In some ways, Reagan represented the triumph of Andy Warhol: famously unable to distinguish between image and reality, metaphor and object, experience filmed and experience lived. Reagan told, with apparent conviction, a story about his father “ lying on the doorstep in a drunken stupor” that turned out to be lifted from a novel; he claimed that during World War II he had filmed Nazi death camps for the Signal Corps whereas he had spent the entire war in Culver City, making training films for Hal Roach studio. The living exemplar of Warholian celebrity was a former middling actor whose sensibilities derived from Hollywood, and in whom a sense of irony was never detected: unable to distinguish between an atrocity and a photograph of an atrocity. His presidency was defined by this notion of politics as role-playing, as camp.
Monday, March 1, 2021
Alissa arrived in time to dance with me to The Beth's "Whatever" and for my birthday dinner of pizza with many toppings followed by anecdotes about past experiences and the opening of presents from Beth, in my case a novel ("The Goldfinch") and coffee mug with images of Joe and Kamala.
Friday, February 19, 2021
"They brought us parrots and balls of cotton and spears and many other things, which they exchanged for the glass beads and hawks’ bells. They were well-built, with good bodies and handsome features…. They do not bear arms, and do not know them. They would make fine servants. With fifty men we could subjugate them all and make them do whatever we want." Christopher Columbus describing the Arawak people in Jamaica
The city of Gary has changed the Columbus Day holiday into a celebration of Mayor Richard Hatcher. Because Hatcher was born just a week after July 4, the October date would remain the same. A day honoring Christopher Columbus, who never set foot on what became the United States, began in 1934 at the urging of Italian-Americans, but his enslavement of indigenous peoples has tarnished his reputation. Though some reactionaries decry the movement as an unfortunate example of “cancel culture," I’m all for removing the explorer from a national day in his honor. A half-century ago, some Gary residents wanted to change the name of their city to Du Sable in honor of the mixed-race French trader Jean Baptiste-Point Du Sable rather than the autocratic U.S. Steel board chairman Elbert H. Gary, but the effort fizzled out. Getting rid of Columbus Day locally seems more practical.
Some 54 communities are named Columbus or Columbia, the largest being Columbus, Ohio, and the District of Columbia. I don’t expect those names to change, but numerous statues of the controversial figure have been defaced or removed, including in Chicago. Columbia University in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan is located not far from New York City’s Harlem. In the novel I’m presently reading, “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett, the protagonist attends Columbia in 1968 at the time of a student revolt. Patchett wrote: “It was 1968 and Columbia was burning. The students rioted, marched, occupied. We were a microcosm of a country at war, and every day we held up the mirror to show the country what we saw.” When during that fateful spring, my adviser at the University of Maryland, Dr. H. Samuel Merrill, placed a call to a historian at Columbia, a student answered, saying, “You’ve reached the liberated offices of Columbia’s History Department.” Students had also taken over the President’s office, where they were displaying his pornography collection and sleeping on the floor before the police finally moved in. With Mayor Hatcher having taken office on January 1, 1968, Gary was one of the few cities to escape a racial uprising during that tumultuous year of Tet, Martin Luther King’s assassination, and other calamities.
VU Interim President Colette Irwin-Knott announced that the university is phasing out its Crusader mascot after both the student and faculty senates recommended such a course and a task force survey receiving 7,700 responses indicated that the symbol “is not reflective of Valpo’s mission to promote a welcoming and inclusive community.” President Irwin-Knott added: “Valpo is and always has been a faith-based institution, and we want to make sure our symbolism is in alignment with our beliefs and core values of the Lutheran ethos.” Adopted in 1942, “Crusaders” replaced the previous mascot, “Uhlans,” originally light infantry Polish lancers, after enemy German units called themselves Uhlans. A NWI Times article indicated that efforts to change the name have been ongoing for many years but that opponents claimed that the university was caving to a “cancel culture” mentality.
