A Son Tells His Mother’s Story

January 2, 2020

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

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

Telling Her Story: To My Mother

Matt Burke·Thursday, December 19, 2019

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

First let’s explore what that story is.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We are her story.

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

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

Eulogy for My Wife

December 24, 2019

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

Mr. Carson of Downton Abbey once reminded us that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do I remember about meeting her?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That was a memorable date.

How about the biggest thrill Mary Ellen ever gave me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now that’s true to life.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be.

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

Here’s the whole of the first stanza.

Grow old along with me!

The best is yet to be,

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

Our times are in His hand

Who saith “A whole I planned,

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

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

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

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

When I die

Give what’s left of me away

To children

And old men that wait to die.

 

And if you need to cry,

Cry for your brother

Walking the street beside you.

 

And when you need me,

Put your arms

Around anyone

And give them

What you need to give to me.

 

I want to leave you something,

Something better

Than words

Or sounds.

 

Look for me

In the people I’ve known

Or loved,

And if you cannot give me away,

At least let me live on in your eyes

And not your mind.

 

You can love me most

By letting

Hands touch hands,

By letting bodies touch bodies,

And by letting go

Of children

That need to be free.

 

Love doesn’t die,

People do.

So, when all that’s left of me

Is love,

Give me away.

History I Never Knew: The Charles Bridge, Prague

November 10, 2019

The Charles Bridge at Sunset

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

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

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

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

Holy Roman Emperor Charles IV

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

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

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

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

Saint John of Nepomuk

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

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

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

Statues and Attractions on the Charles Bridge

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

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

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

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

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

1890 Flood Damage

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

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

And now you know the rest of the story.

History I Never Knew: The World’s First Tweetstorm was 485 Years Ago

October 17, 2019

If you think things are impossibly difficult and polarized in the world of politics nowadays, you ain’t seen nothin’.  Washington, DC and America in 2019 are like Romper Room compared to Paris and France for 64 years spanning the latter half of the sixteenth century.

Proclamation of October 17, 1534, text of the world’s first tweetstorm that launched the Wars of Religion.

Today, we have Twitter to set passions aboil. Back then, they had the printing press. But the effects of these technologies were pretty much the same.  They could make the world mighty ugly, mighty fast. And that’s what happened, almost 500 years ago, when hundreds of nasty, polemical printed posters were nailed up in several French cities by a group of conspirators.

It was history’s first Tweetstorm; the conspirators sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind.

On the evening of October 17, 1534, the “Affair of the Placards” launched the Wars of Religion in France.  Followers of John Calvin, known as Huguenots and led by a reform pastor named Antoine Marcourt, went around under the cover of darkness and nailed up copies of a screed titled “Trustworthy Articles on the Horrible, Great, & Unbearable Abuses of the Papal Mass.”  They even posted one on the door of the royal bedchamber of King Francois I.

Francois I

The poster’s message was severely critical of Catholicism, the religion of the realm. To condemn the Catholic Mass and Catholic doctrine was a crime in itself. But Francois was rattled to the core at the almost unthinkable breach of security and the threat to his personal safety.

His reaction was swift and severe. He offered generous rewards – four years’ worth of wages of ordinary folk – and many of the conspirators were caught and burned at the stake. Undeterred, they printed another “tweet,” titled “A Very Useful and Salutary Short Treatise in the Holy Eucharist of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” Huguenots made up no more than 15% of the French population, but they were well moneyed and educated, for the most part. They were decidedly influential in their push for reform and religious freedom.

Catherine de Medici, wife of King Henry II of France

More repression and retribution followed. Francois and his bishops responded by holding a sacred procession throughout the streets of Paris. Along the way they venerated the consecrated host, and they finished up with a Mass at Notre Dame. After the Mass they took six conspirators out and burned them at the stake.

On and on it went. Kings, queens, and royal regents came and went.  Violence and atrocities by both sides flared up regularly. Treaties and truces were made and broken. After a failed assassination attempt of a Huguenot leader named Gaspard de Coligny in 1572, the Catholic establishment

under Catherine de Medici planned and executed the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Between 4,000 and 6,000 Huguenots were killed between August and October of that month.

