Saturday, October 17, 2020

The Joys of a Political Advance man

Foreword:  As the Presidential election season winds down, I was brought back in memory to an earlier time when I was a participant in those hi-jinks.  Here is one vivid remembrance.

After John Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, the 1964 Presidential election pitted Lyndon Johnson against Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona.     My chance to meet Johnson came early that year when as Vice President he was preparing to make a speech in Milwaukee.   He called together the entire Wisconsin Democratic congressional delegation and their aides -- in an earlier day Johnson had been a staffer -- to discuss his visit.  In the course of the confab he went from person to person, asking their ideas.   When he got to me, unaccustomed as I was to advising Vice Presidents of the United States, I stammered that all the ideas that had been vetted earlier seem good to me.  Johnson passed on quickly, clearly convinced that Congressman Zablocki’s aide likely was retarded.

Nevertheless, the Johnson Presidential campaign in 1964 saw fit to call on me.   Local politicos without serious races, like Zablocki, were asked to second their people to help elect the Texan.  I was offered up and made part of the advance group on Lyndon’s campaign stop in Milwaukee.   Two jobs were assigned:  I was named “Bands Chairman” with the responsibility for lining up local high school marching bands to be stationed at strategic points along the President’s motorcade route from Billy Mitchell Field to Kosciuzko Park on Milwaukee’s South Side, a distance of 7.5 miles.   They were to be kept playing suitable patriotic airs for the waiting throngs.

My second assignment was to arrange a place for the President to urinate before going to the podium.  That proved more difficult since the ordinary construction site john was deemed 1) too ignominious for the Commander in Chief of the Free World, and 2) too tempting for the commoners to employ as their own bladders dictated.  Instead I rented a small oval house trailer that featured a bathroom and stationed it strategically behind the speaker’s platform.  A staffer from the Mayor’s Office, George Simos, was enlisted to intercept Johnson as he stepped from his limo and direct him to the trailer.

On the day of the President’s visit,  two large banners announcing “Bands Chairman” were affixed to each side of my small Ford and I was sent forth to make sure sweet music entertained the crowds.  On my first pass I found bands on corners a block off the route or barely assembled.  One was playing “The Eyes of Texas” out of tune.  The President’s plane was more than an hour late.   

On my second pass, not knowing whether Johnson was five minutes or five hours behind me (no cell phones in those days),  I drove around a corner onto the route.  All cars had been cleared off for blocks ahead.  Thousands of onlookers turned as one in anticipation.  A cheer echoed and reechoed.  I waved feebly.

Once back at the park it was clear that, having landed,  Johnson was in no hurry to get to the rostrum.  Along the route he stopped to talk to onlookers and even dropped into a grocery store.  He brought a large salami, hacked off pieces with his pen knife, wolfed it down, and threw the rind out the car window.  (We feared the next day headline:  “Lyndon the Litter Bug.”)

When the President finally arrived, George signaled as delicately as possible to the waiting rest station.  Johnson ignored him.   After his speech he hustled back to his car -- once again ignoring George and the potty stop.  I noted to George later that it was a shame we had spent so much money on the toilet and it had not been used. “I used it,”  he volunteered. 

I was shocked:  “What if Johnson had walked in just at that moment?”  

“I would have said, ‘Be through in a minute, Mr. President.’”

Postscript:  Spear carriers in politics also are fair game for unpaid bills.  They started rolling in, addressed to me, a week after the event -- for the trailer, sound system, the overweight Polish lady who sang the Star Spangled Banner.  I sweated. It took some fancy footwork but eventually the Democratic Mayor declared the occasion a “civic welcome” and City coffers were tapped instead of mine.

Saturday, October 3, 2020

The Historic Lake Erie Steamship Race

The recent release of the motion picture “Ford vs. Ferrari,” based on the race car rivalry of the two automotive companies at Le Mans in 1966, has reminded me of the intense excitement races between two major competitors can engender with the public.  The “Great Steamship Race” on Lake Erie in 1901 between the “City of Erie” and “Tashmoo”  furnishes a prime example. 

