Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., reminds us of the human truths we can uncover from personal letters. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
A couple of years into my pursuit of an undergraduate degree at the University of Minnesota, I was threatened with summary expulsion. No, it wasn’t my grades; I had finagled my way into the honors program and maintained high marks. And no, it wasn’t my youthful predilection to juvenile delinquency—I was too busy studying to sustain that lifestyle. Rather, as the registrar’s office curtly informed me, I had failed to declare a major prior to the onset of my junior year.
Two days before the deadline, I met with a professor who would become a mentor and friend until the end of his life. Professor Paul L. Murphy—constitutional historian; social-justice advocate; Pulitzer Prize finalist; and gentleman—took an early interest in me. Professor Murphy and his wife would often invite me to dinner at their home where I was accepted as a “sibling” to his two daughters. What he saw in me, I don’t know. But his guidance in any number of issues always gave me clarity.
What did he say?
“Timothy,” he intoned, “what academic major other than history will allow you to read, analyze, and discuss other people’s letters and diaries?” It wasn’t advice, it was an observation. And I was sold. The next afternoon, 30 minutes before being asked to pack my bags, I entered “history” as my major.
I haven’t looked back.
Nor did I think much about this incident until the passing of my grandmother some years later. When my father and I cleaned out her home after her death, we found stacks of notebooks comprising my grandmother’s diary, which she had maintained from the age of 8. Her entries were initially written in Gaelic, the tongue of her native Ireland, and then suddenly transformed into proper English after she settled in the U.S. as a young immigrant. Finally, barely 10 days before cancer’s ultimate victory, she just as suddenly returned to her native language. Indeed, this recapitulation to Gaelic happened mid-sentence. Her final entries were all in Gaelic.
When I read those diaries, I recalled Professor Murphy’s observation.
Recently, I again remembered my mentor’s words when Sallie Showalter forwarded to me a file of her father’s correspondence from the Harvard Forest’s archival collections. I cannot describe the excitement I had scanning through Pud’s letters. Let me try to explain.
In them we see the arc of his relationships with family and friends, as well as his professional interactions and scientific observations. But more importantly we see the development of a “voice,” of an academic rueful and wry one minute, proper and scholarly the next. I read them and felt as if this absent and unknown man, a man I have known of since I was 15 years old but never met, was speaking to me. And I like him, enormously. I understand his world-vision, his striving, and his occasional self-doubt. But it is his humor—and his horrible handwriting—that sing to me.
Letters and diaries do that to you.
So let me end in a plea. In the next few days, I ask you to recover paper and pencil or pen, envelope, and stamp. Think of a loved one, a family member, a friend, or an acquaintance. Write that person a heart-felt letter in your own hand and post it by “snail-mail.” The subject doesn’t matter. It can be humorous or serious, gossipy or informative, apologetic or explanatory.
An unexpected letter may mean more to the recipient than you can anticipate. And you never know what historian will relish your words in some unimagined future.
Ed.--On June 23, 1955, Pud and his colleague John T. Hack were chased off a mountain near Bridgewater, Va., while doing work for the U.S. Geological Survey. They encountered eight other bears while conducting their research, but only one—a mother with two cubs—"attacked." The incident was enshrined in a local newspaper, in family lore, and--as in the following examples--in Pud's own self-deprecating humor.
In the following excerpt from a letter dated June 20, 1956, Pud tries to reassure Dr. Hugh Raup, the director of Harvard Forest who was out of the country for the summer, that all is well at the Forest during his absence.
It’s like a geode I’ve successfully cracked open but haven’t yet had the chance to examine. It’s waiting there expectantly, with all its sparkling treasure, this ancient trunk with its broken clasps and brittle leather straps.
It arrived yesterday, a mysterious portmanteau that holds within its confines the length and breadth of my great-grandfather’s restless mind and peripatetic wanderings: the sermons outlined, the teachers certified, the schools visited, the marriages performed, the eulogies delivered, the newspaper articles written, the farm business documented. His journal from 1876. Notebooks from his Georgetown College days that include Greek and Latin translations, advanced math, and notes about his roommates’ romances. The camera he took to Europe and the Holy Land in 1911. The pebbles collected from around the world. The 1920 registration card for “Old Danger,” the Ford he never drove. Sheet music and a piano method book. Virtuoso panegyrics to exotic lands.
