Posts Tagged ‘Greatest Generation’

Remembering the American Football League

October 20, 2017

On October 18, 2017, the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston honored Larry Eisenhauer of the Boston Patriots as its Man of the Year. Larry was a superb defensive end for the Pats; he played from 1961 to 1969 and retired just before the American Football League merged with the National Football League.

I served as Master of Ceremonies for the evening. My welcoming remarks follow.

Joe Foss, American Football League Commissioner

Good evening, and welcome to the 22nd annual “Legends Night” of the Gridiron Club of Greater Boston.

We usually call this “NFL Legends Night,” but that’s not true this evening. We’re honoring a hero of the American Football League, so welcome to AFL Legends Night for 2017.

The AFL, born in 1960. With commissioner Joe Foss. Let me tell you about Joe Foss.

He was governor of South Dakota at the time he was asked to be AFL Commissioner.  Joe was a Greatest Generation member. In World War II, he was Marine fighter pilot in the Guadalcanal campaign.  He was launched off an aircraft carrier, by catapult, and flew 350 miles to that island in the South Pacific.

The Marines had already landed there. They were in desperate straits, surrounded by the Japanese, hemmed into a small perimeter that fortunately had an airfield.

Joe Foss became head of what they called the Cactus Air Force. Guadalcanal was code named Cactus.

The fight for that island, and in fact the fight for the Pacific, was decided largely in the skies. The Japanese fought with Mitsubishi Zero fighters; there were 72 of them shot down in the skies over the Solomon Islands. Joe Foss shot down 26 of them.  He received the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Roosevelt. Joe Foss’s total victories matched those of Eddie Rickenbacker, the “Ace of Aces,” in World War One.

What better guy to lead the American Football League – to lead a revolution against the establishment National Football league – than Joe Foss?

Joe Foss receiving the Medal of Honor from President Franklin D. Roosevelt, as his wife and mother look on.

He would have been a great president of the United States of America.

Joe came to mind when I was thinking about how we might begin this evening’s program. But something else that kept coming up was a television show about early America.  I’m sure some of you remember it.  The HBO series about John Adams, starring Paul Giamatti, back in 2008.

Now, John Adams is a guy I’ve always felt a little sorry for. He was a one term president, between Washington and Jefferson, and the history books have always given him short shrift. The HBO series and the biography by David McCullough changed that. That’s a good thing.

Adams made a lot of mistakes and made a lot of enemies. But he was a true patriot, devoted to his country and his cause, and he was right on all the big questions.

What brought the series to mind, as I was thinking about tonight, was an interview with the producer. He talked about how they did not sugarcoat the portrayal of colonial times.  There was hardship always – worried about money – violence, brutality and unfairness. It was hard, just to survive. They wanted to show just how hard it was.

Boston Patriots’ founding owner Billy Sullivan

Well, it wasn’t easy for the American Football League to survive, back in those early days. In fact, it was pretty darn hard. The money? Well, let’s just say that an AFL salary might pay for a couple of practice sessions of NFL players today. The playing and practice conditions? Maybe we’ll hear something of them later in the program.

But like John Adams as president, the AFL with Joe Foss at the head, got one thing right. One very big thing, that the NFL did not get right.

When President Kennedy was assassinated on that Friday afternoon, Foss and the guys he worked for, Billy Sullivan and his fellow owners, cancelled the games for that coming Sunday. Billy, if memory serves, was the league owners’ representative at JFK’s funeral.

Pete Rozelle ordered that the NFL play its games anyway. And to Pete’s everlasting credit, he always maintained thereafter that the decision was the biggest mistake he made in his illustrious career as NFL commissioner.

But the AFL got it right the first time.

The Gridiron Club of Greater Boston’s 2017 Man of the Year, Larry Eisenhauer.

In drawing analogies between the birth of the American football league with the American nation – I really don’t mean to say that they are remotely comparable in importance. Pro sports are society’s toy department, and the AFL owners were building another section of that department. Our Founding Fathers were building a new country.

And it was a whole lot harder for General Washington, John Adams, and all of the founders of that day, to take on the British Redcoats than it was for Billy Sullivan and his motley band of revolutionaries to take on the mighty National Football League.