The initial irony of this race is that both ships were the brainchild of a single marine engineer, architect and designer.  He was Frank E. Kirby, born in Cleveland, who migrated to Detroit where he became a major figure in shipbuilding. Said an effusive contemporary biography:  “Nearly one hundred of the largest craft upon our grand rivers and noble rivers are of his architecture and design, marvels of their kind and monuments to his ingenuity and skills.” 

Shown in a postcard view plying Lake Erie, City of Erie was launched in 1898 by the Detroit Dry Dock Company for the Cleveland Buffalo Transit Company. The City of Erie's usual route was from Cleveland to Erie, Pennsylvania, and on to Buffalo, New York.  It was nicknamed the "Honeymoon Special" from the number of newlyweds who travelled to Buffalo, bound for Niagara Falls.

Tashmoo, shown above, was built two years later at a Michigan shipyard for Detroit’s White Star Line and launched on December 31, 1899. The Tashmoo was nicknamed the "White Flyer" and, because of the number of windows on the ship, the "Glass Hack.”  As shown here on a flyer, the Tashmoo's regular route was the sixty miles from Detroit to Pprt Huron, Michigan, making several stops along the way.  Note that roundtrip tickets cost only 75 cents.

The idea for a race arose in 1900 when two steamships based on Lake Michigan engaged in a friendly race and a Chicago newspaper hailed them as “fastest on the Great Lakes, a claim that was disputed vigorously by other steamship owners.  The president of Detroit's White Star Line offered $1,000 to any ship that could beat the Tashmoo in a race. J. W. Wescott, who company owned City of Erie accepted the challenge. The course agreed on was 82 nautical miles (152 km; 94 mi) long, following the City of Erie's regular route from Cleveland to Erie.

News of the race engendered tremendous excitement, not only around the Great Lakes but nationwide.  The Detroit Free Press branded it the “greatest steamboat contest in the history of American navigation.”  The amount of money bet on the race was estimated to reach $100,000 — equivalent to at least $2.2 million today.  Which steamer Frank Kirby might have favored has gone unrecorded.

On the day of the race in June 1901 thousands of people lined the shores of Lake Erie from Cleveland to Erie.  Thousands more watched from boats anchored on the water along the race path.  A photo shows the ships facing off as crews anticipated the gunshot signaling the start.  The Tashmoo is at far left, City of Erie next to it.

The race was timed with the City of Erie moving first.  But the faster Tashmoo soon overtook its rival steamer and passed it.  The Detroit Free Press described the scene below decks on both ships:  “It was an awful strain on the crews of both boats,  For five hours the engine room crews were shut in a hell hole….The heat was terrific….Strong men, subjected to the intense heat, became weak as babies, yet when told to surrender their shovels to others, refusing as they struggled gamely on.”

As the race progressed and the ships were out of sight of the shore, however, Tashmoo slowed, reputedly because the wheelman was not accustomed to steering only by compass.  The City of Erie took the lead.  With the shoreline visible again, the Tashmoo rapidly gained ground until an overheating condenser slowed it a second time.  In the end, the City of Erie won the race by a mere 45 seconds.  Tashmoo, however, was reckoned the faster.  Some blamed its loss as a jinks for being named for the doomed harpooner in Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

There was no return match although the Michigan owners asked for one.  Cleveland’s Wescott refused, clearly understanding what the outcome might be.  Both steamers went back to their usual routes, serving on the lakes for decades.  In December 1927, Tashmoo snapped its moorings during a storm and headed up the Detroit River.  Damaged and repaired, it later hit a submerged rock in the St. Marys River as it was leaving Sugar Island, Michigan.  After evacuating all passengers, the ship sank in eighteen feet of water and, as shown below, was towed to the scrapyard.  In 1985 Tashmoo was named to the National Maritime Hall of Fame.  A glass paperweight memorializes the vessel.

