Sports History I Never Knew: The First Double Axel in the Olympic Games

September 6, 2020

Sonia Henie, the “Golden Girl”

It was the free-skating event, the final program of the competition at the 1936 Winter Olympics at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Germany. Sonja Henie knew that she was in trouble.

The “Golden Girl,” Norwegian-born winner of the skating competitions in the previous two Olympics at Lake Placid and St. Moritz, was the big favorite for a three-peat. But in the previous program, the compulsories, a young upstart from England named Cecilia Colledge, nearly bested her. Henie threw a temper tantrum and ripped the judges’ scoring sheet off the wall, claiming she had been cheated.

Colledge, at age 11 in Lake Placid, was the youngest woman ever to compete in the Olympics. She was the first woman to execute a double-rotation jump in competition, a salchow at the 1936 European championships in Berlin. She also invented the camel and the layback spins and the one-foot axel jump. Henie had never faced such a challenger.

Cecilia Colledge, 1937

The two were close on points going into the free-skating program. Colledge went first, and she was superb, using all the creative and exciting leaps and spins in her repertoire. Henie had to be better, or her gold-medal streak would end.

And that’s what the Golden Girl did. She topped Colledge with a double “Axel Paulsen” jump. Invented in 1882, it was so risky that it had never been tried in the Olympics. Paulsen was world champion speed skater from 1882 to 1890. He also invented modern speed skate, with the blade fixed to the boot.

In the double Axel Paulsen jump, the skater takes off in a forward direction from one foot, rotates one and a half times in the air, and lands backwards on the opposite foot.  Henie took the chance; she leapt, spun, landed on her skates, and ended with a split and a cover-girl smile. She kept her gold medal.

After Germany’s propaganda triumph in the 1936 Olympic Games, the skaters went their separate ways. Henie went pro – officially, as she’d made a lot of money with “amateur” exhibitions in Europe already. She came to America in 1937, became a U.S. citizen in 1941, and made 47 million dollars in film and through skating exhibitions.

Axel Paulsen

Henie also acquired a massive collection of diamonds.  She turned her back on her countrymen and refused to contribute to the resistance fighters who were battling Nazi occupation.  She also became the biggest booster of a new-fangled ice-grooming machine invented by an American named Frank Zamboni. She ordered two for herself; if she was going to skate at your arena, you had to have your own Zamboni.

Colledge returned to England and continued to compete as an amateur. She drove a civilian ambulance in London during the blitz. Her brother Maule became a flight lieutenant in the Royal Air Force. He never returned from a September 1943 mission over Berlin.

Colledge became a professional skater in the late 1940s, appearing in ice shows. She settled in the United States and coached elite athletes at the Skating Club of Boston from 1952 to 1977. She died, at the age of 87, in 2008 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Colledge never married and had no survivors.

And what of Axel Paulsen? He returned home and, after the death of his father, took over the family coffee shop until his death in 1936. The daring jump he invented is now known as the axel – just as all ice groomers are now Zambonis.

Now you know the rest of the story.

Sonia Henie’s touring Zamboni

Henie and her Zamboni, in photo autographed for inventor Frank Zamboni.

The double axel jump

Sonia Henie and George “Superman” Reeves, 1954

Books, Music, and Divine Inspiration: A Reflection on Madeleine L’Engle

August 16, 2020

Author Madeleine L’Engle

One good thing about this infernal shutdown…you can find a little more time for the reading that you’ve always meant to do but somehow never got to.

That’s what happened with me. I re-read A Severed Wasp by Madeleine L’Engle (1918-2007). But before doing so, I wanted to read its prequel, The Small Rain, which was written 37 years previously.

I had intended that this blog post be just a review of those two books. But it’s turned out to be a little more than just that. It morphed into a reflection on Madeleine, one of my favorite authors. And I’ve got to make full disclosure about Madeleine L’Engle. I start every day with her.

Glimpses of Grace: Daily Thoughts and Reflections is a fixture on my morning reading table.  It has 366 entries, all of them excerpted from L’Engle’s literary career that included 60 books along with poetry, journals, and speeches.  She was a devout Anglican, so it’s not surprising that Glimpses has both overtly theological musings as well as some less-direct but spirituality-filled thoughts for the day.

