Archive for the ‘Things in General’ Category

History I Never Knew: Massachusetts Representative Edith Nourse Rogers and Her Heroic, Doomed Attempt to Save Jewish Children from The Holocaust

February 8, 2021

February 9, 2021, marks the 82nd anniversary of the submission to Congress of the German Refugee Children’s Bill (S.J. Res 64 and H.J. Res 168). Its sponsors were Senator Robert Wagner, Democrat of New York, and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican of Massachusetts.  I had not known of this bill, and while I had heard the name of Edith Nourse Rogers somewhere in the distant past, I had no idea of her character or her accomplishments. She was the first woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress, and she was arguably the best and most influential of all of them.

Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican of Massachusetts

                So I’d like to tell you the story of Mrs. Rogers and the law that she and Senator Wagner crafted. The bill’s story is a tragic one. It’s tragic because it didn’t pass, and 20,000 orphaned Jewish children died as a result. The story is also infuriating, because it didn’t have to happen. It shouldn’t have happened. But it did, and I hold the then-president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt, responsible.

                As you may know, I have a particular interest in the history of The Holocaust. Six million Jewish people lost their lives in the killing machine of Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich. I have often heard, and I still hear, that “the United States didn’t do enough” to help the Jews of Europe. How so? The Allies should have bombed Auschwitz and its railway lines, once we heard of what was going on there.

                That’s a defensible argument. Bombing those rail lines might have slowed down the Auschwitz murder machine. It should have been done. But that was 1944. By that time, the horrible mass killings, 15,000 people per day at the extermination sites of Operation Reinhard – Treblinka, Sobibor, and Belzec – had ended.  Thinking only in terms of long-range bombing missions that never happened obscures the more important part of what America did – or didn’t do.

The doors of America were locked and barred to Jewish refugees long before World War II broke out.  Immigration quotas based on national origin had been enacted in 1924. They were not wholly abandoned until 1965. There was no separate provision for refugee admissions.   Once it did erupt, the State Department’s Visa Division under the despicable Breckinridge Long, an old Navy buddy of FDR, erected barriers and bureaucratic roadblocks to Jews. Historians disagree about degree of blame that Roosevelt should bear for these sins of omission.  He did have to deal with widespread and virulent anti-Semitism, stoked by such adversaries of the New Deal as Father Charles Coughlin.  Roosevelt had given significant aid to Britain, with controversial programs such as Lend-Lease. He had to anticipate charges that he and the Jews were dragging the United States into another European War. “America First” was originally the slogan of Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh.

Piloting an aircraft, 1929

Yes, it is true America didn’t do enough. But it wasn’t a failure on the battlefield. It was a failure in the halls of Congress and in the corridors of the White House. It was an abdication of leadership and human decency in politics. And there is no more striking example of that than the killing of the German Refugee Children’s Bill.

                There’s no room here to recite chapter and verse of the Visa Division’s entire hateful chronicle, possibly the worst part of the American involvement in World War II. Nor is there room to go into detail on why I believe what I do about Roosevelt – that he really had no use for Jews and other people who didn’t look like him, a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. I admit that I come to this blog post with my bias against the guy already firmly established. This sad story about Mrs. Rogers’s failed effort to do a right and noble deed simply strengthens my convictions about FDR.

                But enough about him for now. I really want to salute and honor Edith Nourse Rogers.  Most of the information about Mrs. Rogers comes from an unpublished paper based on her papers, which are in the Schlesinger Library. This superb archive of American women’s history is part of the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard.  The author of the unpublished paper is Kate Auspitz, who wrote an alternative history of the Abdication of Edward VIII, Wallis’s War, a Novel of Diplomacy and Intrigue (University of Chicago Press) and a serious history, The Radical Bourgeoisie:  the Ligue de l’Enseignement and the Origins of the Third Republic (Cambridge University Press.

                I’m grateful to Kate for pointing me in this direction and for giving me many other pointers and suggestions for reading and research. I also want to say that she does not share my feelings about Franklin Roosevelt. She believes that, as Lincoln, criticized, even vilified, for emancipating slaves in the states of the Confederacy but not in Kentucky or Missouri, he acted to win the war.

                So who was Edith Nourse Rogers?

She was born in Saco, Maine to Franklin T. Nourse, the manager of a textile mill, and Edith France Riversmith.  Both parents were from old New England families, and their daughter got the best education – private tutors; Rogers Hall School in Lowell, Massachusetts; and Madame Julien’s, a finishing school in Paris.

                Edith married John Jacob Rogers, a graduate of Harvard Law School. In 1912 he was elected as a Republican to the 63rd United States Congress as the Representative from the 5th District of Massachusetts. When World War I broke out, John Rogers traveled to the United Kingdom and France to observe the conditions of the war firsthand.  Edith Rogers first volunteered at the YMCA in London. But soon she was in the thick of the war zone.

Presiding at the House of Representatives, 1926

                President Woodrow Wilson authorized her to oversee field hospitals in France.  She saw the dead and dying and understood the costs of war.  She also witnessed the conditions faced by women employees and volunteers working with the United States armed forces. Except for a few nurses, they were civilians, and received no benefits including no housing, no food, no insurance, no medical care, no legal protection, no pensions, and no compensation for their families in cases of death. In contrast, the women in the British Army loaned to the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) in France were military, with the attendant benefits and responsibilities.

                 Edith’s experience with veteran’s issues led President Warren G. Harding to appoint her as the inspector of new veterans’ hospitals from 1922 to 1923. Her salary was one dollar a year. Her appointment was renewed by both the Coolidge and Hoover administrations. She became known as the “Angel of Walter Reed.”

Her first experience in politics was serving as an elector in the U.S. Electoral College during Calvin Coolidge’s 1924 presidential campaign.  John Rogers died in March, 1925. She ran for his seat in a special election and took 72 percent of the vote, making her the sixth woman to serve in Congress.  Throughout her career, she was a champion of veterans, especially disabled veterans.

In May 1941, Rogers introduced the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) Act, to create a voluntary enrollment program for women to join the U.S. Army in a non-combat capacity, as medical care professionals, welfare workers, clerical workers, cooks, messengers, military postal employees, chauffeurs, and telephone and telegraph operators. In 1942, the WAAC Act was signed into law. A year later came her Women’s Army Corps Bill, which granted official military status to the volunteers by creating the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) within the Army.

                Edith was always an outspoken foe of racism and xenophobia. She was also fiercely vocal about patriotism and an ardent proponent of immigration. On Patriots’ Day in 1937, she declared she was proud to represent Lexington and Concord, but the day and the sacred ground belonged to “me no more than to you.”  The whole world is freer today and the condition of mankind is better for the events of that day.  Throughout her career in the House, she sought to make the day a national holiday, not just for Massachusetts but for all Americans, despite any classifications which may be made by some as to race, creed, or color.

