Journalism I

It’s not as if we haven’t been called names before. It’s not the first time that those in power wish reporters weren’t telling people what they’re really up to.  Or thinking about.

Criticisms or attacks from those who wish we weren’t so bothersome to them are not new nor will they ever go away. And what they say about us is sometimes not nearly so scathing as some of the things we say about ourselves.

We have accumulated through the years some of the noble things said about our profession and some of the criticisms leveled at it, internally and externally.  From time to time we will share them with you because we know that journalists have responsibilities and obligations of which they need at times to be reminded. We live in a world of kicks in the butt and occasional pats on the head and we are glad to toil in a nation that allows, if not encourages, both.  Here is a sample of the things said about those of us who do a job that is essential, regardless of whether you agree with what we say and write.

“Controversy? You can’t be any kind of reporter worthy of the name and avoid controversy completely. You can’t be a good reporter and not be fairly regularly involved in some kind of controversy. And I don’t think you can be a great reporter and avoid controversy very often, because one of the roles a good journalist plays is to tell the tough truths as well as the easy truths. And the tough truths will lead you to controversy, and even a search for the tough truths will cost you something. Please don’t make this play or read as any complaint, it’s trying to explain this goes with the territory if you’re a journalist of integrity. That if you start out a journalist or if you reach a point in journalism where you say, ‘Listen, I’m just not going not touch anything that could possibly be controversial,’ then you ought to get out.”

—Dan Rather, Staff, May 5, 2001

“If a person is not talented enough to be a novelist, not smart enough to be a lawyer, and his hands are too shaky to perform operations, he becomes a journalist.”

—Norman Mailer, The Snark Handbook

“I believe in the profession of journalism. I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust. I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism. I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.”

—Walter Williams, founder of the nation’s first School of Journalism at the University of Missouri (1908), The Journalist’s Creed (partial)

“Journalism is unlike any other craft. It most closely resembles show business. There’s an undeniable element of ego in journalism, and an equally undeniable element of self-sacrifice. Performers know the show must go on. Journalists know the paper has to come out on time.”

—Donald L. Ferguson, Opportunities in Journalism Careers

“It is the one great weakness of journalism as a picture of our modern existence that it must be a picture made up entirely of exceptions. We announce on flaring posters that a man has fallen off a scaffolding. We do not announce on flaring posters that a man has not fallen off a scaffolding. Yet this latter fact is fundamentally more exciting, as indicating that that moving tower of terror and mystery, a man, is still abroad upon the earth. That the man has not fallen off a scaffolding is really more sensational; and it is also some thousand times more common. But journalism cannot reasonably be expected thus to insist upon the permanent miracles.”

—G. K. Chesterton, The Ball and the Cross

“There is a line I would often share when I was a newspaper reporter talking to people who complained that we only reported ‘bad news.’ I would tell them: ‘It’s not news when a plane lands safely.’ And it’s not. ‘Everybody lived happily ever after’ is a great ending, but if they lived happily the whole time you wouldn’t bother reading.”

—Rick Polito, newhope360, January 20, 2016

 

“There is much to be said in favor of modern journalism.  By giving us the opinions of the uneducated, it keeps us in touch with the ignorance of the community.”

—Oscar Wilde, The Critic as Artist, 1891.

Citizens do not think through the meaning of a free press.  Too many regard it merely as a profitable privilege of publishers, instead of the right of all the people and the chief institution of representative government.  A free press is that privilege of citizenship which makes governmental dictatorship impossible.  When editors fight for the liberty to speak and write, they fight for the greatest of all human rights under government.  He is not thoughtful who cannot see that democracy cannot exist except through the maintenance of a channel through which information can flow freely from the center of government to all the people and through which praise and criticism can flow freely from the people to the center.

—American Society of Newspaper Editors, 1938

So the journalist, the reporter, flourishes in this climate of scorn and principle. And your correspondent cannot think of anything he would rather be doing with his life than living in that climate.

We’ll let you inside that climate from time to time in the future.

 

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Notes from the road—August, 2017

(Anywhere, Indiana)—When we fueled up in Terre Haute a few days ago, we paid ten cents more than we would have paid on June 30.   That’s because Indiana increased its fuel tax by ten cents a gallon on July 1.

It’s nice to see that the people of Indiana, a state many of us would consider pretty conservative, have increased their gas tax for their transportation system.  By a dime.  That’s more than Missourians have considered for more than half of the lifetime of today’s youngest voters.  Missouri has another committee that is going to talk about the issue.  Again.  It’s been only a few years since a special committee spent weeks talking about state transportation funding before failing to convince voters to support its idea.  We talk.  Indiana builds.

(Wakeeney, Kansas)—This shrinking Kansas farming community is four counties east of the Colorado border, a motel stop on Interstate 70 where the Motel 6 is a decent place for travelers headed home from Denver and its environs—or wanting to rest after the long miles from Missouri.

Your chronicler of the current scene had just finished his motel breakfast, was looking at the rack of promotional brochures for the deepest hand-dug well and the biggest ball of twine and other more impressive Kansas attractions (we LIKE Kansas, by the way) when we heard someone call our name.

Somebody knew us at the Motel 6 in Wakeeney, Kansas, for crying out loud!

It was Paul Woody, a young man who was a member of Governor Bob Holden’s staff and then was a policy and communications advisor for House Democrats. He’d left Jefferson City in 2005, gone to law school, run unsuccessfully for state rep a couple of times, and now is a lawyer in St. Charles.  He and his family were headed home from a visit to the mountains.

Wakeeney, Kansas!!!!

(Somewhere, Indiana)—We bought a couple of lottery tickets in Indiana.  Buying lottery tickets isn’t something we do every week.  We only buy them when the jackpots coincide with our level of greed. We wonder how many folks think their luck will change if they change the place they buy their tickets.

Hasn’t worked for us, either.

But we figured a major change of location such as Indiana was worth the, uh, gamble.  As we were boring out way across Illinois, the thought occurred that buying a winning ticket in Indiana would mean that we would pay a bunch of taxes there, not in Missouri.  We’d help support Indiana institutions and services, not ours.   We debated whether buying the ticket in Indiana was irresponsible, that as a Missourian we owed it to our home state to support ITS institutions and services.  But Guilt had quit hitchhiking by the time we reached Effingham.

And the good news, we guess, is that we have learned we won’t be paying millions of dollars in taxes in Indiana anyway.

(Somewhere, northern Illinois)—A reminder that sports is the toy department of life, and not as serious as we want to make them sometimes, comes in the story of Steve Bartman.

The Chicago Cubs have given a World Series champion’s ring to Bartman, a lifelong Cubs fan. Not one of those things like the Cardinals are handing out to the first x-thousand fans coming through the gates now and then.  This is the real thing, so big he might have to use his left hand to raise his right hand for shaking purposes in social settings.

Who is this Bartman guy?   Just the one who might have cost the Cubs a National League pennant fourteen years ago, the then-young fellow who reached for a foul ball during the 2003 playoffs, leading to umpires ruling he had interfered with the right of a Cubs fielder to make a catch.  The Cubs after that lost the lead and their chance to play in the World Series.  Cubs fans—much as Cardinals fans still turn purple at the mention of Don Denkinger’s name—have never forgotten what he did.  He got death threats.  He became the object of long-term ridicule.