L’Engle was a woman of deep religious faith. But her writings communicate her messages without being the least bit preachy.  And reading her every morning has been, I’ve found, is as good a morning prayer as any I’ve ever made.

Here’s just one sample of religion in L’Engle’s writing. I don’t know about you, but I find things like this spiritually nourishing, and I don’t feel like I’m being preached to.  This is from her book Camilla:

“Listen, Camilla Dickinson, do you believe in God? Tell me about your God. What kind of God do you believe in?”

“Well,” I said at last, “I don’t think it’s God’s fault when people do anything wrong. And I don’t think He plans it when people are good. But I think He makes it possible for people to be ever so much bigger and better than they are. That is, if they want to be. What I mean is, people have to do it for themselves. God isn’t going to do it for them.”

As part of my morning ritual, I also read a daily entry from The Book of Common Prayer and a page or two from one or more of the books of advice and meditations for those who’ve lost a loved one. These latter books were given to me by some kind friends after Mary Ellen, my wife of nearly 44 years, died in December of 2019.

When I told a friend that I’d just finished two books by Madeleine L’Engle, and that they’d given me a tremendous appreciation for the power of music and what it really takes to be a musician, he said that he thought L’Engle only wrote children’s books. Not true, but understandable that he’d think this way.

The book that made her reputation was A Wrinkle in Time, published in 1962. It won the Newbery Medal, the highest award for children’s literature.  But L’Engle had a hard time finding a publisher, even though she’d already done some well-received books for young adults. The knee-jerk knock on “Wrinkle” was that it was too religious. Fortunately, her agent approached John Farrar of Farrar, Straus & Giroux. He was a churchgoer, so he published the book and it “paid for the rent in the offices” according to an article in the New Yorker.

One of the 26 publishers who rejected “Wrinkle” told L’Engle’s agent that he might be turning down Alice in Wonderland.  Indeed he was. The book has never been out of print and has sold more than six million copies.

L’Engle didn’t want to be known as a writer of children’s books. Whenever that label came up in conversation about her work, she’d say to just “write your story,” and not try to target a young audience.

Newlyweds Madeleine L’Engle and Hugh Franklin, 1946. She became a renowned author and he a star of stage and screen.

In addition to knowing her music and her theology, L’Engle is well acquainted with both church politics and the world of show business, both concert music and the Broadway stage. She was librarian and writer-in-residence at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on New York’s Upper West Side.  The Cathedral is the site of A Severed Wasp. She was married to actor Hugh Franklin (1916-1986), who starred as Dr. Charles Tyler in the long-running TV soap opera All My Children.

Just an aside here…Religion is good business, in my humble opinion. People want it. They may not be official, practicing adherents to any of the major churches or confessional faiths, but they want it. They want to know that they’re part of something much larger than they are. They want to know that their lives have meaning in the “whole vast configuration of things,” as George Bailey put it.

The movie version of Wrinkle, a 2018 production that starred Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling, was a disaster.  Don’t bother with it.  On “Rotten Tomatoes,” 191 of 300 people rated it “rotten.” The site’s overall rating was 26%. The summary blurb concluded that the film was “wildly ambitious to a fault, and often less than the sum of its classic parts.”

Duh. What do you expect when you cancel the core value, the religious sensibility?

But I’ve digressed. Too much, as usual. Now to the books that I’ve just finished.

The Small Rain – Lengle’s first novel written in 1945, is about the youthful trials of Katherine Forrester.  The title comes from this anonymous poem fragment that dates back to the Middle Ages:

“Western wind, when wilt thou blow,

The small rain down can rain?

Christ! That my love were in my arms

And I in my bed again!”

The book ends with her being sent to a boarding school in Europe to study piano with Justin Vigneras, the one teacher who inspired her during her boarding school days in America. Her father, divorced and remarried to a Broadway actress, is a composer. Her biological mother is a famous concert pianist.