True patriotism, she believed, depended on shared beliefs and principles, not common ancestry.   She maintained that thousands of people from foreign lands have been attracted to our shores by that freedom, seeking  “the right which is every American’s  —  the right to think, to believe, or disbelieve, to speak, to choose…With rights go privileges and responsibilities,  they have become men, not puppets to be moved at the will of  a dictator.”

With an outlook like that, it was hardly surprising that she teamed up with Senator Robert F. Wagner (D-NY) to put the German Refugee Children’s bill before Congress.  Even while she was fully engrossed in that mission, she found time to take on the Daughters of the American Revolution. That organization, loudly and vocally patriotic in its own fashion, had not yet gotten the message about its own racism when Edith called them out in the spring of 1939.

Senator Robert Wagner, actress Helen Hayes, and Representative Edith Nourse Rogers meet in support of German Refugee Children’s Bill, 1939

The DAR had barred Marian Anderson, a woman of color whose glorious voice was world-famous, from performing in their Washington venue, Constitution Hall.  The DAR had a “whites only” clause in every one of its contracts. Eleanor Roosevelt resigned her DAR membership and arranged for Anderson to deliver an outdoor concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday, April 9.  Fifty thousand people attended.

Edith Nourse Rogers addressed the DAR on April 20.  “All of you are fond of fine music,” she began, and she continued, evoking   “…130 million people of different races, speaking many languages…What are these but the component parts of a great symphony of civilization?   Just as the orchestra becomes great with unity and cooperation, so does the nation…in the United States, race cooperation must replace race hatred.”

                Rogers took on race hatred in February 1939 with her co-sponsorship of the German Refugee Children’s Act.  A little background on the events leading up to the Act will help here.

                Hitler came to power in 1933 and immediately began the persecution of Jews. The world could no longer turn a blind eye to what was happening to Jews in Germany after November 9-10, 1938. That was Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass,” when SS-directed rioters throughout Germany looted and smashed windows in homes, shops, hospitals, and synagogues. More than 100 people were killed outright and thousands were subsequently arrested.   Among other atrocities, mobs destroyed a Jewish orphanage in Berlin, leaving 200 children homeless. 

Great Britain responded immediately with the Kindertransport program. It offered non-immigrant visas to orphaned or “unaccompanied” children, many of whose parents were in concentration camps.  These were not yet “camps of annihilation,” established to carry out genocide. Rather, they were places to intern, torture and interrogate political dissidents and other “undesirables,” such as communists, socialists, Roma, homosexuals, and union activists as well as Jews.

After Kristallnacht, Jewish parents still at liberty anticipated worse persecution would follow. Many chose to send their children to safety, even if it meant parting from them.

America was ready to help. The bill submitted by Nourse Rogers and Wagner would have  admitted 20,000 Jewish children into the country, 10,000 in 1939 and another 10,000 in 1940, over and above the highly restrictive limits and country quotas that had been in place since the early 1920s.

But America’s political leaders were not ready to step up in any way.  Yes, there were racists, anti-Semites, “America Firsters” and xenophobes abroad in the land and too-well-represented in Congress.  They ended up winning the day, but they shouldn’t have.  And with a word of support for the Americans of good will, even a mere suggestion of it, from Franklin Roosevelt, those evil forces would not have prevailed. But Roosevelt never uttered a peep. The Act, submitted in February, was delayed and tabled until September by bigots in Congress. That month, Hitler attacked Poland, the war was on, and getting anyone out of Europe became impossible.

It’s not as if Americans were against helping the kids. Concerned citizens had established the Non-sectarian Committee for German Refugee Children.  The American Friends Service Committee, the Unitarians, and several important Catholic clergymen, including George Cardinal Mundelein of Chicago, all cooperated with Jewish groups.  They understood that their work must be bi-partisan and appeal to all Americans, regardless of, as it was then expressed, “race, creed, or color.” 

Eleanor Roosevelt and Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor, whose department was then responsible for immigration, urged passage of the law. So too did former President Herbert Hoover, along with Governor Alf Landon and Frank Knox, 1936 Republican candidates for President and Vice-President. Hollywood heavyweights also were in favor. The great actress Helen Hayes testified on behalf of the bill, referring to herself as an “American mother” and using her real name, Mrs. Charles MacArthur.

It was a truly bi-partisan effort. It even overcame a traditional hurdle to all matters related to immigration, the opposition of organized labor. Throughout the 1930s the labor unions, with unemployment chronically high, opposed the opening of America’s doors to any newcomers who would compete for the few jobs available. Not this time, however.

John L. Lewis, President of Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which had four million members, ridiculed the notion that 20,000 children under the age of 14 would worsen unemployment. 

Nor could anyone claim that letting the kids in would cost the taxpayers money.  Thanks largely to Edith Nourse Rogers, 5000 American families offered to care for the refugee children.  One of their prominent leaders was Grace Coolidge, the widow of Calvin Coolidge. Several of her neighbors in Amherst, Massachusetts, also stepped up and were ready.

I do know that fans of FDR will maintain that he always had to tread lightly, bobbing and weaving and doing things by indirection because of those awful racists and bigots in Congress, whose support he needed. He really had the Jews’ interests at heart, but he couldn’t tip his hand.

Sorry, I don’t buy it. There’s a point where reticence becomes cowardice, where inaction becomes action. FDR never told anyone what he really felt about anything. With him especially, we have to look at what he did, not at what he said. Americans were ready to save the Jewish children, thanks to the wonderful Edith Nourse Rogers. By not weighing in on behalf of the Jewish kids, which he could have done at no political cost to himself, FDR was responsible for sending them to their deaths.

So that is the sad story of the German Refugee Children’s Bill. This is the kind of history that should be known, and pondered, and used as a reason to say “never again.” 

But let us not allow the negative sentiments expressed herein to lessen our appreciation and esteem for the life and works of Edith Nourse Rogers, Republican Congresswoman of Massachusetts. She was one of our finest of all time.

Sports History I Never Knew: How “K” Came to Stand for the Strikeout

January 13, 2021

Henry Chadwick, enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown in 1938, is sometimes called the father of the modern game of baseball.  He never played it or managed it, but he probably did more than any other individual to preserve its memory for posterity.

He was a fascinating guy from a fascinating family. Add Henry Chadwick to the list of “People I’d Love to Have a Beer With.”

His grandfather, James Chadwick, started out as a teacher in Manchester, England. One of his students was John Dalton, who “discovered” the atom via his atomic theory.  James became a radical journalist, moved to France during the French Revolution, and lived for a while with Thomas Paine. The latter was a force during that Revolution; his Rights of Man was a rallying cry for the radicals who wanted to overthrow the monarchy.  Paine, who became a member of the National Assembly, ended up by arguing unsuccessfully for preserving the lives of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and he spent some time in prison himself for his views.