Henry IV: “Paris is worth a Mass.”

There followed the “War of the Three Henrys,” who all vied for the throne.  The eventual winner was Henry of Navarre, a Huguenot who became King Henry IV. But he wanted to calm things down, so he converted to Catholicism – for the fifth time – and justified it by his famous observation, “Paris is worth a Mass.”

With Henry IV’s 1598 conversion came the Edict of Nantes. It granted Huguenots many rights and freedoms, but Catholicism was still the dominant faith by far.  Almost a century later, in 1685, King Louis XVI revoked the Edict. He set the stage for his own overthrow and trip to the guillotine. But that’s another story for another time.

So ended the Wars of Religion and the repercussions of the first tweetstorm from 64 years before. So tell me now – is it really that bad nowadays? I’ll take Twitter over printed posters any day.

1492: What Really Happened

October 12, 2019

Columbus

“In fourteen hundred ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”

Yes, he did. But in the long sweep of history, the Admiral of the Ocean Sea’s “discovery” of America did not have anything approaching the impact – the tragic consequences – of other events of that year.  Christoper Columbus wasn’t all that important, or consequential. If he hadn’t voyaged west and found new lands, someone else would have. History in the “New World” would have followed roughly the same course.

Not so the history of the Old World, had the rulers of Spain been enlightened and fair-minded.

Columbus himself points out the world-changing decree of Ferdinand and Isabella. His diary begins:  “In the same month in which their Majesties issued the edict that all Jews should be driven out of the kingdom and its territories, in the same month they gave me the order to undertake with sufficient men my expedition of discovery to the Indies.”

Ferdinand and Isabella

In January of 1492, the forces of Castile and Aragon had conquered Granada, the last remaining Muslim caliphate in Spain. This restored all of Spain to Christian rule. The king and queen had resisted the demands of Tomas de Torquemada, head of the Spanish Inquisition, to expel the Jews until they had first subdued the Moors (not the Moops.) But with that military victory, they moved swiftly to get rid of Jews and impose religious uniformity.

It would take until 1614 for Spain’s succeeding monarchs to banish the rest of the Moors.  For a short while, Islam was allowed in Spain. But in 1502, all remaining Muslims were order to convert to Christianity or leave.

As for the Jews of Spain, about 200,000 of them were forced to leave as of July 30, 1492. They had to abandon all of their material possessions and settle in places like North Africa, Turkey, Italy and elsewhere.  They became known as Sephardic Jews – “Sefarad” is Hebrew for “Spain.”

Can you imagine how the history of the world might have evolved if Ferdinand and Isabella did not agree with people like Torquemada – had they allowed their Jews and Muslims to stay, to work out their differences, and to build their country into something else entirely?

Nor was it enough for F&I to “cleanse” Spain. They married off their daughter Isabella to King Manuel of Portugal in 1496. They made it a condition of the marriage that Portugal expel its Jews. Manuel reluctantly complied, although in the end only eight Jews were kicked out; according to the Jewish Virtual Library, tens of thousands of others had to convert to Christianity, on pain of death.

Tomas de Torquemada

I recall learning in school of the wonderful monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, who supported Columbus on his great adventure.  What rot. And what profound negative consequences their religious hatred had, down through the centuries.

The Sultan of Turkey, Bazajet, welcomed Jews. He said, “How can you call Ferdinand of Aragon a wise king, the same Ferdinand who impoverished his own land and enriched ours?”

How indeed.

Spain, and Portugal for that matter, became inconsequential, minor-league powers in Europe. Much worse, though, was that their treatment of Jews would be imitated in various guises throughout the known world. It’s still echoing loudly today. The decree of expulsion, known as the Alhambra Decree, was not officially overturned by the Spanish government until December 16, 1968.

This decision by the Spain, 476 years in the making, likely came about after the Catholic church itself admitted that it had been wrong about the Jews for almost two millennia.  The following is from Nostra Aetate, an instrument formulated in 1965, at the Second Vatican Council, during the papacy of Paul VI:

“what happened … cannot be charged against all the Jews, without distinction, then alive, nor against the Jews of today. Although the Church is the new people of God, the Jews should not be presented as rejected or accursed by God, as if this followed from the Holy Scriptures. All should see to it, then, that in catechetical work or in the preaching of the word of God they do not teach anything that does not conform to the truth of the Gospel and the spirit of Christ.”

Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, later Pope John XXIII

And that pronouncement may never have happened had “Vatican II” not taken place.  The council was called by Pope John XXIII in 1959. It is sad that he died before the council, and before this pronouncement. He would have loved it. During World War II, as Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, he was the Vatican delegate to the Ottoman Empire.  He was the highest-ranking Catholic cleric to use his authority on behalf of Jews. He had no use for the wimpish Pope Pius XII, his predecessor, who did nothing to resist Adolf Hitler.

But back to today, October 12. If you feel like ragging on Christopher Columbus for his misdeeds, go ahead. But he’s not the villain. The real villains sat on the throne of the combined kingdom of Castile and Aragon, and at their right hands in the Office of the Spanish Inquisition.

Thomas Jefferson on Public Education and the Teaching of History

October 5, 2019

Sometimes it’s best to let others speak for themselves. I think that our third president, while certainly one of the “great” ones, has been treated a little too kindly by history. But I can’t deny his intellectual brilliance. Here is a sample.

(From Query XIV, “Notes  on the State of Virginia.” Jefferson first describes the state’s plans for public schools. They will be free to all boys for three years, after which the better students will advance to higher levels of learning. They will be further winnowed out until each year the best students will be selected for admission to the College of William and Mary. The family’s wealth will not be a factor in admission. Rich families whose students do not make the cut will be free to pay for those students’ higher learning, if they so desire.)

Who Is Educated, How Chosen, and Why:

“The ultimate result of this whole scheme of education would be the teaching of all children of the state reading, writing, and common arithmetic: turning out ten annually of superior genius, well taught in Greek, Latin, geography, and the higher branches of arithmetic: turning out ten other annually, of still superiors parts, who, to those branches of learning, shall have added such of the sciences as their genius shall have led them to…”

“The general objects of this law are to provide and education adapted to the years, to the capacity, and the condition of every one, and directed to their freedom and happiness. Specific details are not proper for the law. These must be the business of the visitors entrusted with its execution…By that part of our plan which prescribes the selection of youth of genius from among the classes of the poor, we hope to avail the state of those talents which nature has sown as liberally among the poor as among the cultivated. – But of all the views of this law, none is more important, none more legitimate, than that of rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate guardians of their own liberty…”

And Why the Teaching of History is Most Important:

“..the reading in the first stage, where they will receive the whole of their education, [is]…to be chiefly historical. History by apprising them of the past will enable them to judge of the future; it will avail them of the experience of other times and other nations: it will qualify them as judges of the actions and designs of men; it will enable them to know ambition under every disguise it may assume; and knowing it, to defeat its views.

“In every government on earth there is some trace of human weakness, some germ of corruption and degeneracy, which cunning will discover, and wickedness insensibly open, cultivate, and improve.  Every government degenerates when trusted to the rulers of the people alone. The people themselves therefore are its only safe depositories.  And to render them safe, their minds must be improved to a certain degree. This indeed is not all that is necessary, though it be essentially necessary.

“An amendment to our constitution must here come to the aid of public education. The influence over government must be shared among al the people.  If every individual which composes the mass participates in the ultimate authority the government will be safe; because the corrupting the whole mass will exceed any private resources of wealth: and public ones cannot be provided but by levies on the people. “

Some Thoughts about Felicity

September 15, 2019

Nobody asked me, but…

I think that the sentence meted out to Felicity Huffman is reasonable and appropriate.  The star of “Desperate Housewives” will spend two weeks in a low-security federal corrections facility near San Francisco. She will also pay a $30,000 fine and perform 250 hours of yet-unspecified community service.

Felicity Huffman at her sentencing hearing in Boston

At the sentencing, the judge’s reasoning and remarks were well considered, professional, and compassionate. Ms Huffman’s contrition at being part of a college admissions scam seems genuine.  Her embarrassment at having broken the law and at having had insufficient confidence in her daughter’s abilities is obviously painful to her.