Katherine aspires to be as good at the piano as was her mother.  As most coming-of-age books seem to be, there’s much autobiography here.  It includes difficulties in being accepted by peers, youthful angst, boarding schools, living for a time in Greenwich Village, a less-than-idyllic home life.  There are overbearing teachers, lecherous guys, and betrayal in an early love affair.

One of the poignant passages about love is this one. The speaker is another professional pianist who once fell madly in love with Katherine’s mother:

“I believed in her right from the first night I met her, in May, in a small café under the chestnut trees. Beautiful and romantic. Only she never fell in love with me. I was desperately in love with her. It’s a strange thing, how you can love somebody, how you can be all eaten up inside with needing them — and they simply don’t need you. That’s all there is to it, and neither of you can do anything about it. And they’ll be the same way with someone else, and someone else will be the same way about you and it goes on and on – this desperate need — and only once in a rare million do the same two people need each other.

“Those are cheerful words, aren’t they, child? But I’m afraid they’re only too true.”

When we come to A Severed Wasp, Katherine Forrester Vigneras has retired from a distinguished career as a concert pianist. She has returned home to her New York roots, and she’s had a request to give a benefit concert for Saint John the Divine Cathedral. The requester is an old friend, Felix Bodeway, who has retired from his post as Episcopal bishop of New York.

Felix was a character in The Small Rain.  It is hard to imagine him as a bishop in any church. He had been “that lightweight young man she had known a half century ago when they were both living in the Village.” Still, she was open to his approach and wondered “if he would still awaken the long-ago pain which has been part of the past to which Felix belonged. But so much deeper pain had come in the intervening years that all she felt was a vague nostalgia for her youthful anguish.”

The book gets its title from an excerpt from George Orwell: “[A wasp] was sucking jam on my plate and I cut him in half. He paid no attention, merely went on with his meal, while a tiny stream of jam trickled out of his severed esophagus. Only when he tried to fly away did he grasp the dreadful thing that had happened to him.”

As the book progresses from that initial meeting between Katherine and Felix, we learn the stories of their lives in the intervening fifty years.  She, now widowed, had married Justin Vigneras in France just before the war broke out.  The Nazis captured them in Paris. Both survived, although Justin was maimed in Auschwitz. Unable to play piano or to father children, he became a composer.  It’s a mystery, not solved until the end, just who was the father of their two children, and just who was that severed wasp.

There is a wealth of detail about Katherine’s preparations for the concert, which she’ll give on the cathedral’s Bösendorfer piano.  Some person or persons does their best to sabotage things, attempting intimidate Katherine by sending horrible things to her in the mail and by breaking into her apartment and slashing an irreplaceable painting.

Felix’s successor, Alwood Undercroft, the new bishop of the Episcopal diocese, bears a strong resemblance to the German army officer who was Katherine’s captor during her imprisonment throughout the war.  There’s also a long-standing postwar friendship and counseling relationship with Wolfgang von Stromberg, a Catholic cardinal whom she and Justin knew as Wolfi.

All in all it’s an entertaining and absorbing tale that succeeds in delivering its moral lessons while, as a blurb on the back cover states, it “weaves the world of music and the international concert stage, the claustrophobic life of a great cathedral close, and aspect of the threatening street life of New York.”

I won’t spoil everything by telling you how the mysteries and questions get answered. But because the title of the last chapter is “Music in the Cathedral,” I guess it’s okay to say that she does go forward with the benefit concert after all.

It’s at the end of the book and at several points in the book that the author’s love of music, and of its awesome power and beauty, shine through. I could appreciate this part even though I know nothing about the musical pieces she cites – or how, for instance, her getting up in the middle of the night and soothing herself by playing Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier must have sounded and felt.

At such places in the book, L’Engle’s words call to mind many of her meditations that I read daily in Glimpses.  She sees God’s handiwork everywhere – clouds and galaxies up above, oceans and streams and sun-warmed rocks and insects here below. To inspirations like these, I can relate.

And though I have no artistic talent, I can also relate to the words of Bishop Undercroft, spoken to Katherine at a welcoming dinner:

“I am often awed by the artistic temperament. It sometimes seems to me to be a battleground, a dark angel of destruction and a bright angel of creativity wrestling, and the bright angel dominates, out comes a great work of art, a Michelangelo David or a Beethoven symphony.”