One of this man’s grandsons, namesake Sir James Chadwick, put that atomic theory into action. Educated at the University of Manchester under Ernest Rutherford, “the Father of Nuclear Physics,” Sir James won the 1935 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the neutron. In 1941, he wrote the final draft of the MAUD Report, which inspired the U.S. government to begin serious atom bomb research. He was the head of the British team that worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

Henry Chadwick’s half-brother Edwin was a lawyer in England, and he was not a particularly nice man. He was a political operative, secretary of the Poor Law Commission, and author of A Report on the Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population of Great Britain. That book was a best-seller.  His work on the Poor Law of 1834 led to a national system of workhouses and made him one of the most reviled figures in the land. London had not yet figured out that its deadly cholera epidemics were due to unsanitary conditions; people drank water that was polluted by human waste.  Henry Chadwick espoused the “miasma” theory, which attributed the sicknesses to foul odors.  Just get rid of the poor, dirty neighborhoods and the people in them, he thought, and you get rid of the disease.

Edwin Chadwick wasn’t all bad, though. His subsequent work led to the Public Health Act of 1848, under which the British government started to assume overall responsibility for sanitation. They centralized the sources of London’s water supply. Ten years later, the Brits were ready to grapple with the matter of sewage disposal that “The Great Stink” of 1858 made into a national crisis.

Yuck. Fortunately for us, Henry Chadwick took a different career path. He became a sportswriter. His family moved to America in 1837, when he was 13. He became a cricket reporter for the New York Times, and he later moved to the New York Clipper and other papers.

In those days before computers, sabermetricians, and filmed replays, it was Henry Chadwick who devised the ways to record the achievements of both teams and players. He invented baseball statistics. He edited The Beadle Baseball Player, the first baseball guide, and the Spalding and Reach annual guides.  He served on baseball rules committees and campaigned against the influences of alcohol and gambling on the game.

The 1861 Beadle guide listed totals of games played, outs, runs, home runs, and strikeouts for hitters on prominent clubs. It was the first database of its kind and it gave numerical evidence of which players’ performances helped or hurt their teams. Chadwick also thought up and quantified batting averages and earned-run averages.

So, what about the “K” for strikeout?

As his Cooperstown plaque states, Henry was the inventor of the baseball box score.  He modeled it, unsurprisingly, on the scorecard for a game of cricket – a grid with nine rows for players and nine columns for innings.

He needed abbreviations to put in all those little boxes. Many of the abbreviations contained an “S.”  He needed something different when a batter struck out.

He decided on “K.” Why? Because it’s the final letter in “struck.”

As for that Chadwick family, author Bill Bryson points out that Henry’s grandfather James was a direct link between the discovery of the atom, Thomas Paine and the French Revolution, the sewer system of London, and the origin of professional baseball.

But as far as we’re concerned, Henry’s work was far more important than that of James, Edwin, and Sir James. After all, it was about baseball. Yes, I’d love to have a pint with Henry. I’d buy.

Now you know the rest of the story.

The Olympics of 1936: Profiles in Courage and History I Never Knew

December 31, 2020

It’s one of the most treasured stories in the history of sports in America. And rightly so.

Jesse Owens, the sharecropper’s son, outshines all other track and field performers in the 1936 Olympic games. He takes home four gold medals, vanquishes all the evil competitors from Nazi Germany and the allegedly superior Aryan race. He so embarrasses the evil host, Adolf Hitler, that the dictator and soon-to-be mass murderer flees from his trackside throne so that he will not have to congratulate the dark-skinned American. The people of Germany share their Führer’s disdain and are full-throated in their jeers and condemnation of the man who defeats their beloved favorite, Lutz Long. Owens returns home to the welcoming arms of a grateful nation that adopts him as its new hero.

There’s truth to that story. But it’s not the whole truth, not the whole story. Jesse Owens deserves his niche in America’s athletic pantheon. He was the best trackman of his time, and he did win those four golds. Hitler did not greet him personally, as he had many other winners. But it didn’t happen in quite the way it’s been passed down. The history has been re-written, or at least has been highly selective, to airbrush out the parts that may be embarrassing to certain people of high official stature.

Nazi Games: The Olympics of 1936” by David Clay Large, is a full chronicle of the 1936 Olympics – its planning, execution, and aftermath. The book is excellent, granularly detailed history of an event that was one of the most masterful exercises in propaganda that the world has ever seen. The 1936 Olympics was an evil regime at its deceitful best.

I’ll get to Jesse Owens in a subsequent blog post.  He deserves one of his own. But let’s start out by saying that he never should have been there in Berlin.  Nor should have any other American athlete been there. Had the American Olympic Committee done the right thing and joined in a boycott of the games, other democracies like France and Britain would probably have gone along with it.

The absence of those nations and possibly others would have deprived Hitler of his propaganda triumph. And maybe – just maybe, could be wishful thinking – it would have stemmed the tidal wave of his popular support in Germany, shined a light on his horrific treatment of Jewish people, and crimped his ability to launch his war.

That boycott almost happened. For at least two years, officials like U.S. ambassador to Germany William Dodd and chief consul George Messersmith had been reporting on Germany’s disgraceful treatment of Jews. The president, Franklin Roosevelt, hid in the White House and never said a thing, pro or con the boycott or about the Nazi regime.  Support for staying out of the 1936 Olympics kept building in America and elsewhere as the games approached and as more and more stories about Nazi oppression of Jews leaked out of Germany.

Had anybody of high stature – the president of the United States, the pope – used his bully pulpit to tell the unvarnished truth rather than seeking to placate Hitler, history may have been very different.  But neither FDR nor Pius XII did the right thing, either about the 1936 Olympics or later on about Germany’s horrible mistreatment of the Jews.

In the battle over the boycott, the bad people won out in the climactic 1935 meeting of the Amateur Athletic Union in New York. Facing off were AAU president Jeremiah Mahoney, a supporter of the boycott, and the president of the U.S. Olympic Committee, construction mogul Avery Brundage. The reptilian Brundage played the anti-Semitic card. He stated that only five percent of Americans were Jewish, and less than one percent of the athletes were Jewish, but that there was a larger percentage of Jews than that who were present at the meeting, and therefore “responsibility for actions of this kind, right or wrong, would be charged to the Jews.”

Brundage’s supporters in the AAU gave him a victory of 58.25 to 55.75 against a resolution calling for an investigation of conditions in Germany. To compound the disgrace, Brundage’s supporters made him the new AAU president and kicked Mahoney out. That effectively made Brundage the king of amateur athletics in America.

