Personal Memories of Arnie Ginsburg, Boston Radio’s Legendary D.J.

July 3, 2020

It is hard to overstate just how popular, how much of a teenage idol, disc jockey and radio personality Arnie Ginsburg was during my youth. Arnie died on June 26, 2020 at his home in Ogunquit, Maine. He was 94 years old and had suffered from Alzheimer’s Disease.

In addition to being the top guy on Boston radio back in the 50s and 60s, Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg was a truly nice man.  I speak from experience – I got to meet him up close and personal.

One Saturday morning, probably around 1961 or 62, I was prowling around the Kenmore Square area with my late friend Bobby Sheppard. We found the WMEX studio, which was a small suite on the second floor of a nondescript building near Fenway Park.

We knocked on the door and asked if Arnie was around. He wasn’t, but the guy on duty suggested that we write him a letter and ask if we could visit him.

I went home and wrote that letter. My Palmer Method penmanship was horrible, as always, but apparently it was legible enough.  I do remember my very tactful closing line: “How about it?”

Within a week or two, I got back a nice note from Arnie. He said he would be happy to have me visit with a friend or two. We should just come right before air time and show them the copy of his letter.  Then they would let us in to see his show.

We got there just as Dan Donovan, the “Six to Eight Your Dinner Date” guy, finished up. Over on the back wall above a small stage, we noticed, was a maroon banner with spangled lettering: “The Jerry Williams Show.”

Arnie moved into the studio chair that Dan vacated.  He sat down, with the boom-suspended microphone dangling from above and two big record turntables on the counter. The records that Arnie played would sit on a large metal platter. They turned, along with the rubber turntables beneath them. He would cue up the record to the exact spot beginning spot, hold it stationary, and then release it so that it started off at full speed. This avoided what they called the “Wow.”

Old “Aching Adenoids,” as he called himself, also had an assortment of toys and noisemakers, like the trademark squeaky carrot and the device that sounded like a car horn.  He was a real pro and thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing.  He moved effortlessly from spinning platters to pitching products.  Just before he played “Till There Was You,” that sweet song from “The Music Man,” he introduced it with “Till there was Woo.” And there was another promotional intro for him, “We Love You Arnie,” taken right from “We Love You Conrad” in “Bye Bye Birdie.”

Of course we heard the famous “Adventure Car Hop” jingle. There was also “Go down to Del’s, 500 Gallivan Boulevard, in Dorchester.  Need a new antenna? A rear-seat speaker too? Del’s will fix it while you wait. Everything will be just great at Del’s.” Arnie “sang” that one himself.

Arnie didn’t mind having three wide-eyed teenagers – Bobby, Steve Doherty, and I – standing right next to him.  He even gave us a piece of air time.  At the end of a live-voice pitch for the Gillette adjustable razor, we asked “Whaddya get?”  And he looked at us expectantly. We weren’t anticipating that, but we all managed to shout “Gillette!”

My mother drove in to pick us up. She was not happy at all that I was out so late on a school night. In fact, she was thoroughly pissed off at me. They wouldn’t open the studio door for her while we were on the air, so she glared through the glass and kept beckoning for us to leave.

We didn’t get to stay until the 10:00 ending time. It was probably around 9:30 that we had to go, so we didn’t get to express our thanks to Arnie in person. I don’t think we truly appreciated at that time how unique an experience we’d just had. I didn’t have the savoir faire to write him a thank-you note either.

But many years later, not all that long ago, I did get to thank him. He was a guest on somebody’s talk show on a Boston station. I pulled the car over, dialed in, got through, recounted this story, and told him how much of a thrill it was and how much I appreciated it.

And now I’ll say it again. Thank you, Arnie Ginsburg. You were the greatest DJ, and the greatest guy too. May you rest in peace.

Remembering Johnny Majors and an Extremely Proper Introduction

June 4, 2020

June 4, 2020

Coach Majors, preparing to take the field,

Johnny Majors passed away yesterday at the age of 85. The good ol’ boy could certainly tote a football and coach a team. May he rest in peace.

Johnny’s departure brought back a memory of a curmudgeonly little move by yours truly.  It was September 15, 1979. That was at the start of my fourth year as the stadium announcer for Boston College football.  The Tennessee Volunteers had come to town to play the Eagles.

Johnny Majors was a big, big deal in those days. And rightly so. In a four-year span, he had coached a moribund Pittsburgh program to a national championship. Then his alma mater, Tennessee, came calling. He decamped to Knoxville in 1977. The Volunteers started to appear on television again.

Sometimes, coach Majors would bring his actor-brother Lee, the Six-Million Dollar Man and husband of Farrah Fawcett, to stand on the sidelines with him.  Broadcasters and reporters kissed his ring and lapped up his every word. Yes, it was Johnny Majors, Johnny Majors, Johnny Majors all day every day in college football.

The game was a nighttime one, televised nationwide. It was hyped and it was huge. This was the start of Johnny Majors’ third season at Tennessee. The Vols were ready to soar. The network – undoubtedly ABC – wanted a dramatic introduction.  And so, and as it turned out for the only time in my 42 years as BC’s stadium voice, I was called on to introduce the starting lineups. On national television.

I had to do something special, something distinctive, for our distinguished guest.  And I did. I used his correct name.

As the visiting team, the Volunteers were introduced first. One by one, they trotted out onto the field. Cued by the ABC guy at my elbow, I introduced each in turn – position, number, name.  Then, out  from under the stands jogged the coach.  Dramatic pause. Nudge from the cue guy.

“And the head coach of the Volunteers…(another dramatic pause)….John…Majors.”

Not “Johnny Majors!” as I’m sure ABC expected and hoped for. Just plain old, Sherm-Feller-style, deliberately underwhelming “John…Majors.”

No big splash. Just a tiny kerplunk. I could almost feel the broadcast booth deflating like Tom Brady’s footballs would, many years later.

I didn’t, or couldn’t, bring myself to do the same for the Boston College coach. “Edward Chlebek” would have sounded weird.  And I didn’t want to tweak Eddie’s nose either. He had troubles enough in his disastrous three seasons as BC’s coach.  In the previous year, BC had gone 0-11. So my final introduction, before the game began, was “And the head coach of the Eagles, Ed Chlebek.

The game was actually a pretty good one. Tennessee was indeed on its way to a bowl year. But BC gave them a tussle. Despite their awful, recent record, the Eagles did have a lot of talent. The final score was an eminently respectable 28-16, a “moral victory” for the home town team.

But that night I had my own little moral victory before the game even began. I got a fiendish little bit of satisfaction out of that sly editorializing that I guess I saw as the p.a. guy’s equivalent of damning with faint praise. And I’ve not told anybody about it. Until now.

