The Second 50

Living the good life

“Roosevelt in the White House, He’s Doing His Best”

“The worst president is closer by nature to the best then either is to anyone who has not gone through what it requires to become president.”  So said geopolitical strategist, George Friedman, in his illuminating, and at times, controversial, analytical jump forward in future, The Next Decade:  What the World Will Look Like.  This statement underscores my self-imposed inhibition to criticize any sitting President; an abeyance of censorious assessment that transcends political party loyalties.

This caveat established, it is time for another iteration of my Presidential mini-bio tract.  I am picking up where I left off last blog starting with Grover Cleveland and will end with Theodore Roosevelt; bridging the transition between the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries.  This sixteen year span also brought to end the era of “facial hair Presidents” that began in earnest with the Election of 1860.  During the period between Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt, eight of the 10 Presidents sported either a moustache or full beard.  In the 118 years since then, only one, William Howard Taft, President #27, has rocked facial bristles.  (A nice little piece of trivia you can use to impress your friends.)

This quartet of Presidents also presided during the historic stretch of time when the United States flexed both industrial and military muscle and forced admittance to the Pantheon of great nations.  Through war, diplomacy and a series of strategic annexations America established a strata of non-colonial imperialism thus firmly cementing the US’s global preeminence.  Truly a remarkable period in our Nation’s history and for the Presidents who made it happen.  Here they are.

 President #22: Grover Cleveland (Democrat)

Ask 10 people why we have had 45 Presidents but only 44 different men in the position and nine will respond with a blank stare. Our 22d President, Grover Cleveland, provides the answer to this quaint piece of trivia as he remains the only President to serve two non-consecutive terms. Cleveland captured the Presidency in 1884, lost his reelection bid in 1888 to Benjamin Harrison, then, in turn, defeated Harrison in 1892. Thus, by virtue of this US political anomaly, Grover Cleveland was our 22d and 24th President. For continuity purposes, I choose to focus only on Cleveland’s first term in this narrative.

Grover Cleveland was the first Democrat President after the American Civil War. Immediately prior to receiving the Democratic Party nomination, Cleveland was Governor of New York where he enjoyed the reputation of being a fiscal conservative and staunch and vociferous opponent of government corruption; two attributes he brought with him to the White house.

Like most Democrats of the time, Cleveland was ambivalent towards black civil rights and refused to use his federal authority to enforce the 15th Amendment (guaranteeing black Americans the right to vote.) Cleveland also demonstrated a penchant for vetoing bills designed to support American Civil War veterans; actions that many attributed to his stated fiscal conservatism, not the fact that he avoided service in the Civil War by paying $300 for a substitute to take his place (in fairness, a common practice of which, some who could afford to do so, took advantage.)

A bachelor upon entering the White House, President Cleveland married the daughter of his close friend. Cleveland became the only President to marry in the White House, and his bride, Frances Folsom, at twenty-one years old, remains the youngest First lady in American history.

In 1885, the U.S. nearly went to war – or, at the least, a battle of respective navies – with a neighbor to the south, Chile, during the Panamanian uprising in Colombia.  The U.S., bound by treaty to help maintain order in the South American country, dispatched ships and naval personnel to the Panamanian territory to help restore order.  Chile, flexing it very real military muscle, responded in kind.  A potential showdown ensued with President Cleveland ultimately ordering the withdrawal of U.S. forces.  The President’s prudence was fortunate because the Chilean armada, far superior at that time, would have, in all likelihood, defeated the American force quite handedly.  (This is just one instance during the 19th Century the U.S. almost went to war with Chile.  A fact I find quite astounding.  If you agree and desire to learn more, I suggest Chile and the United States: Empire in Conflicts by William F. Sater (1990.)

President Cleveland enjoyed the reputation of being an honest and capable Chief Executive and this favorable standing among voters allowed him to win the popular vote in the 1888 Election. Unfortunately for him, though, President Cleveland lost the electoral count to challenger, Benjamin Harrison, thus ending his chance at reelection to a second term. During his first Presidential stint, Cleveland uttered these words, clearly shaped by his economic conservatism:  “The lesson should be constantly enforced that though the people support the Government, Government should not support the people.”