All of Bro. W. D. Moore’s extraordinary life seems compressed in this chest. Photos, letters, postcards, itineraries, sermons, ledgers.
I’m itching to dig through it, to read every one of the letters and finger each artifact, trying to imagine his life. It may take my lifetime to look through it all. But it’s beckoning me to set aside my plans, ignore my commitments and kneel before this sarcophagus that holds another man’s secrets. What could possibly be more interesting? Or more important?
But, alas, it has to wait. I’m off on another adventure of my own, seeking to learn more about Dudley’s grandson, Martha’s youngest boy, my father. When I return from that journey, I’ll carve out the time to dive into this treasure chest and immerse myself in the minutiae of an uncommon life, a life that spanned nearly 80 years more than 100 years ago.
The trunk arrived after a curiously circuitous journey, after having been lost to the family for a number of years. I had no idea it even existed until a few months ago. It evidently has landed in my home now because others believe I have room to keep it—or, rather, that I will keep it safe. Or perhaps they know I’m a sucker for historical family documents. Whatever it’s tortuous path, it’s here now, for a stay of uncertain duration. Anyone interested is welcome to come visit and pan for gold.
As I’m able, I’ll share items from its contents that I think might interest you. Let me tease you with one of my favorites: a rare informal photo of the respected and beloved itinerant preacher.
Some people use a metal detector to find hidden treasure from the past. In fact, Rick and I talked to one such fellow the other day as we were loading our bikes in the car after a short ride through the Bluegrass countryside. Rick, never shy about approaching a stranger, asked the young man, Rob Mattingly, if he had found anything of interest there on the grounds of Great Crossing Park in Scott County.
That launched a far-reaching conversation that revealed, among other things, Mattingly’s startling grasp of regional and family history as well as his specific knowledge of glass bottles from 1870 to 1910. He had even done some searches on property in the Gilberts Creek area of Anderson and Mercer Counties. After hearing a brief summary of how his early family settled in Marion, Washington, and Nelson counties, we decided if he wasn’t related to the Goodletts he may well be related to the McClures—Charleen Goodlett’s family.
A couple of weeks before that excursion, Rick and I had joined cousins Sandy Goodlett and Ben Birdwhistell as we examined the amazing collection of a native Lawrenceburg resident, Brent Hawkins. Brent’s treasure trove of historical photos, maps, documents, whiskey bottles, and furniture—all related to Lawrenceburg and Anderson County—nearly knocked us off our feet. Most of his artifacts had been collected the old-fashioned way: by talking to area residents, expressing an interest in their family histories, and attending estate sales. Once we were able to focus our over-stimulated senses, we concentrated on the old steamer trunk full of memorabilia that once belonged to our great-grandfather, Bro. W. D. Moore. Watch for more about those findings in an upcoming blog.
Nearly a year ago, Murky Press’ resident archaeologist, David Hoefer, using one of the tools of all contemporary scientists and historians—the online search—stumbled across another family relic: my father’s paper titled “Kentucky Bourbon Whiskey.” Written in 1948, that term paper—identified as a “book”—is now preserved at the Harvard Botany Libraries. We know not why or how it found its home there. It’s more of a history of bourbon distilling in the U.S. than it is an examination of the plants used in the distilling process. But, in light of the purpose of the university’s Economic Botany Library, it does make sense: “The Economic Botany Library…specializes in materials related to economic botany or the commercial exploitation of plants. Subject areas cover ethnobotany, medicinal plants, hallucinogens and narcotics, crop plants, edible and poisonous plants, herbals and other rare pre-Linnean works….”
Since all of the materials in the botany libraries are non-circulating, we were struggling to get our hands on a copy. That’s when Brad Wilson, Bobby Cole’s son-in-law, stepped in to complete the excavation. A modern intrepid explorer, Brad, who happened to be in Boston for a family matter, crossed the Charles River to visit the Harvard campus in Cambridge and found his way to the proper library. There, with the kind assistance of the library staff, he dug out the infamous paper written by the war-weary, homesick graduate student.