And now you know the rest of the story.

The Story of the Red Easter Egg, Why We Have Colored Eggs on Easter, and Who Should Have Been the First Pope

April 10, 2020

Mary Magdalene is my favorite woman of the Bible. She, courageous and steadfast, should have been the first pope instead of Peter.  The legend of Magdalene and her visit to the Roman Emperor Tiberius is the source of the tradition of coloring Easter eggs. As it turns out, there may be at least a grain of historical truth to that story.

It is known that Mary of Migdal was a wealthy woman. That she had a title, unlike most women of her day, shows that she was an important person. I’ve been to her home town of Migdal, right near Capharnaum on the Sea of Galilee. Until the Romans obliterated it in the brutal war of revolt around 70 A.D., Migdal was a prosperous town renowned for its dried fish. The local fishing entrepreneurs sold dried fish to places as far away as Damascus.  Mary was probably a fish-monger.

Migdal’s recent archaeological excavations revealed a synagogue that quite probably was the place where Jesus launched his public career.  Mary became one of his loyal followers. In all likelihood she contributed some of her considerable wealth in support of his preaching and ministry. And who knows? They may have traveled together and been extremely good friends.

The Church of Saint Mary Magdalene in Jerusalem, at the foot of the Mount of Olives.

When the Romans crucified Jesus, all of the apostles fled the scene. Not his mother Mary, and not Mary Magdalene either. Legend has it that Magdalene was the first person Christ appeared to after his Resurrection.  She ran to tell the apostles that she had seen the Lord. They didn’t believe her until they ran to the tomb themselves. She was a believer; they had to be convinced.

Though it is not officially chronicled anywhere, the story goes that Mary Magdalene stayed around and was a leader of the followers of Jesus in the dark and difficult early years after his death. And here’s where some of the possible historical truth mixed with the legend comes in.

First, the legend.  Because she was a wealthy woman, she was able to get an audience with the Roman emperor Tiberius. She supposedly went to him to denounce Pontius Pilate for being so cruel at the trial of Jesus.  At that audience, she also said that Christ rose from the dead and that she had seen Him.

She held out an egg to the emperor and said “Christ is Risen!” To which Tiberius replied that there was as much chance of a human being returning to life from the dead as there was of the egg in her hand turning red. And the egg promptly turned red!

Interior of the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene. The canvas with painting of Mary and Roman Emperor Tiberius hangs above the iconostasis.

That’s a nice story, and that’s why we have colored Easter eggs.  But here’s the grain or strand of potential truth. The Jews of Palestine did send word to Rome that Pontius Pilate was a thoroughly bad guy and that they would not put up with him as governor any more. They may have threatened to revolt. But whatever they said worked. Tiberius agreed that that trial was unlawfully conducted. Pilate was fired from his job and soon disappeared from history.

Somebody had to carry the message or lead the delegation. It could have been Mary of Migdal, the richest woman in town.

Many icons painted in the Byzantine Catholic style show Mary Magdalene holding a red egg.  So too does the canvas above the iconostasis in the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene, on the slope of the Mount of Olives in the Garden of Gethsemane.   The iconostasis, in Eastern Orthodox churches, separates the nave from the sanctuary. The canvas shows Magdalene in the court of Tiberius. In her hand she holds a red egg.

I’ve been to Jerusalem twice, and both times the Church of Saint Mary Magdalene was closed to the public. I’m sorry that I didn’t have a chance to go inside.  The church is unmistakably Russian, built in the Muscovite style with golden onion domes.

It was built as a memorial to Empress Maria Alexandrovna by her son, Czar Alexander III and his brothers. Grand-Duke Sergei Alexandrovich, brother of Alexander III, and his wife Grand Duchess Elizabeth (Princess Elizabeth of Hesse-Darmstadt), grand-daughter of Queen Victoria and sister of the last Empress of Russia, presided at the consecration of the church in 1888 as representatives of the Emperor.

Grand Duchess Elizabeth and commissioned the Russian artist Sergei Ivanov (1864-1910) to paint large murals depicting the life of Mary Magdalene. They were brought to Jerusalem for the consecration and hang in the church today. The painting with Magdalene, Tiberius, and the red egg is just one of them.

The synagogue at Migdal, the archaeological site that is called “Israel’s Pompeii.”

And there you have it. Mary Magdalene, the courageous and wealthy woman who should have been the Catholic Church’s first pope, gave us one of the best examples ever of steadfastness and loyalty. She also gave us the Easter egg.

Book Review and Reflection: John Tesh’s “Relentless”

April 7, 2020

A little more than seven years ago I took my wife Mary Ellen and our son Matt to a John Tesh Christmas concert in Boston.  It was a fun night out, listening live to a guy whose life seemed to be just one fabulous success after another.

I posted a couple of pictures and clips from the concert on Facebook. To my surprise, most of the comments were snarky and negative. They weren’t so much about his music as they were ad hominem. People just didn’t seem to like him.

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. It’s easy to envy the world-traveling, jet-setting John Tesh – handsome, self-assured, undoubtedly filthy rich and married to one of the world’s most stunning women. He had the perfect life.  Jealousy of such folks often emerges as dislike or disdain. I get that.  It was probably in play here.

But I think that the real reason for the bazoos and catcalls was John Tesh’s religious faith. He is not at all bashful about proclaiming the role of God in his own life, in that of his wife, and in their life together. Nowadays, religion isn’t cool. Talk about religion makes people uncomfortable. I get that too.

I suppose if you really feel that way, it would be hard to persuade you to read Relentless: Unleashing a Life of Purpose, Grit, and Faith.  But I would urge you to read it anyway. It’s both a memoir and a self-help book. It’s the story of his life and a manual-by-example for personal success and fulfillment.  It shows the often harsh realities and the roles of luck and timing for those trying to make it in the broadcast media. It’s also an easy read – I did it in two days.

Yes, there are spiritual musings, scriptural quotes, and tidbits of pithy advice sprinkled throughout. But it never gets didactic or preachy. Tesh is a thoroughly likable guy, and reading his book was like sitting down with him for a few hours and several beers –just letting him do the talking and call it as he sees it.

Early in the book, he remarks that he gives the same career advice to anyone who asks: “Find the thing you want to do, or the broad area you want to be in, choose the path of least resistance, and plot a course for your way in.”

Connie Sellecca and James Brolin, her co-star in the popular television series “Hotel.”

It’s not as if he did it that way all the time, however. There were just a few occasions he planned things, like his sending a tape to CBS in New York and getting an audition after just a year as newscaster at a Nashville TV station. He got the New York job and was the youngest news reporter on the staff at age 24. Much later in life, when he wanted to return to his musical roots, he burst onto the concert scene with a daring and self-financed venture, John Tesh Live at Red Rocks.