The corruption, discrimination, and paybacks didn’t stop there. A Swedish buddy of Brundage’s on the International Olympic Committee, Sigfrid Edstrøm, cabled his congratulations for “outmaneuvering the dirty Jews and politicians” and added that he hoped to see Brundage that summer as a colleague on the IOC.

That happened too. Brundage was elevated to the International Olympic Committee in the summer of 1936. He replaced another American of integrity and a profile in courage, Ernest Lee Jahncke. One of three American members of the International Olympic Committee, Jahncke is the only person ever to be kicked off the IOC. He courageously refuse to acquiesce to OIC president Count Henri de Baillet-Latour’s plea to “convince your people that the IOC has upheld the rights of everyone concerned and that the the unanimous decision [to stage the games in Berlin] was the only wise one.”

Jahncke, who had been assistant Secretary of the Navy under Herbert Hoover, would have none of it. An American of German descent, he was dismayed at what Hitler had done to his former country. He knew all about the Nuremberg Laws and that Germany was discriminating against its Jewish athletes.

Jahncke’s letters to Baillet-Latour said, in effect, don’t give me this bull about the Olympic ideals of founder Baron Pierre de Coubertin, because “precisely [his – de Coubertin’s] devotion to this idea has caused me to do just the opposite of what you so confidently ask of me. ..[I will] do all I can to persuade my fellow Americans that they ought not to take part in the Games if they are held in Nazi Germany” and that the Nazis “are continuing to violate every requirement of fair play in the conduct of sport” and that no foreign nation could participate in the Nazi games “without at least acquiescing in the contempt of the Nazis for fair play and their sordid exploitation of the Games.”

Strong stuff. And the right stuff. But it’s the kind of stuff that gets you fired. That’s what happened to Jahncke. The IOC’s 35th Congress came in July of 1936. Rudolf Hess welcomed the delegates on behalf of the Führer. Baillet-Latour complimented himself for “keeping religion and politics out of the games.” And the IOC unanimously approved a motion that Ernest Lee Jahncke, the only American IOC member who criticized the Nazi games, be summarily expelled.

For his unwavering advocacy of all things Nazi, Brundage received a contract to build a new German embassy in Washington. At least that didn’t happen.  The war prevented it. 

A very small measure of justice towards Brundage cropped up recently. The Asian Art Museum of San Francisco had been prominently displaying a bust of Brundage; most of his art collection is at that museum. In June 2020, the museum removed the bust and placed it in storage. His personal history of antisemitism, racism, and sexism prompted the move.

As an article in The Nation stated, “The removal of Brundage’s bust is long overdue. His toxic concoction of -isms and his perma-frown belong in the dustbin of history.”

While I’m not fond of today’s “Cancel Culture,” I can’t disagree with that. But I wish also to raise a glass in memory of Jeremiah Mahoney and Ernest Lee Jahncke, great Americans both, who paid a heavy and undeserved price for their courage. Would that we had more people like them.

Coming soon: The full story of Jesse Owens and America’s other black Olympians of 1936.

Book Review and Reflection: “Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport,” by Joseph Epstein.

November 30, 2020

What sports team do you love to hate?  Against which team will you root, no matter what?

If you’re a Red Sox fan, the Yankees. If you’re a BC football fan, Notre Dame. If you’re a National Football League fan anywhere but where I live, the Patriots.  Of course. You hate to see that rival win any game, and you most hate to lose to them.

Joseph Epstein doesn’t feel quite that way. He has a different reason for rooting against Duke in basketball. Or at least he once did. And I must say that, as an English major, I’d be inclined to agree with him.

“I tended to root against Duke not only because they were such consistent winners, but because it had (and, so far as I know, still has) one of the most wretched English departments in the country, filled with Marxists, deconstructionists, and other assorted goofies…I also thought of Duke as a school for spoiled children, which is what, on the West Coast, they call USC (University of Spoiled Children).”

But – credit where it’s due – he changed his mind, citing the many players that Duke sent to the National Basketball Association “who have shown impressive discipline on the court and don’t do egregious things off it. Coach K. [Krzyzewski] must be teaching something worthwhile besides the imperative of beating North Carolina.”

These passages come from “Masters of the Games: Essays and Stories on Sport.” It is his 25th book. I’d seen his op-eds in the Wall Street Journal, but I had no idea of how prolific an essayist he is, or of how much of a sporting enthusiast.

Reading Epstein on the people of the sporting world is a little like reading Truman Capote about the beautiful people of show business.  They both have an inimitable way with words, they know whereof they speak, and they both have no compunction about tweaking noses and making enemies.

Joseph Epstein

Epstein is a college professor, not a sports writer. He has taught English and writing at Northwestern University since 1972. He must be a rather rare bird in that universe, because he disdains the political correctness that has overgrown the groves of academe. He was editor of the “The American Scholar” for 24 years before a Phi Beta Kappa senate removed him in 1998 for, he maintains, “being insufficiently correct politically.”

He coined the term “virtucrat,” which he defined as “any man or woman who is certain that his or her political views are not merely correct but deeply, morally righteous in the bargain.” Later, he wrote that a virtucrat was a person “whose politics lend them the fine sense of elation that only false virtue makes possible.”

Ouch. No PC there. I suspect that being a professor and essayist on many subjects, rather than a full-time sports writer, gave Joseph Epstein a little more freedom to speak his mind about sports people.   

The essay in which Epstein needles the Duke faculty is called “March Sanity.” He tells the readers where his sympathies lie during the NCAA basketball tournament and in college football; he has no use for certain coaches:

“…I was against Rick Pitino, a coach I’ve watched regularly trade in loyalty for dollars – nothing, let it be noted, singular about him in this – but also yell at his players in public in an unattractive way. Like a number of other coaches, Pitino is averse to sitting down during a game, and attempts to direct play standing up at the sideline, a distraction to everyone.”

“The salaries for college coaches at the highest levels are up there in the millions, and these salaries are not given for character building or instruction in elegant manners. Watching them on the sidelines, red-faced, screaming at referees and umpires, calling out their own players, the phrase that comes to mind to describe most college coaches is ‘ugly customers.’ There have always been such coaches – Jerry Tarkanian at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Bobby Knight at Indiana, Woody Hayes at Ohio State – but nowadays they seem to preponderate.”

“One of the things I shall be cheering for during the NCAA basketball tournament is that certain coaches don’t make it to the Final Four. That John Calipari and his Kentucky team aren’t even in the tournament this year is cause, in my view, for hiring a small marimba band in celebration. Because of their coaches, I’d like to see Kansas ousted early – so too, Louisville and Ohio State, and a few years ago I would have added Duke.”

You don’t read observations like that, or like some of the other unvarnished truths as Epstein sees them,   from people whose regular beat is sports.  He’s clear eyed in acknowledging that times have changed in sports and society, and that the good old days – which weren’t all that good, but we believed they were – aren’t coming back.  But that doesn’t mean we can’t pine for them nostalgically. I don’t know if you do that, but I do.