But take on the NFL they did. They prevailed. And unlike the Founding Fathers and the people of those colonies that became the United States of America, they had one helluva lot of fun along the way.

And so did we who watched them and cheered for them.

Let’s hear about those days now, and begin our speaking program.


A Profile from the Greatest Generation: James Maitland Stewart (1908-1997)

July 28, 2013

ImageThe real-life George Bailey didn’t stay home and fight the Battle of Bedford Falls.

Both of James Stewart’s grandfathers had fought in the Civil War. His father was in the Spanish-American War and World War I. James was eager to serve his country when World War II broke out, and he wanted to do so as a military flier. He had been a licensed pilot since 1935. Several times he’d flown cross-country from Hollywood to visit his parents in Pennsylvania, navigating by railroad tracks.

It wasn’t easy for him, either to get into the service in the first place or to get assigned to combat duty. He was already an established film star – “You Can’t Take It With You,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Philadelphia Story” and others – when he was drafted in 1940. He did not meet the height and weight requirement and was rejected. He sought out the MGM muscle man Don Lewis, bulked up, and was initially rejected again before persuading the enlistment officer to run new tests. He finally got into the Army in 1941.

Stewart enlisted as a private, but as a college graduate (Princeton 1932) and a licensed commercial pilot he applied for an Air Corps commission. Though he was almost 33, six years beyond the maximum age restriction for aviation cadet training, Stewart received his commission as a second lieutenant on January 19, 1942, His first assignment was an appearance at a March of Dimes rally in Washington, D.C., but he wanted to go to war rather than be just a recruiting symbol. He applied for and was granted advanced training in multi-engine aircraft.

His show business background still was needed and useful to the nation as well. Shortly after Pearl Harbor, he performed with Orson Welles, Edward G. Robinson, Walter Huston and Lionel Barrymore in an all-network radio program called “We Hold These Truths,” dedicated to the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. In 1942, he starred in “Winning Your Wings,” a film that helped bring in 150,000 new recruits.

Until well into 1943, he stayed stateside in various training capacities. After rumors that he would be taken off flying status and go out to sell war bonds, the 35-year old Stewart appealed to his commander, 30-year-old Lt. Col. Walter Arnold. His commander recommended Stewart to the commander of the 445th Bombardment Group, a B-24 Liberator unit then undergoing final training in Iowa.

Stewart started out as operations officer but soon became the group’s commander. They flew to England and had their first combat mission on December 13, 1943, bombing U-boat facilities at Kiel, Germany. After missions to Bremen and Ludwigshafen, Stewart was promoted from group commander to squadron commander. He received the Distinguished Flying Cross for actions as deputy commander of the 2nd Combat Bombardment Wing in February. In March, in his 12th combat mission, Stewart led the 2nd Bomb Wing in an attack on Berlin.

In all, Stewart flew on 20 official missions and on several others that were uncredited because he, as a staff officer, could assign himself as a combat crewman. He received a second Distinguished Flying Cross, the Croix de Guerre, and the Air Medal with three oak leaf clusters. He was promoted full colonel in 1945, making him one of a very few Americans to rise from private to colonel in four years.

After the war Stewart stayed with the Air Force Reserve and reached the rank of Brigadier General in 1959. He was one of 12 founders and a charter member of the Air Force Association. In 1966, he flew as a non-duty observer in a B-52 on an Arc Light bombing mission during the Vietnam War. He refused the release of any publicity regarding his participation, as he did not want it treated as a stunt, but as part of his job as an officer in the Air Force Reserve.

After 27 years of service, Stewart retired from the Air Force on May 31, 1968. But he kept working for democracy and human rights through the American Spirit Foundation, which he co-founded. He collaborated with Russian president President Boris Yeltsin to have a special print of “It’s a Wonderful Life” translated, and in January 1992, on the first free Russian Orthodox Christmas Day, Russian TV broadcast that film to 200 million Russians.

In tandem with politicians and celebrities such as President Ronald Reagan, Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger, California Governor George Deukmejian, Bob Hope and Charlton Heston, Stewart also worked from 1987 to 1993 on projects that enhanced public appreciation and understanding of the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

If giving is what makes you rich, then James Stewart’s long life of service and giving of himself to his country undoubtedly made the real-life George Bailey the Richest Man in Town.