On many other occasions, he was just in the right place at the right time. And he put into action another bit of advice: “Be Found Ready.” He was a film editor at a TV station in Raleigh when, one day, the news anchor was abruptly dismissed. He had never been on a news set, but he donned a borrowed sport coat and got through his first newscast.

He was on the air four months, then got recruited to a station in Orlando. Another four months and a Nashville station came calling and doubled his salary. It was at that time that newsrooms were evolving into folksy, friendly places where the on-air personalities would banter and socialize as they delivered the broadcast. Pat Sajak was the weatherman at the Nashville station.  The milieu was perfect for Tesh. Right place, right time.

As a tv journalist in New York, Tesh impressed people with his street reporting, covering such gritty matters as the perfidies of South Bronx slumlords, crooked cab drivers who swindled out-of-town visitors, riots and looting during a citywide blackout, the plight of New York’s homeless, and the Son of Sam serial murders.

That work of six years positioned him for another shifting trend in the broadcast field. CBS Sports had new management in 1981. They decided that they wanted to inject some civilian news seriousness into their sideline reporting.  He was hired by the newly minted executive producer, Terry O’Neil, who had just come over from ABC. Tesh called O’Neil his CBS Sports godfather.

A personal aside here. In 1971, fresh out of Boston College, I was a finalist for a dream job at ABC Sports. I flew to New York and interviewed for the position of sports researcher for the 1972 Olympics in Munich.  That job went to Terry O’Neil, and it launched a great career.  Good for him, bummer for me.

Tesh took the sports job and trotted the globe for five years before another change in CBS Sports management forced him out. But he’d already been approached by the producers of Entertainment Tonight. Out on the street again, he called them and got a second audition. That landed him a ten-year gig as co-host of Entertainment Tonight with Mary Hart.

Lest you think that Mr. Tesh’s career was nothing but peaks and no valleys, you should know about his two biggest blunders. Monumental screw-ups they were indeed. But give the guy credit – he bounced back each time.

Late in his junior year at North Carolina State University, he’d finally found his stride. He was a popular and successful walk-on player on the soccer team. He’d taken a radio-tv elective and decided to change his major from textile chemistry to communications. But he was past the official deadline for drop-add, and one professor refused to sign the permission slip.

Tesh was talked into forging the professor’s signature, got caught, and was tossed from school. He lived in a pup tent in a local park for months, pumping gas and working construction.  His personal phone number was the park’s public phone booth.

Tesh, Sellecca, and Gib Gerard, her son by her first husband, in a promotional shot for “Intelligence for Your Life.”

Desperate, he made an audition tape, won over the receptionist at a local radio station, and pitched himself for some entry-level job. Any job would do. And he got in the door. For four hours on Sunday mornings, he could play the station’s religious tapes. But then someone left, and he was doing weekend newscasts.  His chosen career was underway. Again, right place right time.

An even bigger blunder came many years later. He actually got a date with the ravishingly beautiful actress, Connie Sellecca. And then he stood her up. He didn’t show for their Friday rendezvous in Palm Desert, California. He went drinking with the boys instead.

Almost astoundingly and after many rebuffed approached and phone calls, she agreed to meet him for dinner.  And, unusual for a first date, their lengthy conversation turned to religion and spirituality. She was a devout Christian and an ideal match. They clicked right away.

It’s fair to say that religious faith has been the bedrock of their married life together.  It saw them through Tesh’s two battles with stage-three prostate cancer.  It impelled them to support and join Operation Blessing in its relief of tsunami victims in Sri Lanka. It has been a constant theme in their Intelligence for Your Life shows on television, radio, and podcasts.

So – it’s hard not to like and admire John Tesh. I thought I knew about him before I read the book. I didn’t know the half of it.  And I do think he’d be an ideal guy to sit down with and have those several beers.  If you can’t arrange that, read his book.

A Hockey Memory: Seaver Peters, The Man Who Made Snooks Kelley’s Dramatic 500th Win Possible

March 6, 2020

Peters, product of Melrose, Massachusetts, as captain of Dartmouth hockey.

The news of the passing of Seaver Peters, the man who was Dartmouth College athletics as its director from 1967 to 1983, brought back yet another fond sporting memory from my own school, Boston College.

Seaver was a distinguished gentleman and sportsman — a hockey man, of course – and someone whose opinions were always sought on burning issues of the day.  A good guy he was. May he rest in peace.

That fond sporting memory was of the ragtag Eagles’ dramatic 7-5 win over defending and soon-to-be-repeating national champion Boston University in 1972. That game was BC’s own little Miracle on Ice. It gave retiring coach John “Snooks” Kelley his 500th career triumph, an unprecedented accomplishment at the time.  Like the 1980 Olympic team and the Russians, BC would have lost to their opponents nine times out of ten.

But not that night. And a decision by Seaver Peters back in November of the previous year was an indispensable step in allowing BC to come into its meeting with BU with 499 career wins on the Snooker’s record.

Jack Kelley after his NCAA championship win against Cornell in 1972

That decision was straight-laced and principled, but it looks rather quaint in hindsight.

On the eve of the season, Mr. Peters canceled a scheduled game against Boston University. Dartmouth then needed another game, and BC athletic director Bill Flynn obliged.

Why the cancellation? The hot, contentious issue swirling through Eastern college hockey at that time was the so-called “Colgate proposal,” which allowed freshmen to compete on the varsity squads. Teams like Colgate and RPI, who saw themselves at a financial and recruiting disadvantage, were all for it. The whole Ivy League was against it.

BC and several others declared that they would not use freshmen. But BU coach Jack Kelley stated that while he would not do so initially, he would reserve the right to use freshmen if necessary.

Jack Kelley’s declaration was enough for Peters, who stated that it was “implicit in the original contract” that freshmen would not be used. The Terriers feigned outrage, then shrugged it off and picked up a game with UMass, a Division Two program at the time.

I remember distinctly the day of the addition. I worked odd jobs around the BC athletic department in those days. I had put together the hockey guide for the season, and we were all ready to go to press. When I arrived at the sports information office, director Eddie Miller had an updated printer’s proof in his hand. The schedule, printed in color on the back, showed a game at Dartmouth inserted in late February.

“We’re adding a game with Dartmouth,” he said matter-of-factly.

Snooks Kelley with 1972 team leaders Ed Kenty, left, and captain Vin Shanley, right.

OK, fine, I thought. But the actual placement of the contest looked positively insane.