Epstein grew up in Chicago, a city that reveres the memory of George Halas and his Chicago Bears. While noting Halas’s skill as a coach and innovator, he goes on to state,

“Much piety surrounds the name George Halas in Chicago. Halas himself grew pious in his old age, certain that a seat near the 50-yard line awaited him in heaven. He was in fact a bleak and unpleasant man.”

Consider issues of class and manners, and how they have evolved. Epstein writes the following of tennis, a sport in which he excelled in high school, winning the Chicago City High School Doubles championship.

“I would have to say that I had stylish strokes, was not all that effective, but very well dressed. From the beginning, I was swept away by what I took to be the intrinsic elegance of the game. Although it would be years before I read her, so was Edith Wharton, who wrote that ‘It seems to me such a beautiful game – without violence, noise, brutality – quick, graceful rhythmic, with a setting of turf and sky.’ Just so.

“Good that Edith Wharton is not alive today to hear Maria Sharapova grunting away, making each long rally sound like something happening behind doors at a Masters and Johnson laboratory.”

This simile is a perfect example of what I mean by “a way with words.” So too is Epstein’s description of Andre Agassi’s wardrobe, below.

As for the connection between how tennis players dress and how it affects their manners and their game, he remarks

“At least Andre Agassi’s denim shorts never caught on, worn in the days when, also weighed down with heavy duty stubble, long hair, earrings, hat, and over-large shirt, Mr. Agassi looked like nothing so much as a gypsy on the way out of town with two stolen chickens in his bag.”

He prefers instead, tennis where the “old WASP standard has combined with a deeply democratic spirit…the reign of the remarkable generation of Australian players, among them Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Neal Fraser, Roy Emerson, and John Newcombe. These were all young men from less than wealthy homes who, while playing brilliantly, always acted gentlemanly. They were intensely competitive without being, a la John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors, pigs of competition. And they all wore white.”

There’s a great deal more – musings and commentary, fiction, personal reminiscences, and profiles of athletes  – to inform, delight, and even irritate you in this book.  I devoured it in a couple of days. The title would lead you to believe that it was largely a book of feature articles on individual athletes. There are only a few, but they’re worth the price of the book.

Hank Greenberg

The profile of Bob Love, a basketball player about whom I knew nothing, is wonderful. The piece on Hank Greenberg, who along with Sandy Koufax was a genuinely great ballplayer, says that “Greenberg may be quite as famous for being Jewish as for what he did in the batter’s box.” This, even though Hank had 189 RBIs in 1937, hit 58 home runs in 1938, and twice won the American League MVP Award while playing for the Detroit Tigers.

Greenberg only played nine years in the majors and missed four seasons while serving in the Army in World War II. He was a peerless hitter but struggled in the field, both in the outfield and at first base.  His biggest struggle, though, must have been with antisemitism.

Detroit, where he had to play, was the city of the viciously Jew-hating Henry Ford and Father Charles Coughlin.  The slurs came from everywhere; they got so bad that one day, during a game against the White Sox, he marched into the Sox’ clubhouse and declared “I want this guy who called me a yellow Jew bastard to get to his feet and say it to my face.”

Had Hank Greenberg not gone off to war in the prime of his life, his career statistics of 331 home runs and lifetime average of .313 would undoubtedly have been better. He’s in the Hall of Fame, but he wouldn’t make the all-time starting lineup ahead of Lou Gehrig at first base, or in the outfield.  He definitely would be, as Epstein dubs him, the designated mensch.

The chapter on Joe DiMaggio, titled “Where’d He Go?” is more a critique of a book about Joe by Richard Ben Cramer than it is about Joe himself.  It’s well known that Joe was not a particularly nice man, aloof and rather lonely and possessing “an Olympian contempt for anyone who contributed to his team’s defeat or failed to meet his personal standard.  He was famously rivalrous with Ted Williams, who was probably better as a hitter but at no other aspect of the game. “He throws like a broad, and runs like a ruptured duck,” was DiMaggio’s assessment of Teddy Ballgame.

Joe DiMaggio

Cramer’s book, “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life,” is a despicable takedown, according to Epstein. “In Richard Ben Cramer’s pages, Joe DiMaggio does almost nothing decent. He is a bad father, a worse husband, a poor friend, a cheapskate, selfish, humorless, a prude operating on a sexual double standard, a solipsist of the highest order.”

Epstein goes on to show that there were mitigating factors all along in Joe DiMaggio’s personal life. “He was not the deep creep presented by Cramer, nor will it do to make him out to be just a dumb jock. He was more complicated than that.”

Maybe Richard Ben Cramer is a sportswriter version of the virtucrat, which Epstin defined in another context. He concludes this chapter in a blistering assessment of that author himself:

“Richard Ben Cramer, cool and with-it though he strains to be, plays the virtue card throughout….In scoring off Joe DiMaggio in all these various ways, in smoking him inside, Cramer’s own position is implicitly one of moral superiority. But if the biographer is the morally superior man, why does he seem so much less interesting than his subject and finally so unconvincing? The short answer is that his moral superiority exists only on paper.”

Book Review: “Beyond the Flight of the Arrow” by James Bradford Taylor

August 1, 2019

Author Brad Taylor

Sometimes, you just want to escape. Get away from here. Have a rollicking, swashbuckling adventure in a far-off land.  Meet your childhood hero or the girl of your dreams.  Tell their story – no, live in their story the way you imagine it was in days of old.

Here’s one way to do it. Make this book by James Bradford “Brad” Taylor part of your summer reading list. Take it to the beach, willingly suspend your disbelief, unsheathe your trusty sword, and offer battle to the forces of evil.

The book, Taylor’s first, is an autobiographically-flavored fantasy fulfillment.  As the book’s hero, Andrew “Finney” Jackson, he is a cinema owner who gets the chance to prowl around the offices and warehouse of a long-dead Hollywood movie mogul.  He falls down some cellar stairs and is transported, Twilight-Zone fashion, back to Sherwood Forest, where his adventure begins.

As a lad growing up in Winthrop, Massachusetts, Brad Taylor stoked his imagination with one of the town’s biggest and best-organized troves of DC Comic books.  Superman and Batman were staples, but he was also a big fan and authority on the likes of Green Lantern; Hawkman; Green Arrow and Speedy, and just about anyone else who was good enough to make the roster of the Justice League of America.

Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian and Errol Flynn as Robin Hood, 1938

When Brad outgrew the comic book heroes and began to notice girls, he developed a “thing” for Olivia de Havilland. She played Maid Marian in the 1938 film “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” with Errol Flynn in the lead role and other familiar names like Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, and Alan Hale in the supporting cast. It was the first color film by Warner Brothers studios.