2009 Valpo grad and Chicago Bulls announcer Adam Amin argued: “If the symbol that happens to represent Valparaiso University makes people feel some sort of negative cognition, then change it.” Post-Trib columnist Jerry Davich asked followers to weigh in on the topic. Most agreed that change was welcome although a few detractors responded with epithets such as “morons” and “leftist shitbags.” Purdue Northwest archivist Joseph Coates, a former student of mine and IUN grad, wrote: “Crusaders were soldiers who fought in series of religious wars initiated, supported, and sometimes directed by the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church in the medieval period. They sacked and burned cities, including Constantinople, and murdered 10s if not 100s of thousands of people in the name of conquest under God. Lutherans never went on crusades. It was a weird choice of mascot for sure.” I replied: Joseph Coates put the issue in context perfectly. The Pope even gave the Crusaders dispensation for atrocities they committed, not only against Muslims but Orthodox Catholics in Constantinople. “Cancel Culture” is a rightwing trope, like “politically incorrect,” to justify accepting injustice. Some things (i.e., Columbus Day, Fort Benning, Washington Redskins logo) need to be retired. Anders Tomchek noted: “A Christian school having their team be the crusaders is the same as an Islamic school naming their team the jihadists.”
“Edward Piszek made fish less frightening,” Carolyn Wyman
Growing up, one of my best friends was Eddie Piszek. He lived on a large estate adjacent to Pennsylvania Avenue between the Philadelphia suburbs of Oreland and Springfield that was at the end of a long tree-lined driveway. I’d often sleep over on Friday nights, and we’d watch boxing matches on TV sponsored by Gillette Razor Blades before retiring (I loved watching Cuban Kid Gavilan, who claimed he came up with his unique bolo punch while working the cane fields). Sometimes we’d camp out in nearby woods, at times joined by Vince Curll and Ray Bates. Eddie had a razor-sharp sense of humor and, later in life, seemingly a total recall memory. We played on a Babe Ruth League team coached by Ron Hawthorn’s father (Eddie nicknamed him Mr. Haw-the-Haw), and the Piszek chauffeur often took us to the movies and Upper Dublin basketball games well before either us could drive. His older sister was friends with the aptly named Fox sisters, renown among my friends for their beauty and ample breasts. Sometimes they let us play basketball with them on a court next to stables. At some point I became aware that Eddie’s house had historic importance, that it had been built in the early 1700s (for wealthy brewer George Emlen III) and that General George Washington had made it his headquarters during the winter of 1777. I was impressed that each of its bedrooms had an adjoining bathroom, that it contained multiple fireplaces, and that there was a solarium with stained glass windows.
Eddie’s father was a friendly, unassuming man whom, I learned, had founded Mrs. Paul’s Kitchen’s, Incorporated. The son of Polish immigrants who settled in Philadelphia, Edward got his start peddling deviled fish cakes made from his mother’s recipe in Polish neighborhoods, including Port Richmond, where Toni grew up. In his 20s he was working in a power plant when, out of work due to a strike, he persuaded a neighborhood bar to sell his crab cakes to customers on Fridays, when Catholics were forbidden to eat meat. One night, with close to a hundred crab cakes left over, he put them in a freezer and discovered they were just as good the next day. Voila! Hence the idea for a frozen food business. He and a friend whose last name was Paul each invested $350 seed money; Piszek soon bought out the partner, and during the 1950s Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks were an easy-to-prepare staple in homes across the nation, and the family business made Edward Piszek a rich man. I personally preferred Mrs. Paul’s fried clams, while other family members loved the crab cakes. In 1982 Piszek sold the company to devote his full energies to philanthropy. Eddie, who’d been a Mrs. Paul’s executive, continued to act as one of his closest advisers.
Many of Piszek’s charitable projects reflected his Polish ancestry. For example, he purchased the Philadelphia residence of Revolutionary War hero Colonel Tadeusz Kosciuszko and donated it to a preservation society. In the 1960s he learned that his native country was plagued with tuberculosis. Working with CARE, he, according to Crisis magazine writer George W. Rutler, “battled the Communist bureaucrats and donated a whole fleet of ambulances, X-ray machines, and examination centers, performing his works with practical anonymity. Years later, a medical intern taking a delegation of Westerners through an abandoned TB ward told them, ‘The story is that an American came over and cured it…. But it was a long time ago. Now TB is something we hardly think about.’” During the Solidarity (Solidarnosc) movement the elder Piszek befriended Lech Walesa and airlifted millions of pounds of frozen fish to support the striking workers. During this time he became close with Karol Jozef Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II. In 2001 the patriarch published an autobiography, “Some Good in the World: A Life of Purpose” with an introduction by novelist James Michener, a good friend whom Piszek had persuaded to write “Poland.” Three years later, he died at age 87, surrounded by loved ones at the mansion where he’d lived for a half-century.