Rehabilitating and repairing the relationship within the family will probably take much longer than the two weeks or so that she will be off the grid. Yes, I know that she’s a rich celeb, and the rich have all the goodies and privileges, and blah, blah, blah. But let’s dispense with the schadenfreude. Her money and fame can’t shield her from the consequences of the decision that she now regrets – and I don’t think she regrets it simply because she got caught.

I have no doubt that she will be able to continue with her acting career, if she so chooses, once she completes her sentence. I will be rooting for her. If it turns that out I’m wrong about her sincerity, and that her admission of guilt and her demeanor are nothing more than a damage-controlling act — well, then I’m wrong.

We all screw up sometimes, and we all deserve a chance to make amends.

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.

Remembering Cathy Inglese, Boston College Women’s Basketball’s Greatest Coach

July 25, 2019

Cathy Inglese, age 60, died on July 24, 2019 after suffering a traumatic brain injury in a fall at her home. The following is her story that I wrote in 2014, when she was inducted into the Boston College Varsity Club Hall of Fame. She was one of the very best. May she rest in peace.

The coach with the most wins in the history of Boston College basketball had never planned to make coaching her career.

Cathy Inglese graduated from Southern Connecticut State on a Friday. She started teaching at Glastonbury High School the following Monday. She reapplied for a full-time position the following September. They told her that of course, since she’d been a star basketball player in college, she’d coach as well as teach.

“Southern was a good program when I played there, but coaching never entered my mind. I was planning to get a master’s degree in nutrition,” Cathy said.

A multi-sport star throughout high school, Cathy had turned down offers from BC, UConn and Providence to play basketball at her parents’ alma mater. She had been a good athlete since her childhood in the town of Wallingford.  “They were outside all day long,” her mother Nancy said about Cathy and her siblings. If it wasn’t baseball or basketball, they’d be climbing trees.”

In the fall of her third year of teaching, Cathy attended a Big East coaches’ clinic in Hartford and met up with Cecilia DeMarco, head coach at the University of New Hampshire. That spring, DeMarco called about an opening for an assistant basketball coach and assistant athletic director.

“My father had asked me if I’d ever like to try teaching in college, and I figured, ‘what have I got to lose.’ I was 26 at the time. I found that I liked working with student-athletes who were away from home for the first time. I got to travel, to teach, to recruit and to sell,” she explains.

Three years later, Cathy took over the University of Vermont basketball program, which had never had a winning season. Over seven years there, she transformed both Catamount basketball and herself. In her last two seasons, UVM went 29-1 and 28-1 and made the NCAA tournament.

Off the court, she conquered her fear of public speaking and hit the circuit. She addressed executives at IBM’s Vermont facility, among others, and discoursed on topics like leadership, motivation, and teamwork.

“I learned that it doesn’t matter if you’re the president of a company or a coach. You’ve got to have goals. You’ve got to believe in yourself. And it takes time. When you bring people from different backgrounds and with different outlooks, you can succeed as long you share the same vision.”

“I was lucky at Vermont,” she said. “I got to make all my mistakes early, in things like recruiting and in the systems I tried.”

Vermont was where Inglese learned to be a head coach. Boston College was where she put that all that knowledge to work. When Eagle athletic director Chet Gladchuk came calling, it didn’t take much convincing for him to bring her on board.

Again, it took time. Three losing seasons to start off. No fans at Conte Forum. But she made it clear to Gladchuk that there should be no more games in the adjoining Power Gym either. It was going to be a big-time program in a big-time facility.

“In our first game, it was so quiet you could hear the ball bouncing. It wasn’t a great environment, but it was something to build on,” she said.

Gradually, the talented athletes started to arrive. Cal Bouchard, who wasn’t widely known to college coaches, was a recruiting breakthrough. Cathy pursued Cal her after seeing a videotape of her being interviewed on television in Canada. Bouchard’s rookie year of 1996-97 was an 18-10 campaign and Inglese’s first winning one at the Heights.