The game was to be played on a Monday night. But on the previous weekend, BC had to take the brutal North Country swing. They would fly to the tundras of far upstate New York to play at Clarkson on Friday and at St. Lawrence on Saturday.  Then they’d fly home on Sunday and take a bus up to Dartmouth on Monday. Two nights later they’d face the Terriers.

And before that weekend trip, things looked pretty bleak. BC was struggling. They lost the Beanpot opener to BU and barely squeaked out a consolation game win against Northeastern. They lost the Beanpot sandwich game, at home, to Dartmouth.  Snooks had only 497 wins. Four games in six nights, all against teams that were better than they, faced them.

But it spun out into a Hallmark ending that started with a 6-4 upset of Clarkson, a team coached by Snooks’ eventual successor, Len Ceglarski. They lost the next night, 7-5.

Oh, let’s not forget the weather. The team’s chartered flight, on a DC-3 from Air New England, barely made it to Massena, New York before a massive snow storm hit. The snow had stopped by Sunday, but the flight home was delayed. It finally arrived in Boston late on Sunday after a lusty buffeting by the winter winds. Several of the players made use of their barf bags. There was no time to practice for the game at Dartmouth.

But at least they played the game and somehow pulled it out.  Dave Pearlman and Bill Bedard were the BC broadcasters. I was sitting with them, as an “objective” journalist in my capacity as Eastern College reporter for The Hockey News.  If memory serves, it was a breakaway goal by Ed Hayes that made the difference in the 6-5 contest. The game would never have been played, were it not for Seaver Peters and his stand against freshman eligibility.

I also recall boarding the bus outside drafty old Davis Rink after the game. BU alumnus Jack Garrity, who had refereed, shook Snooks Kelley’s hand and said, “Well, just one more, coach.”

Snooks did get that one more two nights later in a well-chronicled upset. Then he retired. Jack Kelley directed the Terriers to another national title, then left to coach the New England Whalers. It was their last meeting. The series between the two schools stood at 50-50-4 after that game.

Seaver Peters stayed on at Dartmouth for another decade. He hired football coach Joe Yukica away from BC. Later on, Seaver went into the investment business. Joe ended up working for him there too.

And what about freshman eligibility? Did Jack Kelley ever exercise his right to use freshmen?

Seaver Peters in his retirement years

Yes, he did.  It was in the NCAA final game at Boston Garden. BU blew away Cornell, 4-0. When the game was safely won, freshman defenseman Vic Stanfield took a few turns on the ice. He was, I believe, the first and only BU freshman to play that year.

And the issue of freshman eligibility melted away like April snow. Everybody except the Ivy League teams was using them the following season, and pretty soon they followed suit too.

But at the time, it was important to many people that the structure of college sports remain as it had been, that freshmen compete only on freshman teams while they got used to the rigors of college life. It was a good idea then, and it remains a good idea today if you believe in the “student athlete.” But there’s no going back.

Seaver Peters believed in that idea. And he didn’t just talk about it.  He put his beliefs into action.

Thank you, Seaver Peters. We’ll always need leaders like you, in every walk of life. And once again, rest in peace.

The Last Holdout

February 1, 2020

One more evening of candles in the windows!

It’s February 1, and my Christmas wreaths and candles are still up. Everybody else took their decorations down a month ago. I’m the last holdout, and there are several reasons for it. I’m waiting until tomorrow.

Tomorrow is Candlemas Day. It’s a minor religious celebration, as far as Catholics are concerned. I think that’s too bad.

Tomorrow also happens to be the day of the world’s greatest pagan feast, the Super Bowl. And it’s Groundhog Day in America, another tradition that we imported from elsewhere. More on that later.

As for Candlemas Day’s religious significance, we should make a little more of it. Why? Because it marks yet another occasion that shows just how close we, Catholics and Christians, are to our Jewish brothers and sisters.

What Mary and Joseph did on this day, 40 days after Jesus was born, was to fulfill their religious obligations as devout and loyal Jews. The little baby they brought to the temple wasn’t an Irish Catholic; he grew up Jewish. If more of us took that to heart, we’d be better equipped to combat the vile contagion of anti-Semitism that is awakening again.

The Gospel of Luke spins the Jewishness out of the event that Catholics call The Presentation of the Lord. How the story was told seems to me to be the first time that the essential difference between Christians and Jews was expressed. Is Jesus divine, and the Redeemer of all mankind? Catholics say yes, Jews say no.

That family disagreement has led to untold and utterly needless suffering down through history. It would be so much better if we could just wait until Judgment Day. Then when the Messiah comes, we just ask him “Hey, buddy, have you been here before? Or is this your first time?”

One of the many paintings of The Presentation of Christ. This one is by Simon Vouet. It was commissioned by France’s Cardinal Richelieu around 1640 for the Church of Saint-Paul-Louis. It now hangs in the Louvre.

The Jewish Rite: Purification and Redemption

Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple for the rites of purification and dedication as prescribed by the Torah. According to the Book of Leviticus (12:1-4), when a woman bore a male child, she was considered “unclean” for seven days. On the eighth day, the boy was circumcised.

By the way, Catholics used to call January 1 The Feast of the Circumcision. Now it’s The Solemnity of Mary. Another needless distancing from our Jewish roots.

The Jewish mother continued to stay at home for 33 days for her blood to be purified. After the 40 days, the mother and the father came to the temple for the rite of purification, which included the offering of a sacrifice — a lamb for a holocaust (burnt offering) and a pigeon or turtledove for a sin offering. For a poor couple who could not afford a lamb, two pigeons or two turtledoves sufficed. That’s what Joseph and Mary offered. (Lk 2:24).

Also, Joseph and Mary were obliged by the Torah to “redeem” their first born son: “The Lord spoke to Moses and said, ‘Consecrate to me every first-born that opens the womb among the Israelites, both of man and beast, for it belongs to me’” (Ex 13:1).

The price for such a redemption was five shekels, which the parents paid to the priest. This “redemption” was a kind of payment for the Passover sacrifice, by which the Jews had been freed from slavery.

The Catholic Rewording: Consecration to the Lord and Identification as the Messiah

St. Luke in the Gospel does not mention this redemption, but rather the presentation of Our Lord:

“When the day came to purify them according to the law of Moses, the couple brought Him up to Jerusalem, so that He could be presented to the Lord, for it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every first-born male shall be consecrated to the Lord’” (Lk 2:22-23). So the focus is on Jesus’ consecration to God.

The verb “to present” (paristanai) also means to “offer,” which evokes Jesus being presented as the priest who will offer Himself as the perfect sacrifice to free us from the slavery of sin, seal the new and eternal covenant with His blood, and open the gates to the true promised land of heaven.

