate Morum Puerilium (Handbook of Good Manners for Children) he wrote “Some people, no sooner than they have sat down, immediately stick their hands into the dishes of food. This is the manner of wolves…To shove your fingers into dishes with sauce is very rude. You should pick up what you want with a knife or fork. And you should not pick out bits from all over the dish.”

The doyenne of manners was Catherine de Medici of Florence. She went to France to marry King Henry II in 1533. She was appalled by French table manners. An account by the Italian court ladies stated,

“Here in Paris many people still laughed at ‘those Italian neatnesses called forks’ and gulped down great chunks of strongly seasoned meat with their knife-ends or greasy fingers.”

Catherine de Medici

Catherine, the Martha Stewart of her day, mounted a campaign to bring class to French dining. She introduced individual cutlery, plates, napkins, and fine stemware for grand occasions.  The napkins were used to protect delicate, decorative tablecloths and the diners’ clothing. Proper placement of the napkin was over the left shoulder.

The French didn’t accept the fork right away. It took until the 18th century for etiquette guides to recognize the fork as an individual dining implement. Catherine de Medici’s son, King Henry III, was widely mocked for his use of a fork.  He was also regarded as effete and homosexual, and was a favorite target of the local snobs.

French writer Thomas Artus, ridiculing courtly manners in his work Description of the Island of Hermaphrodites, wrote “When dining, they never touch the meat with their fingers but instead with forks, which they put in their mouths by stretching their necks.”

Sheesh.  I guess people have never needed the anonymity of social media to be downright nasty.

Nowadays, I suppose, French cuisine is thought of as the crème dela crème.  But before the French say “Bon appetit,” maybe they should first say “Grazie” to the Italians.  If they don’t, I will.

Grazie!

Book Review and Reflection: Hillbilly Elegy

February 17, 2017

hillbillyPerhaps the best thing that I can say about J.D. Vance’s bestseller Hillbilly Elegy is that it reminds me of Catherine Marenghi’s Glad Farm.

Both are personal memoirs of people who grew up in dire poverty and “made it” despite the odds that their respective backgrounds had stacked against them. But there are as many differences between the tales as there are similarities.

Marenghi grew up in Milford, Massachusetts, a dreary Boston exurb. Vance was born in Middletown, Ohio. But he considers Jackson, Kentucky, his native town. His great-grandparents had a place in “the holler” of Jackson, in the heart of Appalachia’s coal country. He spent most of his summers there and a lot of other time visiting Jackson, which he called “the one place that belonged to me.”

Shortly before World War II, his grandparents had traveled the “Hillbilly Highway” that brought thousands of hill people to work in the smoky factories and steel mills of Rustbelt America. But those folk brought their hillbilly values and culture out of the hills to wherever they settled.

Glad Farm, which I reviewed here, is an inspiring personal odyssey. So too is Hillbilly Elegy. But Vance frequently steps back and explains what’s going on and why. That’s good, and much needed in America – especially at this time in our history.

The plight of poor white citizens, a virtually forgotten segment of our society, hasn’t been discussed much at all.  Be warned, however. Don’t refer to it as “plight” if you’re talking to one of Vance’s kin. You’ll likely get busted upside your head. Or worse.

Jackson is in Breathitt County, Kentucky. It’s called “Bloody Breathitt” because it was the only county in America to fill its World War I draft quota entirely with volunteers.  There’s much to admire in its rough-hewn people, with their loyalty to family and country topping the list. But hill folk take those loyalties and many other things to extremes.

The stories Vance tells of his family history and his early life bring their share of chuckles. But they are rueful, dread-laced chuckles. You wouldn’t want to be there.

A distant cousin of Vance’s married into a family named Hatfield and joined a band of former Confederate soldiers. He murdered a former Union soldier named Asa McCoy, thereby launching one of the most famous and violent family feuds in American history.

An uncle, called a “son of a bitch” by a truck driver, pulled the man out of the truck, beat him unconscious, and ran an electric saw up and down his body. Somehow, the guy survived.

Author J.D. Vance

Author J.D. Vance

Another uncle, called “Teaberry” because of his fondness for that brand of gum, once heard a young man tell a female relative that he’d like to “eat her panties.” Teaberry drove home, obtained a pair of the woman’s panties, sought out the kid, and forced him at knifepoint to consume them.