Although Eddie attended a private academy in high school, he still attends Upper Dublin reunions, and we always sit together and enjoy many laughs. He jokes about us both liking the same girl, Judy Jenkins, in sixth grade and how we’d root for Upper Dublin basketball players Mike Magyar (barely five feet tall, in contrast to younger brother John) and towering “Big Meek” Meekins. At the last reunion he gave me a coin blessed by Pope John Paul II. I was touched and decided to give it to daughter-in-law Delia’s mother, a devout Catholic, who treasures it.
What made me think of the Piszek estate was reading Ann Patchett's novel "The Dutch House," which centers around a mansion located near Jenkintown and Glenside, two neighboring towns of where I grew up. Anxious to discover what became of the Piszek estate, I learned, thanks to Google, that the Emlen House is on the National Register of Historic Places and has recently been extensively renovated. Torn down, however, to make way for private homes was a huge estate nearby dating from 1905 and christened the Copernicus House by Piszek upon its purchase, which had been the home of the Copernicus Society, devoted to promoting ties between Poland and the United States. Thanks to the Wissahickon Park Trail System and the Montgomery County Lands Trust, one can visit a 35-acre “Piszek Preserve” donated by the family and walk along a forest trail that strides Sandy Run creek. Depending on the season, bird watchers can spot scarlet tanagers and other species in the woods and blue and green herons on the creek banks. I’m hoping Eddie and I can visit Piszek Preserve in October when, knock on wood, my belated sixtieth reunion takes place.
The nature and needs of a Black university must be based on an educational ideology grounded in an uncompromising goal of psychological independence from the oppressor (and his oppressive system).” Gerald McWorter
The title of Saturday Evening Club speaker David Scuphan’s talk was “Ordinary and Extraordinary.” Using a diagram known as a Purnett Square originally designed to demonstrate probability of particular genotypes and phenotypes (observable individual characteristics resulting from one’s interaction with the environment), VU biologist Scupham’s four variables were ordinary and extraordinary persons and ordinary and extraordinary times in which people lived. Thus, he posited that those most remembered for their influence on history have been extraordinary individuals who lived in extraordinary times. For example, the three U.S. Presidents considered by historians to have been the most influential (and successful) were George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin D. Roosevelt, who guided the country at its birth, during the Civil War, and in the time of the Great Depression and World War II. Theodore Roosevelt once lamented that no great crisis had occurred during the Presidency that would have similarly tested his mettle and destined him for true greatness.
Professor Scupham asked the 18 of us tuned in on zoom to consider the life of “Free Frank” McWorter. He first learned about “Free Frank” from a highway marker encountered in Southwest Illinois not far from Hannibal, Missouri. Curious, he learned that McWorter’s mother, Juda, had been abducted from West Africa, and his father was her master, a Scotch-Irish South Carolina planter named George McWorter. Impressed with Frank’s talents and leadership skills, McWorter relied on him to manage one of his properties in Kentucky. Frank eventually was able to purchase his own freedom and that of his wife and several offspring. He designed a planned community that he named New Philadelphia, which attracted both white and free black residents. His home served as a link on the Underground Railroad, and prior to his death in 1854, Free Frank, as he liked to call himself, had purchased the freedom of over a dozen former slaves. Without question, Free Frank McWorter was an extraordinary man who lived in extraordinary times. Why then, Scupham asked the audience, isn’t he better known?