Luke also tells of Simeon, a just and pious man, who awaited the Messiah and looked for the consolation of Israel. He was inspired to come to the temple, held baby Jesus in his arms and blessed God, saying, “Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace; you have fulfilled your word. For my eyes have witnessed your saving deed, displayed for all the peoples to see: A revealing light to the Gentiles, the glory of your people Israel” (Lk 2:29-32).

Simeon, thereby, announced that the Messiah has come not just for the Jew but the gentile; not just the righteous, but the sinner.

He then blessed the Holy Family, and said in turn to Mary: “This child is destined to be the downfall and the rise of many in Israel, a sign that will be opposed— and you yourself shall be pierced with a sword — so that the thoughts of many hearts may be laid bare” (Lk 2:34-35).

So the Presentation is a proclamation of Christ — Messiah and Priest, Lord and Savior. He is the light who came into this world to dispel sin and darkness.

And this is the reason that, traditionally at least since the seventh century, candles that will be used throughout the year have been blessed at Mass this day. Hence the term “Candlemas.”

To reiterate, I think it’s sad that Catholics haven’t been taught just how Jewish that “The Presentation” really is, and how much we owe our Jewish “elder brothers,” as Pope John Paul II once put it.

The Christmas Season is Now Officially Over – and Winter’s Halfway Done

In many countries of Europe, the feast of the Presentation officially closes the celebration of Christmas. That’s logical, once again, when you consider what Mary and Joseph were doing at the temple in the first place. She was now ritually pure, and her son had been dedicated to the Lord and redeemed by their offerings. The business of living their family life here on earth could now proceed.

Pope John Paul agreed with this official ending of the Christmas season. He began the custom of keeping the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s square until February 2. I’m doing likewise, keeping my wreaths up and my candles burning until then.

An old superstition held that any Christmas decorations not taken down by Twelfth Night (January 6, when I took down my tree) should be left up until Candlemas Day.

Remember also that the day is halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Light is returning to the world. We just don’t need the candles as much as we did back in December.

And What About Groundhog Day?

Candlemas Day also was important in the lives of farmers. They thought that Candlemas Day predicted the weather for the rest of winter. Their beliefs and traditions led to our Groundhog Day.

An old English song went:

“If Candlemas be fair and bright, / Come, Winter, have another flight. / If Candlemas brings clouds and rain, / Go, Winter, and come not again.”

So if the bright sun “overshadows” the brightness of Candlemas Day, there will be more winter. However, if the light of Candlemas Day radiates through the gloom and darkness of the day, the end of winter is near.

A German proverb states:

“The badger peeps out of his hole on Candlemas Day and if he finds snow, walks abroad; but if he sees the sun shining he draws back into his hole.”

I guess our groundhog learned from their badger.

So Here’s My February Wish for You

Now that the days are getting longer and light is returning to the world, we might need fewer of those candles and other artificial means of illumination. But I’m sure you agree with Ecclesiastes (2:13): “I saw that wisdom is better than folly, just as light is better than darkness.”

So I urge you to keep blessing all of us with your special gifts, your own beautiful self, and share the light that you and no one else has. Heed Matthew (5: 15-16):

“Neither do men light a candle, and put it under a bushel, but on a candlestick; and it giveth light unto all that are in the house. Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works”

Remembering the Ace of Aces

January 11, 2020

And now for some history I never knew – and a little that I actually did know too.

Eddie Rickenbacker and his World War I fighter plane

Eddie Rickenbacker was “Ace of the Aces.” A World War I fighter pilot, he shot down 26 enemy fighters.  You’re an ace if you have five kills. Rickenbacker didn’t kill 80 enemies, like Manfred von Richtofen. But unlike the Red Baron he did survive the war. Much later, he became a millionaire and president of Eastern Airlines. I remembered Eddie’s the nickname.

Back when I was in the banking business, I had to go to innumerable business organizational functions and networking activities. At one of them, a woman with the surname Rickenbacker traded business cards with me. I asked her “Are you related to the Ace of Aces?”  The way her face lighted up made that dreary had-to-do-it meeting worthwhile.

I also remembered reading, somewhere along the way that in World War II Pacific Theater, things started off very badly for the Americans. The Japanese had been preparing for war for years, and they had much better stuff, much better weapons of war. Under the sea, the long-lance torpedo gave their submarines a frightening early advantage. (Aside – there is one on display on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Academy. The damn thing seems to stretch a city block).

In the air, the Zero fighter plane was far superior – faster, more maneuverable, better weapons — to anything that America first had to offer. It remained that way until the arrival of a revolutionary new American fighter plane: the speedy, twin-fuselaged, armed-to-the-teeth Lockheed P-38 Lightning.

Another aside.  Please make a visit to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s annex at Dulles Airport a bucket-list item. It’s a fascinating place. One of the planes on display there is a P-38. I was astounded at how small this deadly weapon of war actually was. It’s about the size of a luxury SUV.

Lockheed P-38 Lightning

When the P-38s arrived in late 1942, America’s pilots needed a pep talk. Along came Eddie Rickenbacker. The man evidently knew the science of human motivation as well as he knew the science of air combat. He offered a case of Scotch to any fighter pilot who surpassed his record of 26 kills.

Within a year, the names of all the men who would surpass him became household words on the home front. The American press and radio networks eagerly followed and chronicled the exploits of Richard Bong, Gerald Johnson, Neel Kearby, Thomas Lynch, Charles MacDonald, and Tommy McGuire. They all surpassed Rickenbacker’s total of 26 aerial victories. They all earned that case of Scotch.

Bong, a farm boy from Wisconsin, shot down 40 planes. He was the Pacific war’s Ace of the Aces. McGuire, who dropped out of Georgia Tech to join the Air Corps, had 38 kills. But of the six who bested Rickenbacker, only MacDonald lived to return to civilian life after World War II.

Johnson died a month after the Japanese surrender after yet another heroic gesture. A plane that he was flying over Japan ran into bad weather and ran low on fuel. He and his co-pilot had parachutes; the two passengers with them did not. Johnson and the co-pilot gave the parachutes to the passengers, and they died trying to make an emergency landing.

Let’s raise a glass in salute to all of them, and let’s give a special shout-out to Eddie Rickenbacker. He was not only the original Ace of Aces. He was also a true champion, a man who did his utmost to see his own record broken.

And now you know the rest of the story.

A Son Tells His Mother’s Story

January 2, 2020

Mary Ellen Burke and her son Matthew on his wedding day.

This was posted on my son Matthew’s Facebook page on December 19, 2019, two days after Mary Ellen passed away.  I was pleased to learn, a few days later, that he had read it to her during one of his visits to the nursing home a couple of months before her death.