Now, the owners of the Cubs say it’s past time to forgive and forget. “While no gesture can fully lift the public burden he has endured for more than a decade, we felt it was important Steve knows he has been and continues to be fully embraced by this organization,” said a team statement.

Bartman released a statement in response saying he was “deeply moved and sincerely grateful” for the recognition.  “I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over,” he said.

And then he continued with thoughts that speak beyond the playing field: “I humbly receive the ring….as an important reminder for how we should treat each other in today’s society.  My hope is that we all can learn from my experience to view sports as entertainment and prevent harsh scapegoating, and to challenge the media and opportunistic profiteers to conduct business ethically by respecting personal privacy rights and not exploit any individual to advance their own self-interest or economic gain.”

The Cubs have done something classy for Steve Bartman.  Don Denkinger is 81 now, these thirty-two years after Cardinals fans started speaking his name in derision.

In both instances—Bartman and Denkinger—their actions are not what caused the Cubs or the Cardinals to lose.  The Cubs failed to make the plays to win their game.  The Cardinals disintegrated in the next game.  The Cubs have said it’s time to quit whining about a fan who wanted to catch a foul ball.  We wonder if the Cardinals and their reputedly best fans in baseball  will ever do something to say it’s time to quit ridiculing Don Denkinger.

Dogs and a frog; life after journalism

Drew Vogel was one of the Missourinet reporters who bedeviled Governor Teasdale throughout his four years in office.  We’ve kept in touch through the years.  Drew has been a nursing home administrator in Ohio for a long, long time.  He recently told me, “When I quit doing news I didn’t miss being on the radio, or reporting; what I missed was the creative high I get from writing.”

Most of Drew’s creativity is spread among Facebook friends—your friendly correspondent doesn’t do Facebook, claiming he has a life to live.  Here’s something Drew recently wrote that will bring back some memories to most of the demographic that stumbles over these entries:

Guess what year this is.

The South Tower of the World Trade Center is topped out.  Richard Nixon announces he will become the first U.S. president to visit China. Jeff Gordon is born. Coco Chanel dies.

Army Lieutenant William Calley is sentenced to life in prison for the My Lai Massacre.  Amtrak begins. Nikita Khruschev and James Cash (JC) Penney die. Justin Trudeau is born. 

Charles Manson and his “family” are sentenced to death for the Tate-La Bianca murders. Apollo 14 and 15 make moon landings. Snoop Dog and Kid Rock are born. Duane Allman dies. 

The Attica Prison riot breaks out in New York. Evel Knievel sets a world record by jumping over 19 cars on his motorcycle. Bobby Jones and Audie Murphy die. Pete Sampras is born.

The New York Times publishes the Pentagon Papers. Walt Disney World opens in Florida. Lance Armstrong is born. Louis Armstrong dies.And “JEREMIAH WAS A BULLFROG!”

The year was 1971.

We witnessed Three Dog Night in concert at the Taft Theatre in Cincinnati last night.

I’ve seen acts at the Taft over the years—Phantom of the Opera, Loretta Lynn and Conway Twitty, Dolly Parton when she was still with Porter Waggoner, George Carlin and a great bluegrass show featuring Jim and Jesse and the Osborn Brothers.

I introduced a number of country acts at the Taft when I was a disk jockey. But this was my first rock concert there.

Three Dog Night?

They were really pretty good.

OK, I’m from that era, but they really can still rock, even though the original members are approaching three-quarters of a century in age.

Two of the founders are still in the band. Lead guitar Michael Allsup is 70. Lead singer Danny Hutton will be 75 soon. 

Three of the original seven have gone to that big recording studio in the sky. 

…he was a good friend of mine

I never understood a single word he said

But I helped him drink his wine.

If you are a person less than a certain age, you may not be familiar with the history of Three Dog Night, but you probably have heard its music.

There’s Jeremiah—the song is actually called “Joy to the World.”  “One.”  “I’ve never been to Spain.”  “Eli’s Coming.”  “Celebrate.” “Just an Old Fashioned Love Song.”

Good stuff, even today. And they did all their hits last night. All of them.  They’ve had so many they don’t have to go outside their playbook. 

Between 1969 and 1975 the band had an amazing 21 records on the Billboard Magazine Top 40. “Joy to the World” turned gold two months after it was released and ultimately sold five million copies.

“Black and White” and “Mama Told Me” reached #1 as well.

Neither Credence Clearwater Revival, nor the Eagles, comparable groups of the era, had a #1 during that time and both had fewer appearances in the Top 40.

In fact, the Beatles only had five songs in the Top 40 from 1969 to ’75 but they had disbanded in 1970.  Elvis only had 14 Top 40 appearances and one #1 in that timeframe.

And he always had

Some mighty fine wine.

When we entered the Taft, the usher asked if we would be drinking any alcohol. Gail said no. I said I might have a glass of wine. She stamped my hand.  Didn’t ask for ID, not that I expected to be carded, but she did tamp my hand. 

Strange, very strange.

The crowd was largely people who had been teenaged-to-young adults when Three Dog Night songs were hits. In other words, 60 and 70-something folks like Gail and me.

However, they were a tech savvy bunch. Instead of “flick the Bic” on romantic songs, they used the flashlights on their Androids.

Thank goodness, no one showed up dressed in “period costume.”  No bell bottoms or Roman sandals.

I did see one guy who looked a lot like John Gotti. The Teflon Don was of that era. You don’t suppose he slipped away again, do you?

If I were the king of the world,

Tell you what I’d do.

I’d throw away the cars and the bars and the wars.

And make sweet love to you.

Oh, I did see a couple of tie-dyed T-shirts that covered bulging bellies. The Guys’ hair was mostly short—what there was of it.

One or two fellows had long-enough-to-be-ponytailed locks, but with bare skin topping off the doo, it amounted to a Friar tuck-goes-hippie kind of a look.

You know I love the ladies.

Love to have my fun

I’m a high life flyer and rainbow rider.

A straight shootin’ son-of-a-gun.

The ladies had hair issues, too. It was either white or dyed so it wouldn’t be white. More than a few were in the size 18-22 category.

Joy to the world

All the boys and girls

There actually were a few boys and girls—young people likely brought by their grandparents. 

But, not many.

If you herded all of them together I doubt there would have been enough to fill up a 1962 psychedelic-painted peace sign=embroidered VW bus.

Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea

Joy to you and me.

So, what about Jeremiah?   You’ll be happy to know that he didn’t croak.

He didn’t donate his legs to a garlic and butter-filled skillet.

In fact, he was the encore finale.

When the keyboard hit the first few notes of Joy, the crowd—those who still could—jumped to its collective, orthopedic-clad feet and loudly sang along with the boys.

Forty-six years after Jeremiah made the scene, he still brings Joy to the world.

 

Missouri’s first air mail

Email.  Snail mail.   Remember AIR mail?

At least one generation has never known a time when someone would pay extra for a letter to be stamped “Air Mail” when it had to get a long way away, fast.  Every now and then we still see a now-ancient attempt at humor—a mail box on a tall pole above the regular mailbox. The upper box is labeled “air mail.” But an increasing number of people passing by have no idea what it’s all about.