 

 

President #23: Benjamin Harrison (Republican)

Our 23d President, Benjamin Harrison, lost the popular vote to incumbent President Grover Cleveland but captured the White House by earning more electoral votes. Like Presidents Grant, Garfield, Arthur and Hayes before him, Harrison was a Civil War veteran and a Republican. Harrison was also the grandson of our ninth President, William Henry Harrison and the great-grandson of Benjamin Harrison V, a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Benjamin Harrison left his successful law practice answering President Lincoln’s call for volunteers at the start of the Civil War. Rising to the rank of Brigadier General, Harrison led the 70th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Brigade in the Battles of Lost Mountain, Kennesaw Mountain, Marietta, Peachtree Creek and Atlanta. At the end of hostilities, General Harrison reentered private life, charted a political course and ultimately was elected to the US Senate.

While in Congress, Harrison was a huge proponent of black civil rights stating: “When and under what conditions is the black man to have a free ballot? When is he in fact to have those full civil rights which have so long been his in law?” Not surprisingly, he was also a vociferous champion for Civil War veterans advocating for pensions for both them and their widows. Harrison leveraged his admirable Senate record to secure the 1888 Republican Presidential nomination and defeated President Cleveland earning 233 electoral votes to the latter’s 168.

While President, Harrison focused on civil service reform signing into law the Dependent and Disability Pension Act, and attacked trust and monopolies via his endorsement of the Sherman Antitrust Law. He also continued his crusade for civil rights and fought to end voting rights transgressions inflicted on blacks.

Like President Cleveland before him, Harrison also used statesmanship to avoid the potential of war with Chile, this time over an altercation that occurred in 1891 in the port town of Valparaíso.  The crisis, dubbed “The Baltimore Affair” resulted from the stabbing death of two American sailors.  A dramatic escalation of tensions between Chile and the U.S. ensued and President Harrison’s demand for and securing of indemnities from the South American country as compensation ultimately quelled the fracas.  (Admittedly, a footnote in the U.S. military historiography but if you desire to learn more, check out Joyce S. Goldberg’s 1987 monograph, The Baltimore Affair.)

Unfortunately, Republican Party bosses viewed President Harrison’s Administration as failed and mounted a challenge to his renomination at the 1888 convention. Though Harrison was able to secure the nomination he was unable to defeat the Democrat candidate, former President Grover Cleveland.

Following his defeat, President Harrison retired to civilian life. Today, he is best remembered for his personal integrity and his intractable pursuit of equality and justice for black Americans. Benjamin Harrison, military leader and statesman, made this observation about the United States:  “No other people have a government more worthy of their respect and love or a land so magnificent in extent, so pleasant to look upon, and so full of generous suggestion to enterprise and labor.”

 Recommended Books about President Benjamin Harrison:

Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Warrior Harry J. Sievers (1952)

Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier Statesman Harry J. Sievers (1959)

Benjamin Harrison: Hoosier President Harry J. Sievers (1968)

President #24: Grover Cleveland (Democrat)

In a Presidential encore, our 22d President Grover Cleveland, became the 24th President by upsetting President Benjamin Harrison’s bid for reelection. Shortly after his inauguration, though, President Cleveland was forced to deal with his first crisis, the Panic of 1893. Brought on primarily by a collapse in the railroad industry, the Panic resulted in the most serious economic depression up until that time in U.S. history. Stock prices plummeted, banks closed and businesses failed. Americans blamed President Cleveland for this crisis; an unfair verdict given he had only been in office a few months before the meltdown. Regardless, Cleveland and the Democratic Congress paid a steep price for the economic downturn.