I don’t think it’s revealing too much about the book to say that our hero Finney falls in love with Maid Marian, rescues her, kidnaps her for ransom, but ultimately doesn’t wed her.  He points out that she always went off with Errol Flynn, so he lets Robin Hood marry her in the end.

The book’s subtitle is A Fantasy Adventure Concerning Robin Hood, Errol Flynn, and One Finney Jackson.  Nope.  It should be something like An Adventurous Story of Unrequited Love for Olivia de Havilland by One James B. Taylor.  But that little misdirection notwithstanding, I have to give Brad credit for honesty about his feelings for Olivia. Who among us did not have such fantasies as we stumbled through adolescence? I recall similar crushes that I had on Daniela Bianchi as Tatiana Romanova, and on Katharine Ross as Elaine Robinson.  (Now I rather dig Mrs. Robinson. But I digress.)

Here’s what Brad/Finney had to say after initially encountering Maid Marian in boy’s clothing, disguised as a page, and being the first of the Merry Men to recognize that she was a woman:

“Not only was she a woman, she was incredibly beautiful as well. How did I know this ‘page’ was a woman? Well, when you have seen one of the most beautiful women in the world, you don’t forget her face, even if the next time you see her she’s dressed as a boy. Yes, I had seen this woman before. Not once, but many times.

“She had made the biggest impression on me, however, when she co-starred in The Adventures of Robin Hood as Maid Marian, for this ‘page’ riding on the trail below us was none other than Olivia de Havilland…Perhaps it would be more correct to say she was the living, breathing image of Olivia de Havilland; for Robin was the exact double of Errol Flynn, yet he was Robin Hood and not an actor…

“When I was twelve years old I first saw The Adventures of Robin Hood on television, and I fell instantly in love with Olivia de Havilland as Maid Marian. It was my first adolescent crush, and I never really got entirely over it…To me, the beauty of Olivia de Havilland was perfection in every way with her dark hair and those eyes of hers. Those eyes! Has any of God’s creatures ever possessed such eyes?

“She could only be mine when I saw her in The Adventures of Robin Hood; and then she always went off with Errol Flynn…This time, though, I was in a position to determine whether there could be something between us in reality. As far as I was concerned, there would be.”

Well, there is something nice that develops between our hero and the lovely woman. They become good buds.  But that’s all. Along the way Robin stumbles badly and for a while seems most unworthy of her. Our hero Brad/Finney becomes of the realm’s premier swordsmen. He seems to emerge as a contender for Maid Marian’s heart.  However, as previously noted, Robin and Marian eventually wed.  Though the author refashions parts of the Robin Hood legend and rewrites some of the script of the Errol Flynn movie to suit his fancy, he leaves the legend’s essentials intact.

During his daring escapades, Brad/Finney also gets in some commentary on the history of the period. In the movie, King Richard the Lion-Hearted (a big misnomer, actually; he was a nebbish) the scummy Prince John was not yet on the throne of England. Robin Hood and his boys robbed from the rich, gave to the poor, stymied the evil Sir Guy of Gisbourne, and kept Prince John off the throne.

In this book, John has been the king for sixteen years. And it’s Brad/Finney who intervenes with the Archbishop of Canterbury and brings about King John’s reluctant signing of the Magna Carta.

Basil Rathbone as Sir Guy of Gisbourne, Claude Rains as Prince John in the 1938 film.

Robin has already told his new recruit to the Merry Men the truth about the present and previous monarchs of the realm.

“A woeful reign it has been for his subjects. He taxes everyone heavily. And those who cannot pay in gold must pay in crops. It was a foul wind that blew that accursed Norman [Gisbourne] to England’s shores seven years ago. Until then King John wasn’t so bad, but Gisbourne’s intrigues have made everything worse. The King is his puppet.”

That latter story isn’t history, because Sir Guy is fictional; he’s simply a villain who shows up in most of the retellings of the Robin Hood legend.  But by that point of the book we’re beyond letting facts get in the way of a good story.

At the end, before he’s whisked back to the present, Brad/Finney gets to kiss Marian, the bride, at her wedding. But just prior to that little wish-come-true, Robin Hood gives him a small stone, a talisman, which had been a gift to him from Little John.

“It signifies a great friendship,” Robin says. “There are only two things on earth that go beyond the flight of the arrow. One is the love that comes once in a lifetime between a man and a woman. The other is friendship between two men that no force on earth can overcome.”

I’ll raise a tankard of Sherwood Forest’s finest ale to that one.

A Post for the First Day of Summer 2019

June 21, 2019

(This blog post originally appeared in 2011. It’s a favorite of mine, so here it is again, slightly updated.)

“Solstice” means “Sun Stands Still.” This year the summer solstice took place, and summer officially began, at 8:00 EDT, June 20.

“Midsummer Night’s Dream” was all about events in and around the summer solstice.

Kansas City Ballet’s performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”

Hippolyta remarks:

“Four days will quickly steep themselves in night;

Four nights will quickly dream away the time;

And then the moon, like to a silver bow

New-bent in heaven, shall behold the night

Of our solemnities.”

 

And  Theseus, soon to wed her, directs his servant Philostrate:

“Stir up the Athenian youth to merriments;

Awake the pert and nimble spirit of mirth;

Turn melancholy forth to funerals;

The pale companion is not for our pomp.”

 

The ancients called the Midsummer moon the “Honey Moon” for the mead made from fermented honey that was part of wedding ceremonies performed at the Summer Solstice. Perhaps the most enduring modern ties with Summer Solstice were the Druids’ celebration of the day as the “wedding of Heaven and Earth“, resulting in the present day belief of a “lucky” wedding in June.

They also celebrated Midsummer with bonfires, when couples would leap through the flames, believing their crops would grow as high as the couples were able to jump. The bonfires were also thought to protect against evil spirits, which were thought to roam freely when the sun turned southward again.

Da Vinci’s Saint John the Baptist and his Wort

To thwart the evil spirits, pagans often wore protective garlands of herbs and flowers. One of the most powerful of them was a plant called ‘chase-devil’, which is known today as St. John’s Wort and still used by modern herbalists as a mood stabilizer.  Some people believed that mid-summer plants, especially Calendula, had miraculous healing powers and they therefore picked them on this night.

Religious party-poopers couldn’t stay away, though. In the 7th century, Saint Eligius (you remember the hospital named after him in St. Elsewhere) warned recently-converted inhabitants of Flanders against the age-old pagan solstice celebrations.  He said,  “No Christian on the feast of Saint John or the solemnity of any other saint performs solestitia [summer solstice rites] or dancing or leaping or diabolical chants.”