We got a snail mail letter a few days ago from Elvin Smith in Macon, who had heard our Across our Wide Missouri radio program story about the nation’s first air mail flight, suggesting we look into the story of the nation’s first air mail flight by airplane (as opposed to hot air balloon), which he said happened in December, 1912 on a biplane flight between Callao, Bevier, and Macon.

The problem with writing something was the “first” is that different people have different interpretations of “first.”

Some say the first air mail fight in this country carried one letter in 1793—from George Washington in Philadelphia to whomever owned the property where the balloon came down. That was all of thirteen miles.

The first official airmail flight is considered to have been another balloon flight that began in Lafayette Indiana in August 1859, but was terminated by weather at Crawfordsville, thirty miles away. The mail went to New York by train. The National Postal Museum put out a stamp several years ago commemorating that flight.

But we Missourians know the postal service was wrong. Six weeks before that puny little hop in Indiana, four men in St. Louis climbed into the basket hung below a balloon of varnished Chinese silk, carrying a bag of mail, and headed for New York.  They suffered from the altitude (two miles), went through a frightening storm over Lake Erie and Niagara Falls, and eventually came down into a tree near Henderson, New York, almost one-thousand miles from St. Louis. They had averaged about fifty miles an hour.

A lot of folks know that Charles Lindbergh flew the mail from St. Louis to Chicago for a while, crashing a few times along the way—which didn’t discourage him from thinking he could fly from New York to Paris.  The Postal Service says the first regularly scheduled airmail service in this country was a route linking New York City, Washington, D. C., and Philadelphia in May, 1918.

Elvin believes the three cities linked on the first REAL air mail flight were Callao, Bevier, and Macon, Missouri on December 4, 1912.

Young aviator Ralph E. McMillen (shown with his wife about 1909)  was flying a Curtiss Model D pusher plane that he had purchased from Glenn Curtis, himself, after graduating from the Curtiss Flying School, a competitor to the Wright Brothers school, when he arrived at the United Aviators field in the northern part of Macon, Missouri on November 29, 1912.  He flew from there, over Bevier, and landed at Callao, about nine miles west.

He was flying with one leg tightly strapped into an iron “trough,” the result of a crash in May while giving flights in Perry, Iowa.  His passenger that day panicked when they were up about 125 feet and grabbed the control wires. McMillen was unconscious for four days with two broken legs and busted ribs among other injuries. The passenger also survived.

The Macon newspaper praised him as “a skilled bird-man,” a man of “splendid courage and self-confidence.”  His historic airmail flight came a few days later, on December 4 when he flew from Callao with a “large package of letters” addressed to Macon residents.  He dropped a package at Bevier. He didn’t get all the way through to Macon on the first flight.  Clouds forced him to return to Callao in the morning after package-drop at Bevier.  But the afternoon turned clear and he flew straight to Macon in about half an hour, the last five minutes spent circling the town.

The accounts say he set a record by climbing to 8,000 feet although he cruised at 2,000. “By travelling at great elevation it gives the aviator better control of his craft, should the engine balk or anything happen; he could pick out his place to alight, and descend slowly, while at an altitude of 100 or 200 feet the craft would select its own place to light,” said the Macon Republican.

The next week, on December 10, he made a successful twenty-mile flight north to LaPlata.  He decided to follow a Wabash passenger train between the two towns so he couldn’t get lost, which excited the train passengers, who got off at stops in Axtell and Love Lake to watch him flying overhead.  Passengers wanted the train to pause in LaPlata so they could watch McMillen land, but the trainmaster was afraid such a stop would put the train off-schedule.

Maconians who thought they were seeing, and reporting on, the first airplane-mail flight didn’t know, however that a pilot named Fred Wiseman had carried three letters from Petaluma, California to Santa Rosa on February 17, 1911.  And the first airmail delivery under the authority of the postal Department had been made by Earl Ovington in his French Bleriot XI on September 23, 1911, when he flew from Garden City, New York to Mineola, two miles away.  He pitched the mail bag filled with 1,280 postcards and 640 letters out of the plane at an altitude of 500 feet.  It burst on impact, scattering the cargo all over the place, but at least it was delivered. One of the letters in the bag was addressed to Ovington.  It was from the Post Office Department and it christened him “Official Air Mile Pilot #1.”

In fact, it appears there were a lot of air mail flights in 1912.  A webpage (http://www.aerodacious.com/PIO1912.HTM) has photos about numerous flying exhibitions throughout the nation, almost all of them involving mail.

So Ralph E. McMillen wasn’t the first in the nation to make an airmail flight in a plane.  But he was ONE of the first, and his flights from Callao to Bevier to Macon is the first such flight IN MISSOURI—until somebody comes along with information to the contrary.

Many of the stories of those early aviators and their accomplishments that fired the imaginations of their witnesses and led to the airline industry we know today are lost to history. Elvin’s note has enabled us to bring McMillen out of the lost pages of our past and recall him as part of an important era in our country.

And we have found there’s quite a bit more to his story.

McMillen was born in Perry, Iowa. He was one of the first speeders on the early dirt roads near there before he headed to San Diego to the Curtiss School.  His Curtiss pusher arrived in Perry on a train, disassembled on May 11, 1912.  Gerald Meyer reports McMillen put it together and took it up for the first time two days later for a fund-raising promotion for the city fire department.  The crash that left him with broken legs and ribs was the very next day, May 14. He didn’t fly again until September 5 when a huge crowd at Grinnell watched him stay in the air for 24 minutes and reach 5,000 feet.

He barnstormed during the next couple of years before joining the Nebraska National Guard where he became the only pilot for the new Aviation Corps, the first such outfit in the country. (The photo dates from that time)  He practiced bombing with fake bombs on the state capitol (this was six years before Billy Mitchell proved bombs from airplanes were good tactical weapons) and once hit a moving street car.  He also made night flights, practiced early aerial photography, and developed reconnaissance and aerial delivery systems. Some took to calling him “World’s Greatest Aviator.”   Others have referred to him less grandly as the “One Man, One Airplane National Guard.”

He wanted to fly air support for Pershing’s troops on the Mexican border but the Army refused to let him go because of his 1912 injuries. He continued to make exhibition flights in the four-state area until September 2, 1916 when his plane lost power 1,200 feet above a crowd near St. Francis, Kansas.  Captain Ralph McMillen was 27 when he died that day.

The Nebraska Adjutant General’s office remembered two days later, “His service has been of most unusual value to the Guard of this state, being characterized by ready tact, unfailing courtesy, and indefatigable willingness to work.  He was universally liked and respected by his brother officers and comrades who will greatly miss his ready wit and sunny disposition.”

Meyer has written that the Nebraska Aviation Corps was disbanded soon after that.  The state didn’t have a National Guard air unit for another thirty years.

So Elvin’s tip about a piece of history didn’t turn out quite the way we thought it would. But if not for his snail mail, we wouldn’t have discovered a broader piece of our national past.

At least, we have the story about MISSOURI’S first air mail flight by plane. And we’ve remembered the courageous young man who died creating a significant part of our lives today.

Thanks, Ervin.

(photo credits: Mailbox, carmaro5.com; McMillen and wife and picture of people holding back his airplane before takeoff, earlyaviators.com; McMillen and friends in front of airplane, DOMmagazine.com; headon view from 1916, Nebraska State Historical Society)

Signs of our times

Two geezers were having lunch the other day at a local restaurant/craft beer emporium and the conversation turned to the Five Man Electrical Band.   Right away, you know these two brilliant conversationalists had to be geezers because they immediately remembered the group’s biggest hit, Signs, which reached number three on the Billboard chart in 1971.