I want to thank Brad for his role in unearthing this piece of family history. And, since I’m writing on D-Day, I want to recognize Bobby Cole and John Allen Moore and Rinky Routt and George McWilliams and Lin Morgan Mountjoy and John D. Goodlette and Vincent Goodlett and Billy Goodlett and John Campbell “Pud” Goodlett and all the other boys of The Last Resort who helped deliver Europe and the Pacific region from tyranny.
With a nod to my father’s four rules for field work*, history is where you find it. It’s personal. It’s regional. And it has implications for the entire world—for all of us. If we don’t honor it, recognize it, study it, and willingly take a few lessons from it, we will not endure.
On this day we honor the remaining veterans of World War II. We honor those who gave their lives on the shores of Normandy and all across the globe during that conflict. And we hope that our country’s leaders will once again consider the lessons that history can teach us.
Perhaps they can learn a thing or two from Rob Mattingly and Brent Hawkins, two average citizens in a red state who have invested hours and hours of their lives getting familiar with the past.
*Abbreviated version of Professor John C. Goodlett’s Four Rules of Field Work:
1. Water, generally, runs downhill.
2. Plants occur where you find them.
3. Never get separated from your lunch.
4. Never go back the same way you came.
For more about the Bond & Lillard Distillery, read Family Spirits.
For more about the discovery of my father's paper on bourbon, and his affection for the spirit, read Bonded to Kentucky.
In memory of Brad Wilson’s mother, Dixie (1937-2019), who raised one heckuva son.
By the time I was 14, I had read Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Pierre Boulle’s The Bridge Over the River Kwai, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. I don’t think I was particularly precocious or drawn to novels about war. These books just happened to be in my family’s library, and something I can’t possibly recall prompted me to pull them from the shelf. I’m certain I was a little young to fully appreciate the books, and I need to reread them all.
But I can tell you that these fictional representations of two world wars both fascinated and repelled me. I was horrified by the realities and the inanities of war, and reading these books made me militantly anti-war at a very young age.
As I prepared to write my own novel, I had to dig into each of these wars in a little more depth. The primary character, based somewhere between loosely and explicitly on the grandfather I never knew, served in France during World War I and accepted a job as a civilian at the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland during World War II.
I had already spent some time digging into WWII while David Hoefer and I were compiling The Last Resort. But, for the novel, I needed to know particulars, especially about the first few months of America’s involvement and how civilians responded to having the country engaged in yet another war.
WWI was much fuzzier for me, so I’ve done some reading over the past couple of years to catch up. I also had the good fortune of multiple visits to an expansive exhibit about the war, curated by Margaret Spratt, at the Hopewell Museum in Paris, Ky., in 2017. And today I attended a screening of the cinematic wizardry that is the film They Shall Not Grow Old, Peter Jackson’s montage of original film footage transformed by vast teams of immensely talented technicians and then overlaid with excerpts from BBC interviews with soldiers who served during the war. The result is a powerful immersion in the trench warfare experienced by tens of thousands of soldiers, many of them absurdly young. I came away wondering what I always do when I gain a clearer understanding of the brutality of war: how anyone survives intact.
I am by no means a scholar of these two wars. I do not have the depth or breadth of understanding of a curious high school student. But I have tried to grasp some kernel of truth about the sacrifices these men made and the moral lassitude that threatened their souls while fighting in a foreign land for reasons that weren’t always clear against men who in so many ways were just like them. If I have any hope of understanding my grandfather’s story, or my father’s story, I have to peer into that ugly maw, if only from the shelter of my comfortable armchair.
David Hoefer, co-editor of The Last Resort, shares a story of taxonomic serendipity. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
In a previous blog post, I discussed John Goodlett’s taxonomic activities at Camp Last Resort, where he identified and sketched living organisms (especially plants) as part of his undergraduate education at the University of Kentucky. Similar activities, recorded more scientifically in the Harvard Forest journal, indicate Pud’s gradual emergence as an upper-echelon botanist and plant geographer.