City of Erie also had its travails.  In September 1909, it collided with and sank a schooner, the T. Vance Straubenstein. Three persons drowned.  The steamer was retired from service in 1938 and scrapped in Cleveland in 1941.

Described in the press as “Two Freshwater Greyhounds,” City of Erie and Tashmoo represented the historical apex of steamship travel — and witnessed its decline. The coming of the automobile opened up new and more flexible travel options for millions of Americans.  The steamers had taken almost five hours at top speed to go 94 miles.  Soon automobiles could make it in two. Never again would a steamship race attract national attention.  As “Ford vs. Ferrari” reminds us, gasoline-powered races would prevail.


Saturday, September 19, 2020

My Life as Civic Activist and Beyond

Foreword: Recently I was asked by an organization called the American Academy of Housing and Communities to do a podcast on my activities as a civic activist in Alexandria,Virginia, and work in development overseas. I was reluctant at first, never having before considered recording on paper or verbally that element of my experience. Having recently decided at age 85 that the time has come to retire from active civic engagement,I agreed to be interviewed as a kind of “Last Hurrah.” Below is the “teaser” publicity material that the podcasters provided as well as links to the podcast and the sponsor’s website.

Meet John H. (“Jack”) Sullivan – if it’s part of his passion – watch out! If he wants something enough, he’ll fight for it until he gets it! He tells about his activism in many arenas – internationally in 65 countries, as head of USAID’s Bureau for Asia and Pacific, in the Green Revolution, in family planning, and in sewage cleanup in his own city of Alexandria, Virginia. In 1978 Jack was awarded USAID’s Superior Honor Award for “outstanding leadership in the areas of equal opportunity and affirmative action,” for his appointment of women and minorities to executive positions. 

Jack has been directly involved in influencing legislation by heading the House staff on SALT I arms control legislation, economic aid to wartime Vietnam, implementation of the Sinai Accords, and the War Powers Act. Dr. Sullivan served with the U.S. delegation to the United Nations General Assembly session and was with the first Congressional staff group to visit China. In 1977 Jack was chosen by the Carter Administration to manage the transition process at USAID and subsequently selected to head its Bureau for Asia and the Pacific, with 2,800 employees and a $1.5 billion annual budget. During his tenure the Bureau concentrated on spreading the technologies of the agricultural “Green Revolution” and family planning to the poor of South and Southeast Asia. In 1978 Jack was awarded USAID’s Superior Honor Award for “outstanding leadership in the areas of equal opportunity and affirmative action,” for his appointment of women and minorities to executive positions. 

He has taught political science courses in many prestigious universities. One of his passions is local public policy, whether it’s cable television, HIV/AIDS, the Alexandria waterfront or zoning. As a longtime local civic and political activist, he has had a career spanning five decades, appointed to eleven city boards and commissions. 

Key Moments on the podcast: He describes his father (a civil activist) as his greatest influence and his career as a police reporter which drove him to join politics and try to make a change [1:43] He describes negotiating a large housing loan program in India and other major projects he worked on [5:34] The importance of considering community input when developing before the project takes off [13:53] How he and others worked to stop the flow of raw sewage being discharged into the Potomac River by Alexandria, remediation that is currently ongoing [15:54] The importance of conducting thorough research as advice to younger people in policy-making careers [19:04] 

Link to the podcast page: Link to home page: Link to Community TrailBlazers main page: Labels: civic activism, American Academy of Housing and Communities, Jack Sullivan podcast

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Vintage Automobiles in a Shoebox III

Foreword:  Late last year l posted the second in a series on paperweights that carry the images of vintage automobiles, explaining my fascination with the real thing — shared by many — but lacking the money to purchase any or the space to store them.  The solution being paperweights, many issued by early automakers that depict the vehicle, cost a fraction, and can be stored in a shoebox.  Recently a whole group of these  weights have come to light and deserve attention.

