Thoughts on Voting Day 2018, and Beyond

November 6, 2018

Elaine Pagels

My quest to understand the full history of anti-Semitism has led me to The Origin of Satan,” a very fine book by Scripture scholar Elaine Pagels.  I would like to quote Dr. Pagels’ concluding remarks from that book below, at the end of this post. I think that they are worth remembering even today, as we Americans live through a time of distressing and deepening divisions in the political arena. We can and should do better. Yesterday’s lessons are applicable today.

But first, a brief recap. “Satan” was not always the prince of darkness, an outsider ruling an evil empire and tempting people to sell their souls.  If you recall the biblical story of Job, written about 550 B.C.E., he almost seemed like a buddy of God’s who challenged the Almighty to a wager – and lost. Other Old Testament writers talked about various evil spirits that arose among the chosen people and tempted them to do wrong. For them, “Satan” was an insider who led people astray.

Pagels explains how, later on, the Gospel writers introduced a we-they split within the Jewish community. The followers of Jesus, in the opinions of Mark (the first), then Matthew, Luke, and John, got it right. Those Jews – led by the traditionalist Pharisees – who did not follow him, got it wrong.  Eventually there came “demonizing.” Everybody who was against us was not only mistaken; they were doing the work of the devil.  “Satan” grew bigger, even more wicked, and became the ruler of an army of thousands of devils.

The Gospels re-wrote the story of the crucifixion, whitewashing Pontius Pilate to make him seem like a nice guy. Pilate was in fact a brutal bastard who sentenced Jesus to death for insurrection. But, intent on beating out the foe within their own community, early Christians made their Jewish political/doctrinal opponents the evil ones and the prime movers behind Jesus’ earthly demise.

Does that attitude, which leads to attacking and vilifying those who do not agree with your side on something, sound at least vaguely familiar in 2018? If not, it should.

The long story of discrimination against Jews took many tragic turns in the next two thousand years and culminated in Hitler’s Holocaust. It’s too long to chronicle here, but I submit that it all began with that we-they split, introduced 2000 years ago.

Mixing metaphors and dipping into pagan mythology here, I’ll suggest that early Christians opened a Pandora’s Box with their combative tactics; they unleashed a torrent of human miseries they even they could not have foreseen.

And their approach also ignored other messages of the man they followed.  That brings us to those concluding thoughts of Professor Pagels. She cites Matthew: “If you are offering your gift at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.”

Another often-ignored message: “You have heard that it was said ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your father in heaven.’”

Not all of those who were Christians persisted in that demonizing of others. And that gives me, brought up Catholic and still with it, hope.

I would like to suggest that now, in 2018, we take our cues from them and follow their example, whether it’s in the voting booth, in our everyday dealing with others, and – perhaps most especially – when we use the technologies of our social media. Again, Professor Pagels:

“Many Christians, then, from the first century through Francis of Assisi in the thirteenth century to Martin Luther King Jr. in the twentieth, have believed that they stood on God’s side without demonizing their opponents. Their religious vision inspired them to oppose policies and powers they regarded as evil, often risking their well-being and their lives, while praying for the reconciliation – not the damnation – of those who opposed them.

“For the most part, however, Christians have taught – and acted upon – the belief that their enemies are evil and beyond redemption. Concluding this book, I hope that this research may illuminate for others, as it has for me, the struggle within Christian tradition between the profoundly human view that ‘otherness’ is evil and the words of Jesus that reconciliation is divine.”

Amen to that.

You Think You Know What It Means to be a Sports Hero? Not Until You Meet Pete Frates, You Don’t

September 5, 2018

Boston College’s Varsity Club has honored Pete Frates with the presentation of the Varsity Club Medal. This is only the second time that the medal has been bestowed upon an individual, who has “served Boston College with excellence, fostered its athletic traditions, and promoted sportsmanship while in service to the Varsity Club and Boston College Athletics.”

Pete, as many know, is the face of the Ice Bucket Challenge. He didn’t invent it, but he was the one responsible for turning it into a social-media phenomenon that has raised hundreds of millions of dollars for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) research.

I do believe that when the cure for ALS is finally run to earth, the path for that cure will lead back to Pete Frates.

The following story of this singularly heroic man and his wonderful family, which was done for the Varsity Club’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony on September 7, 2018, appears below.

Pete Frates ’07   

Varsity Club Medal

The most prescient scouting report on the athletic potential of young Peter Frates didn’t come from a coach. It was from a dancer.

Well, actually it was gym teacher Susan Stowe, but her subject matter was dance. She’d been observing Pete ever since kindergarten. One day, when Pete was in the fourth grade, she remarked to his mother Diane,

Julie, Lucy, and Pete Frates

“I don’t say this very often, but you’ve got a Division One athlete on your hands. In the dance curriculum, he has shown such agility, and such an ability to learn – all the things necessary to be an athlete.”

There was one other athletic must-have about Pete Frates: he was born with grit and determination.  When he was an infant, he fought off a severe staph infection that required a blood transfusion and that carried a more than 20 percent mortality rate.

Pete played football, hockey, and baseball from the age of six. He excelled in all of them, all the way through high school at Saint John’s Prep in Danvers.  In football he was a Catholic Conference All-Star. He also had an instinctive rapport with coaches and an innate ability to lead, so he was elected or appointed captain of most of his teams.

Very few Boston-area athletes have played hockey in Boston Garden, football at Gillette Stadium, and baseball in Fenway Park. But Pete Frates has – and at Fenway, he blasted a home run into the bullpen in a game against Harvard, his favorite foe.

“We always thought he’d be a hockey player,” said Diane. “He was a defenseman on the Saint John’s varsity as a sophomore. He was a safety in football, and they had some powerhouse teams. He played baseball all summer in Babe Ruth or Legion ball.  He’s always had a deep and abiding love for baseball. Both my husband John and I went to BC, Class of 80. It was his dream to play at BC, but that didn’t seem to be on the radar.”

One day, in the summer between junior and senior years of high school, Pete went to a baseball showcase run by BC coach Pete Hughes. After it was over, when Hughes learned that Frates was an honor student and that he’d done well on his SATs, he asked Pete to come and play baseball at Boston College.

Pete receives his baseball jersey from members of the BC baseball team. The team has retired his #3.

Pete played center field for the Eagles, for three years under Hughes and then his senior year as team captain under Mike Aoki. In 2007 he set a modern BC record in a game at Maryland. He went 4-for 6, with eight RBIs from a grand slam, a three-run homer and a double. His Fenway homer came in 2006, when he was 4-for-4 in the 10-2 Beanpot final win over Harvard.

After graduation, Pete played a year with Hamburg, Germany, in the European League before coming home and entering the workaday world. He wasn’t exactly thrilled with selling group life insurance for a living, but he still played ball, catching on with the Lexington Blue Sox in the Inter-City League. But life changed on that fateful day when he and his family answered a doctor’s call to come in and discuss a diagnosis.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis – ALS, the dreaded and incurable disease that took the life of another baseball great, Lou Gehrig, had come to Pete Frates. He went for a second opinion to Dr. Merit Cudkowicz at Mass General. After she confirmed the bad news, and Pete was exiting her office, he turned around and asked,

“Doctor. How much money would you need to find a cure for ALS?”

Taken aback at such an unusual question, she answered, “I’d need a billion dollars.”