As such, it’s been a pleasure to read Corey Ford’s Where the Sea Breaks Its Back, a biography of the German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, with its demonstration of the vital and even heroic role taxonomy can play in helping us understand our planetary home. Steller accompanied Vitus Bering on his second and last expedition into the then-uncharted northern waters between Asia and North America in 1741-42. It was this expedition that finally confirmed that the landmass east of Siberia was in fact that same North America then being colonized by other European powers on the Atlantic Coast and by the Spanish in Central America and what is today the Southwestern U.S. and California. And what was the final piece of the puzzle that completed this realization? From Cape St. Elias on Kayak Island, Alaska:
“Perhaps no other naturalist in history ever accomplished so monumental a task under such difficulties and in so little time. It was four in the afternoon when Steller spread his specimens around him in the sand, and began to enter in his notebook the results of the previous six hours. When the yawl returned at five ‘o’ clock, he had completed his exhaustive report, the first scientific paper ever written on Alaskan natural history…
“Some plants in his collection were already familiar to him from his earlier investigations in Kamchatka. He identified the upland cranberry, the red and black whortleberry, and a shrub he called the scurvy berry, probably the black crowberry. He was more enthusiastic over ‘a new elsewhere unknown species of raspberry,’ the salmonberry of Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Although the berries were not yet fully ripe, Steller was impressed by their ‘great size, shape, and delicious taste’…
“The yawl brought what Steller ironically described as ‘the patriotic and courteous reply’ to his message to Bering, a brusque order to ‘betake myself on board quickly or they would leave me ashore without waiting for me.’ There were only three more hours left until sunset, barely time to ‘scrape together as much as possible before fleeing the country.’ He sent [his Cossack assistant] Lepekhin to shoot some strange and unknown birds he had noticed, easily distinguished from the European and Siberian species by their particularly bright coloring, and he started down the beach in the opposite direction, returning at sundown with his botanical collection.
“Lepekhin had equally good luck. He ‘placed in my hands a single specimen, of which I remember to have seen a likeness painted in lively colors and described in the newest account of the birds of the Carolinas.’ Steller’s fantastic memory had recalled a hand-colored plate of the eastern American Blue Jay in Mark Catesby’s Natural History of Carolina, Florida, etc., which he had seen years before in the library of the St. Petersburg Academy; and he identified Lepekhin’s find as its west coast cousin, known today as Cyanocitta stelleri, or Steller’s Jay. Now his last doubts about the land they had discovered were resolved. ‘This bird proved to me that we were really in America’” (Ford 1992/1966:80-2).
The price paid by the expeditionary force for this discovery was considerable. Beset with difficulties, many crew members perished on the way home, including Bering himself. Steller lived only a few short years after returning to Russia, but left behind his scientific writings, which eventually found their way into print. His current renown hung more than once by the slenderest of hairs.
As we recover from our holiday feasts, David Hoefer, co-editor of The Last Resort, reflects on the meals historically available to our troops in battle. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
I’ve recently been reading Theodore Roosevelt’s book The Rough Riders about his volunteer cavalry unit that fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. It’s very much an adulatory view of the conflict but, beneath the pro forma sentiments, there remains plenty of interest for the historically minded.
One point that comes across is the sheer difficulty of making war in modern times, regardless of the goals or objectives involved. The projection of large forces over great distances calls for sophisticated logistical systems—systems that are often assumed to exist even when they don’t. Roosevelt remarks more than once about the inadequacies of transport that confronted his men both going to and fighting at the fluid Cuban battlefront.
As for the food—well, let’s just say there weren’t a lot of farm-fresh homecooked spreads. Meals consisted of hardtack and sometimes rotten meat, with nary a fruit or vegetable in sight, and shortages of coffee and sugar, too.
Pud Goodlett faced similar challenges as he fought with Patton’s Third Army in Europe during the closing months of World War II. Winter weather and the Wehrmacht were the primary obstacles, of course, but maintaining adequate nourishment—or simply getting fed—would have been a major concern.
The U.S. Army’s answer was the K-ration, an individually packaged lightweight meal that supplied sufficient calories for soldiers in the field, at the expense of taste, variety, and other virtues of civilized eating.