As the marker Scupham observed indicates, in recent years Free Frank McWorter is beginning to receive the recognition he deserves. His grave site in 1988 was listed on the U.S. National Register, and in 2009 the New Philadelphia town site was designated a National Historic Landmark. Researchers have donated 11 volumes of documents about McWorter and New Philadelphia to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Chicago’s DuSable museum recently held an exhibit in his honor. When my turn came to critique Scupham’s provocative and thought-provoking talk, I mentioned that Free Frank’s great-great-great grandson, University of Illinois emeritus professor of African-American studies Gerald McWorter, who goes by the name Abdul Alkalimat, spoke at IU Northwest last year during Black History month. He told students not to rely on their professors for enlightenment but to form study groups to discuss meaningful issues in their lives. During Q and A some crazy guy who always shows up at such gatherings rambled on about the theory that Black people (Moors) were the first Americans. Alkalimat, then 76 years old, deftly shut him up. Like him, I believe that history needs to be told “from the bottom up” rather than, as too often is the case, merely about rich white men, and that oral testimony should have a prominent place in the historical record of change over time. Interestingly, as Pat Bankston subsequently informed SEC members, the day after Scupham’s talk, the Chicago Tribune ran a feature article on Free Frank McWorter that included a photo of a half-dozen great-great-great grandchildren, including Professor Alkalimat, at the 2009 town site dedication.
I also brought up that former slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass was a truly extraordinary historical figure universally recognized as such by historians and that another extraordinary person, Gary-born actor William Marshall, deserves a more prominent place in history. A Gary Roosevelt graduate whose father Vereen was a dentist and mother Thelma a social worker and peace activist, he starred in such Broadway productions as “Carmen Jones” and Shakespeare’s “Othello.” He co-starred in a TV series “Harlem Detective” before being blacklisted after marrying alleged communist Sylvia Jarrico. Marshall is chiefly remembered today for starring in the Blaxploitation film “Blacula” and playing the King of Cartoons on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” In later years he toured in one-man shows as Paul Robeson, like him an operatic singer, actor, and activist, and the iconic Frederick Douglass. In fact, he returned to Gary to reprise his Frederick Douglass performance for children attending Frederick Douglas School. How I wish I’d been there. William Marshall died in 2003 at age 79.
Sen. Mitch McConnell reminds me of former House Speaker (2011-2015) John Boehner (below), who tried to please both principled Republicans and Tea Party fanatics and ended up pleasing neither. In McConnell's case, the Trumpster true believers and conspiracy nuts will seek vengeance, and cynical sheep-like lawmakers who have kowtowed will never please them. To their leader, loyalty runs just one way. Ask Bill Barr and Mike Pence if you believe it ain't so. As Boehner recently said, "The GOP must awaken. The invasion of our Capitol by a mob, incited by lies by someone entrusted with power, is a disgrace to all those who sacrificed to build our Republic."
Dean Bottorff commented: “Sadly, the debacle that masquerades as the Republican Party, with their failure to hold Donald Trump accountable has now updated the playbook for any future unscrupulous despot who wants to seize power. It's not a new playbook. Think of the Roman Senate in 49 BCE and the Reichstag in 1933. Sadly the next Donald Trump -- and make no mistake there will be one -- will not be as clownish, inept or stupid as Trump and may well succeed. Anyone who cannot see this potential is ignorant of history.”
In the wake of IU trustees voting to change the names of a classroom building formerly named for racist President David Starr Jordan (a eugenicist who favored sterilizing “inferior” peoples) and an intramural center originally dedicated to segregationist board member Ora Wildermuth (a Gary attorney credited with being the Steel City’s first librarian), President Michael McRobbie ordered an all-campus review of building names. At IU Northwest the only building not named for a plant species or geological formation (i.e., Hawthorn, Raintree, Moraine, Marram) was the John Wall Anderson library, dedicated in 2011 to a Gary auto parts entrepreneur whose foundation has awarded over four million dollars to Indiana University Northwest and even more to IU.