Metrolyrics has this version of the lyrics (which we are using because it cleaned up one line):

And the sign said “Long-haired freaky people need not apply” So I tucked my hair up under my hat and I went in to ask him why He said “You look like a fine upstanding young man, I think you’ll do” So I took off my hat, I said “Imagine that. Huh! Me workin’ for you!” Whoa-oh-oh

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

And the sign said anybody caught trespassin’ would be shot on sight So I jumped on the fence and-a yelled at the house “Hey! What gives you the right?” “To put up a fence to keep me out or to keep mother nature in” “If God was here he’d tell you to your face, man, you’re some kinda sinner”

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Now, hey you, mister, can’t you read? You’ve got to have a shirt and tie to get a seat You can’t even watch, no you can’t eat You ain’t supposed to be here The sign said you got to have a membership card to get inside Ugh

And the sign said, “Everybody welcome. Come in, kneel down and pray” But when they passed around the plate at the end of it all I didn’t have a penny to pay So I got me a pen and a paper and I made up my own little sign I said, “Thank you, Lord, for thinkin’ ’bout me. I’m alive and doin’ fine” Woo

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?

Sign, sign, everywhere a sign

Five Man Electrical Band—uh—disbanded (add that to the list of old jokes such as “Old doctors never die, they just lose their patients,” and other puns about the ends of careers) in 1975, so you know that these two guys still without hearing aids but still WITH most of their teeth, quit being young in every place but their own minds a long time ago.

One geezer hauled out his pocket encyclopedia/camera, a device usually marketed as a telephone but which he seldom uses that way, and showed the other geezer a picture he took of a sign at a tourist junk shop in Limon, Colorado a few days earlier and suggested there are many venues where this sign should be posted:

Both geezers reflect that the sign is highly reminiscent of the four-way test of the civic organization, Rotary International, which is:

Is it TRUTH? Is it FAIR to all concerned? Will it build GOODWILL and BETTER FRIENDSHIPS? Will it be BENEFICIAL to all concerned?

But then, Geezer one did the two-fingery thing on the encyclopedia/camera screen to widen out the image to show two other signs on either side of the “Think” sign.  The expanded image seems to capture the contradictions in our social dialogue, which too often take the shape of individual diaTRIBE.

To save you the trouble of doing your own two-fingery thing to expand the image, we’ll tell you that the sign on the left says, “If you can read this you are in range,” and shows an apparent double-barreled shotgun, and the sign on the right says “The average response time of a 911 call is 23 minutes. The response time of a .357 is 1400 feet per second.”

The other two signs might be true and helpful—somehow. We suspect they are seldom necessary. They aren’t real inspiring except in a pretty anti-social sort of a way.  And forget about kindness.  But in years to come they will provide fodder for sociologists, psychiatrists and other “ists” studying the American mind in the late Twentieth and early Twenty-first Centuries.

Geezer One saw another sign a few days earlier at Dot’s Diner, a sandwich place in Nederland, Colorado—a few miles above Boulder—where the proprietors think the music of the Grateful Dead is appropriate background for a meal.  The sign wasn’t mean or threatening.  It just asked people to respect other diners who were having their sandwich with a Touch of Grey, or their omelet with Sugar Magnolia.

Maybe Geezer One was just feeling mellow during his lunch because he’d just ridden a pig on the 1909 restored carousel that is Nederland’s biggest attraction.  A fellow named Scott Harrison had rescued the carousel from the scrap heap and had spent more than twenty-five years carving all of the creatures for it.  The Carousel of Joy, it’s called.  And you are NOT too old to enjoy riding it and listening to the original Wurlitzer mechanical band organ as you go.

The discussion reminded one of the geezers of the kindly little signs that vanished from our roads about the time the interstate highway system came along.  The last Burma-Shave signs went up in 1963.  You might find a few in museums here and there today.  Some thought they were distractions to drivers and made the two-lane roads they populated less safe.  But now in these days with the pleas for drivers to ignore the distractions of Facebook, or Twitter, or the telephone itself—-at the same time that cars all have video screens in the middle of the dash loaded with all kinds of information—the concerns about Burma-Shave signs seem mild.

Some of the signs, in fact, promoted highway safety.  Frank Rowsome, Jr., put out a little book in 1965 that contained all of those messages, The Verse By the Side of the Road.  It has all of them, including the first ones in 1927. All had the company name at the end of each series and most promoted using the product when you were shaving with a blade.  But some were highway safety messages:

Don’t Lose/Your Head/To Gain a Minute/You Need Your Head/Your Brains Are In It

Or:

Dim Your Lights/Behind A Car/Let Folks See/How Bright You Are.

Then there was:

Thirty Days/Hath September/April/June And The/Speed Offender 

Would signs like those do as much good, or more good, on our highways than the electric signs telling us how many fatalities we’ve had each month, or reminding us to buckle up?   Or maybe they’d make some good light-hearted but meaningful reminders.  And monotony-breaking moments on the crowded, straight-as-a-string interstates.

Perhaps something such as:

Buckle Up/Don’t Be Silly/Don’t Be Under/A Stone With/ ACarved Lilly/MODOT.

If you have some Burma-Shave inspired signs that you think would be useful for MODOT, or that would meet the four-way test for general civil discussion, send them along in the “comments” section below.  If they meet our standards of civility (as we outline on this page) we’ll post them.  And then you can tell your friends YOU are a published poet!  A Roadside Laureate!

(Burma Shave sign image by G. D. Carrington)

The founders and the 501(c)(4)s

We honor fifty-six men today who were unafraid of being known although they knew their lives were at risk and an enemy was nearby. We should ask ourselves today how poorly we are keeping faith with them.

Your observer is intrigued by the idea advanced by some that people giving large sums of money to organizations that influence political decisions should be protected while the people on my quiet street who might give twenty dollars to a campaign cannot hide.

The issue came up late in the regular legislative session when some senators defending a colleague who was personally attacked by a dark money political action committee tried to pass a bill requiring such committees to disclose their donors.  Regular campaign committees have to list their donors in filings with the Missouri Ethics Commission.  But the Super PACs, as they’re called, are formed for people who don’t want anybody to know who they are or how much they give. And these organizations appear to attract big-money donations that can finance anonymous personal attacks on other individuals in the political system or influence leaders to see things their ways.

Defenders of the dark money organizations say the secret organizations are necessary to protect donors from political retaliation.  It’s a freedom of speech matter, they say; these people would not be free to express their political positions if they had to do so publicly.

That’s kind of hard for the twenty-dollar donor who lives next door to understand.  How is it that somebody who lives in a big mansion can afford MORE freedom of speech than the people who live on my street in nice but modest homes can afford?  Are not we all equal under the First Amendment?

Apparently not in today’s political climate.  Twenty dollars donated to a candidate or a cause requires your name be on a list that your neighbors of differing political beliefs can see.  And if the candidate you support makes irresponsible claims, you can be held partly responsible.  On the other hand, if your candidate shows inspirational leadership, you can take some of the credit.

It takes courage to donate twenty dollars in the sunshine.  Cowardice lurks in the dark where much bigger donations flow. Our nation was not born in such cowardice.