To experience a K-ration meal—vicariously, of course—watch the video below. The contemporary narrator seems to have a genuine appreciation for the K-ration, which he examines in considerable detail. I wonder if Pud felt the same way, as he wolfed down the biscuits and smoked the cigarettes in some anonymous foxhole always too close to an increasingly desperate enemy?
The Last Resort—the camp along Salt River and, ultimately, the book by the same name—came to pass because of the bond that formed between two classmates. Pud Goodlett and Bobby Cole shared a love of the outdoors and relished the time they spent together fishing and hunting. At some point in their teen years they hatched the plan to build the cabin on the bluff above the river on the Cole family farm. Thus began the idyllic days described in Pud’s journal.
The relationship between the two boys appears deep and sometimes complicated. Pud is occasionally annoyed by Bobby’s radio, his fastidiousness, or his desire to head home for a shower and a shave after a few days at camp. But Pud is also proud of Bobby’s marksmanship and his ability to identify the trees along the river. It is clear that he is devoted to his friend, and his sadness when Bobby is called up for service is profound.
On November 1, 1942, Pud writes, “Went to camp early this morning for the first time since Bobby left. All the bottom seems to have fallen out of the joy of that wonderful, free life on the river. Bobby’s worrying about the dirty floor, the big leak, the state of his radio, the fact that our floor has spread and the countless other dear old-maidish things he did are gone, seemingly forever. I don’t believe I’ll ever be able to spend a weekend here until he can again spend it with me.”
Of course, Pud did return to the camp, but he had to enlist a whole group of young boys from his Scout troop to try to fill the hole created by Bobby’s absence. That never proved completely satisfactory, but it did allow Pud to extend his time at the camp until he, too, was called to fight a war.
From the limited evidence we have, the boys seemed tighter than mere friends. They seemed more like brothers.
In fact, we now know that they were cousins.
Bobby had a keen sense of his family’s history and its roots in the area, and I imagine he was aware that the nearly 400 acres his father and older brothers tilled had been in the family for generations. John W. Cole had pieced the property together in the 1880s from extensive lands owned by his Bond, Kavanaugh, and Penney (yes, of J.C. Penney lineage) ancestors. Some had settled the area in the late 1700s. The main Kavanaugh home had been built in 1840. The stone for the chimney Bobby and Pud constructed, which still stands today, was confiscated from the crumbling foundation of a former slave cabin.
On the farm, circa 1918. Left to right: James L. Bond (1855-1934), William B. Cole (1881-1983), Lula Roach Cole (1880-1964), J. W. Cole (1905-2001), Allen Carroll Cole (child, 1916-1987), John William Cole (1860-1924), Mary Louise Cole Ransdell (girl standing, 1911-1988), Annie Bond Cole (1862-1948), John W. Bond (1846-1929), Phoebe Utterback Bond (1851-1940). Photo provided by Bob Cole.
Bobby knew all this. But I doubt that Pud was aware of his own familial ties to the land.
Thanks to the curiosity of Bobby’s daughter, Julie, and to the detective abilities of her son, Nicholas, we now know that Pud and Bobby share a common ancestor. William F. Bond was born in Virginia in 1740. After his first wife died sometime around 1786, he accepted a land grant awarded for his Revolutionary War service and moved his four children west with the Penney and Burrus families to what is now central Kentucky. In 1790, he married Sarah Cranson, who hailed from what was then Woodford County, Virginia. William and Sarah had five more children. Bobby was a descendent of their oldest son, John. Pud was a descendent of their second oldest daughter, Ailse.
In fact, the boys can also trace their families back to a common Utterback ancestor. And Pud’s mother had connections to the Bond family through her maternal grandmother, Mary Ann Routt.
Of course, we’re talking about a small rural community. It’s no surprise that two families with longtime roots in the same geographic area have common ancestors.
But it somehow feels special to know that Pud and Bobby were connected by more than the teeming water of Salt River. They were connected by blood.