Many more star athletes and successful seasons would follow. In her 15 years at the Heights, Cathy amassed a record of 273-179.  Among the highlights was the Big East championship in 2004. Inglese’s fifth-seeded Eagles won four games in four nights at the Hartford Civic Center, including a 51-48 semifinal conquest of nemesis Connecticut.

Cathy’s teams also had seven NCAA Tournament bids, and three advances to the national championship tourney’s Sweet 16. In 2005-06, the first year in the ACC, the Eagles lost their last five contests but still qualified for the NCAAs. At the Albuquerque Regional, they defeated Notre Dame and then top-seeded Ohio State, to once again make the round of 16.

Erik Johnson, now the head coach at BC, was Cathy’s assistant in her last three seasons. He marvels at the attention to detail and her meticulous planning that frequently brought victories over more talented opponents.

“I learned from her that that there’s no magic formula to winning at a high level. But every little thing matters. So we might not have players that are as big or as fast as North Carolina’s, but we could beat them because we made fewer mistakes. We moved the ball better, we were better prepared. Our fundamentals were better,” he said.

Clare Droesch was a free-wheeling shooter, a high school All-America when she arrived in 2001. For her, it was a struggle in adjusting to the Inglese way.

“She was an X and O coach who would look for five or six passes before the shot. It was hard, but it finally clicked for me in junior and senior years. When you bought into the system, it worked,” said Clare.

“We were one of the highest-percentage teams in the country. Coach did an amazing job of building offenses and defenses with the players she had.  When she saw potential, she’d push you to the limit of what you could be.”

Brooke Queenan, who played on all three of Inglese’s Sweet 16 squads, adds,

“I’ve never had a coach with her work ethic, and how goal-oriented she was. She demanded that from all of us.”

Interviewing Cathy at her home in Rhode Island in 2014

The team went 21-12 in 2007-08, Cathy’s final year at Boston College. After departing, she took a year off, then became head coach at the University of Rhode Island. Kingston wasn’t Chestnut Hill, though, and it didn’t happen for Cathy’s Rams. After five seasons, she moved on to explore other options including athletic administration, non-profit development, and leadership consulting.

The world hasn’t heard the last of Cathy Inglese, and it will be a long time before any coach in any sport at Boston College compiles a record of success like hers.

Men of July 4: Adams and Jefferson

July 4, 2019

Comrades in the struggle to found the American nation, then bitter foes in the nasty and brutal election campaign of 1800, and finally dear friends and eloquent correspondents in their long retirement years, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson deserve all of the praise and honor that history has conferred upon them.

This is not to say that they were models of perfection. Each had glaring personal flaws and quirks; each made mistakes in the wielding of power in his respective and various roles. Both men died on July 4, 1826, the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  James Monroe, the fifth president, also died on that date in 1831.

Jefferson is credited with writing the Declaration; noted for his ability with words, he did write the first draft.  But it was then edited by a committee comprising Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert Livingston.

Adams was a skilled writer as well; he could have done a good job with the first draft too. While he later groused about the political mileage that Jefferson got from his reputation as the Declaration’s author – wondering, in 1805, if there was “ever a coup de théâtre that had so great an effect as Jefferson’s penmanship of the Declaration of Independence” – he also knew that it was important for the 13 colonies to have a Virginian be a visible leader of the breakaway from King George. Support from the rich, agrarian South was critical, and the South was rife with loyalist slave-owners for whom life was just fine the way it was.

So, what were these two gentlemen really like? What did they think, and feel, about themselves and their lives, after they had retired from public life? The following excerpts from letters they exchanged in 1812 tell us a good deal. (And would that letter-writing still hold as important a place in society now; we would all be better off and, I dare say, a little more civilized.)

Jefferson to Adams

Monticello, January 21, 1812

Dear Sir,

[your letter] carries me back to the times when, beset with difficulties and dangers, we were fellow laborers in the same cause, struggling for what is most valuable to man, his right of self-government. Laboring always at the same oar, with some wave ahead ever threatening to overwhelm us, we knew not how, we rode through the storm with heart and hand, and made a happy port.  Still we did not expect to be without rubs and difficulties – and we have had them.

[after noting several issues that led to the War of 1812, he continues] And I believe we shall continue to grow, to multiply and prosper until we exhibit an association, powerful, and wise, and happy beyond what has yet been seen by men.