The Holsman Automobile was manufactured from 1901 to 1911, the brainchild of Henry K. Holsman from Chicago who designed, manufactured and sold the motor vehicle.  Henry is credited with inventing the first reverse gear.  The Holsman featured very high wheels, like its buggy predecessors, meant to ride the often muddy, rutted roads of the Midwest.  During its eight years of operation the Holsman produced about 2,500 cars, selling internationally. The company motto was:  “High Wheels Travel All Roads Because All Roads Are Made to Be Traveled by High Wheels.”  The weight shown here recently sold for $225.

Hugh Chalmers was not an inventor, but known for his salesmanship and merchandising ability.  Lured to Detroit in 1907 when offered the presidency of a small automobile factory and the chance to have his name on a vehicle, he agreed and the Chalmers Automobile was born.  True to his reputation, Chalmers  greatly increased the company's visibility by hiring professional drivers and entering many road races, hill climbing events, and reliability contests when it consistently was a winner, generating wide publicity.  By 1911 Chalmers was the eighth top selling car in America.  Then began a slow slide downward and by 1916 the company was close to bankruptcy. Chalmers leased his plants, ending production.

The Cunningham was a pioneering American automobile, one of the nation’s first, made from 1896 to 1931 in Rochester, New York by James Cunningham, Son and Company.  Starting with electric cars in 1908, the company moved to gasoline engines in 1908.  From the outset, Cunningham automobiles were admired for their clean lines.  a radiator shell of aluminum was included, and a feature seen on many of these cars was the use of aluminum steps instead of running boards.  Beginning with four cylinders Cunningham by 1916 had developed a V8 engine.

Marketing automobiles from its factory in Syracuse, New York, the Franklin Automobile, under founder Herbert. H. Franklin, was known for its air-cooled engines, lightweight bodies, and driving responsiveness.  Most early Franklins were wood-framed;  beginning in 1928, however, Franklins adopted a conventional pressed-steel frame. Aluminum was used throughout the vehicle to the extent that Franklin at one time was reckoned to be the largest user of aluminum in the world.  After 32 years in business the firm collapsed in 1934, the midst of the Great Depression.  As I boy I recall seeing Franklins on the street and thought them “snazzy.”

A more familiar card of my youth was the Packard, a luxury automobile manufactured by the Packard Motor Car Company. Originating in the vision of James and William Packard of Warren, Ohio, to build a better “horseless carriage,” 400 Packards were built in their local factory between 1899 to 1903.  After attracting a group of Detroit investors, the company moved to the Motor City.  Packard vehicles featured innovations, including the modern steering wheel, the first 12-cylinder engine and the first air-passenger car air conditioning. Packard’s last model was the Predator, ceasing business in 1956.

The Packard and Studebaker automobiles would end existence together when the former bought the latter in 1953.  Founded in 1852 in South Bend, Indiana, by the Studebaker brothers, the company initially made buggies, shifting to electric vehicles in 1802 and two years later to gasoline engines.  Under the name Studebaker Automobile Company, the firm embarked on a 50 year tradition of building cars of good quality and reliability.  To that reputation, I can attest, having driven one from Milwaukee to Southern Florida and back.

When Henry Royce, a builder construction cranes and Charles Roll established their partnership in Manchester, England in 1904, they could hardly have foreseen that their engineer prowess woulld soon earn them a reputation as “best car in the world.”  After several management changes during the period 1971-2003, the Rolls-Royce firm emerged as a publicly-held company.  A marketing survey in 1987 showed that only Coca-Cola was a more widely known brand than Rolls-Royce.

Buick is one of the oldest automobile brands in the world and the oldest in the United States. Its first automobiles were made in 1899 and 1900 in Detroit.  Then David Buick moved to Flint, Michigan, in  1903, incorporating as Buick Motor Company.  After management changes, Walter Durant, founder of General Motors, emerged as the principal figure in Buick’s history.  The car has continued as a major mid-sized brand for GM even as the highly regarded Pontiac has disappeared.  The image at left begins a final group of weights all latter day productions.