Transcription of marriage contract (with gratitude to Nick Wilson, Bobby Cole's grandson, for offering his legal and historical expertise):
Know all men by these presents that William Bond and Sherwood Knight are held and firmly bound unto his Excellency the Governor of this Commonwealth in the first and full sum of fifty pounds current money to which payment will and truly to be made we and every of us bind ourselves and every one of our heirs Executors and administrators jointly and severally firmly by these presents sealed and dated this 29th day of November 1790.
The condition of this obligation is that whereas a marriage is shortly intended to be solemnized between the above bound William Bond and Sally Cranson of the County of Woodford. Now if it shall hereafter always appear that there is no just cause to obstruct this said marriage then this obligation shall be void or else to remain in full force.
It’s a time of year I generally look forward to: crisp fall days, new colors altering the landscape, chipmunks and squirrels stocking the winter pantry, a reprieve from the sweat-soaked days of summer.
And Election Day.
I am the daughter of Pud and Mary Marrs Goodlett. My fate was sealed. I am a political animal.
I admit that I generally get caught up in electoral politics. The adrenaline begins to pump. I spend more time in front of the TV watching debates and interviews with the candidates. My highs and lows are more marked. And my hopes are frequently dashed.
This year, as the rhetoric heats up and our country seems to split further and further apart, I have spent a good bit of time thinking about the people who don’t share my passion for politics, the ones who can blithely enjoy the gifts of fall while ignoring the political shenanigans in the background. I particularly wonder about the huge percentage of citizens in this blessed country who do not vote, who seem to have no interest in participating in our democracy.
Voting to me is obligatory. I put it on my calendar and my to-do list like any other important appointment. I do my best to be informed about the candidates and the issues. I have never missed voting in an election.
So how, I ask myself, is it so easy for others to ignore what for me is a very special day?
As I thought about this, I recalled my introduction to voter engagement. After my father died and my mother moved our family to her Kentucky home town, I’m fairly certain I accompanied her to the polling place each time she voted. I went with her into the voting booth, watched her close the curtain, understood that it was a private, almost sacred, ritual she was performing. Sometimes I was aware of one or more of the candidates she was voting for. Occasionally I had helped stuff envelopes at the candidate’s local campaign headquarters. I imagine there were times when I was not as aware of who was on the ballot. But I perceived voting as one more responsibility of adulthood. And, just like banking or grocery shopping or returning library books, she was making sure I was familiar with the obligations that would one day be mine.
I think now that that experience removed any mystery from the voting process. I was never uneasy about going to the polls and pulling that lever or filling in that circle or selecting candidates on the touchpad. It was my duty. And I was excited to have the opportunity to voice my preferences.
But I have to remember that I am a middle-class white woman who has not (yet) been targeted as someone who certain candidates or certain parties want to prevent from voting. I’ve never felt intimidated at the polls. I understand that I may not know everything I need to know about every candidate, but I am usually satisfied that I have done my best to understand the values and the issues they represent. I trust that I am as capable as any other citizen to cast a vote.
Not everyone has had my experiences. Not everyone had a parent who pulled back the curtain and showed a young child how simple it is to participate in something so vitally important. Not everyone has been made to feel comfortable, or wanted, at the polls. Not everyone feels confident that she can make educated decisions about the candidates.
I, of course, want to encourage everyone to vote. But I also want to encourage you to reach out to a friend or neighbor or relative who may not have made it a habit to vote and help him or her get comfortable with the process. It may be a young adult who has just been awarded the privilege of voting. It may be a neighbor who doesn’t get out much and simply needs a ride to the voting site or help casting an absentee ballot. Perhaps it’s an elderly family member who never bothered because she didn’t feel knowledgeable enough or didn’t feel that her one vote made any difference.
Let me remind you how much your individual vote matters. In the 2015 Kentucky gubernatorial primary, Republican candidate Matt Bevin beat James Comer by 83 votes: 70,480 to 70,397. For those two candidates, you better believe every vote mattered.
So as you revel in the glory of fall, make sure you remember to vote on Nov. 6. It is our civic duty. We owe it to our parents, to our country, and to all of those who have been denied the opportunity to vote since the founding of this nation.