Telling Her Story: To My Mother

Matt Burke·Thursday, December 19, 2019

The last number of the musical “Hamilton” is a choral ballad called “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story.” And as this musical came to prominence in the popular consciousness — and, indeed, in my own — just as this vile Alzheimer’s disease was taking hold of my mother, the last few years have granted me a lengthy opportunity to ruminate precisely on these questions. When she passed, who would tell her story? And what would that story be?

First let’s explore what that story is.

I’ll remember a number of qualities about my mother. Today I want to emphasize four: curiosity, independence, levity, and gratitude.

First, curiosity: my mother’s true avocation was teaching. She taught every grade from first to fifth, and even in the “off-season” never missed a chance to instruct us on something. While many of our friends took vacations to the beaches of Cape Cod and Maine, you could find us at Colonial Williamsburg or Washington, DC. Even for day trips, we had our excursions to the Freedom Trail, Plimoth Plantation, Sturbridge Village. We had our yearly memberships to the Museum of Science and the Aquarium, and took great pleasure breezing into the exhibits like we owned the place. But it wasn’t just the academics she taught us about. From the Shawn Halloran and Mike Power years, Andrew and I sat with her in the stands at BC football games while Dad was in the press box. And she was the one who taught us how football worked. Who the players were. What a pass, a run, a first down, and a tackle were. So when friends asked Andrew and me how we knew so much about football, we’d waste no time in saying “My Dad is the BC football announcer!” and she would never fail to add “… while you were sitting in the stands with your mom!” She taught us to ask questions about what was around us, to want to know why things were the way they were — and, most importantly, for us to want to keep learning. To be curious.

Next, independence. Part of teaching Andrew, Emily, and me about the world was to let us be our own people. The most poignant example was in March 1997, when I greeted her with a letter of my acceptance to the Congress-Bundestag Program, and that I’d been invited to spend a year in Germany. What I didn’t learn until much, much later was that, that evening, she went and collapsed in tears on the neighbors’ couch. And yet despite the exorbitant sacrifice of not seeing her oldest child for a year, she let me do it. It was my choice, and she let me make it. And 22 years on, I still recall it as the most transformative experience of my life.

Two years later, I played my last hockey game at Boston Latin. We were bounced from the state tournament at UMass-Boston, and I was down on myself about my lack of playing time. And as we were in the foyer of the rink, getting ready to go home, one of the biggest supporters of my athletic endeavors turned to me, saw the melancholy expression on my face, and said “You know, Matt… This is the biggest thing some of these kids are ever going to do.” Of course we had better things to come. So go and do them.

Next, levity. While my mother was often serious, she possessed some Truly. Legendary. Sass. I remember once, in the summer of 1994, she came back from an errand at CVS, where she met a perfectly coiffed political neophyte campaigning for the United States Senate. His name was Mitt Romney. Now, I knew Mitt from his commercials, so was somewhat dumbstruck that my mother would get to shake hands with a famous person. “You got to meet Mitt Romney!?!” I exclaimed. And without a moment’s hesitation, she shot back “Pshhh, he got to meet me!” Or there was the time in late 2011, when I told her after a few dates with Jenny that I’d started seeing someone. Her first question, “Oh really? A girl?”

And as great as she could dole it out, she could take it. Andrew, Emily, and I always loved to ask her how she knew so many people named Mr. So-and-so, or why she had friends named Joe and Mary Biscuit. Or that we never allowed her to forget that one Christmas when she didn’t wrap gifts – or, as she penned it into family lore, the year the elves went on strike. And in all of this, she taught us that there is always levity. And that you can laugh, and be happy.

Lastly, gratitude. Mom always taught us to be thankful for what we had, rather than complain about what we didn’t. She taught us to always say “thank you,” and to look the person in the eye when you did. And had she not taught us this, it would have been very easy, over these last few years, to grow bitter that an incurable, odious brain malady was gradually taking my mother. But she taught us always to be grateful, so I’ll be grateful for the 38 years I had, not the 10 or 15 extra that I might have.

I’m grateful that I was able to dance with her at my wedding. For our trip to Ireland in July of 2017. As her condition really accelerated over the next year, I told friends that I just wanted her to live to see Hannah born. Well, she was at the hospital when Hannah was born. She held her, and saw her several more times over the coming year. While I might not have her to lean on as I raise my child, I do have her example. Even this June, when she was deteriorating rapidly, I showed her some videos of her only granddaughter learning to stand. “Oh, that’s cute,” she said.

I’ll always remember one of our last interactions as one in which my daughter brought her joy.

In the spirit of gratitude, therefore, we would be remiss if we didn’t thank everyone who helped us along this path.

  • To our friends and family, thank you for your support, and for lending an ear and extending your kind words. In times of loss and imminent loss, kindness from those who live reminds us of whom we have left to be grateful for.
  • To mom’s doctors and caregivers. We are grateful for the support you lent us, the explanations you gave to us, and everything you tried.
  • To Mom’s family. Her siblings, their spouses, and many of the Hughes cousins who dropped in to lend a hand or a condolence. And Christine, thank you for being a confidante, advocate, and explainer-in-chief. We could not have managed our way through this without you.
  • To my wife, Jenny, and our daughter Hannah. Thank you for your support, and your understanding, particularly during these last few months when I was up in Boston frequently. I could not imagine where I’d be without your love and support. I love you both very much.
  • To Andrew and Emily. You are both truly stellar siblings, and I’m grateful for both of you, and that we will have one another going forward. Thank you for being yourselves, for being close friends and allies in this journey that none of us would have chosen.
  • And lastly, Dad. Your dignity, your grace, and your steadfastness during undoubtedly the most painful time of your life was a true inspiration. In telling Mom’s story, your poise will always be something we cherish, and that we aspire to. Thank you so much.

I’ll close with a concept that my friend Liz introduced me to in grad school. She said it was from Buddhism though in my limited readings on Buddhism, I’ve never seen it. But regardless, this concept stipulates that everyone actually dies twice. The first time is when you shuffle off this earthly body. And the second time occurs when the last person who remembers you, passes away. And the reason is that everyone in your life, everyone you meet, carries with them the thoughts, the memories, and the influences that you had on their life.

And in Mom’s instance, everyone she taught – whether that’s me, Andrew, Emily, some 770-some school children, or any of us who knew her – will tell her story.

We are her story.

As I raise my own child, I’ll teach her to be curious. Independent. Grateful. And through all of it, to never lose her sass.

In other words, I’ll teach her how to live. And I can’t think of a better story to tell than that.

Eulogy for My Wife

December 24, 2019

Mary Ellen, my beautiful wife of 44 years, was laid to rest on December 23, 2019. These are my words of remembrance, delivered at her funeral mass.

Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey once reminded us that

“The business of life is the acquisition of memories. In the end, that’s all there is.”