As Christianity entered pagan areas, midsummer celebrations came to be often borrowed and transferred into new Christian holidays, often resulting in celebrations that mixed Christian traditions with traditions derived from pagan Midsummer festivities. The Gospel of Luke said that John the Baptist was six months older than Jesus, and because Jesus was born right after the winter solstice, Saint John had to have been born right after the summer solstice. Saint John’s Day is June 24.

Many medieval Catholic churches were also built as solar observatories. The church needed astronomy to predict the date of Easter. And so observatories were built into cathedrals and churches throughout Europe. A hole in the roof admitted a beam of sunlight, which would trace a path along the floor. The path, called the meridian line, was often marked by inlays and zodiacal motifs. The position at noon throughout the year, including the extremes of the solstices, was also carefully marked.

Sherm Feller

So, as the Jamies sang, in the song written by long-time Red Sox public address announcer Sherm Feller,

“It’s Summertime Summertime Sum-Sum-Summertime!”

Happy summer!

History I Never Knew: The First Lighted Christmas Tree

November 29, 2016

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

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Edward Hibberd Johnson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

johnsonedward-firstelectrictree1882

The first lighted Christmas tree, 1882

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

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

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

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

A View from the Top of the Hill

November 22, 2016

My grandfather George V. Brown, Class of 1898, and my uncle Walter A. Brown, Class of 1923, were inducted into the Hopkinton High School Top of the Hill Class of 2016 this evening. Top of the Hill  honors graduates of the school whose careers were marked by both high achievement and contribution to society.

I had the privilege of accepting the honor in their names and of speaking in their behalf.  The following is my address to the gathering.

nov-22-2016-1In Hopkinton you have a saying. “It all starts here.” That’s true, when you’re talking about the world’s most prestigious road race.

But that’s not the entire story of Hopkinton and sports. Not at all. Hopkinton has given much more to the world of sport, both in America and abroad. Better to say “It all started here.”

It all started with two of the men that Hopkinton honors this evening for achievements and contributions to society. George V. Brown, my grandfather, and Walter A. Brown, my uncle, were two of our country’s finest sportsmen. They were founding fathers and pioneers.

So much that was good in the world of sport, over more than 60 years of the 20th century, came about because of them.

Regarding their achievements – it would take a long time to list them all. I will mention just a few. But before doing so I want to point out that these gentlemen were not sportsmen as we understand the term today. They didn’t enter their professions as wealthy men. Sports were their livelihood, not their hobby. They were very good at what they did. But more importantly, they were good people. They were men of their times, but they were men for all seasons and for all time.

George Brown went into sports coaching and administration right after Bryant and Stratton Business School. By 1899 he was working at the Boston Athletic Association, and became its Athletic Manager in 1904. The BAA was a prime source of athletes for America’s Olympic teams. George was at the 1904 St Louis Olympics and at every Olympic games until his death, as a coach or an official.

He also was hired to run the rebuilt Boston Arena in 1919. Hockey flourished at all levels in Boston. The Bruins played there. He launched Boston University’s program. He started the CanAm games. His son Walter was his right-hand man.

In 1933, the BAA’s financial leader Henry Lapham took over the Boston Madison Square Garden and made George general manager. When George died at the age of 57, in 1937, Walter succeeded him. George is enshrined in both the United States and the National Hockey League Halls of Fame.

Walter was already a leader of American ice hockey when he became the Garden’s general manager at age 32. He had coached the first American team to win the World Championship: the Massachusetts Rangers, in 1933. They defeated Canada in the championship game in Prague – the first time anyone had ever beaten Canada in international play.

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With Boston College-bound Hopkinton High senior Olivia Sparr, whose class co-hosted this evening’s ceremony.

Walter coached the Bronze medal winning Americans in the 1936 Olympics. The opening event of those Winter Games was hockey: the United States 1, Germany 0, played in a snowstorm before a crowd that included all the high-ranking members of the Third Reich. That was the first time the Americans would defeat and disappoint their hosts. It wouldn’t be the last. A few months later, Jesse Owens and the track team – with George V. Brown as one of the coaches – would do it again.

Walter stayed a leader of American and International hockey up until his death – including running US Hockey when we won the Gold Medal at Squaw Valley in 1960. The Walter Brown Award goes to the best American-born college player in New England.

The BAA fell on hard times in the 1930s. Walter took over as president and ran the organization from the Garden. He kept the race alive in Boston. Nowadays, the BAA is back. It’s a superb, professionally administered operation that more than pays its own way and does many great things for the community. But it wasn’t always like this.

There’s another wonderful tradition around the Marathon that I must mention. I and all of my family members are most grateful to the BAA and Hopkinton for it. Every year since 1908, except for one, a descendant of George V. Brown has fired off the gun to start the Boston Marathon. And since 2008, George, in his statue, has been right there to watch.

Walter is probably best known in Boston as the owner of the Celtics. He bought them from the Garden in 1949 for $2000. In 1950, he was responsible for breaking the color line in the NBA when he drafted Chuck Cooper of Duquesne…and he told those present, those who objected, “I don’t care if he’s striped, plaid, or polka-dot. Boston drafts Chuck Cooper.”

The Celtics, as we know, became a dynasty with Red Auerbach, Bob Cousy, Bill Russell and all the rest. But it took a while, and it took a total personal commitment from Walter. In 1952, he took out a $20,000 mortgage on his house in Newton to keep them afloat.

Like his father, Walter died much too young. He was 59 when he had a massive coronary and passed away in 1964. As the newspapers stated, “Grown men cried that day.” Walter is enshrined in the National Basketball Hall of Fame and three hockey halls of fame.

What I’ve just told you is only the beginning of their achievements and contributions to society. I hope it suffices to say here that these two sons of Hopkinton were overachievers and substantial contributors.

But I’ve just recited a list of things. I don’t think these achievements are the true measure of George and Walter Brown.  Please let me point out what some people who knew them wrote or said.

Of George V. Brown:

“No other Boston man, excepting the late George Wright and Dr. Walter Kendall, has framed so many sport scenes with his personality.  He refereed football games before Jim Thorpe came as an unknown novice on his first visit to the Harvard stadium. He made the B. A. A. Winter Games a winter mecca for indoor athletes of the country and made the Boston Marathon the criterion of the world.”

“Hopkinton’s George Brown and the citizens of Milford were among the relatively few Americans to honor native American Olympic Games winner Jim Thorpe before he was unjustly stripped of his medals…George Brown felt none of the animosity toward Native Americans which other U.S. citizens harbored in those days…As far as Brown was concerned, the measure of a man was not his nationality or race. Rather, Brown expected an athlete to do the best he could in the Olympic Games competition, nothing more, and nothing less.”

“He held his friends through life. What better epitaph.  His word was unfailing. What better wreath to lay on his tomb. He helped the young. What better memorial to hang in his halls.”