Let us ponder how different our nation would be today if fifty-six men in 1776 anonymously issued a broadside accusing King George III of all kinds of awful things. Suppose the accusations carried the tag line, “Paid for by Citizens for Free Colonies,” an eighteenth century Super PAC that was not required to file any reports showing who was behind the attack.

But they didn’t do it.  Various sources estimating the wealth of those 56 signers show Oliver Wolcott, John Witherspoon, George Walton, Robert Treat Paine, and Samuel Adams were estimated to be worth 100 British Pounds in 1776.  University of Wyoming professor Eric Nye, on his Pounds Sterling to Dollars: Historical Conversion of Currency website, calculates those five men would be worth $16,358 today.  On the other end, Charles Carroll III of Carrollton, Maryland and Robert Morris of Pennsylvania were worth 110,000 British Pounds in 1776 (http://www.raken.com/american_wealth/encyclopedia/1776.asp), which Nye calculates would be just short of $18 million today.  John Hancock of Massachusetts, whose signature is the boldest, was the third wealthiest at about $12.8 million in today’s money.

Five men who were well below today’s poverty level were joined by men who could buy my entire neighborhood in speaking freely to absolute power.  And they knew full well what “political retaliation” could await them.

Fifty-six men who knew they were risking the noose or the firing squad were unafraid to let it be known what they were supporting politically. They were unafraid to pledge their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.

Our founders had the courage to proclaim their positions in the most public manner of their times. We became a nation because rich men and poor men, those living in privilege and those living in poverty, alike shared the personal courage to speak freely and openly.

What kind of people have we become that some of us are so afraid of “political retaliation” that is so mild compared to what our founders risked? What kind of people have we become that we will tolerate the argument that freedom of speech, the freedom to criticize those we elect, as well as the freedom to support those we select, should place those who can afford to attack from the darkness into a protected status?

Dare we continue to tolerate the noise from unknown voices in that darkness, and their defenders, and allow them to overcome the quiet sound of quill pens writing signatures on our founding document if we are to consider ourselves true descendants of those fifty-six men who had the courage to stand in the light?

no one cares

An extraordinary writer has written an extraordinary book you should read, especially if you are in a public policy position, particularly if that position involves holding public purse strings.

He begins his book bluntly: “This is the book I promised myself I would never write. And promised my wife as well.”

Why?

“I have kept that promise for a decade—since our younger son, Kevin, hanged himself in our basement, a week before his twenty-first birthday in July 2005, after struggling for three years with schizophrenia.”

Then, three years later, his eldest son, Dean, developed symptoms of schizophrenia, too.

Several weeks ago, while driving to Columbia to do some research at the State Historical Society, I heard Ron Powers being interviewed on National Public Radio about this book. I knew instantly I had to read it:  no one cares about crazy people, which draws its title from a “ghastly” remark made in 2010 by a campaign aide to Scott Walker, who was running for Governor of Wisconsin.  Even the lower-case print used on the cover and title page is a message.  Crazy people are lower-case people, ones we prefer to ignore, ones easy to lose.

It should be explained that Ron and I have been friends most of our lives although that friendship became strained for reasons that are now clear from reading his book, a circumstance that might not be unusual when friends do not realize the cumulative effects of life circumstances upon other friends.  If you’re not familiar with him, Google him.  He’s a Hannibal native. Look at the long list of his books. Read about his Pulitzer Prize and his career with Charles Kuralt on the CBS Sunday Morning show.

Early in his book, Ron writes of an experience he had in a Vermont legislative committee hearing (He lives in Vermont) that equals one of the most vivid memories I have of covering thousands of hours of committee meetings in four decades as a statehouse reporter.  I recall a father testifying in one of the committee rooms on the first floor of the Missouri Capitol about this state’s inadequate services for the mentally ill.   He recited the struggles of his son whose deteriorating mental health eventually led the son into crime and then to state prison.  The point the father made that day should have been disturbing to anyone facing him from the committee table: the only place his son could receive treatment for his mental disease was in a prison.

Ron and his wife, Honoree, had gone to the lovely, small, Vermont Capitol in Montpelier in January, 2014 to testify about whether mental patients should be institutionalized against their will when their conditions reach certain levels of desperation and danger, or whether such action violates the individual’s civil liberties and exposes them to questionable drug therapies perceived by some as being prescribed by doctors who receive financial rewards from “Big Pharma” for prescribing those drugs.  We’ve heard the same arguments here. He heard people such as the father I had listened to here in Missouri.

Just three weeks after the Powerses attended that hearing came the revelation of the callous pronouncement from the Walker aide.  And that’s when Ron began to re-think his vow about not writing the book, reconsidering his desire to protect the privacy of his sons, and reconsidering his feelings that he did not want to exploit them.  I am glad that he made the difficult decision to write it after that hearing jolted him out of his introspection and into what he realized is “a simple and self-evident and morally insupportable truth: Too many of the mentally ill in our country live under conditions of atrocity.”

The book is not just a recounting of his family’s personal journey.  It also is an excellent journalistic recounting of the way societies have treated the mentally ill for centuries. Early in his book, Ron writes, “For centuries those who have been struck by madness have always had their own cruel nomenclature to bear, names intended to separate them out, divide us from them: lunatics, imbeciles, loonies, dips, weirdos, wackos, schizos, psychos, freaks, morons, nutcases, nutjobs, wingnuts, cranks.  The mad one, then, is something between a clown and a demon.  Unless that mad one is a gift of God made flesh.”

Such as a child.

Ron mixes the deeply-personal narrative of his family’s eventual shift from one of being normal, proud parents of gifted sons to a deepening search for hoped normality in the face of increasing and inescapable reality, with perceptive accounts of the years of society’s shifting thought on mental illness and the coining of the phrase “schizophrenia” by Eugen Bleuler in 1908.  Ron demonstrates his extensive journalistic story-telling skills to track the attitudes toward mental illness from the days of  demons and shamans; from Hippocrates to today’s researchers; from Bedlam, the first madhouse dating to 1247, to today’s asylums; from Sigmund Freud, Dorothea Dix, and Charles Darwin, to the disciples of Eugenics, and to Julian Jaynes’ Twentieth Century thoughts on the origins of madness—and research and policies in the forty-years since then, including mental illness deniers such as L. Ron Hubbard and Thomas Szasz..  It was mortifying to read that one Albert Priddy, the superintendent of the Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded, was a strong advocate of eugenics and a leader of the effort to defend the Virginia Sterilization Act.  It is only slightly comforting that his name does not show up on our particular branch of the family tree.

His writing on the deinstitutionalization movement started in a Ronald Reagan-signed law while Governor of California, the effects of which remain obvious to those will but see, is damning.  Ron calls the Lanterman-Petris-Short act “the national gold standard for clueless, destructive government interference in the interest of mentally ill people.” And he offers studies showing that our prisons have become the largest treatment facilities for those with mental illness since the national adoption of the act’s philosophy.

Ron doesn’t want you to “enjoy” the book—and you won’t.  But read it anyway. FEEL his book.  Have the courage and the empathy to read it from beginning to end including the preface, especially if you deal with public policy—particularly health and mental health issues and budget issues.