The Cadillac is another automobile swallowed up in GM.  Formed as the Cadillac Motor Car Company in 1905, the firm was made part of GM in 1909.  From its earliest years, Cadillac aimed at quality and luxury appointments, causing its cars to be considered the ultimate in American transportation.  Cadillac could boast a number of “first” in the industry, among them the first volume manufacturer of a fully enclosed car and the first to incorporate an electrical system for starting, ignition and lighting.  The weight shows a 1906 model.

The final paperweight is of a Fiat of Italy. The first Fiat plant opened in 1899 with 35 staff making 24 cars. Known from the beginning for the talent and creativity of its engineering staff, by 1903 Fiat made a small profit and produced 135 cars; this grew to 1,149 cars by 1906. The paperweight displays the Fiat 1 which was the first car produced under the Fiat name. The car was called the Fiat 4HP though it was only rated at 31/2 HP. By 1910, Fiat was the largest Italian automotive company   It has continued in operation ever since its founding.

There they are:  eleven paperweights celebrating vintage motor cars, representing ten makes of automobile, three of them still available in the marketplace.  To me they never loose their fascination. Moreover, the entire eleven could be neatly stored in a shoe box.

Note:  Two prior posts on this blog contain a total of another 19 vintage auto paperweights:  August 3, 2019 and October 12, 2019.

Saturday, August 22, 2020

A Salute to Wisconsin Printmakers


“…A gifted group of artist-professors who, through their creative and innovative approach to the teaching of printmaking, helped to initiate a renaissance in printmaking that has become a singular addition to twentieth century American artistic expression.” — Clare Romano, artist.

Ms. Romano was referring to a creative outburst that occurred in Wisconsin, centered at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the 1950s and 1960s.  Having lived in Madison briefly and then in Milwaukee during that period and having with a strong interest in art, I was keenly aware of the phenomenon.

Upon leaving the state to work for a Wisconsin congressman in Washington D.C., I decided to buy prints by several of the university’s notable printmakers and hang them in the legislator’s office to bring them some notice on Capitol Hill.  When the congressman proved amenable, I contacted Warrington Colescott, the leader of the artist-professors, about the project and he was interested.

My first move was to purchase a Colescott print called “Park Sunday,” shown here.  Although the artist is best known for his witty and satirical rendering of historical and contemporary events, my choice was a print that showed bicycles and riders racing against a wooded background.  Colescott’s ability to represent speed fascinated me.  He was gracious enough to arrange for framing and later came to the Washington office to see the print and the small display.  

Colescott in turn recommended a print by his close Madison colleague, Dean Meeker.  Meeker was one of the first printmakers to overprint silk-screens with polymer intaglio and, and to that end, he co-invented a motorized etching press. The combination of those techniques allowed him to build images that were so seemingly three-dimensional that, as one critic said, they “almost dance and sing.”  Although my print gave the illusion of three dimensions, the figure stayed firmly on the paper.  Titled in French “Le Vitrier,” and shown here, it is of a glazier fitting a window in front of what appears to be a jumble of street signs.

The third artwork from my “Hill project” was an etching by Harold Altman, a prolific draftsman who produced more than 1,200 editions of lithographs and etchings during his 65 years as an artist.  Critics lauded his “mastery of endless variation on a simple theme,” and praised his ability to reveal the extraordinary within the ordinary.  The print is one of those subjects to which Altman returned frequently — a poignant scene of two women talking in a park as figures emerge from the background.  Although Altman is not closely identified with the Wisconsin “school,”  my recollectoion is that he spent some time in Madison.

Another Wisconsin printmaker of note was Eugene Mecikalski, an artist-professor  at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  He was a well-regarded local artist who provided a range of prints depicting scenes in and around Milwaukee.  I was drawn to his color lithograph “Bird Signs” because it captured so well autumn in city as the light dims earlier and earlier and the birds begin their migration south.