After World War II, many poor whites had a choice to make: whether to stay in the hills and work in the coal mines or take the Hillbilly Highway to find work in the industrial Midwest.

The book’s hero is Vance’s grandmother Bonnie “Mamaw” Vance. She was known as the toughest and meanest woman in Jackson, even long after she and her husband had taken the Hillbilly Highway out. She once saw a couple of guys trying to steal the family cow. She fetched her rifle and brought down one of them with a shot to the leg. Mamaw was fixin’ to put the final bullet through his skull when Papaw intervened.

Later on, when Vance was in the seventh grade and teetering close to taking up with weed-smoking peers, she told him blithely that, if she saw him with any of that crowd, she’d run them over in her car.   “No one will ever find out,” she warned.  He stayed away from them.

Still later she was paid a visit by a Marine recruiter.  Not happy with her grandson’s decision to enlist, she greeted the recruiter from her front porch and said, “Set one foot on my f—- porch, and I’ll blow it off.”

The Marine stayed down on the lawn. I could only think of a deadly serious version of Granny Clampett. Again, a chuckle, but one from a respectable distance, just as that Marine guy sensibly kept.

Vance lived most of his high school years with Mamaw. His mother, one of her three children, was one of the tragic cases who never made it out of the desperate cycles of poverty, addiction, and despair in Appalachia. She went through several husbands and common-law husbands and eventually succumbed to heroin.

In his book, Vance frequently critiques and analyzes what’s going on.  In a cri de coeur about the hillbilly mindset and pathology, he writes,

 

“This was my world; a world of truly irrational behavior. We spend our way to the poorhouse. We buy giant TVs and iPads. Our children wear nice clothes thanks to high-interest credit cards and payday loans…We spend to pretend we’re upper class. And when the dust clears – when bankruptcy hits or a family member bails us out of our stupidity, there’s nothing left over….Our homes are a chaotic mess. We scream and yell at each other like we’re spectators at a football game. At least one member of the family uses drugs – sometimes the father, sometimes the mother, sometimes both. ..We don’t study as children and we don’t make our kids study when we’re parents. We choose not to work when we should be looking for a job. Sometimes we get a job but it won’t last…We talk about the value of hard work  but tell ourselves that the reason we’re not working is some perceived unfairness: Obama shut down the coal mines, or all the jobs went to the Chinese. These are the lies we tell ourselves to solve the cognitive dissonance – the broken connection between the world we see and the values we preach.”

 

But Vance was one of the rare hillbillies who took advantage of the few good cards in the hand he was dealt. Of his grandmother, he states, “Thanks to Mamaw, I never saw only the worst of what our community offered, and I believe that saved me. There was always a safe place and a loving embrace if I ever needed it. Our neighbors’ kids couldn’t say the same.”

Mamaw died at age 72 when Vance was in the Marine Corps.  The Marines were a positive and transforming experience for Vance. After military service he went to Ohio State and Yale Law School. Generous scholarship help as well as the GI Bill enabled Vance to finance his education.  He did well in both schools. But even then, as he was discovering the richer and more prosperous side of America, he was torn between his new life and his hillbilly roots.

One time, on a visit to the old home country, he was wearing a Yale t-shirt while filling up at a gas station. When the attendant asked if he went to Yale, he denied it and said that his girlfriend went there. “I lied to a stranger to avoid feeling like a traitor,” he writes.

So J.D. Vance escaped his past. Or did he? You can decide that, after reading his book.

I can envision a college course built around Hillbilly Elegy and Glad Farm.  Book clubs and discussion groups might also consider taking up the two of them together. These two fine authors, both penning their first book, have much to teach us.

Catherine Marenghi’s writing style is more lyrical and picturesque than Vance’s meat-and-potatoes prose. Glad Farm has a Hallmark ending; it would make a better movie or miniseries than would Hillbilly Elegy.  You feel a nice, admiring glow for its author when you put it down.

You also admire the dickens out of J.D. Vance. But you can’t help but feel a bit depressed when you close his book. At least that’s how I felt.  The intractable problems that he lived through can be overcome, as his story shows. But those problems will always be with us.