To which Pete replied, “I’ll work on that for you.”

Some day, when medical textbooks describe the cure for ALS, they will point to that day, April 1, 2012, as the starting point, the call to battle.

Pete Frates and family on the day he received the BC Varsity Club Medal from club president Richard Schoenfeld, second from left.

Team Frates was born that day. Pete set to work – calling, texting, emailing – everyone he knew from his many endeavors, athletic and otherwise. He asked if they’d join in the fight. And the “Circles of Pete” began to form.

A little more than a year later, Pete and Julie Kowalik, a 2012 BC graduate, were married at her family’s Marblehead home. Their daughter Lucy was born in 2014.

Two and half years after that second opinion, and an online conversation between Pete and Pat Quinn, another ALS patient, the Ice Bucket Challenge emerged as a worldwide, social-media-driven phenomenon.

Dumping cold water on someone’s head as a way of raising money for charity was Quinn’s idea. To Frates, it was like that pitch he hit out of Fenway Park. To his parents, he said,

“This is the vehicle I’ve been waiting for.”

Team Frates swung into action with the Ice Bucket challenge. The Boston College community was particularly responsive, with athletes like Matt Ryan, Brian Boyle, and Sean Marshall taking prominent roles. You’ve seen the film clips of those who’ve accepted the challenge – the famous athletes, show business titans, captains of industry, and two presidents of the United States. More than 2.4 million tagged videos about the challenge have appeared on Facebook.

In its first year, the Ice Bucket Challenge raised over $200 million. The work continues, the ice water continues to flow, and most importantly, there’s hope for a cure. The FDA has approved two new experimental drugs, with more in the pipeline.

Thanks to $1 million in challenge money, researchers discovered the NEK1 gene in Project MinE, a global gene-sequencing effort, involving 11 countries and 80 researchers.

None of that progress, none of those positive steps toward finding the cure for ALS, would have happened without Pete Frates and those who admire him, love him, and would do anything he asks of them.

“He’s had more friends that anybody ever could have,” says Diane. “A life well-lived.”

Clark Booth: Boston’s Most Erudite Sports Reporter Ever

July 31, 2018

But the World of Sports was Just One Place Where He Wrote and Spoke with Class, Wit, and Elegance

Clark Booth
Writer, broadcaster, man of letters, and world traveler – one of Boston’s finest ever.

Mr. Booth passed away on July 28 at the age of 79. I knew him — not well, but I corresponded with him several times over the years and considered him a friend.  He personified class and dignity. He wrote superbly, and while he loved sports and its people, he always had the events and people of the sporting life in proper perspective.

Clark was appropriately critical of much that has to do with “big time” sports – particularly of the sanctimonious hypocrisy of college sports and sporting factories. I loved his label for Bobby Bowden’s Florida State football operation: a “penal colony.” But there was no bigger booster of Boston College hockey and Jerry York. To Clark Booth, York’s BC team was an oft-cited example of college athletics as it should be.

Back in 2005, I happened to be researching a hockey story and made a call to Harvard’s great Gene Kinasewich. My call came to Gene’s home on the very day that he died. That passing, too, was a big loss for Boston sports. Knowing Clark’s soft spot for hockey, I contacted him, gave him the news, and forwarded some of the background materials I had already assembled about Gene. Clark was effusive in his thanks to me, and he penned a wonderful encomium to Gene in his column in the Boston Pilot. He also wrote a very nice review of my and Reid Oslin’s history of Boston College Hockey.

Please first take a moment to click on this link and read Clark’s self-penned obituary. It’s a perfect summation of his career, in sports and beyond. It also radiates his boyish enthusiasm for sport, for people, and for life in general.  That obit is Clark Booth speaking!

Sports was just one area in which Clark excelled. If you read that obit, you have an idea of how many other fascinating people, events, and projects he covered down through the years. Had he remained focused on sports, I am sure that many more people than I would rank him among the very best – with writers like Grantland Rice, Red Smith, and Shirley Povich, and with broadcasters like Al Michaels and Jim McKay. He was that good.

The closest comparison to Clark from members of the Boston sporting press would be Globe columnist Ray Fitzgerald. Ray had a classy writing style too, and like Clark Booth he was a truly nice man.

Clark was a Holy Cross man. Twenty-four years ago, I was editing a special Silver Anniversary edition of a publication for the BC Hall of Fame, and I called Clark and got his permission to reprint his magazine article about the BC-HC football rivalry. It’s worth a read, and it appears below. Ironically, the teams will begin playing each other in the 2018 season, after a hiatus of 32 years. I don’t know whether the games will be good or even competitive, but they certainly won’t be the same.

Clark Booth. Requiescat in Pace!

Clark Booth on the Boston College-Holy Cross football rivalry after it ended in 1986.

 

 

Boston College’s Clare Droesch: A Winner at The Game of Basketball – and the Game of Life.

May 12, 2018

Clare Droesch, Boston College Class of 2005, lost her long battle with cancer of May 11, 2018. I interviewed Clare before her induction to BC’s Hall of Fame in 2016. The biography of Clare that I wrote for the evening’s program follows.

When the time came for New York’s 2001 High School Basketball Player of the Year to choose a college, she decided that she wanted to build something grand, to be a part of a new tradition. That’s why Clare Droesch spurned offers from Connecticut, Notre Dame, Purdue and others to come from Christ the King High School to Boston College.

“My school was the UConn of high schools. I wanted to go to a place where we’d beat the best teams, where we’d leave a mark and be a school that other kids would look up to and want to go to,” she said.

Clare Droesch carried through. A sharp shooting, fearless point guard and inspirational leader on and off the court, Clare became an indispensable contributor to a golden era of Boston College women’s basketball under coach Cathy Inglese.

Inglese was in her ninth year of coaching the Eagle women when Droesch arrived. Rebuilding had gone well, with winning records in five of the previous six seasons. Still, they’d never won a Big East Tournament. In the previous four years, they’d gone 1-8 against their nemesis, Connecticut.

The Eagles reached the NCAA Tournament in all four years of Clare’s career. They made it to the Sweet Sixteen twice. In 2004 they won the Big East championship after knocking out top-ranked UConn in the semifinals.

In 2005, when Clare was team captain, they defeated Number-One ranked UConn again, in Clare’s final home game. The score was 51-48, and the game was nationally televised – no better way for Droesch to cap off her playing days.

Clare played in 126 games between 2001 and 2005. The Eagles won 92 of them.  If Boston College needed a basket, Clare Droesch wanted the ball in her hands.

during the second round of the Women’s NCAA Tournament Sunday, March 22, 2005, at the Smith Center in Chapel Hill N.C. (Kevin C. Cox/WireImage)

“She had such a desire to win. When the game was on the line, she always wanted to take that last shot. She was also one of the best passers on the team,” said Inglese.

“And in the locker room, before the game, when we were in the semifinals of the Big East Tournament against Connecticut…the way that she got the team fired up. I can’t forget that.”

Droesch was Inglese’s first big-name recruit from New York City. News of her arrival gave the program an additional level of prestige. For her first two years, Clare didn’t start, but she frequently logged more minutes than starters. As a freshman, she earned her a spot on the Big East All-Rookie team.