Too rarely, I asked legislative committee chairmen and women how they could listen to real people plead for the kind of help that only government can provide and then ignore the humanity behind those pleas.  The answers always were basically, “Well, we only have so much money.”  In recent years, their successors have moved to assure the state will have even less.

It is sad that so much of the process of government—at all levels—and citizen participation in a society that is greater than the one behind our front doors seems to look only at dollars and not at the real people next door or across the street. National and international health studies indicate one in four of us experience, or will experience, some kind of mental illness. All of us know someone who is one of those. But it’s okay to see the face of only one person—George Washington, whose benign gaze greets us on the front of the dollar bill.

This is a book of humanity that every health and mental health committee member in every state legislature should read.  It’s a book ALL of us should read.  We should be uncomfortable throughout it, and after it.

Thank you, Ron and Honoree, for your courage and your strength with this book.  We hope others can draw courage and strength of their own to see people, not just dollars.

Walls, doors, and a big creepy thing: Notes from the road, June edition

We’ve been on the road, observing places and meeting people, poring over old newspapers, talking to groups, reading things.  Stuff like that.  It’s good to get away from the political center of things for a while.

Spoke to a convention of state geologists in Branson the other day.  Never talked before to so many people with rocks in their heads.

For those who think there’s never anything new, we offer this note from the Jefferson City Capital News of September 11, 1910:

“The government is planning to build the longest fence ever constructed in the world.  It will extend from El Paso, Texas to the Pacific coast, more than 1,000 miles and will divide the United States and Mexico.  The fence will be of barbed wire.  Work will begin in a few weeks.”

Speaking of walls, we were looking through a recent edition of Archaeology magazine and its article on Hadrian’s Wall, the wall built by Roman Emperor Guess Who.   Trivia question:  How many miles long was (is) Hadrian’s Wall?

The Great Wall of China is 5,500.3 miles long.  Just saying it is impressive.  But let’s put it another way.  If the Great Wall of China were straightened into one segment and moved to the western city limits of Jefferson City and we started driving on it toward China, we would be able to get 82% of the way there

Hadrian’s wall would stretch from Jefferson City to Lamonte (between JC and Knob Noster).  73 miles.

Here’s a nice place to eat in Cape Girardeau.  But it would not be wise to become too enamored of its fine adult beverages while you are there and wait until your bladder was sending such urgent messages that you don’t have time to read some signs and your mind is no longer agile enough to understand them.

Katy O’Neill’s Public House in historic downtown Cape, is at the bottom of a hill. If you go there and your thinking is not as acute as it was before you began to socialize, make sure you read and comprehend the signs.

(They’ll get bigger if you click on them, at least here)

We do wonder, however, why it’s not still St. Patrick’s Day in both rooms.

—–

We’ve checked out the Crystal Bridges Museum of Art on Bentonville, Arkansas.  We were told that some of the snooty art folks on the east and west coasts have their noses out of joint because Alice Walton, who dreamed up this place, had the nerve to keep so much great art out here in flyover country, and particularly in such a Podunk place as Bentonville.  We were reminded of a comment made by Dr. John Pickard (for whom Pickard Hall is named at the University of Missouri), the chairman of the commission that hired the artists to decorate the capitol.  He complained that lot of eastern artists weren’t big enough to see over the Allegheny Mountains.  This was in the days well before we were flyover country.  But Doc P. and Alice W. had it right.

We recommend a trip to Crystal Bridges which is, itself, a work of art.  And it has a very nice restaurant.  If you are a little jittery about arachnids, you might want to close your eyes and have someone lead you into the museum….

The sculpture is by Louise Bourgeois and it’s called “Maman.”  Linda DeBerry, writing for the Crystal Bridges website, says the thirty-foot-tall spider carrying 26 marble eggs is a tribute to her mother.  After you get over your initial shudder at that thought, understand that, as DeBerry writes Bourgeois claimed “The spider…was not an ominous or frightening figure, but rather a representation of the protection and industry of her own beloved mother, who repaired tapestry for a living and died when the artist was 21.” Bourgeois said, “The spider is a repairer. If you bash into the web of a spider, she doesn’t get mad. She weaves and repairs it.”

Uhhh-huh.

Hold up your hand if you ever thought of YOUR mother this way.

Spider-mom aside, don’t be afraid to go to the Crystal Bridges museum.  It’s spectacular.  You are likely to spend enough time looking at the art and sculpture in the museum’s galleries—and at the Frank Lloyd Wright house that was moved there piece-by-piece that you’ll need lunch or dinner. We thought the food was good.  And before you leave town, fill up the car at a gas station in Bentonville.  It was a buck-98 the day we were there, seventeen cents less than the stations in Jefferson City, where gas prices tend to be suspiciously high most of the time.

Bentonville is an okay place.  Pretty much a company town, as is Jefferson City.

Chatting at the Y the other day about baseball’s desire to shorten the games.  Curtailing visits to the pitcher’s mound.  Requiring pitchers to throw the ball in a certain amount of time.  How about restricting the number of adjustments to batting gloves?  Limiting the amount of time batters can excavate a place for their back foot?

All of that is just playing games with the game. Here’s what would shorten games: Limiting the number of commercials between innings.  And during pitching changes.

Not likely to happen, of course.  The Game, whether it’s baseball or basketball or football—any game that is not continuous, long ago abdicated its right to its own clock when it decided to accept big broadcasting fees.

I think I just nibbled a little bit on the hand that used to feed me.

Didn’t get to see any of the Congressional baseball game on the in-room teevee while we were gone.  Wonder if the Cardinals had any scouts in the audience looking for bullpen help.

Story-tellin’

One of the great things about being a journalist is the stories people tell you, often stories that aren’t exactly “news,” but are interesting enough that you file them away to tell to others later. In my case, I used to have in the newsroom several boxes carrying the ghoulish label, “Prospective Death Box.”  Through the years my staff and I put recordings of interviews, speeches, and events into that box so we would dig them out and play parts of them back in our coverage of the death of a prominent person or the anniversary of an important event.

Some of those recordings are, as far as I know, the only preserved telling of a story, the only known recording of an event, the only sample of someone’s now-stilled voice.

One of those recordings is of the only man ever to serve three terms as State Treasurer.  He did it in the days when the Treasurer could not succeed himself, which makes his service even more remarkable.

M. E. Morris was a Dadeville native—southwest Missouri’s Dade County—who founded in 1928 the People’s Bank in Miller. He was elected to the Missouri House for the first of his two terms in 1932, after which he became the CEO of the Trenton National Bank. He left the bank in 1945 to become Commissioner of the state Division of Finance.

When the 1945 Constitution created a new agency for collecting taxes, the Department of Revenue, Morris became the first Director of Revenue for Missouri, serving under Governor Phil Donnelly.  This was in the days when Governors could not succeed themselves and therefore keep patronage-appointed department heads so when Donnelly left office, Morris ran for and was elected State Treasurer for the first time.  He could not succeed himself but fortunately Donnelly decided he wanted to be Governor again, so when Donnelly became Governor a second time, Morris became Revenue Director again.  When  Donnelly’s second term ended, Morris ran for Treasurer and won a second term.  The Revenue Director while Morris was in his second term was Milton Carpenter who became the state Treasurer in 1961, at which point, Morris replaced Carpenter as Revenue Director under Governor John Dalton.  When Carpenter’s term ran out, Morris ran again, and won a third term as state treasurer.