Born on an Iroquois County (IL) farm in 1882, the inventive Anderson, who secured over a thousand patents in his lifetime, founded Anderson Company, known as ANCO, in 1918 after signing a contract to supply Ford Motor Company with manifolds and ignition timers. In 1925 Anderson moved his plant and headquarters from Michigan City to Gary’s Tolleston neighborhood and turned the company’s focus to replacement windshield wiper blades. Anderson claimed the design came to him after he was caught in a storm and his car wipers became shredded and were rendered useless. Childless himself, Anderson supported a Gary Little League program that produced state champions in 1954 and 1960, paid for a field with grandstands, and before his death, set up a foundation with instructions to fund Boys Clubs in Gary and elsewhere in the Calumet Region. Now named the Boys and Girls Club, this organization has provided recreational and other services for countless area youth.
Though not on the committee, as a Gary historian I was asked what I knew about John Will Anderson, whose papers have been deposited in IUN’s Calumet Regional Archives. I noted that my centennial history, “Gary’s First Hundred Years,’ contains this information:
On August 2, 1961, pickets from attorney Hilbert Bradley’s Fair Share Organization appeared at the Anderson Company, which had only three African Americans on its 1,250-member staff. One placard asked: “Mr. Anderson, Why does Gary’s FEPC (Fair Employment Practice Commission) tolerate your unfair hiring policy.”
Meeting personally with John W. Anderson, FEPC director Edward E. Smith, a former Urban League official, tried to persuade the patriarch to stop selecting applicants on the basis of recommendations from present employees. Anderson was cordial but noncommittal. Unhappy with the slow pace of change, the Fair Share Organization and NAACP Young Adults Council picketed City Hall, demanding public hearings. Smith ultimately took this course and secured an agreement from the company to accept an open application system of hiring. The Fair Share Organization demanded further action, but Smith declared that Anderson should have the opportunity to demonstrate his good faith.
Invited to the subsequent committee meeting, I stated that I did not oppose having the library named for Anderson and, so far as I knew, there had not been any opposition from community groups. I noted that Anderson’s original hiring policy, favoring relatives of employees, was, in all likelihood, not discriminatory in intent, and, so far as I knew, Anderson had accepted the FEPC’s recommendations. Since his death in 1967, the Anderson Foundation has funded organizations that have benefitted Gary greatly, both children in poor neighborhoods and college students attending IUN. The committee members appeared to agree and will touch base with local civil rights groups to ensure that there is no meaningful opposition to retaining the name John Will Anderson Library.
By 1984 Champion Spark Plugs had purchased ANCO and decided to move its facilities to Michigan City. A United Auto Workers spokesman representing the employees claimed this was being done in part to bust the union. In 2012, lured by the prospect of cheap labor and few government regulations, the company, now owned by Federal Mogul, relocated to Mexico. Had Mr. Anderson lived to see what happened to his family business, I’m quite certain he would not have been pleased. On the other hand, he surely would have been proud of the accomplishments his foundation trustees have made to Gary and the Calumet Region.
Doreen Carey informed me: “A side note to the company history: The former Anderson Company building at 11th and Grant in Gary also housed the D-Orum hair products company for several years in the 1990's. When D-Orum closed they left rooms full of barrels and bottles of chemicals that ultimately were removed with funding from the Indiana Dept. of Environmental Management. Under new ownership the property then became a massive truck junk yard where vehicles are stripped for parts. Sadly another clean up will likely be required if the property is ever considered for a new future use.”
A note about Ora Wildermuth, also one of Gary’s first teachers, whose letters vehemently opposing integration of Bloomington dorms recently came to light: the intramural center named in his honor now bears the name of IU’s first African-American basketball player, Bill Garrett. The former Wildermuth Library in Miller now bears the name of Carter G. Woodson, known as the “father of Negro history.” For a brief period it bore both names, Wildermuth-Woodson. I loved it.
“One kid dreams of fame and fortune
One kid helps pay the rent
Tuesday, February 2, 2021
“We used to go from bar to bar every night [in Greenwich Village] beginning at San Remo on Bleecker Street. The White Horse Tavern was in for a while.” Brigid Murnaghan
New York Times magazine presented portraits of memorable people who succumbed during the past year, including victim of police violence Breonna Taylor, “Black Panther” actor Chadwick Bronson, innovative Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, and New York Mets legend Tom Seaver (who, ironically, was in the losing Red Sox dugout in 1986 when the Mets won their second world championship). The most fascinating personages profiled, in my opinion, were Blues singer Bill Withers and civil rights activist Mimi Jones.