When Clare graduated in 2005, her 1,136 career points placed her twelfth all-time at Boston College. She was also twelfth in rebounds with 539; sixth in assists with 324; and third all time in three-pointers, with 158. She was honored as an ACC Legend in 2015.

Those impressive accolades and numbers don’t tell the entire story of Clare Droesch. While she always wanted to take her shot at crunch time, she also saw that her primary job was to be the vocal, outspoken bellwether who got every other player charged up to play her best.

“I never had to do that in high school,” she said. “We were a run-and-gun team, and I was the best player, the big scorer. Everyone else just followed me.”

The adjustment to college ball was hard for Clare. She learned to play defense, because, as she puts it “Coach Inglese made it very clear that if you didn’t play defense, you weren’t going to play.”

Even today, it’s “Coach,” not “Cathy” Inglese. “She made me a better overall player. That’s why I succeeded in college. I didn’t do a lot of different things, but I did them in a different way, trying to make myself more valuable to the team,” explains Clare.

“I was the type of player who wanted to do things my own way. But Coach Inglese really knew how to run the offense, and it was a matter of getting the best shot for the team. I was open at some times, but I didn’t always have the green light.”

Hunkering down to conform to the system worked for Droesch’s playing career. And now, as she coaches high school players back in New York, she finds herself employing the same approach that Inglese took with her.

Clare fondly remembers the help and mentoring by Inglese’s assistants, Kelly Cole and Bill Gould. “My rocks as coaches,” she says.

She’s also grateful to Donna Bennett, BC’s assistant director of sports medicine. In junior year, Clare suffered a foot injury and developed plantar fasciitis. The excruciating pain spread up through her shins. Bennett worked with Clare every day, keeping her fit to play with massages, shots, hot packs, and cold packs. Clare played through the pain, never missed a game, and waited until graduation for corrective surgery.

After college, Clare’s pro career was all too brief. While playing in Portugal, she hurt her previously uninjured foot by overcompensating to protect the other one.  So she turned first to college coaching, with stops at UMass-Boston, Vanderbilt, and Saint John’s.

Working with younger, more impressionable athletes was more to her liking, however. She’s now in her fifth year as assistant varsity coach at her high school alma mater, Christ the King. She’s also in her fifth year of a battle with cancer.

On December 19, 2011, Clare was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer. Tumors also spread to her spine and hip. Radiation treatments followed, then chemotherapy. Every other Monday, she’s at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. The rest of the time, it’s basketball coaching and time with her family – parents George and Patty, and brother George – and friends back in Rockaway.

“My support system has been amazing, both from my family and from my friends at Boston College. When I got sick, I reached out to my BC family. I truly love Boston College. I still go there all the time, and I’m still close with the coaches.”

“I take it as a game,” she said. “Every day’s a game.”

Heroes Are All Around Us — You Just Have to Look for Them.

April 6, 2018

“Wow!”

Catherine Marenghi addresses the gathering at Everyday Heroes recognition breakfast.

It was just that three-letter word, relates author Catherine Marenghi, that set her firmly on her way to a prosperous business career.

The quoted speaker was Mrs. Robbins, Ms Marenghi’s her junior-high-school English teacher in Milford, Massachusetts.  Catherine had just passed in her assignment, a short poem about the war which was then raging in Southeast Asia.

“I watched the expression on her face,” said Catherine. “She looked up at me, and smacked herself on the forehead, and said ‘Wow! You can write!’”

Mrs. Robbins was one of the heroes of whom Ms Marenghi spoke in her keynote address at the Tri-County United Way’s “Everyday Heroes” recognition breakfast on April 5. As she explained to the crowd in Framingham, the town where she was born and where she launched her working life in the high-technology sector, that teacher and several others along the way have given Catherine a rather different notion of what it means to be a hero.

“Heroes are people we put up on a pedestal. Heroes are people we believe in. But I think it is the opposite.

“Heroes are people who believe in you.”

“That tiny little word, ‘wow’ actually changed my life. It made me know who I am.  It told me what I was good at.  I knew that whatever kind of work I would do in my life, I always had in my heart of hearts that I was a writer. …

“All it took was one teacher, and that little word. It showed me what a difference we can make in somebody’s life, with those little words, those little actions that we can do every day.”

Catherine Marenghi with the original edition of her memoir at the 2014 book launch.

In fact, it wasn’t just that one teacher. There were several of them who, as she pointed out in her inspiring memoir, Glad Farm, recognized her potential as a superior student. They encouraged her to make the most of her talents in order to escape the grinding poverty of her early life. So did her parents. Despite the most straitened of economic circumstances after their gladiolus farm failed, they never missed an opportunity to let their youngest daughter know how special she was, how she could do anything.

Catherine Marenghi was valedictorian of Milford High’s Class of 1972. Her academic record and demonstrable financial need brought her several full scholarship offers. She chose Tufts and made the most of it. Her talent and love for writing have undergirded her entire career.  Mrs. Robbins certainly nailed it that day back in junior high.

There was another message about education that I took away from Catherine’s keynote talk. Yes, without a good education you can’t do a whole lot with your life. But what does it take to offer that good education, to make it available to the young people who also “get it” and who desire to make the most of themselves?

Hint: It’s not snazzy edifices and country-club-like amenities. It’s people. Individual people.

As Catherine pointed out, the Milford schools were not highly rated or regarded. The buildings were old and their facilities were substandard. But, as she says,

With three career teachers at the United Way breakfast: my elementary school classmate Mary Kennedy Cali, wife Mary Ellen, and Lorraine Polo – all career teachers, all heroes.

“We had amazing teachers. People who had devoted their lives to teaching. And I was lucky enough to have several of them.”

To that, I can certainly relate. I’ve been married to an amazing teacher for 43 years. I saw how hard she worked. I know how she encouraged and prodded and loved her first graders into believing in themselves. I’ve read and re-read the hundreds of cards and notes she’s received from former students over her own 35 years in the elementary classroom. They were lucky to have her, and I’m sure she’s a hero to many of them too.

Heroes are those who believe in us. Yes, I dig that.

People Who’ve Made a Difference: The Ravishing and Brilliant Hedy Lamarr

December 23, 2017

A Beginning in Sex and Scandal

lamarr 1Her early life was scandalous. She appeared naked, on the movie screen, running through the woods and swimming in a lake, the first woman ever shown in the altogether.

That was in Ecstasy, made in Czechoslovakia in 1933. She also acted out sexual climax, writhing and moaning in a bliss that would have made Meg Ryan blush. Her films were luscious cinematic forbidden fruit, banned almost everywhere. Benito Mussolini owned and treasured a personal copy of Ecstasy.

And she was beautiful. Hedwig Kiesler had a perfect face, raven hair, and a slim delicate figure. Men lusted for her. The first man to have her – that’s not the right word, nobody ever truly had her – was Friedrich Mandl, the first of her six husbands.

He was one of the richest men is Austria. She was his trophy wife. His company, Hirtenberger Patronenfabrik, sold ammunition and was the one of the leading arms makers in Europe. He was a Fascist sympathizer, supplying the war machines of anyone who’d buy his wares.

Mandl showcased Hedwig at dinners and banquets with the likes of Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. She acted the part of a brainless beauty. She often said that the secret of glamor was to “stand there and look stupid.” So she did. It was a superb performance, maybe the best acting job of her career.