I would like to share just a few of my memories of my life with my beautiful Mary Ellen. And I hope that later on today, and in the days, months, and years ahead, we’ll have the opportunity to share even more of them.

What was she like as a wife, as a mother, as the head of our house and home?

Please just read today’s first Reading, from the Book of Proverbs (31: 10-31.)  But don’t just read it through. Read a verse, stop, and ponder it. Update it to the present day. Then continue, in like manner, until you get to the end.

That’s what I remember about being married to her. Especially this verse:

“She opens her mouth with wisdom, and in her tongue is the law of kindness.”

Her wisdom. Every decision of importance during our life together was made by Mary Ellen.

What do I remember about meeting her?

She was wearing a Northeastern jacket. It belonged to her brother Gerry. That got our conversation started. I might have said something about Northeastern hockey, I don’t know.

We were waiting in the corridors of Lyons Hall at Boston College. It was before Music in Western Culture, taught by professor C. Alexander Peloquin. She was pretty, friendly, very easy to talk to…and she had the most fantastic pair of legs.

She got those legs from walking across Boston. She had a part-time job with the phone company, down on Broad Street, and she’d walk all the way over to Park Square after work, meet her father as he was getting out, and be driven home by her mother.

I began looking forward to that class, just to sit near her and make small talk with her. I knew even then that this girl was different. I wanted to keep seeing her. But what could I do? The second semester of my senior year was ending, and I might never see her again. So I asked if she would like to be my date for senior week.  She accepted. Whew!

But we had to go on a regular date first. And I managed to make a great impression on her. Ultra-class. I took her to the Wonderland Dog Track and then to Charlie’s Kitchen for the cheeseburger special.  Mary Ellen showed her patience and tolerance when she stuck with me after that night.

On the way home from Charlie’s we stopped along the Cambridge side of the Charles. Just for a little while…to admire the Coca Cola sign across the river. There was also a submarine race in the Charles, and we took that in. But I behaved.  I was not going to let this one get away. This was the one. I knew it. And this was only our first date.

The first time I went to the Hughes house, I got to join the whole family – at least 12 of the 14 children — in watching home movies and slide shows. I can remember thinking – how am I possibly going to remember the names of all these brothers and sisters? And how do her parents do it?

Well, it wasn’t so hard for me to get the names and numbers right. But if was also evident that there wasn’t just one mother to take care of all those kids. There were two: Helen and Mary Ellen.

Even as a teenager, Mary Ellen was taking care of the younger kids. Especially the ones she called the three little boys – Joe, Frank, and Pete. Helen had it easier than you’d suspect. Because she had such great help.

Mary Ellen was born to look after others. It’s that simple.

One regret that she had about her childhood. She never had any alone time with her mother.  What she’d have given, she often said, to have just an hour or two of her mother, all to herself.

You’ve heard about our first date. I’d like to tell you about our most memorable date.

It was a BC football game. We had season tickets to BC, but we never sat together in the stands because I was up in the announcer’s booth. But we did go to some away games, and we liked when BC played Army up at West Point.

There was only one problem with going there. The seats you could buy through BC were always terrible. But one year, one of our politically connected friends suggested that he might be able to work his Washington contacts for some better tickets.

So he called the offices of representatives Moakley and Kennedy, and the folks at West Point were glad to oblige. Two tickets each. We got the ones from Kennedy’s office.

When Mary Ellen and I got to the stadium, they saw our tickets and directed us to a special entrance. From there, they escorted us to the superintendent’s box on the 50 yard line. It seemed that the people at West Point thought that Joe Kennedy himself was coming to the game. So, Mary Ellen and I were the special guests of general Howard Graves, superintendent of West Point, and his lovely wife Gracie.  Early in the first quarter the public address announcer asked everybody to welcome our distinguished visitors, congressman Joseph P. Kennedy and his wife. And 50,000 people in Michie Stadium turned around to look at us.

That was a memorable date.

How about the biggest thrill Mary Ellen ever gave me?

One night we were lying in bed. She had a big baby bump in her belly. And there had been a time when we were wondering whether there ever would be a baby bump. We had tried to conceive for more than a year before Mary Ellen got pregnant with Matthew.

So we were lying there, about to drop off to sleep, and she whispered, “Hey. Give me your hand.” And she placed it gently on her belly. And she said “Wait.” I didn’t have to wait long. I could feel Matthew kicking inside her. I felt so close to her, and to God, that night. The thrill was indescribable.

How about memories of Mary Ellen’s career as a teacher?

About ten years ago, I was sitting at the head table of a Gridiron Club awards dinner. The gentleman next to me had been named high school official of the year.

I asked what town he lived in. He said Milton. I said, “Oh, my wife teaches first grade in Milton.”

A double take. “Wait a minute. You said your name is Burke? Mrs. Burke? Your wife is Mrs. Burke?”

Out came his cell phone. He dialed his wife, who was sitting out in the audience.

“See this guy? He’s married to Mrs. Burke!”

The man’s wife came up to the dais after the dinner and told me how wonderful it had been for their children to have Mary Ellen as a teacher. It wasn’t the first time I heard that, and it’s not the last.

I can recall so many beautiful stories and examples of how Mary Ellen brought out the best in her students. And in her fellow teachers. We could be here all day.

Did you know that Mary Ellen is in a novel? One of her students has written three books already. The first one is a young adult drama called “The Land of Blue.” The heroine has a kindly math teacher named Mrs. Burke. Here’s what Mrs. Burke had to say to the protagonist after her grades began slipping.

“I know you don’t enjoy the material, Cassie, but I also know you are more than capable. I can’t help noticing that you seem somewhere else lately. Is everything all right?”

Now that’s true to life.

I also recall the story of a lady who said that Mary Ellen saved her son’s life. That’s only a slight exaggeration. In this case, the boy had some significant issues that the Milton Schools couldn’t address. An outplacement was needed, but nobody was helping to make it happen.

According to this lady, Mary Ellen was the only one who told her what her son was entitled to and how to go about getting it for him. And that wasn’t her job. But nobody else was doing it. And Mary Ellen stepped up.

More on the special-needs kids…long before they were talking about things like mainstreaming and inclusion, Mary Ellen would regularly invite the younger kids from the special needs classes to her room. They got to experience activities that they otherwise would never have seen.

And then there was the little boy who was doing very poorly. His grades were bad across the board and he was totally lost. He looked like a candidate for a special class too. But Mary Ellen sensed something about him. He wanted desperately to learn, and she felt it.

And the answer was simple. He needed glasses. His eyesight was so poor he couldn’t see the words on the page in front of him. And as soon as he had his eyes tested, at her urging, and got those glasses, his academic performance took off.  He did love learning. She was right. And she was so thrilled for that lad.