A more traditional printmaker was Glenn Villwock, a respected Wisconsin artist active for many years in the Milwaukee area.  He was an art instructor to my mother-in-law to whom he presented this woodcut entitled “Coming Berkshire Storm,” a gift which we have now inherited.  It is our second Villwock, added to a humorous print of a goat purchased at a local art fair.

The final Wisconsin printmaker was a friend, Neil Fischer, who was the staff artist of the Marquette University Journal, the literary publication of which I was editor in 1956-1957.  He lithographed a series of four superb covers for the magazine.  He later gave me a picture related to one.  It shows students walking on busy Wisconsin Avenue in the vicinity of the Marquette Library.

In time, the display in the congressional office had to be moved.  The prints migrated to our home where they hung for many years. As we gathered more art  some original prints were relegated to storage.  Two years ago I contacted the Museum of Wisconsin Art (MOWA) in West Bend, shown below, about donating several to its collection.  When the curator was interested, the Colescott, Meeker and Altman went off to MOWA.  The curator subsequently was in touch, enthusiastic about the uniqueness of Colescott’s “Park Sunday” and held out the possibility of putting it on display.

The Mecikalski, Villwock and Fischer prints remain on the walls of our home, a continuing reminder of the period when printmaking in Wisconsin was, as Ms. Romero said, “a singular addition to twentieth century American artistic expression.”  Both Mecikalski and Villwock are in the MOWA collection.

Note:  For those interested in knowing more about this artistic “blooming,”I recommend the book, “Progressive Printmakers: Wisconsin Artists and the Print Renaissance,” co-authored by Warrington Colescott.  Available from Amazon, it is liberally illustrated, including prints by Colescott and Meeker.

Saturday, August 8, 2020

Celebrating 300 Posts - A Retrospective

When this website  was begun in April 2009, I promised it would be about “more things than you can shake a stick at.”  That may have been an overstatement, but, as will be seen in this retrospective, this blog has covered a lot of territory in eleven-plus years.  Beginning largely about various aspects of  liquor artifacts and ads, over time it has evolved into more personal reminisces.  To reflect that change I recently altered the name from “BottlesBoozeandBackstories” to “MemoriesandMiscellany”

Recently having exceeded a half-million “hits” on the blog, this 300th post marks a milestone.  To celebrate it, I have decided to reprise briefly those posts that have drawn the most attention through the years.  Only one post has exceeded 6,000 look-ins and that is somewhat of a surprise.  On June 31, 2011, I posted a piece entitled:  “The Vernacular Art of Cast Iron Bottle Openers.”  Now approaching 7,000 hits the post has proved to be by far the most popular. 

I was fascinated by the variety and creativity embodied in cast iron bottle openers. Far from being antiques, most were manufactured in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s. Although the openers were cast from standardized molds, they were hand-painted by workers who often gave them individualized “personalities.”  Among the examples I chose was a top-hatted man with a sour look generally known as “Mr. Dry.” Mr. Dry was a Prohibition advocate and his frown greets anyone uncapping a beer bottle on his face. While the origins of many of cast iron bottle openers are unknown, this one was created by Wilton Products, Inc., of Wrightsville, Pennsylvania. 

The post in second place with some 5,740 look-ins was called “The Kiss of Prohibition: ‘Lips That Touch Liquor…”.   The allusion was to a poem that concludes:  

O women, the sorrow and pain is with you,
And so be the joy and the victory, too;
With this for your motto, and succor divine,
The lips that touch liquor shall never touch mine.

The last line became iconic and was used in various formats by anti-drink advocates frequently in the run-up to National Prohibition.  The image also lent  itself to countless parodies. One photograph that seems timeless in its appeal has a group of ten chastely dressed matrons beneath a sign.  They clearly are making themselves look as “un-kissable” as possible.  My attention was drawn to the woman in the center with a strange hat and what appears to be serape around her shoulders.  Her eyes seem to indicate that her lips might have been on a bottle not long before.  Later someone wrote me claiming that her long-diseased great aunt was that woman. My correspondent provided no other details.