Hedwig Kiesler was a genius. Daughter of a Jewish banker, she had excelled in school, especially in math and science. She was born in Vienna on November 9, 1914. She quit school at 16 to study acting. In the late 1920’s Hedy was discovered and brought to Berlin by director and acting instructor Max Reinhardt. Following her training in the theater, she returned to Vienna and began to work in the film industry. She married Mandl, who was 30 years older than she, in 1933.

Eavesdropping Inside the Third Reich

When her husband and the evil dictators sat around talking shop, she sat there, looked pretty, and took it all in. She knew what they were talking about, and she knew what they were up to.

A favorite topic of Adolf Hitler was military technology, especially of the type that could control missiles and torpedoes by radio. Wireless control of weapons would be a huge jump from the hard-wired methods then in use. Wireless did come into use during the 1940s, by both Allies and Axis forces. But it was single-frequency radio, easy to monitor, detect, and jam.

According to one account, Mandl and Hitler engaged in a drunken menage à trois after a dinner party. Mandl was desperate to cement a big arms deal. The third party in the threesome was his gorgeous wife. That story is from a widely-panned book, What Almost Happened to Hedy Lamarr, and its truth is in doubt.

Even if it is true, that may or may not have been the final straw for Kiesler. As a Jew, she came to hate Nazis. She despised her husband’s business ambitions, and she did not share her thoughts about science and technology. If anything, she would share her information with the Allies who were fighting against the Nazis.

The radio-controlled guidance system for torpedoes that she heard discussed never got into production because it was too susceptible to disruption. Somewhere along the way she got the idea of distributing the guidance signal over several frequencies. This would protect it from enemy jamming. But she still had to figure out how to synchronize the transmitter and receiver. The solution would come to her later.

Hedy and Mandl

Hedy and Mandl

Mandl came to know how she felt about him, and he kept her locked up in his castle, Schloss Schwarzenau. He had also forbade her to pursue acting, and tried to buy up all copies of Ecstasy.

In 1937, Hedwig escaped by drugging her maid and sneaking out of the castle wearing the maid’s clothes. She sold her jewelry to finance a trip to London.

Hedwig made it out of Austria just in time. Hitler annexed the country in 1938 and took over Mandl’s business. Mandl was half-Jewish, so being an arms supplier to the Third Reich was no help to him. He had to flee to Argentina, where he eventually became an adviser to Juan Peron.

Into the Movies

In London, Kiesler arranged a meeting with the Hollywood film titan Louis B. Mayer. He knew of her, of course, and he too was captivated by her beauty. On the voyage to America she signed a long-term contract and became one of MGM’s biggest stars of the time.

Hedy and Paul Henreid in "The Conspirators"

Hedy and Paul Henreid in “The Conspirators”

She was in more than 20 films, costarring with Clark Gable, Judy Garland, Bob Hope, Paul Henreid, James Stewart, Spencer Tracy and others. Algiers, White Cargo, and Samson and Delilah were among her biggest screen successes. Unfortunately for Hedy, she turned down the lead in both Casablanca and Gaslight.

She made and spent, by some accounts, at least $30 million. The mansion used in filming The Sound of Music in 1965 belonged to her at the time. Her film career went into decline after Samson and Delilah in 1949.

Film fame and the showbiz scene didn’t do it all for Hedy Lamarr. She didn’t care much for the world of glitz, parties, and paparazzi. She wanted more. She wanted use her money, power, and formidable intellect to defeat the Nazis. She found an ally in composer/musician George Antheil.

Her Only True Partner

George Antheil

George Antheil

Antheil was an interesting individual too. His 1945 autobiography, The Bad Boy of Music, was a best seller. He was born in New Jersey in 1900 and showed promise as a musician and composer. He lived in Paris, and then in Berlin, from 1923 to 1933 when he returned to America. He also wrote books and a nationally syndicated advice column, wrote regularly for Music World and Esquire, and was a major figure in American ballet.

Antheil made his way to Hollywood to write musical scores for movies. He thought that the movie industry was hostile to modern music, however, and had little personal regard for Hollywood. He also saw Nazism for what it was. One of his magazine articles, “The Shape of the War to Come,” accurately predicted both the outbreak and eventual outcome of World War II. He joined up with Oscar Hammerstein and others in the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

Antheil and Lamarr were ideological soul mates. But that’s not what brought them together initially. He also claimed to be an expert on female endocrinology. He had written a series of articles about how to determine the availability of women based on “glandular effects” on their appearance. They had titles like “The Glandbook for the Questing Male” and another on “glandular criminology” titled “Every Man His Own Detective.”

Lamarr first sought out Antheil for help in “augmenting her upper torso,” as one web site nicely puts it. She had him over for dinner after scrawling her phone number in lipstick on his windshield after leaving a party. He suggested glandular extracts of some sort, but their talk evidently turned to technology and how it might be used to fight Hitler. Perhaps technology talk was unavoidable; she had a drafting table in her living room.

Antheil’s most famous musical work was the thoroughly avant-garde Ballet Mechanique. The work’s orchestration first called for 16 player pianos, along with two regular pianos, xylophones, electric bells, propellers, siren, and bass drums. It was hard to keep so many player pianos synchronized, so he scaled it back to a single set of piano rolls and augmented the regular pianos with several additional instruments. It produced an entirely new brand of stereophonic sound.

The Technological Breakthrough and Patent

Antheil’s expertise with player pianos was just what Hedy Lamarr needed. She wanted to design a system of controlling torpedoes that would also be hard or impossible for the enemy to jam. Single-frequency radio control was vulnerable to jamming, as she knew. If they could find a way to “change the channel” at random intervals, the torpedoes could make their way to the target.

Hedy incorporated Antheil’s method for synchronizing his player pianos. The coordination of frequency signals was done with paper player-piano rolls. Then she was able to synchronize the frequency changes between a weapon’s receiver and its transmitter. This “frequency hopping” used a piano roll to make random changes over 88 frequencies. It was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or jam.

On August 11, 1942, U.S. Patent No. 2,292,387 for a “Secret Communication diagramSystem” was granted to Antheil and Hedy Kiesler Markey, which was Kiesler’s married name at the time. They turned the patent rights over to the U.S. Navy, and unfortunately they never made any money from their brilliant invention.

The Navy did not end up building radio-controlled torpedoes. They might not have taken the idea seriously; after all, it came from a gorgeous woman and a flaky musician. There were also some big additional hurdles to overcome before such a system could be used with waterborne ordnance. The Navy did ask her to use her good looks to sell War Bonds, though. She agreed, and bestowed kisses for a purchase price of $50,000.

But the Navy did use Lamarr’s system beginning in 1950. It first controlled sonobuoys, the floating listening posts that detect submarines. In the sixties, it was used for secure ship-to-ship communications during the Bay of Pigs invasion and the Cuban missile crisis. Reconnaissance drones used in Vietnam also employed frequency hopping.

Every time you dial your cell phone, take a call on it, or log onto the Internet, you can thank Hedy Lamarr. Her invention, conceived to fight the Nazis and now called “spread spectrum,” is the foundation of all wireless communication.

“Long-term evolution,” or “LTE,” technology, is just an extension of Hedy and George’s frequency-hopping. Spread spectrum is also the key element in anti-jamming devices used in the government’s $25 billion Milstar system. Milstar satellites control all the intercontinental missiles in U.S. weapons arsenal.