And that’s what gave Mary Ellen the most satisfaction. Not what they learned from her. But that they gained the confidence and the ability to go out and learn for themselves.  And they took to heart her mantra: “Burke Means Work!”

I mentioned that she was born to care for others. She was also born to teach others. She was, as her Jesuit education would always promote, a person for others.

I would like to close with some poetry. I’ll quote a portion of one poem, and I’ll read another.

The first is a long poem, Rabbi Ben Ezra by Robert Browning

Mary Ellen was fond of quoting the first lines of that poem.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be.

It frequently came up when we were preparing our talks for whatever session we would be leading in the Marriage Preparation Program at our parish. And sometime when we were just talking ourselves, about our future.

Here’s the whole of the first stanza.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

The last of life, for which the first was made:

Our times are in His hand

Who saith “A whole I planned,

Youth shows but half; trust God: see all, nor be afraid!”

I don’t think I need to tell this to those of our generation who are sharing this celebration of Mary Ellen’s life today. But in honor of her, I’ll remind you anyway. You are in the last of life. And you know it’s the best part. Savor it and love it, every single day. And do trust God, see all, nor be afraid.

Up to now I’ve spoken about Mary Ellen. Now I’ll speak for her. I’ll do it by reading this poem. It came to my attention just recently. I understand that it’s a particular favorite of our Jewish brothers and sisters. Mary Ellen would certainly say this to you, or something very similar, as we remember her today.

The poem is called Epitaph. It’s by Merrit Malloy.

When I die

Give what’s left of me away

To children

And old men that wait to die.

 

And if you need to cry,

Cry for your brother

Walking the street beside you.

 

And when you need me,

Put your arms

Around anyone

And give them

What you need to give to me.

 

I want to leave you something,

Something better

Than words

Or sounds.

 

Look for me

In the people I’ve known

Or loved,

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live on in your eyes

And not your mind.

 

You can love me most

By letting

Hands touch hands,

By letting bodies touch bodies,

And by letting go

Of children

That need to be free.

 

Love doesn’t die,

People do.

So, when all that’s left of me

Is love,

Give me away.

History I Never Knew: The Charles Bridge, Prague

November 10, 2019

The Charles Bridge at Sunset

Today’s history lesson is about a place on my bucket list.

I’d love to visit Prague some day. I’m told that it’s a magnificent old city. Part of the reason for that is that somehow the physical ravages of modern war did not reach it. That’s a good thing.

There’s also a personal tug. Prague is the city where, in 1933, America’s National Hockey Team won its first world championship. Our team, the Massachusetts Rangers, defeated the Toronto National Sea Fleas, 2-1 in overtime, to take the title. The overtime goal was scored by John Garrison, “The Ghost of Harvard Yard.” The coach of the team was my uncle, Walter Brown. It was the first time ever that an American team defeated the Canadian team in international competition.

But back to today’s lesson – it’s about the city’s most-photographed sight, the Charles Bridge over the Vltava River in the city’s center. It’s been known at the Charles Bridge only since 1870, in belated recognition of Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV. It was he who laid the first stone, back in 1357.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV

Charles was big into numerology. And so he insisted that the first stone be set in place at exactly 5:31 a.m. on July 9 of that year.

Why such precision? Because the date and time make for a palindrome: 135797531 (or 1357 9, 7 5:31). That number, which reads the same backward and forward, is carved onto the stones of the Old Town Bridge Tower at the east end of the bridge. Charles believed that it would bring a magical strength to the structure. All righty, then.

The bridge wasn’t finished until 1402. Its length is 1,692 feet. For more than 400 years it was the only means of crossing the Vltava, and it was therefore the most important connection between Prague Castle and Prague’s Old Town. The bridge helped to make Prague an important nexus for trade between Eastern and Western Europe.

There’s more superstition beyond Charles IV’s numerology. The bridge was also constructed in perfect alignment with the tomb of Saint Vitus and the setting sun on the equinox. More recently, people came to believe that rubbing the plaque at the base of the statue of Saint John of Nepomuk will grant you a wish.

Saint John of Nepomuk

John was murdered on the orders of King Wenceslas IV during the bitter conflict of church and state that plagued Bohemia in the latter 14th century. In 1390 he was made vicar general for the archbishop of Prague. In 1393 the archbishop, with John’s support, excommunicated one of the favorites of the king and thwarted the king’s ambition to make a new bishopric out of the province of Prague.

John was arrested as the archbishop’s chief agent. Wenceslas personally tortured him with fire, after which he reconsidered and released him on an oath of secrecy regarding his treatment. John, however, was dying, and to conceal the evidence Wenceslas had him gagged, shoved into a goatskin, and cast into the Vltava. Bohemian Catholics came to regard John of Nepomuk as a martyr.

Saint John’s statue is one of 32 points of interest (see map) on the bridge. Things also got interesting there around the time of the horrific Thirty Years War (1618-1648). The war began in May of 1618, touched off by the colorfully-named Defenestration of Prague. In that incident, three Catholic officials, emissaries from the Holy Roman Emperor, were tossed from an upper window of Prague Castle by an angry mob of Protestant Bohemian rebels.

Statues and Attractions on the Charles Bridge

Three years later, on June 21, 1621 after the Battle of White Mountain, the 27 leaders of the anti-Habsburg revolt were executed. Their severed heads were displayed for all to see on the Old Town Bridge Tower. Apparently, that grisly measure – quite common in those times – wasn’t much of a deterrent.

Near the end of the war, the Swedes occupied the west bank of the Vltava. As they tried to advance into the Old Town the heaviest fighting took place right on the bridge. During the fighting, they severely damaged one side of the Old Town bridge tower, and the remnants of almost all gothic decorations had to be removed from it afterward.

It wasn’t until the late 17th and early 18th centuries that the bridge became the attraction that it is today. That’s when the alley of baroque statues was installed on the bridge’s pillars.

Charles IV’s numerology didn’t spare the bridge from severe damage. In 1890, a huge flood hit Prague. Thousands of rafts, logs and other floating materials from upstream gradually formed a giant barrier against the bridge. Three arches were torn down by the pressure, and two pillars collapsed from being undermined by the water, while others were partly damaged.

Two statues, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, fell into the river. The Ignatius statue was replaced by statues of Saints Cyril and Methodius. For the St. Francis statue, they had a replacement cast.

1890 Flood Damage

It goes without saying that the Charles Bridge, also known as Karlův Most and Karlsbrücke, is one of the most visited and photographed sites in Prague.

No wonder, eh? It’s a place I’d love to visit myself.

And now you know the rest of the story.