He retired from state government after almost 25 years as either revenue director or state treasurer, a pretty remarkable career that few people recognize.

Name recognition is important in politics and M. E. Morris felt he had a leg up on any candidate.   Although known as M. E. to the press, and “Monty” to friends, his real name, you see, was MOUNT ETNA Morris.

On March 23, 1984, a little more than four years before he died, I went to his home in Jefferson City to interview him for my book about Thomas Hart Benton.  The interview was pretty frustrating because Morris had little information to offer and furthermore spoke in a slow, low, halting voice and provided no useful details.  At the end, however, I asked him to explain how he got the name “Mount Etna.”  I listened back and transcribed it. And here, from his lips to my ears, from my keyboard to your eyes, is what he told me:

“Seems there was a Welsh captain on a ship, sailing ship, of course, back in the Mediterranean back in the old days, and he was off the coast of Sicily.  A storm came up and he was about to lose his ship, did lose his bearings.  Mount Etna was in eruption at that time, there on the coast of Sicily there.  So he got his bearings from the stream of lava flying up over there.  Got his bearings and saved his ship.  So when he got back home, his first boy baby, he named him Mount Etna.  That name has been in our family for many years.

“And I know about four or five Mount Etna Morrises are buried in south Missouri there.  That’s where they finally hung up.  In fact I sent a check this morning to the old Morris Cemetery down in the county just this morning.  They’re getting ready for Decoration Day down there. 

“My grandmother’s name was Mount Etna Morris.  That’s where the name originated.  It’s a good story.  And as far as I know it’s a true story because there’s been some Mount Etna Morrises in the past.  I know where four of them are buried. 

“I told that story many times in campaign speeches just so they would remember it.”  

Let’s face it, if you’re a voter and you go into the booth aren’t you more likely to remember a man named for a volcano than somebody named Smith, Or Jones, or whatever?

Mr. Morris died in 1988, at the age of 87.  I doubt there are many recordings of his voice, let along many, or any other, recordings of the story of his name.

I intend to donate these recordings to the audio history collection of the State Historical Society.

———————–

As I was writing the book about the art of the Capitol, it dawned on me late in the process that I had not written about the three paintings in the Senate Lounge of Senators A. Clifford Jones, Richard Webster, and Michael Kinney.  In writing the story of Kinney, I recalled that I had on tape a fascinating story about him that Webster had told me.

Michael Kinney served 56 years in the state senate, longer than any legislator in the nation served in one chamber of any state legislature.  He was a Democrat from the rough and tumble “Kerry Patch” Irish neighborhood of St. Louis once dominated by two Irish gangs, the Hogans and Egan’s Rats, a group that’s been described as “the first full-time gangsters to make regular headlines.”   He succeeded his brother, Thomas, an Irish tavern-keeper known as “Snake,” who handled the political issues for the gang before he died in 1912 during his second term in the Senate.

Michael served until he lost a primary bid for re-election in 1968.  He seldom spoke in the Senate and when he did his voice was so soft that many of his colleagues could not hear him in those days before there was a public address system. But his seniority and his knowledge of Senate procedure gave him great power throughout his career.

He sponsored many bills that became laws in his career, the one that is his most visible legacy being the one that created the state cancer hospital in Columbia.  For most of three decades he was part of a Senate triumvirate that exerted enormous influence.  He, Senators Michael E. Casey of Kansas City, who served from 1909-1944 after serving six years in the House, and Senator Joseph Brogan of St. Louis, who was in the Senate from 1909 until his death in 1940, were Presidents pro Tem four times among them and chaired powerful committees throughout their careers.  The St. Louis Globe-Democrat said Casey “was the spellbinder of the group…Brogan..was the witty, nimble floor fighter, while Senator Kinney was the subtle, behind-the-scenes diplomat, string-puller and compromiser.”

Senator Webster, who was from Carthage, was in the House before moving across the rotunda to the other chamber.  He remembered when he and Kinney were on a conference committee of House and Senate members working on a compromise of a bill that had passed both chambers in different form and Webster—then in the House—was complaining about Governor Forrest Smith.  Kinney told him, “I’ve told every House member and every Senate member that’s arrived on the scene and got mad at whoever the Governor was, ‘He’s just a Governor.  Those fellows come and go.’”

Webster remembered that Kinney sat on a high stool in his office at 7 a.m. each day of the legislative session, stripped to his waist with a table cloth wrapped around his neck while his grandson-in-law, State Auditor Haskell Holman, shave him.  Kinney sat with his back to the open door.

“If you looked, you’d see a bullet hole in his back, “Webster told me.  It was a scar that Webster said remained from an assassination attempt during an Irish gang war.  Kinney was shot four times—in the chest, both arms, and in the jaw—in 1924.  He later identified a police photograph of a recaptured escaped mental patient as the man who shot him.  But there was considerable doubt even then that Kinney told the truth.  Although suspicions lingered for decades that his near-assassination was part of the heated rivalry between the Rats, of which Kinney remained a part, and the rival Hogans, Kinney never commented about the issue publicly.” 

Privately, though, according to Webster, he did talk about it.  And Webster told me about one of those conversations in the privacy of Kinney’s office.

“Someone would say, ‘Senator, do you remember a fellow named Jimmy O’Brien?’  And he would say, ‘Jimmy O’Brien.  He was a nice fellow.  Whatever happened to him?’”

“Well, what had happened to him was that Mike Kinney could never identify his assailant although his assailant was about three or four feet from him when he fired the shot.  But a month later, Jimmy O’Brien did rise to the surface of the Mississippi River.”   

There is, as far as I know, no other telling of that story except for the version Richard Webster related on tape to me that day.

Another case of the journalist collecting the first draft of history.

——————

I have in my tape library several hours of Senate floor debate in which one of the greatest Ozark story tellers ever to serve in the legislature embarked on some of his long, windy expositions on some subject that might or might not be related to the issue at hand.  There is no doubt that many of the stories Danny Staples told were pure fabrications or old jokes recycled for the moment.  But many of his stories came straight from his early life as the son of a grocery-store owner in rural southeast Missouri.

In March, 2002, the Senate was working on an election reform bill triggered by some of the big problems at the polls in St. Louis in 2000.  Staples launched into a story that was not particularly original except in the telling.

“I’m not going to say what country it was because I don’t think the statute of limitations have run out yet. But I can remember full well an old boy that was a sheriff down in one of the southeast counties.  And this young, handsome, debonair, good-lookin’ candidate was running against the incumbent state senator down there.  And the old retired official down there had named his successor and they came in and they both liked this young, handsome, debonair good-lookin’ fellow that was running the incumbent.

“One night it was raining, two days before the election, and the old man and the boy, his protégé, were out in one of those famous Civil War cemeteries down there in southeast Missouri.  One of them had a flashlight; the other one had a legal pad and a pen. And they were taking names off the Civil War cemetery headstones, been there since 1865.

“They were voting absentee ballots for this young, handsome, debonair challenger of this old retiring state senator. 

“And…the old official that was retiring had the flashlight and he was looking at a headstone there in the middle of the night and it was weather-beaten; it was worn from the hail, from the wind, from freezing rain, and the atmosphere.  And the young official that replaced the old official looked at him and said, ‘Hey. Pop, we can’t get the name off this headstone.  It’s been worn out. It’s no longer legible.  Let’s move over to the next one.’  The old man looked at the boy, and he says, ‘Cubby, this man has got just as much right to vote as this man.’’   