Dozens of “citing patents” owned by the likes of Sony, AT&T, and Seagate now appear on the Patent Office page for Hedy Lamarr’s Secret Communication System. The latest of them was filed in 2009.

After the Glamor Fled

Micro Times magazine with coverage of Lamarr's achievements in technology

Micro Times magazine with coverage of Lamarr’s achievements in technology

The last half of this remarkable woman’s life was not happy. True, the Electronic Frontier Foundation gave Lamarr her a long-overdue award for her work in 1996. Her son Anthony Loder accepted it for her because she no longer appeared in public. She also received the prestigious Austrian Academy of Science Award from her native country.

All six of Hedy’s marriages ended in divorce. Some of her quotes about her experiences there are revealing:

“I must quit marrying men who feel inferior to me. Somewhere there must be a man who could be my husband and not feel inferior. I need a superior inferior man.”

“Perhaps my problem in marriage–and it is the problem of many women–was to want both intimacy and independence. It is a difficult line to walk, yet both needs are important to a marriage.”

“I have not been that wise. Health I have taken for granted. Love I have demanded, perhaps too much and too often. As for money, I have only realized its true worth when I didn’t have it.”

Lamarr’s last movie appearance was in 1958. Her eye-candy roles had never required much acting anyway. She was usually cast as the mysterious and ravishing femme fatale. She’d often been called the most beautiful woman in the world. But when other, younger stars came along, she had fewer and fewer opportunities. She underwent plastic surgery that didn’t help. She had money problems and was twice arrested for shoplifting.

She also launched a number of lawsuits. These included going after Mel Brooks for his silly “That’s Hedley Lamarr!” in Blazing Saddles, and suing Corel Draw for using her image on packages. Both suits were settled out of court. She also wrote an autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, in the 1960s, and ended up suing the publisher.

Hedy lived her final years in seclusion in Florida, her eyesight failing and out of touch with the world that her scientific genius has helped immeasurably. She died in 2000 and was cremated. At her request, her ashes were scattered in the Vienna Woods of her native land.

I Wish I’d Known Her

Anthony Loder once said that his mother never got the chance to grow old gracefully. He also stated that he wished she had talked more to him. There was so much he never was able to ask her. She was frequently on the phone with show-business people, he remarked – Greta Garbo, Bob Hope, Barbara Stanwyck, Louis Mayer, and many others. I wonder, though, if she ever truly revealed herself to another person. Much of what ought to be known about her remains hidden.

One of the greatest satisfactions I get in my work is to hear someone say, “You captured him (or her) in that article.” When I can discover and tell of things that should be known about people, I feel that I’ve done a good deed, both for my subject and for posterity.

How I wish I’d had the opportunity to capture the fabulous Hedy Lamarr. Yes, she was a rich and pampered glamor girl, and we have too many of them. Much of her biography reads like a supermarket tabloid.

But there was so much more to Hedy. She saw monstrous evil. She looked it in the face and escaped its clutches. She made it out of Adolf Hitler’s world, and could have lived an opulent and decadent life. But she decided to do something about the evil she’d seen.

There had to be enormous goodness in her soul, enormous strength in her character. I doubt that anyone was ever allowed to see that goodness and strength for what they were, and then to tell her entire story. We’re the poorer for it.

This blog post is the best I can do for her and for you, dear reader. Danke schoen, Hedwig Kiesler. Sie möge in Frieden ruhen.

Remembering Len Ceglarski

December 19, 2017

I covered college hockey for the Hockey News from 1969 to 1987, and was color radio commentator for Boston College hockey from 1973 to 1980. I’d like to share some of my memories of Len Ceglarski from those years.

Leonard S. Ceglarski passed away at the age of 91 on Saturday, December 16, 2017. Memories and tributes from the world of sport have been flowing in.  As well they should.

Len Ceglarski, coach

When Lenny retired from coaching college hockey in 1992, he was the all-time winningest coach in the game, with 673 wins over 34 seasons.  The first 14 seasons and 254 wins were at Clarkson College of Technology (now Clarkson University ) in Potsdam, New York.  The last 20 seasons and 419 wins were at his alma mater, Boston College.

Len had succeeded the man who was his college coach, John “Snooks” Kelley, on that lofty winningest-ever perch.  Now that spot belongs to Jerry York, a man to whom Lenny gave his first job in hockey.  Not a bad tradition.

Jerry was Lenny’s first assistant coach at Clarkson, a small school in a one-horse town about 50 miles from the Canadian border.  During Lenny’s time, they played in a drafty old barn on an ice surface that had a neutral zone that was much shorter than regulation size.  As soon as players broke out of their own end, they’d be at the opponent’s blue line. It was a building more suited to peewee hockey than to college varsity play.

But Len Ceglarski made Clarkson’s teams into a perennial power in Eastern college hockey. Rarely did they miss the ECAC playoffs at the Boston Garden.  Three times they finished runners-up in the NCAA finals. Until York arrived for the last few years of his tenure, Lenny ran the show all by himself – the recruiting, the on-ice coaching, the scouting. He even had his children draw up designs and color schemes for the Clarkson team jerseys.

Len Ceglarski, player

When Snooks Kelley announced his impending retirement from BC after the 1971-72 season, the job was Len Ceglarski’s if he wanted it. He was an alumnus who had an impressive run at a place with fewer resources than BC. There would be no debate.  That’s what we all believed and hoped anyway.

But Lenny didn’t approach BC athletic director Bill Flynn right away, and many very fine candidates applied. Two of the more impressive interviewees were Arlington High legend Eddie Burns, a BC man, and Tim Taylor of Harvard. Had Ceglarski not accepted the position, Taylor may well have been picked.

Finally, Flynn called Len to ask if he was interested.  He was, and that was that. He and wife Ursula and their six sons moved back to Massachusetts form the North Country.

The first time I met Ceglarski was in 1969 at McHugh Forum. It was after a Tuesday night ECAC quarterfinal playoff. Clarkson knocked off host BC, 4-2, and was headed yet again to the Garden. A kid named John Halme scored two or three goals.

Lenny came up to the press row to talk to a couple of reporters. I don’t remember what was said, but I do recall thinking that he seemed like a genuinely nice man.  He also must be a good coach too; his team had lost 7-2 to BC during the regular season.  BC’s team was very talented. Tim Sheehy and his classmates were in their prime, as juniors, and Paul Hurley was back on defense for his final year after playing in the 1968 Olympics.

The following year, 1969-70, I began covering the game for the Hockey News. I went to my first game up in Potsdam late in February.  BC had already begun a disastrous second-half slide – they lost 8 of their last 11 games – but they put up a good battle before losing 7-5. At one point, with BC on the power play, the puck skipped up into the stands. The clock operator let seven seconds run off before stopping it. The officials either ignored it or didn’t see it.

That year was the last one for Ned Harkness at Cornell.  Since the mid-60s, Cornell, with a roster full of Toronto-bred junior players, had been the Red Menace.  They were feared and, for the most part, hated.  In 1969-70, Harkness’s team went undefeated, 29-0, and won the national championship.  Clarkson lost to them 3-2 in the ECAC final at the Garden. In that game, Cornell scored in the last minute. They won again over Clarkson, 6-4, in the NCAA final at Lake Placid.