In third place with 5,310 hits was my attempt to unravel the riddle of what was contained in the ceramic bottles imported from China for many years by workers brought to the U.S. to work on the railroads and other infrastructure projects. They carried with them or imported distinctive pottery containers, such as the one shown here. For years these bottles were considered to have held Chinese wine.  Under the title “What Were the Chinese Drinking?” and out of personal experience in China, I posited that the bottles contained a strong whiskey-like drink called “Maotai.”  Subsequently I found out that while generally connect, I had named the leading brand of the liquor. Generically it is known as “beijou.”

Only three posts have broken the 4,000 mark.  “Discovering the Swasey Solution” on May 12, 2012, marked the end of my years-long search for pottery companies that created “fancy” advertising whiskey jugs. For the first time in print I had identified several of them but one that left no mark continued to be confounding.  That ended when I came across a catalogue from E. Swasey & Company of Portland, Maine.   It advertised “Light and Dark...Glazed Bristol Ware, Decorated Ware and Fine Glazed Stoneware.”  As I turned the pages surprise after surprise greeted me.  There were many of the mystery jugs.  It turned out to be the Swasey solution.

Another “best seller” has nothing to do with either bottles or alcohol. It was  Entitled “Charles Darwin and ‘The Monkey’s Uncle,’” posted January 30, 1915.   Although Darwin was a thoughtful, serious scientist who made a monumental breakthrough in human thinking, his theories on evolution were often ridiculed by skeptics and, in his time, made the subject of satirical cartoons and other illustrations.  In many cases, a monkey was at the center of such lampoons.  Darwin himself frequently was depicted as a simian by cartoonists and illustrators.  The popularity of the piece indicates interest from both Darwinian adherents and skeptics.

Irwin S. Cobb once was among America’s top celebrities:  Author of 60 books, he was America’s highest paid journalist, a star of radio, motion pictures and the lecture circuit. More celebrated in his time than Johnny Carson or David Letterman in ours, he hosted the Academy Awards in 1935, received the French Legion of Honor, and two honorary doctorates.  A bridge over the Ohio River, several parks, a major hotel, and a brand of cigars were named after him. Yet today, little more than 60 years after his death almost no one knows who Cobb was or what he did.  My post of October 5, 2012 set out a short biography of this “forgotten man.”  As of now some 4,175 individuals have been interested in finding out who Cobb was.

An unexplained large number of hits — often 3,000 or more on every post — occurred over a ten month period from the latter half of 2015 into the early months of 2016.  Then things returned to lower and more traditional numbers. This phenomenon has been explained to me as the effect of another blog or blogs picking up my material and replicating it.  I hope to learn more about how that happens.  

Meanwhile I expect to keep this website active by adding a new post every two weeks.  Given the evolution of the blog, going forward it may have a more personal touch, while still dealing with the wide range of subjects that have been dealt with in the past.  On to #400!

Saturday, July 25, 2020

What I Learned From the Class of ’61


These days a fragment of a Rogers and Hammerstein song keeps running through my aging brain.  Something about as a teacher “from your pupils you’ll be taught…”  But singing was the last thing on my mind on that September day in 1957 when I — twenty-one years old — first stepped in a classroom to face an expectant group of freshmen at Marquette University, the first of two classes to be faced that day.

Copus Hall, MU College of Journalism
That I was there was mere chance.  Bob Dufour, the School of Journalism instructor for all the school’s special English classes, had left the campus temporarily to be in residence one year at the university of Wisconsin while getting a PhD.  Bob was a terrific teacher, a mentor from whom I and others  learned an immense amount about writing.  The fabled Dean of Journalism, Jeremiah L. O’Sullivan, had divided Bob’s teaching load between two of us graduate assistants, allocating to me approximately forty students.