As for the musical life of the book’s protagonist, this is a memory of her husband that comes back to her when she’s playing The Well-Tempered Clavier, followed by the Prelude and Fugue, before she can return to bed:

“Justin had turned to composing as well as nurturing Katherine’s talent, maturing her, expanding her, never forcing or manipulating, but helping her serve the gift for which she had been born.”

I’ll close by quoting the last couple of paragraphs of the book. I suspect that this feeling of Katherine’s is one that’s felt by many performing artists as they take the stage. It’s something that I’ve never felt and will never feel, but that’s okay too. I did so vicariously as I put this book down.

“Katherine…glanced once more at all those people she’d known for only a few months. Between them all they held a great many secrets. Between them all they had worked out as much peace as the human being is likely to have.

“She turned her mind away from them and focused it on music. The rustlings in the stalls and throughout the crowded nave stopped, and there was anticipatory silence.

“For Katherine, as she held her hands over the keyboard, there was nothing but the piano, and she and the sensitive instrument were no more than living extensions of each other.

“When the music had fully entered into her, she began to play.”

The New Normal is a Big Whiff

August 6, 2020

Nobody asked me, but…

I don’t like the “New Normal.” And I’m not talking about this virus matter.

I’m talking about baseball.

The Boston Red Sox won yesterday, 5-0 over Tampa Bay. The press is crowing about the well-pitched game by Martίn Peréz. Hey, good for him. But it’s not a game he pitched. It’s barely more than half a game, five innings.  Same for Ryan Yarbrough, the losing pitcher.

Peréz was declared the winning pitcher because he was the pitcher of record when the winning run was scored by his team. And he pitched five innings. A starter still has to go five innings to get a win. At least he did the last time I looked. Whatever.

Pitching Summary Boston vs. Tampa Bay August 5, 2020

Look at the accompanying box score. Identical patterns in innings pitched. The starter goes five. Then comes a parade of nearly-anonymous denizens from the bullpens. One inning each. LEGO pieces. Pitching by committee.

And don’t forget that pitch count!

This doesn’t do it for me.

Nor does the designated hitter. But that horse is long gone and the barn door is still hanging open. So too, I’m afraid, is horse that was once known as “complete game.”

And while we’re at it, let’s not forget the character known as the closer, and the ersatz accomplishment known as the “save.”

To wit (from MLB.com):

“A relief pitcher recording a save must preserve his team’s lead while doing one of the following: Enter the game with a lead of no more than three runs and pitch at least one inning. Enter the game with the tying run in the on-deck circle, at the plate or on the bases. Pitch at least three innings.”

Blech. Talk about a non-achievement.

“Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Benjamin Disraeli supposedly said this, but whoever actually did was right. Had to be a baseball fan.

Finally – and Yankee fans gonna hate this – had I been on the Hall of Fame Committee I don’t know if I would have voted for Mariano Rivera. He was probably the most renowned closer of all time, with 19 years and 652 saves.

But he was a one-inning-only marvel. He pitched 1283 total innings, or 67 innings per season.  Hardly a workhorse. If the opposing team happened to score on him, he was in deep doo-doo. So was his team. Just ask Kevin Millar, Dave Roberts, and Bill Mueller.

Okay, I probably would have come around to vote Mariano in. He did last 19 years in the majors. That’s impressive. But my vote would have come his way been because he was such an outstanding guy, the kind of professional athlete that everyone who plays sports should aspire to be. Nobody represented baseball better than Mariano Rivera.

So he has his niche in the Hall of Fame. I hope he’s the only one of his category – the closer – who ever makes it.

And who knows. Maybe we won’t ever see another pitcher from this New Normal era enshrined. Pitchers used to be the crème de la crème , the hoi aristoi. Now they’re the great unwashed, the hoi polloi.

“Search the public parks and you’ll never find a monument to a committee” goes another unattributed but pithy quote. In future years, it ought to be

“Search Cooperstown and you’ll never find a monument to a bullpen.”

Baseball’s New Normal. That’s all I have to say about that.

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 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, he 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.