Those two losses were most unfortunate. You see, Lenny was just about the only coach in the East who could beat Cornell regularly. It was almost impossible for anyone to win in Ithaca; Clarkson beat Cornell 7-0 down there at one point, then by 2-1 two years later. So how did old Ned Harkness address his situation? By refusing to schedule Clarkson.

Harkness was the polar opposite of Ceglarski. Yes, he always had good teams and he drove them to near-perfection. But he was a bandit, a schlemiel, and a scoundrel.  If an opposing team had a breakaway against his goaltender, all of a sudden the arena lights would go out.  The opponents’ dressing room at Lynah Rink would be heated up to about a hundred degrees between periods. Sand would be sprinkled on the floor around the visiting team’s bench in order to dull their skates.

For two or three years before they had to meet in those 1970 playoffs, Cornell just would not play Clarkson.  Cornell played a creampuff schedule – two games against all the Ivy League teams, which guaranteed them ten wins a year.  They played BU and BC and once each. Lenny had no use for Ned, and the feeling was mutual.  Good guys don’t always win, and the bad guy beat the good guy twice in 1970.

Since that year, I have never rooted for a Cornell team. I still don’t.  Even though “some of my best friends are Cornellians,” most of their fans in those days were arrogant, obnoxious, and entitled. You’d think they were the ones who were playing the game.  Cornell has renewed its rivalry with BU – and it is a good one, I’ll grant – and I pull for those Terriers every time. Old dislikes die hard.

In 1971, Clarkson was back in the ECAC final. Again they lost, this time to Harvard, by a score of 7-4. Harvard was playing inspired hockey, giving its coach Cooney Weiland a grand swan song.  After the ECAC championship game in Boston, the NCAA selection committee broke precedent and selected Boston University as the East’s second team for the NCAA finals.  Never before had they taken any but the playoff runner-up.

Jack Kelley’s Terriers were a great team, no doubt.  They had been upset by Harvard in the ECAC semis and had a record of 26-2-1. Clarkson, which had knocked off Cornell – who else – in the other semifinal game, had a record of 28-4-1. A strong case could be made for taking BU, but it still shouldn’t have happened.  Yes, I know BU won the national championship that year, but Len Ceglarski and Clarkson deserved to go to the finals in Syracuse.

I was at the last game Lenny coached against Snooks Kelley in 1972. It was up in Potsdam in late February. Clarkson was a solid team and was once again playoff-bound.  BC, a rag-tag bunch, was struggling desperately to get Snooks his 500th win before retirement.  That was their only objective for the season.

Miracle of miracles, the Eagles pulled it out 6-4. The score was tied late in the third period when forechecker Bobby Reardon picked the pocket of Clarkson defenseman Bobby Clarke. Reardon jammed the puck past Carl Piehl for the game winner.  Piehl was the second-string goalie. Ceglarski had chosen not to play his top guy in the net, his late nephew Kevin Woods.

A year or so later, I was reminiscing about that game with Lenny, and about how critical it was, as win number 498, for Snooks in his quest for 500. He half-smiled and said, “I did my best.”

I also was at Len’s last game as Clarkson coach. It was the 1972 ECAC quarterfinals. Clarkson played at Harvard and was the better team in a close contest. But they lost. Woods was in the goal this time. He had a bad-luck play at exactly the wrong time, when a long, fluttering shot by Bill Corkery glanced into the net off his glove hand.

In the post-game locker room, neither I nor any of the other reporters addressed the elephant that was standing there by asking, “So, is this your last game at Clarkson? Are we going to see you at BC next season?” And of course, he never said a thing either.

Lenny’s honeymoon year at BC, 1972-73, was a lot of fun. Tom Mellor came back from the Olympics. Ed Kenty, Reardon, and Harvey Bennett were still around. Freshmen played for the first time on the varsity.  Richie Smith, Mark Albrecht, and Mike Powers were the impact rookies. The Eagles beat Cornell for the first time since before World War II and defeated BU as well. They made it all the way to the NCAA’s at Boston Garden.

With Lenny in charge, there was a new spirit of optimism after years of feeling uncompetitive against the big three rivals – BU, Cornell, and Harvard. But consistent success was a few years away. The rest of the 1970s were rocky, up-and-down until the recruiting stabilized.

Two of the most fun-filled years I can recall were 1976 and 1978. In ‘76, BC returned to the ECAC playoffs after a two-year absence.  They knocked off Cornell 6-2 in Ithaca – I never tired of beating Cornell and its oleaginous coach Dick Bertrand, a worthy successor to Harkness.  Nor did Len Ceglarski.  Beating Cornell delighted him more than winning against any other team.

BC also won the Beanpot in 1976, breaking a twelve-year drought, thanks largely to freshmen Joe Mullen and Paul Skidmore. Lenny had his car stolen right before the Beanpot final, a 6-3 win over BU. I think that the BC booster club would have bought him a new car every year if he could just keep winning the Beanpot.

In the 1976 playoffs, BC was seeded eighth and lost by a goal to top-seeded BU. The game was horribly officiated. John “Monk” McCarthy gave BU a preposterous third-period power play when BC’s Paul Barrett, kneeling next to the boards after a whistle, picked up the puck with his hand and flipped it over his shoulder.  That was one of several lousy calls McCarthy made against both teams. Len was never one to blast referees, and he kept a tight lip that night. All he’d say for the record – almost in tears – was “I’m so proud of them.”

Regarding referees, there was only one time in all the years I knew him that Lenny’s mouth got him in trouble.  In a Saturday afternoon game up at Cornell in 1980, Lenny suggested to Jack McGlynn that his refereeing objectivity had been compromised by his being a drinking buddy of Bertrand.  That got him a two-minute bench minor.

I had driven up to that game, leaving at 6:00 a.m. from the BC campus with the Dailey sisters, Patty and Nancy. They worked in the athletic department and were as devoted to Lenny and his teams as any fan ever was. We saw BC dominate most of the way and prevail, 6-5, after Cornell had a late flurry to make it close.

Usually, a dangerous breakdown like that would have ticked Lenny off. But not this time. After the game he was grinning like a cat full of cream. “We looked pretty good out there today, eh?” After all, it was another win over Cornell in Ithaca.

In 1978 we had the Great Blizzard. Three of them, actually. The middle one was the worst. BC had a tough time getting its game together. They lost big to BU at the Beanpot and at Cornell. The final game of the year was a makeup against UNH on a Sunday afternoon. The winner would be fifth and the loser would be eighth.  Skidmore had a good game in goal and BC pulled it out.

Dave Pearlman and I did the radio broadcast of the quarterfinal playoff game at RPI.  BC should have been playing at home. RPI, mere percentage points ahead in the standings, was there because they had avoided playing BU. Their snowed-out game against the Terriers, an almost certain loss, just couldn’t be made up, sorry.  Too much time out of class, our trustees are concerned, was the spin from coach Jimmy Salfi. So BC bused up to Troy, New York.

Lenny was interviewed by an RPI writer before the game. The questions, about RPI getting a home seed by avoiding BU, were almost taunting and intended to provoke. Lenny wouldn’t take the bait and asked the writer, “Well, what do you think? Do you think it was fair?”

BC ended up winning that night. When Paul Hammer scored the winner in overtime, Dave and I both jumped up in our seats. We pulled the plug out of the radio board, and for several minutes the audience back home didn’t know who won.