“That’s the way you run an honest election.”

Staples told the Senate after that, “You don’t need laws on the books to protect the innocent.  We only need laws on the books to protect those that would be corrupt and greedy and grafty in the greatest society in the world, and that’s the electoral process.”  I have read the transcript of that remark time and again and I’ll be darned if I can figure out the logic in it.

Staples usually tipped off his storytelling by asking a Senator who was handling a bill, ‘Would be interested to know, Senator….” Even if the Senator was NOT interested, Staples would proceed to inform him—and everybody else.

He decided to tell another story during this particular debate but the other senator—Doyle Childers who later became director of the Department of Natural Resources under Matt Blunt—answered “No, Senator, at this moment I’m not interested to know that, but thank you Senator.” At which point Staples stopped trying to debate and just asked to speak on the bill.

“Mr. President, it comes to my remembrance and my recollection now that they had another election in southeast Missouri…One day down in southeast Missouri, the day after the election, this man about fifty years old was sitting on the courthouse steps.  He was crying.  Tears rolling down his face.  A business partner of his walked by and he said, ‘What’s wrong?  Has there been a tragedy?’  He said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Yesterday was election day.’  He said, ‘My daddy’s been dead for nine years.  He come home and voted yesterday, didn’t even stop to see momma and I.’” 

(The Senate dissolved into laughter for several seconds on both sides of the aisle.)..

Staples went on:  “Now, I’ve won ten elections and lost one.  There was never voter fraud in the 20th Senatorial District.  Oh, sometimes we Democrats voted on Tuesday, sent out a press release, the Republicans would vote on Wednesday.  But the polls weren’t open on Wednesday as you well know. So the Democrats always won.”

Term limits finally got Danny Staples—one of the many egregious shortcomings of that misguided concept that relies on public apathy and civic irresponsibility for its support—after twenty years in the Senate preceded by six years in the House.  Not long after he was forced out of office, Danny Staples and his wife were getting ready for a trip.  He had taken the family motor home to town to get it all cleaned up and fueled up.  He drove it home and dropped dead of a heart attack on July 22, 2002. The legislature has been far too serious since he left.

We journalists not only get to witness events as they unfold and capture the stories that people tell in that process, the journalist also comes across long-forgotten stories in the course of our curiosity. I don’t remember how I stumbled on this last story but I filed it away, knowing I’d have a chance to tell it to somebody sometime. And son-of-a-gun, here is that opportunity.

Missouri history has LOT of wonderful animal stories.  Here’s one.

Many years ago I knew the first three-time Speaker of the House.  He served in the 1930s, was the Speaker for three of his four terms, and one night my longtime friend Clyde Lear and I sat down with him after dinner and recorded him telling some stories.   He told us about a day that the House and the Senate met together to see a special guest who was multi-lingual, including Morse Code, and apparently was clairvoyant to boot.

His name was Jim. Jim the Wonder Dog.  Folklorist and folk song-teller Bob Dyer wrote a song about “Jim, Jim, Wonderful Jim.  Never was a dog smarter than him.” At least not according to Bob Dyer.

Former House Speaker John G. Christy, who later was Mayor of Jefferson City for twelve years, recalled that there was no way Jim’s owner, Sam VanArsdale, could have given the dog any signals that day in the House of Representatives when—during an informal joint session—he was told in Morse Code to find the man known as the “Beau Brummel of the House.”   Jim trotted down the main aisle, paused, then turned in and wound his way through a row of desks and put his paw on the leg of a state representative who WAS known as the Beau Brummel of the House.  He was also told to find the sponsor of the horse racing bill, and he picked that man out from the crowd in the House Chamber.  That’s another story I recorded more than 35 years ago.

I love the way Bob Dyer concluded his song about Jim:

“So the next time you hear about man’s best friend,

            Think about that wonderful dog named Jim.

            And remember,

            Dogs can be just as smart as some humans are….dumb.”  

God gave people one mouth and two ears for a reason. Journalists are blessed by working in a profession that relies on that statement and having the tools to capture the stories that prove its truth.

 

A t-shirt, a tweet, and history

Seen at a truck stop in Effingham, Illinois:

A grey T-shirt with the pictures of former Illinois Governors Rod Blagojevich and George Ryan and the words, “Illinois, Where our Governors Make Our License Plates.”

For historical accuracy, future t-shirts might include Governors Otto Kerner, Jr. (mail fraud), and Dan Walker (bank fraud) among those whose careers took them from having license plate number one to a place where they wore a number stitched onto their clothes.  Walker capitalized on his name by walking the state during his 1971 gubernatorial campaign, inspiring Jackson County, Missouri, prosecutor Joseph P. Teasdale to become known as “Walking Joe Teasdale” during an unsuccessfully 1972 primary campaign for governor.  Teasdale didn’t walk as much during his successful 1976 campaign, but supporters wore lapel pins showing a shoe with a hole in the sole, an idea borrowed from a pin used by Adlai Stevenson in his 1952 Presidential campaign.  Stevenson was a Governor of Illinois who did NOT go to prison. Instead, he went to the United Nations as United States Ambassador during the Kennedy/Johnson administrations.  He is remembered for the dramatic moment when he unveiled aerial photographs of Russian missile installations in Cuba and directly asked Soviet Ambassador Valerian Zorin if the country was installing nuclear missiles there and proclaimed he would be waiting “until hell freezes over” to get an answer.

It was Stevenson who proposed the agreement that ended the Cuban Missile Crisis—our removal of Jupiter missiles from Turkey (they were obsolete anyway) if the Soviets took their missiles out of Cuba, a deal that did not become public for many years.  He knew that some of President Kennedy’s advisors would consider him a coward for making such a suggestion, but he commented, “Perhaps we need a coward in the room when we’re talking nuclear war.”

Wonder how many people who see those t-shirts ever think about all the real history behind the sardonic message on them and the resonance some of that history might have in today’s world.

We stopped for fuel in Effingham on our way back from watching the first Japanese driver win the Indianapolis 500.  By then, a Denver sportswriter had taken to Twitter to say he was uncomfortable with a Japanese driver winning the race on Memorial Day weekend because of the death of one of his father’s Army Air Corps colleagues in the Battle of Okinawa.  He later issued a public apology and noted his father had flown many missions including unarmed reconnaissance missions over Japan during World War II.  But the Denver Post has fired him.

We resist today writing of Twitter’s capacity to bring out the worst in us—and the best although your observer considers it generally to be “The Theatre of the Inane”—and others have written about the decency of Takuma Sato (who is celebrating at the “Kissing the Bricks” post-race ceremony at the start-finish line) who has spoken of his concern about a quarter-million people in his homeland who are still suffering from the earthquake and tsunami a few years ago.  Instead we refer you to an entry in the old Missourinet blog that we posted three years ago about a place 225 miles or so southeast of Denver that tells a different story from the unfortunate Denver tweets.

http://blog.missourinet.com/2014/09/30/summits-sewers-and-students/

History has many parts.  As we see in this year’s story of the Denver sportswriter and in the 2014 stories of high school students and a high plains historical site, there often are shadows over it.

There is danger lurking whenever any of us try to distill the past or the present into 140 characters.