And of Walter Brown:

“If none could enter the Boston Garden except by presenting a personal account of a gift of this man’s time, talent, counsel or money to some person or some cause in need of human kindness and help, not a seat in the Garden would be empty.

“And many such there will be in every audience that ever gathers, and they will all remember. And they will pass on to their children the memory of a man who felt that every charity or worthy cause had a claim upon him.  He was the embodiment of civic responsibility in the city where there are many common virtues. He was the exemplar of civic duty in a community where it is sometimes appealed to in vain. To these public virtues were added the virtues of gentleness, kindness, thoughtfulness, humility, and love for his family.

“In a city that had only residents, he was a first citizen. In a life that was crowded with conflicting claims, he was a citizen first.

“What he was, what he did, what he said, and what he thought for the good of his fellow man, each time the lights go up in the Boston Garden down through the years, he will be freshly remembered.”

I thank you for the privilege of addressing to you on behalf of my grandfather and my uncle.  I speak in gratitude for my mother Margaret, for the rest of Walter’s siblings, and for their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren.

Tonight I can’t help but recall the words of President John F. Kennedy – “We must judge a country not only by the men it produces. But by the men it honors. By the men it remembers.”

In remembering George V. Brown and Walter A. Brown as you have, along with our other distinguished honorees Fred Harris, Michael Shepard, Kelly Grill, Sunni Beville, and Libby Bischoff, Hopkinton tells the world, “These are our beloved sons and daughters. We nurtured them. We sent them forth. By honoring them, we bring honor to ourselves and all that we stand for.”

“Those Who Do Not Learn the Lessons of History…”

October 31, 2016

October 31, 2016

A History Note — written as we approach the end of one of the most contentious, divisive, and damaging presidential election campaigns of all time.

frances-perkins

Frances Perkins

November 9, the day after Election Day, is the 78th anniversary of Kristallnacht – “Night of the Broken Glass.” On November 9, 1938, all across Germany, Jewish-owned businesses were trashed and looted, 1,000 synagogues were destroyed, and some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps.  The excuse for this Nazi-sponsored pogrom was the killing, in Paris, of a minor German diplomat by a Jewish youth.

This horrific event, too large and widespread to be hidden, demonstrated to the world that negotiations with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis were futile. To engage in diplomacy with such a regime is a cruel charade – always has been.

Germany’s intentions with regard to Jewish people were laid bare.  The world saw what was happening and was shocked – shocked. But only America took the step of recalling its ambassador. That was one good and worthy step by Franklin Roosevelt, but he couldn’t bring himself to speak the entire truth. He said that the news from Germany was scarcely believable in a 20th-century civilization, but still he would not use the word “Jews.”

Nor did FDR propose any additional measure for helping the hundreds of thousands of European refugees, and he caved in to fear of provoking anti-Semites in Congress by affirming existing immigration quota limits.

One of the few truly “good guys” in the American government during this horrible era was Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (depicted), the first woman to be appointed to a Cabinet position.  She saw through Hitler right from the start and fought the good fight, often futilely, as FDR bobbed and weaved and split differences to protect his precious New Deal.

After Kristallnacht, finally, Perkins had a minor triumph when she met with FDR and persuaded him to extend indefinitely the visas of thousands of German Jews who were already in the U.S.  One of the few world leaders who endorsed FDR’s move and who took positive steps to help Jewish refugees was Canadian Prime Minister Mackenzie King.

Roosevelt agreed to do so over the objections of the State Department, saying that it would be inhuman to force Jews to return to Germany.  He had an opening and took it, because the laws were unclear on whether or not he had the authority. But he declined to press Congress to raise the quota for immigrants.

Two months later, a Roper poll showed that 83% of respondents opposed opening America’s doors to European refugees; only 9% supported such a bill.

Not a “Profile in Courage,” that FDR.  His heart was probably in the right place, but he would never risk any of his political capital.

Not a shining moment for America, either.

Let’s see – covering our political derriere; refusing to “speak truth to power;” ignoring the plight of people “over there”… have we learned anything at all from Kristallnacht?

Why I Do What I Do

June 30, 2016

Cover front2Charlie Sullivan, Boston College ’42, passed away a few months ago at the age of 97. He was the oldest man whom I interviewed for Tales from the Boston College Hockey Locker Room.

I’ve already posted a message in this space about how much Charlie enjoyed reading the book and recalling the old-timers who were his contemporaries from pre-World War II days.  His daughter Shauna had given it to him for a 97th birthday present. She quoted him as saying “If I had a son, I would want on just like [BC coach] Jerry York.”

That original message gave me a nice feeling – so nice that I wanted to share it with you. But it wasn’t the end of the story for me.

I recently received an email from Charlie’s daughter Shauna. She said that, during his final week when they knew the end was approaching, he admonished her, “Keep that book in the family.”

She went on to write, “… again just letting you know how much your book meant to him and how important he felt it was to keep the memories of his life with his grandchildren. Dad lived a great life and was an amazing father and grandfather. I am lucky my children were close to him and hopefully his life will influence who they become as adults…Thank you for making Dad’s humble memories immortal.”

That’s why I’m a writer. If I can change things or preserve memories in some small way that will benefit others, I’ll consider myself a success. I don’t have to write a best-seller or win a Pulitzer.  This is enough.

Professionally, I’m a disciple of William Zinsser. His book On Writing Well is as good a guide as you’ll ever find. He states, “I always write to affirm.  I choose to write about people whose values I respect; my pleasure is to bear witness to their lives.”

I realized, after getting Shauna Sullivan’s second message, that my work of bearing witness will never be complete. There’s always more to tell.

Some BC-related stories from Charlie didn’t make it into the book. One of them was about how he passed his final exams and earned his bachelor degree.  Like many member of the Greatest Generation, Charlie went off to war before completing all of his courses. He returned to campus in 1946 and met with Father Long, the priest who’d kept him in school back in 1941 by giving him a hockey scholarship.

The good father asked Charlie if he was ready to take his oral exams.  When Charlie replied in the affirmative, the priest said “Recite the Our Father in Latin.”  Charlie promptly prayed the Pater Noster. That was the final exam for all of his courses. He aced it to earn his bachelor degree.

That’s a nice little anecdote, but it’s not what I want the world to know about Charlie Sullivan. I want, instead, to be sure that everyone knows about the quietly heroic life he led after college.

I never realized, until hearing from Shauna, that Charlie’s wife had died of breast cancer at the age of 31. Charlie, then 42, was left with three daughters. They were 5, 4, and 20 months old, respectively. Charlie raised them and never remarried.

Charlie Sullivan was a true hero.  I didn’t tell his family story in the book, but I’m telling it now. I’m still bearing witness to his life. That’s my job. That’s what I do.