BC went on to win the ECAC Tournament and make it to the NCAA final game against BU. Neither team played particularly well; BU won 5-3. It was another NCAA runner-up slot for Len, his fourth and final.

BC would be a frequent qualifier for the big show but they were never able to win it. One year, it was superhuman goaltending by Providence’s Chris Terreri. Another time, BC lost its best player, Tim Sweeney, to an injury during the tourney. Bad bounces and bad luck were frequent visitors.  Boston College did not win the national title until 2001, with York as coach.

Ceglarski was a player on BC’s first NCAA winner in his sophomore season of 1948-49. But that he never won a national championship as a coach is a crying shame.  A coach who has such a long and successful career should get the chance to ascend to the very top of the mountain just once. It seems like the very nice guys, the gracious gentlemen like Len Ceglarski, sometimes just can’t get there.

Others in that category were Charlie Holt of UNH and Lefty Smith of Notre Dame. Each of them, like Lenny, deserved to win a national crown at least once in his lengthy and distinguished career. Perhaps they all lacked that last measure of cutthroat ruthlessness that you could see in coaches like Harkness, Herb Brooks, Bob Johnson, and Shawn Walsh, among others.

Of one thing, though, I’m certain. I’d have wanted my son to be coached by Len Ceglarski.

Recognizing Jim Reid: A Life on the Gridiron

December 15, 2017

Gridiron Club Master of Ceremonies Tom Burke Presents the John Baronian Award for Lifetime Achievement to Jim Reid of Boston College

At this year’s Gridiron Club of Greater Boston’s College Awards Night, the John Baronian Award for Lifetime Service to Football was presented to Jim Reid, defensive coordinator at Boston College. I had the honor of introducing Jim and presenting the award. Here’s what I had to say about him.

In my 42 years of announcing football at Boston College, I’ve seen some very fine defensive teams. That includes this year’s team and last year’s.  It also includes two years ago when the Gridiron Club honored Donnie Brown as Assistant Coach of the Year for putting together one of the best defenses in the country.

But I think my favorite BC defense of all time was the one for the 1994 season.  That was Dan Henning’s first year as BC’s head coach. The record was 7-4-1, and they ended up ranked 23rd in the nation in the final AP poll.

The 1994 defense was coached by Jim Reid. They were a bunch of feral beasts. They had Stephen Boyd at linebacker and Mike Mamula and Stalin Colinet on the line. They sacked the quarterback 47 times. That set BC’s all-time sack record, which wasn’t equaled until last year by another defense coached by Jim.

They blew away the French school from Indiana, 30-11, and limited them to less than 100 yards passing. In the Aloha Bowl they held a heavily favored Kansas State to a single touchdown.  They scored on a safety and sacked the quarterback eight times. Kansas State had minus-yardage rushing.

Jim is now in his 44th year of coaching football and in his second stint at Boston College. He’s been a member of the coaching staffs of the University of Iowa, Bucknell, Virginia, Syracuse, UMass, Richmond, and the Miami Dolphins. He’s been head coach at UMass, Virginia Military Institute, and Richmond.

Jim Reid delivering his inspirational acceptance speech after receiving the John Baronian Award in recognition of his 44 years of service to football.

Jim’s 44 years in the coaching profession, at so many levels, speak for themselves. But here’s a little something else.

Back in the mid-90s, Jim’s high school football coach, Hank Cutting, was guest of honor at a retirement dinner, over at Moseley’s on the Charles,  when was finishing up at Catholic Memorial. The CM athletic director, Jim O’ Connor, had lined up a well-known and respected college football coach to be the keynote speaker – the late Peter Carmichael. Pete was a member of Tom Coughlin’s staff at Boston College.

Two days before the dinner, Mr. O’Connor received a phone call from Coughlin. He said that Pete Carmichael would not be speaking at the event. All of the BC coaching staff had to be present for review of the films from spring practice. That review was expected to run well into the evening, so they’d have to find someone else.

Standing Ovation for Jim Reid, led by Boston College’s Zach Allen (right) and A.J. Dillon (center). They received the Bulger Lowe Award as New England’s best players – Dillon for offense and Allen for defense.

Mr. O’Connor was in a bind. He put in a call to Jim Reid, who said he’d be glad to step in and speak in Pete’s place.

It didn’t matter that Jim was head coach of the University of Richmond at the time. He dropped everything, bought a plane ticket, and flew up to Boston at his own expense the next day.

That’s what I call going above and beyond in service to the game and to the people of football.

It’s an honor to present the John Baronian Lifetime Achievement Award to Jim Reid.

History I Never Knew: “Dixie”

November 19, 2017

Daniel Decatur Emmett (1815-1904)

It was a cold and rainy evening in New York, back in 1859, and Daniel Decatur Emmet was feeling lousy.  The Ohio-born Emmet, an abolitionist and a songwriter for minstrel shows, was warming himself by the wood stove and wishing he were somewhere else – preferably someplace that was warm, like the states of the American South.

Legend has that his wife sympathetically suggested, “Well, why don’t you write a song about it?”

A good idea, especially because Emmett had recently been hired by a company named Bryant’s Minstrels, and he had to come up with a new song, a “walkaround” for the minstrel show, within a couple of days.

Emmet sat down and wrote, “I wish I was in the land of cotton…”

Bryant’s Minstrels premiered “Dixie” on April 4, 1959. It was the second-to-last song in the show, billed as a “plantation song and dance” and placed there because they didn’t think it was going to be good enough to serve as the show’s finale. They were wrong. It was an immediate smash hit, as soon became the standard closing number for the Bryan minstrel shows.

You know what happened. “Dixie” became the anthem and rallying song of the Confederacy. It was played at the inauguration of Jefferson Davis and by General Pickett before his disastrous charge at Gettysburg.

But the song also was a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln. It was played at many of his campaign rallies for the 1860 election.

Not all Southerners liked it because they knew of its Yankee origin. They inserted lyrics of their own to make it more martial, such as “In Dixie Land I’ll take my stand / To live and die in Dixie.”

In 1861, a Swiss-American Confederate propagandist named Henry Hotze wrote,

“It is marvellous with what wild-fire rapidity this tune “Dixie” has spread over the whole South. Considered as an intolerable nuisance when first the streets re-echoed it from the repertoire of wandering minstrels, it now bids fair to become the musical symbol of a new nationality, and we shall be fortunate if it does not impose its very name on our country.”

Emmet, the abolitionist, expressed regret for not having worked a little harder on the song’s original composition after he saw what a success it was. He also regretted that it became the Confederate Anthem. And he never made much money from it. Had he not sold it outright for $300 to Firth, Pond and Company in 1861, he could have lived a life of luxury on the royalties.

On April 10, 1865, one day after the surrender of General Robert E. Lee, Lincoln addressed a White House crowd:

“I propose now closing up by requesting you play a certain piece of music or a tune. I thought ‘Dixie’ one of the best tunes I ever heard … I had heard that our adversaries over the way had attempted to appropriate it. I insisted yesterday that we had fairly captured it … I presented the question to the Attorney-General, and he gave his opinion that it is our lawful prize … I ask the Band to give us a good turn upon it.”

This was one way in which Lincoln showed his willingness to be conciliatory to the South – to “bind up the nation’s wounds” – and allow formerly rebellious Americans to rejoin the Union.