Born in Slab Fork, in West Virginia coal country, Withers, who stuttered well into adulthood, joined the navy at age 17, enrolled in aircraft-mechanic’s school, and after nine years of service got a factory job making toilets for Boeing 747s. After visiting a nightclub to hear Lou Rawls and learning what a singer could earn, he bought a guitar at a pawnshop, composed songs in his head while at work, and managed to record an album, Just As I Am,” at age 34. On it was the irresistible Blues number “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and Withers followed that up with another classic, “Lean On Me.” In 2015 Stevie Wonder introduced him on the occasion of his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; John Legend then joined the two of them to sing “Use Me.”
Inspired while in high school by Martin Luther King and the activities of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Albany, Georgia, native Mimi Jones (then known as Mamie Ford) traveled to St. Augustine, Florida, while Congress was debating the 1964 Civil Rights Bill in order to take part in demonstrations against segregated facilities. Two white activists rented a room at the whites-only Monson Motor Lodge and invited Mimi and a second “guest,” Brenda Darten, to use the swimming pool with them. The racist manager called the police and then poured muriatic acid pool cleaning agent in the water. A photo of the outrageous action caused President Lyndon Johnson to exclaim that “our whole foreign policy and everything will go to Hell over this” and helped assure swift passage of the Civil Rights Act. Mimi was taken to jail in a squad car in her wet bathing suit. Brenda Darten was subsequently expelled from Albany State College for her action. Mimi went on to champion education for children in poor communities.
The category for Final Jeopardy the other day with new host Ken Jennings was “Pop Music.” The clue: “this song was number one in 1982 and a hit 17 years later and then 17 after that.” The answer: “1999” by originator of the Minneapolis funk fusion sound Prince Rogers Nelson, who died at his Paisley Park home at age 58 in 2016. “1999” is one of those party songs that demands that one get up and boogie. Along with Gary’s Michael Jackson, whom he much resembled in style and image as a sexy but nonthreatening biracial manchild, he was a perfect MTV trailblazer. His movie “Purple Rain” was incandescent, as was his 2007 Superbowl performance, fittingly in the rain, during which, in addition to “1999” and “Purple Rain,” he performed Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower,” Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary,” and “Best of You” by the Foo Fighters. He was one of a kind and is sorely missed.
I’d never heard of “Bohemian hellraiser” Brigid Murnaghan (1930-2017) prior to reading kindred spirit Frank McCourt’s autobiography ‘Tis. To use a favorite phrase of Irish-American McCourt, Murnaghan didn’t give a fiddler’s fart (i.e., a tinker’s dam or a flying fuck) about conventional moral standards and escaped the Irish Catholic Bronx neighborhood where she grew up in 1946, the year she turned 16. She later described the people she hung out with as “a lot of homosexuals, nice people, much nicer than anyone in the fucking Bronx, except for the Bronx zoo.” She became friends with Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Delmore Schwartz and other Beat poets and artists and gave frequent poetry readings at such establishments as the Kettle of Fish. Village Voice writer Bill Manville wrote that the six-foot-tall, long-legged blond with “a sailor’s mouth” was quite a sensation, more popular with audiences than more established poets.
Only a few of Murnaghan’s poems have been published in anthologies, but here are parts of three, “Daisy,” “Tweed,” and “To Be a Poet”:
“When I see daisies I want to see
A field covered
So I can stretch out and know if
They were picked they’d be dead in an hour.
The nice thing about tweeds is that you can eat in
Them, sleep in them, and even wet your pants in them, wear
Them the next day and have people say: How nice you
Look in them – just like a lady.
Did you hear the one about the Polish poet
Who was in it for the money?
They claim we are a race apart.
It’s as if we frighten them.
They won’t understand.
Frank McCourt was a high school teacher whose marriage did not survive his love of Greenwich Village night life and all that entailed. Unconventional in the classroom, he'd have students discuss Saturday morning cartoons they enjoyed as a kid or TV advertising jingles. Once he had Creative Writing students write children's books and invited third graders to critique them.