After reading last week's post Seductive Silence, Tim Cooper, of Oakdale, Minn., has been thinking about how a liberal arts education could encourage the empathy and resilience we so desperately need. If you would like to submit a blog post for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
Like many Americans, I was riveted to the television during the services for the late Sen. John McCain. It was a brief, and it appears now ephemeral, moment when we were reminded of the heroes among us who have been willing to put country above party or personal interests. My favorite McCain story related how a prisoner in the cell next to McCain’s at the Hanoi Hilton used a surreptitious tapping code to teach McCain the Robert Service poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” McCain’s daughter Meghan shared how he later recited the somewhat grisly poem to his future wife on their first date.
That was my first glimpse into the Renaissance man who was John McCain. I learned that his favorite author was Hemingway and his favorite novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. I learned that McCain regularly read novels and enjoyed writing.
While in the U.S. Navy, I attended classes at the Naval War College. The highlight for me was a lecture by Admiral James Stockdale, a man who had endured eight years as a prisoner of war, also in the infamous Hanoi Hilton. During the lecture, Stockdale revealed the key to his survival: His study of moral philosophy—particularly the Roman Stoics—while a student at Stanford had provided food for his mind during those endless days of tedium and fear. He was able to draw from his own intellectual reserves to provide the discipline and resilience he so desperately needed and avoid succumbing to the darkness. As president of the Naval War College, Stockdale later instituted classes in philosophy, literature, and history. For him, study of the liberal arts was not just a path to enlightenment; it could well be the key for another young serviceman’s survival.
It struck me that these two national heroes, either by their own habits or by their professional influence, were evangelists for the value of education in the humanities. We all face times when we need to draw from our knowledge or understanding of the human condition to survive a struggle that seems poised to drop us to our knees.
Sadly, a quick perusal of recent news articles reveals that the classic liberal arts curriculum is being relegated to history. Colleges in the University of Wisconsin system have eliminated English, sociology, political science, and history majors from their campuses. In their stead, these universities offer business, science, engineering, and computer technology centers.
In Lexington, Bryan Station High School has restructured its curriculum as the Academies of Lexington, an initiative dedicated to preparing students in grades 10 through 12 for future careers, careers that range from electrician to chef to computer programmer to paramedic. As I understand this new initiative, all curricular content is filtered through the lens of the student’s career aspiration.
Meanwhile, Eastern Kentucky University has made its marching band a peripheral “activity” separate from the school of music, eliminating its academic affiliation. My father, a man who abandoned hopes of a pro baseball career to become a professor in the music department at EKU (until his premature death in 1988), always promoted the marching band’s democratic pull, its ability to connect students from a variety of majors and interests and expand their experience with the arts.
These insidious changes also reached the parochial school where I taught for two decades before retiring in June. Students entering this institution are now encouraged to declare in middle school whether they would like to work toward a “business certification” that would be attached to their high school diploma. The goal is that, by taking business classes, students will attain what Bryan Station identifies as the ability to see real world applications in what they learn in the classroom.
But what have these students lost? At my former school, signing up for the business classes extinguishes the option of taking band, chorus, art, or photography. By devolving the marching band into a student activity, EKU has lessened the connection non-music majors had to an acclaimed music school. And by emphasizing the utilitarian nature of learning, Bryan Station’s program has obviated the concept of learning for learning’s sake.
My best friend during my undergraduate days at the University of Minnesota was a young man from rural Wisconsin who was interested in literature, theater, classical music, blues, jazz, and pop-culture. Kurt was also a business major. During his last two quarters at the “U,” Kurt contacted numerous companies about employment. Caterpillar Corporation called Kurt to arrange an all-day interview at their corporate headquarters in Peoria, Ill. Kurt asked me to drive down with him. After his very long day, I asked Kurt how the interviews had gone. He shook his head and responded, “It’s the craziest thing. They never once asked me about business. Instead, they asked about what I read, what I think about, what plays I had recently seen, whether I volunteer and why, and so on.”
A week later, when a representative from Caterpillar called to offer him the job, Kurt asked about the peculiar nature of the interviews. The representative responded simply and directly: “We can train anybody about our business, but we cannot teach people to be well-rounded.”