What Two Soldiers Can Teach Both Our Political Leaders and All of Us

January 22, 2017

Today I would like to reflect on long-ago wartime deeds of a couple of soldiers. One of them wore the uniform of the United States of America; the other, the uniform of Nazi Germany.

May the actions of both men serve as moral and ethical guideposts for everyone: for those who hold positions of political and personal power and make decisions affecting the lives and fortunes of millions, and for those of us who make our own, seemingly less consequential decisions that affect our fellow human beings as we go about our daily lives.

Lawrence Colburn

Lawrence Colburn

The first of these soldiers is Army Specialist Lawrence Colburn.  I recently read of his passing, which took place on December 13, 2016. Colburn was the gunner in the three-man helicopter crew that passed over the Vietnam hamlet of My Lai in March 1968 and saw a horrific scene of mass slaughter taking place. The chopper landed between the villagers who were being gunned down and the U.S. solders, commanded by Lieutenant William Calley.

Colburn remained in the helicopter along with specialist Glenn Andreotta.  They trained their guns on the clearing, covering their pilot, Hugh Thompson, as he angrily confronted Calley. Thompson ordered Calley and his troops to stop the carnage, and threatened to fire on them if they did not. The killing stopped, but not soon enough to spare the lives of the 500 or more villagers that Calley’s men had murdered.

My Lai is perhaps the darkest chapter in American military history. As the magazine that mentioned the news of Colburn’s death pointed out, the mass killing took more lives than the Nazis’ slaughter of 340 people of the town of Lidice, Czechoslovakia. That mass murder was a reprisal for the assassination of the ruthless Reinhard Heydrich, one of the architects of the Holocaust and Adolf Hitler’s man in charge of that region.

We all know of the policies and practices that drove Nazi Germany to the mass murder of some six million Jewish people. But the Holocaust, or Shoah, also brought forth here and there some tiny glimmers of heroic charity of the kind shown at My Lai.

One Holocaust survivor, my dear and admired friend Mary Wygodski, tells of a German soldier that a friend of hers encountered in a concentration camp. Mary never saw him herself, but she heard of him. He was a young man of short stature, working as a guard and wearing the uniform of the Wehrmacht, the German regular army. He was not a member of the SS, that diabolical rabble that were charged with little more than killing Jews.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

With Mary Wygodski at her home in St. Petersburg, Florida in December 2015.

Somewhere along the way, that guard encountered a young woman known to Mary. He offered to leave his lunch for her every day, stashing it in a place that would be known to just the two of them.  How and why he came to that decision, what motivated him to risk severe punishment if not his very life, we’ll never know. He also admonished her, “You don’t know me. You never saw me. We never spoke.”

So it was, until they had to move on. Mary’s friend shared the lunches – real food like wurst, bread, cheese – with a few others who were being fed starvation diets as they were worked to death. We don’t know if that shared food saved their lives, but it doubtlessly gave them hope and strength to carry on.

I singled our Lawrence Colburn here only because his death was the most recent.  Andreotta died in combat in Vietnam, and Thompson died in 2006. Thompson was probably the one who determined what they did on that awful day, but all three were heroes.

They were initially regarded as traitors for reporting the massacre and testifying against Calley. They all received, belatedly in 1998, the Soldier’s Medal.  Thompson and Colburn were nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001, but they were passed over.  No surprise there.

That nameless German lad undoubtedly did not receive a medal for his quiet and unsanctioned heroism from his government.  I only hope that he survived the war and lived a good life. Perhaps, either now or in the hereafter, he can take comfort in knowing that he may have saved the lives of several Jewish girls. Their lives and those of their children and descendants are his gift to all of us.

Finally, as the writer of the story on Colburn noted, he and his crewmates never forgot that their highest duty was to humanity and to the law.  Nor did the kid from the German army.

There is a new group of people assuming the mantle of power in Washington D.C.  I hope that they too remember that their highest duty is to humanity and to the law. That goes for them and for those who opposed them at every turn, and still do.

It is also a good thing for us all to remember. Our decisions and deeds may not have the grand, widespread impact of those of our leaders.  But they are no less important to those whose lives touch our own.