In our final interview, the Dean casually mentioned that I also was to be the “faculty advisor” to the forty, expected to meet with each at least twice a semester.  In other words: “The blind will lead the blind”.  Then he casually mentioned that he also was appointing me faculty advisor to Sigma Delta Chi, the journalism fraternity.  Bob had been the advisor and now no other faculty member was willing to step in.  When I expressed concern on obvious grounds that I was still a member, O’Sullivan said take the job or SDX would be abolished.  I capitulated.

The Young Instructor
That was just the tip of the Dairy Queen cone.  In addition to lesson planning, the classroom, and reading and grading forty papers weekly, I also was attempting to get an MA in journalism.  That meant going to classes where anything less than a “B” was unacceptable, studying for comprehensive exams, and beginning work on a thesis.  My personal life was also a bit, shall we say, problematic. Cooking for myself for the first time, I trembled on the brink of malnutrition.  The summer and fall had seen me emotionally torn between two young women, both of whom had invited me to meet their parents.  Finally, my usual routine included the 
11:45 PM “last call” at the bar of the Stratford Hotel.

Teaching the Class of ’61 turned out to be highlight of my days.  Although some students, particularly those with sub-par high school backgrounds, struggled at first, in time and with practice virtually all of the students improved markedly.  They had enlisted in a school where writing was paramount and seemed to understand that a new writing assignment every week, while burdensome, was important.

Being a student advisor proved to have its moments.  One young woman early came to see me to say she was having difficulties “because I am thinking of getting married.”  When I inquired whether it was someone she had just met on campus or someone back home, she replied:  “No one in particular, I’m just thinking of getting married.”  As her faculty mentor, my comment was: “Happy hunting.”  Soon after she transferred from Marquette.

When a male student handed in a piece he had written for class about the Jehovah Witnesses, I called him in to ask why he selected that topic, gently suggesting it was best to take a subject close at hand.  He rocked me by replying:  “I am a Jehovah’s Witness.”  Having checked earlier, I noted that he had said “Catholic” on his admissions form. He explained: “I am a Catholic too.  My girl friend is a Witness and I am boring from within….”  That left me speechless.  The paper earned a B.

The Teacher Makes a Mistake
As the school year ground to a close in May 1958, I had still not been evaluated for my classroom skills by a member of regular English faculty.  By the luck of the draw, the head of the department showed up, a professor I did not know.  During the class I attempted a blackboard diagram of a complicated sentence. Almost immediately hands went up and voices raised to tell me I had done it wrong.   Turning to my evaluator, I said:  “You may have thought I did the diagram in error to test the class. No, I got it wrong and they got it right. These are great people.”

That was all the Class of ’61 needed.  The kids figuratively were “bouncing of the walls” to participate in the discussion of sentence structure, paragraph formation, and the elements of style.  My subsequent rating as a classroom instructor was complimentary.  Dean O’Sullivan was pleased.

After I left Marquette for the Air Force in May of the following year, I never again taught English rhetoric and writing skills.  Or freshmen.  My subsequent experience was teaching political science to upperclassmen and post-graduates, frequently adults.  No class, however, matches my memories of the Class of ’61.  To quote Philosopher Bertrand Russell, they taught me that: “Education is not to be viewed as something like filling a vessel with water but, rather, assisting a flower to grow in its own way.”   Those “flowers” did grow.  Many of the class went on to have distinguished careers in journalism and other forms of communication. I have followed their trajectories with pride.

Note:  This post is derived from a piece I wrote following a “virtual” reunion of the Class of ’61 in late June of 2020 while the pandemic was still raging in America. Via ZOOM, I was connected with former students and others from my Marquette days, many of whom I had not seen in years.  The organizers of these reunions have been very gracious over the years to invite me and my wife, Paula, who was Dean O’Sullivan’s secretary.  We have been able to attend only one or two, and those years ago.  After the recent get-together participants were asked to contribute reminisces and the above was the result.