Readers of The Last Resort will recall that Pud Goodlett read Walden and Ridpath’s history, but also works by humorist James Thurber and contemporary popular fiction. They were all outside his academic interests in plant geography and ecology.
In The Last Resort, are we seeing the last of an era that encouraged Renaissance men? Have we relegated all that Pud and my dad were to myth, and have we replaced their world view with one regulated by market considerations? Have Senator McCain, Admiral Stockdale, and my friend Kurt become quaint examples of an ethic that no longer holds sway?
I am distressed that not only have colleges and universities become training grounds for careers, but so, too, have high schools. I am distressed that many future business leaders, politicians, and academics have not been exposed to a liberal arts education and have, instead, become technocrats in their own professions. And I am most especially distressed that the understanding, empathy, and, dare I say it, behavioral standards acquired from embracing moral philosophy, literature, and the creative arts seem to have been lost to the dictates of economic empowerment.
I can almost feel my mother rolling over in her grave.
On October 11, 1991, exactly one month before she died, I remember finding her in the recliner positioned next to her bed, riveted to the television. She was watching Anita Hill testify before the Senate about the sexual harassment she had endured while working for Clarence Thomas.
My mother was a political junkie. She had watched endless hours of the Watergate hearings in the 1970s. According to the journal my father kept in the 1950s, they had both closely followed the Joseph McCarthy hearings. So I suppose it shouldn’t have surprised me to see her following every detail of the shocking testimony.
But my mother was also in a losing battle with cancer, and I remember thinking it felt like a sad way to spend your final days. Her cancer had made this articulate, intelligent woman nearly mute, so it wasn’t possible for her to tell me what she thought about the spectacle. But it was discouraging for me to think that this might be her last image of the country her husband, already dead 24 years, had fought to defend.
My mother had worked in male-dominated businesses. She had been a chemist at two different Seagram’s distilleries. She had worked for the Navy in Hawaii during World War II. She had worked at a large university. She had worked for state government. I have to imagine that she had suffered sexual harassment at some point in her life. I can only hope it was not as degrading as what Hill so bravely described.
Of course, my mother had never mentioned any incidents of harassment to me. Nor had I ever told her about the sexual assaults I had experienced as a young woman. It never occurred to me to tell her—or anyone else, for that matter. I was fortunate in that my experiences did not seem to haunt me. Like so many, I felt I had somehow been at fault, although deep down I knew that was not true. I suppose I found the incidents embarrassing, a sign of my own weakness or naïveté. So I simply buried my memory of them and moved on.
Until I watched candidate Donald Trump brag about his penchant for sexually assaulting women. That moment brought everything back. To regain control over my own stories, I seethed in an op-ed about the presidential candidate’s behavior.
I’m in the majority, of course. In a January 2018 online survey sponsored by the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment and reported by NPR, 51 percent of women stated that they had been victims of unwelcome sexual touching. I’ll admit that number seems low to me. The survey also found that “81 percent of women and 43 percent of men had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime.”
In part because of the Anita Hill hearings, managers in workplaces across the country now receive regular training on how to handle accusations of sexual harassment. Most of us recognize that it is a pervasive problem that we are still struggling to address. Most of us understand that it is most commonly an abuse of power and has very little to do with sexual titillation.
Recently, we have all watched as women, spurred by the #MeToo movement, have found their voices and started naming the men who have victimized them. There has been a wave of courage, of provocative charges against people known and unknown in positions of power. In the last few days, a new movement, #WhyIDidntReport, has emerged in response to one of President Trump’s tweets.
And now, amid this backdrop, 27 years after Anita Hill attempted to educate the largely white male U.S. Senate about sexual harassment and its ramifications, we are once again watching a nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court deny allegations of sexual assault. The accuser is once again female, educated, professional. I had hoped that the process for investigating the allegation might be handled with more sensitivity and more honesty than we have witnessed so far. It seems we’re hearing the same old excuses. The powerful men have not relinquished control. The kid gloves that they initially so carefully displayed have now come off and it appears to be fair game to attack or bully or belittle the accuser.
Why does it feel like nothing has changed?
I think of my mother staring intently as our Congressional leaders exposed their vile inhumanity and their naked self-interest, and I am once again ashamed.