Looking Back at the 1936 Olympics

January 3, 2017

on-board-ss-manhattanEighty-one years ago today (January 3, 1936), the United States Olympic Ice Hockey team set sail for Europe on the S.S. Manhattan.  They would play several exhibition matches along the way, but their ultimate destination was Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. The coach was my uncle, a 32-year old guy named Walter Brown.

On February 6, 1936, the opening event of the Olympics was a game between the United States and Germany, played despite a heavy snow storm.  The summer Olympics and the heroics of Jesse Owens and the University of Washington crew team (“The Boys in the Boat’) were yet to come.

Our guys won it, 1-0, and eventually finished with the Bronze Medal. In the final round, we tied Great Britain, 0-0, and lost the last game 1-0 to Canada. The winning goal in that one came when a puck eluded U.S. goalie Tom Moone, who was blinded by the bright sun behind the shooter.

Great Britain won its first and only Gold in those games. Canada won the Silver Medal after three consecutive Golds.  The USA team actually never lost to the Brits, tying them in Germany and beating them in another game played in England.

The teams traveled in style.  The S.S. Manhattan, owned by United States Lines, was the largest steamship ever built in America. The line published a book with a passenger list, which was given as a souvenir to all travelers. Its pages are reproduced here.

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Cover

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History I Never Knew: The First Lighted Christmas Tree

November 29, 2016

According to Smithsonian magazine, strings of Christmas lights brighten up the December evenings of about 80 million homes in America. They account for six percent of the nation’s electrical load during that month.

th-father-christmas-lights-johnson-nmah-ac0069-0000008-v

Edward Hibberd Johnson

Seems like there have always been Christmas tree lights, but that’s not so. For a few years, starting in 1882, there was only one lighted Christmas tree in America. It was at the home of Edward Hibberd Johnson, 136 East 36th Street, New York. This is the rest of the story.

Johnson was the president of the Edison Company for Electric Lighting. That company was founded by Thomas Edison, whose goal was to provide illumination for the streets of New York.  Johnson was a sharp guy and a go-getter – “part businessman, part engineer, part Barnum” as Smithsonian puts it. He had been manager of the Automatic Telegraph Company in the years following the Civil War.

Johnson hired the 24-year-old Edison in 1871. He quickly saw what a brilliant prodigy Edison was, and when Edison left to form his own company, Johnson followed and went to work for him. Johnson’s job was to find ways to market Edison’s inventions. The first of these was the phonograph, invented in 1877. Johnson took the machine on tour and charged people to listen to it.

The Edison Lamp Company was born in 1880 after Edison secured a patent on the light bulb. The two of them along with other investors, launched it after raising $35,000 in seed capital. It would be some years before electrical power was widely available, but Johnson and Edison were on their way.

By the time that the Edison company was founded, Christmas trees were already an established tradition, albeit a relatively new one. In 1841, Queen Victoria’s husband Albert introduced the Christmas tree to Britain – the “tannenbaum” of German origin.  In 1856, a Christmas tree appeared in the White House during the presidency of Franklin Pierce.

The practice of bringing a Christmas tree, decorated with pretty ornaments, spread rapidly. The nicest looking trees were the ones that were lighted – with candles. Real candles. Quite a fire hazard.

Then Johnson had an idea. Why not replace the candles with electric light bulbs? Bingo.

johnsonedward-firstelectrictree1882

The first lighted Christmas tree, 1882

He set up a tree in his front window and hand-wired 80 red, white, and blue light bulbs in six separate strings connected by copper bands. The connections could open and close as the tree rotated on a base that was powered by a small dynamo, also invented by Edison.

Johnson then went out and solicited coverage from the media and got a glowing, effusive article from W.C. Croffut of the Detroit Free Press, who wrote, “..it was brilliantly lighted with…eighty lights all encased in these dainty glass eggs…one can hardly imagine anything prettier.”

Crowds flocked to 36th Street to see Johnson’s tree each year. In 1884, he had 120 lights on the tree. The display wasn’t cheap – $12 for the lights alone, which would be about $350 in today’s money.  In 1894, president Grover Cleveland had the first lighted Christmas tree in the White House.   And the price of the lights rapidly came down to affordable levels. By 1914, a string of lights cost $1.75.

But it all began with that “Miracle on 36th Street.” Now you know the rest of the story.