As for France and England, with all their preeminence in science, the one is a den of robbers, the other of pirates. And if science produces no better fruits than tyranny, murder, rapine, and the destitution of national morality, I would rather wish our country be ignorant, honest, and estimable as our neighboring savages are.

But whither is senile garrulity leading me? Into politics, of which I have taken final leave. I think little of them and say less. I have given up newspapers in exchange for Tacitus and Thucydides, for Newton and Euclid; and I find myself much the happier.

[after talking about his own health and his pleasure in his grandchildren, he concludes] I should have the pleasure of knowing that in the race of life you do not keep, in its physical decline, the same distance ahead of me that you have done in political honors and achievements. No circumstances have lessened the interest I feel in these particulars respecting yourself; none have suspended for one moment my sincere esteem for you; and I now salute you with unchanged affections and respect.

Adams to Jefferson

Quincy, February 1, 1812

Dear Sir,

Your life and mine for almost half a century have been nearly all of a piece, resembling in the whole, mine in the Gulf Stream, chased by three British frigates, in a hurricane from the northeast and a hideous tempest of thunder and lightning, which cracked our mainmast, struck three and twenty men on deck, wounded four, and killed one. I do not remember that my feelings in those three days were very different from what they have been for fifty years.

What an exchange have you made? Of newspapers for Newton? Rising from the lower deep of the lowest deep of dullness and bathos to the contemplation of the heavens and the heavens of heavens. Oh that I had devoted to Newton and fellows that time which I fear has been wasted on Plato and Aristotle, Bacon, Acherly, Bolingbroke, De Lolme, Harrington, Sidney, Hobbes, Plato Redivivus, Marchmont, Nedham, with twenty others upon subjects which mankind is determined never to understand, and those who do understand them are resolved never to practice, or countenance.

Your memoranda of the past, your sense of the present, and your prospect for the future seem to be well founded as far as I can see.  But the latter, i.e., the prospect for the future, will depend upon the Union: how is that Union to be preserved? Concordia res parvae crescent, Discordia maximae dilabuntur. [Small matters thrive with concord, great things fall apart through discord.] I will not at present point out the precise days and months when, nor the names of the men by whom this Union has been put in jeopardy. Your recollection can be at no more loss than mine.

“…But conquerors to now so easily disappear, battles and victories are irresistible by human nature. When a man is once acknowledged by the people in the army and the country as the author of a victory, there is no longer any question. Had Hamilton or Burr obtained a recent victory, neither you nor Jay nor I should have stood any chance against them or either of them more than a swallow or a sparrow.

I have read Thucydides and Tacitus, so often and at such distant period of my life that, elegant and profound and enchanting as is their style, I am weary of them. When I read them I seem only to be reading the history of my own times and my own life. I am heartily weary of both, i.e., of recollecting the history of both: for I am not weary of living. Whatever a peevish patriarch might say, I have never yet seen the day in which I could say I have had no pleasure, or that I have had more pain than pleasure.

[After telling of his daily activities and his family, he concludes] I cordially reciprocate your professions of esteem and respect. Madam sends her kind regards to your daughter and your grandchildren, as well as to yourself.

P.S. I forgot to remark your preference to savage over civilized life. I have something to say upon that subject. If I am in error, you can set me right, but by all I know of one or the other I would rather be the poorest man in France or England, with sound health of body and mind, than the proudest king, sachem or warrior of any tribe of savages in America.

And Now This Editorial Comment

In my opinion, Thomas Jefferson is one of the “great” presidents, but I think that history has been a little too kind to him and much too dismissive of Adams.  T.J. was undoubtedly more personally appealing, more clever, and certainly more snake-in-the-grass politically adept than the grouchy, curmudgeonly, and more highly-principled Adams.   David McCullough’s biography of Adams has done something to rectify that imbalance.

But whatever…would you not like to sit down with these two men, perhaps at the Colonial Inn in Concord or the Michie Tavern in Charlottesville, over beers brewed by their pal Samuel Adams, and just listen to what they have to say? I can think of no better activity for the Fourth of July.