So next time you visit a Waffle House, remember:

“There’s buckwheat cakes and Injun batter,

Makes you fat or a little fatter.

Look away! Look away! Look away! Dixie Land.”

And there you have it. A song that, nowadays, is seen as hateful, racist and discriminatory was written by a man who was committed to the abolition of slavery. It was also a favorite of the man who freed the slaves.

And now you know the rest of the story.

How to Think: Book Review and Reflection

November 17, 2017

Alan Jacobs

Well, I guess that a book with such a title would strive to be that most-clichéd of written works: one that is “thought-provoking.”

Okay, mission accomplished, Alan Jacobs.  But for me, the book is better described as “introspection-inspiring.”

The book’s subtitle is “A Survival Guide for a World at Odds.” I read a Wall Street Journal review of it a few weeks ago and was intrigued. The review didn’t lead me to believe that it was a self-help book. Rather, it held out the promise that How to Think would give the reader a measured and sober understanding of the causes and cures for the vast chasm that divides the left and the right in America’s body politic.

You can get a good deal of that understanding from this compact (156 pages) book by Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor University. You’ll probably recognize attitudes and tactics from both your side of the political divide and the other side. You might even acknowledge the existence of your side’s version of the “RCO” — the “Repugnant Cultural Other” who inhabits the far shore (but who actually might be your next-door neighbor or long-time friend.)

Corollary to that will likely be a realization that you and those on your side are somebody else’s RCOs. It is, as he puts it, a “profoundly unhealthy situation.” Duh.

So, why is it this way nowadays? And is there anything we, as individuals, can do about it? If not to change the world (we can’t), then at least to chart a course through calmer waters and steer between the Scylla of the alt-left and the Charybdis of the alt-right? That we can do, and this book is a helpful guide.

Groupthink

Early in the book, Jacobs gives the example of people’s attitudes towards “The Puritans.” For the most part, to be called “puritanical” is to be insulted. Puritans are rigid, authoritarian, judgmental—right? Jacobs cites writer Marilynne Robinson, who states that this easy characterization is a “great example of our collective eagerness to disparage without the knowledge or information about the thing being disparaged, when the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.”

Emphasis mine in that last sentence. I think Jacobs gets it about something, a phenomenon that’s common in these days of social media, the era of the knee-jerk retweet and the forwarded-without-thinking disparagement.

We all want to belong to a group or a community, and that’s usually a positive thing. No man is an island, and so on. But a problem crops up when the group exists primarily to exclude and denigrate others. Those who belong get their comfort and feelings of safety and power from belonging. But that belonging exacts a price, both from the individual person and from the wider society.

Jacobs mentions the case of Megan Phelps-Roper, who was a card-carrying, insult-hurling member of the Westboro Baptist Church. She goes through a gradual and wrenching transformation when she encounters and is willing to talk to one of those RCOs. In the case of the Westboro crowd, the RCO is a gay guy – and she eventually sees his humanity and leaves the Westboro cocoon and her old comrades-in-arms behind.

This is an unusual example, but it’s proof that the battle lines in today’s culture wars aren’t permanent, that there’s hope. Jodi Picoult tells a story of such a transformation in her novel Small Great Things.  In that fictional account, the convert is a pickup-driving, tobacco-chawing racist who eventually come to see the loving decency and professional competence of a black nurse who has cared for his child. The guy sees the light; his wife remains behind.

Both the real person and the fictional person cited here experienced a loss: of group security, of friends, and of family members. Whether it was truly a net loss, in either case, seems unlikely, because new affiliations await those who are willing to change their minds and evolve.

These experiences also both predict the final words of Jacobs’s book, Item 12 on his “Thinking Person’s Checklist.” He writes, “Be Brave. “

Yes, it does take more than a little courage to be open to the possibility of modifying your views at the risk of distancing yourself from your fellow travelers. Not everybody is up to it. Jacobs says as much near the end of the book:

“You have to be a certain kind of person to make this book work for you: the kind of person who, at least some of the time, cares more about working toward the truth than about one’s current social position.”

There are many pithy examples and light-bulb-inducing “Oh, of course” explanations sprinkled throughout the book.  I’d like to cite just a couple that struck me as particularly relevant.

C.S. Lewis and the Inner Ring

It’s not surprising that Jacobs turns to C.S. Lewis, author of The Chronicles of Narnia and many other works of Christian humanism, for an erudite and prescient look at what’s become of much of our society. Lewis delivered a lecture titled The Inner Ring at King’s College, London, in 1944. I remember reading and re-reading it a few years ago, and I thought it was spot-on even then.

“…you have met the phenomenon of an Inner Ring… And I can assure you that in whatever hospital, inn of court, diocese, school, business, or college you arrive after going down, you will find the Rings—what Tolstoy calls the second or unwritten systems,” Lewis told students more than 70 years ago.

And he continued,

“And you will be drawn in, if you are drawn in, not by desire for gain or ease, but simply because at that moment, when the cup was so near your lips, you cannot bear to be thrust back again into the cold outer world…I believe that in all men’s lives at certain periods between infancy and extreme old age, one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside. ..of all passions the passion for the Inner Ring is most skillful in making a man who is not yet a very bad man do very bad things.”

In applying the notion of the Inner Ring to present-day social affiliations and communities of interest, Jacobs offers the following observations and advice:

“…once we’re part of an Inner Ring, we maintain our status in part by coming up with those post-hoc rationalizations that confirm our identity and, equally important, confirm the nastiness of those Outside…Smart people have a problem, especially (though not only) when you put them in large groups. That problem is an ability to convincingly rationalize anything.”

But he does offer some hope to those who try to do better, suggesting,

“You can know whether your social environment is healthy for thinking by its attitude toward ideas from the outgroup…If you have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness, or else lose your status in your community, then you should realize that it’s not a community but rather an Inner Ring.”

And Now for Some of my Most-Admired Friends

As for the “introspection-inspiring” that I mentioned up front, I‘ll give this last example because I can relate entirely to Prof. Jacobs’s feelings.  I, like him, hold rather passionately to a set of beliefs and attitudes. Not all of those who are dear to me and whose friendship I treasure share those beliefs. In fact, we’re at opposite ends of the spectrum on some important cultural and political matters.

Of his friends, Jacobs writes,

“Over the years, I’ve had to acknowledge that some of the people whose views on education appall me are more devoted to their students than I am to mine; and that some of the people whose theological positions strike me as immensely damaging to the health of the church are nevertheless more prayerful and charitable, more Christian, than I will ever be. This is immensely disconcerting…Being around those people forces me to confront certain truths about myself that I would rather avoid; and that alone is the reason to seek every means possible to constrain the energies of animus.”

Bingo there, Alan. I’m glad you brought that up, and put it as you did. It’s nice to know that someone else feels as I do.

I can think of several people whom I respect and admire greatly, for things like their love for others, their worldly wisdom, and their just plain personal class. I wish I were more like them. But I know I’ll not be voting like them either, or trying to bring them around to my points of view. Not long ago, I was reminiscing with one of them about our many years of friendship. She remarked that it was good that we never tried to make it as a couple because we’d probably have ended up trying to kill each other.

Anyway, I liked this book. And perhaps I’m flattering myself, but I also like to think that I’m the type of person for whom the book will work. If you do decide to read it, please let me know if you think the same way.