Shortly after starting his second term, President Cleveland was faced with a serious domestic crisis when the American Railway Union ordered a nationwide strike against the Pullman Railway Company, all but paralyzing the nation’s ability to move.  Using the rationale that the crippling strike threatened public safety and impeded U.S. commerce, President Cleveland, using his legal and Constitutional responsibility to ensure mail service ordered the U.S. Army to intervene.  The arrival of the military and the subsequent deaths of workers in violence led to further outbreaks of violence. During the course of the strike, 30 strikers were killed and 57 were wounded and ultimately, the strike was broken.  (For a more in depth look at this striking (no pun intended) and historically infrequent use of a Presidential prerogative, take a look at The Pullman Strike and the Crisis of the 1890s: ESSAYS ON LABOR AND POLITICS  edited by Richard Schneirov (1987.)

Regarding civil rights, President Cleveland opposed the Force Bill – the Federal Elections Bill as it is more frequently noted – which was focused primarily on ensuring black Americans had the right to vote. This move was one of many President Cleveland executed as a means of building a Democrat Party power base in the South.  Additionally, although he expressed outrage at the widespread attacks and discrimination that prevailed against Chinese immigrants in America during this period, most especially the “Rock Springs Massacre” that occurred in 1885 in Wyoming and resulted in the deaths of at least 30 Chinese immigrants, he did little to thwart the practice.  For the most part, President Cleveland blamed this outrage on immigrant’s own unwillingness to assimilate into “white” society.

President Cleveland also exercised his Executive prerogative, the veto – over 300 times – , more frequently than any President before or since. As such, he is viewed as one who strengthened the office of the Chief Executive significantly. Additionally, the integrity and honesty he demonstrated during his first Presidential stint prevailed during his second stay in the Oval Office.

The Democratic Party failed to nominate President Cleveland for a third term and he retired from politics upon leaving the White House. Aside from being the only President elected to two non-consecutive terms, Grover Cleveland was also the first President ever filmed and his portrait graces the obverse of the U.S $1000 bill.

About the value of hard work, President Cleveland had this to say:  “The truly American sentiment recognizes the dignity of labor and the fact that honor lies in natural toil.”

Recommended Books about President Grover Cleveland:

Grover Cleveland: A Study in Courage Allan Nevins (1932)

Grove Cleveland: A Study in Character Alyn Brodsky (2000)

 President #25: William McKinley (Republican)

Our 25th President, William McKinley, was the last American Civil War veteran elected as Chief Executive. Entering the war as a private, McKinley served from 1861 to 1865 with the 23d Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment. He was promoted to lieutenant for valorous actions during the Battle of Antietam and by war’s end, was a major. During his time with the 23d Regiment, McKinley participated in every major battle fought in the Shenandoah Valley.

After the war, McKinley decided on a career in law and received his first exposure to politics writing speeches for his wartime friend, Rutherford B. Hayes’ (future President) gubernatorial campaign in 1867. Serving for several years in state and local positions, McKinley was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1877. He served in Congress until 1883 and again from 1885-91. In 1892, Ohio voters elected McKinley their governor where he served until earning the Republican Presidential Nomination in 1896. During the general election, William McKinley defeated Democrat William Jennings Bryan to become our twenty-third President.

Unlike the post-Civil War Republican Presidents that preceded him, civil rights advocacy was less a part of President McKinley platform than others. Though President McKinley appointed blacks into many low-level governmental positions, he did not attack racial inequality issues with the same fervor as his Republican predecessors. Instead, President McKinley focused on international issues and during his first term the U.S. became world power, when, as Commander-in-Chief, he deployed Army troops and the Navy beyond the North American continent to battle Spanish forces in Cuba, the Philippines and Puerto Rico.

President McKinley also deployed Army and Marine forces to China to quell the Boxer Rebellion as part of a coalition effort, the China Relief Expedition. The result of these military forays was the largest expansion of U.S. territory since the Mexican-American War. All total, the U.S. gained the territories Puerto Rico, Guam, American Samoa, the Philippines and annexed the Republic of Hawaii thus expanding U.S. influence around the world.  (If you are interested in learning more about this collection of events, I suggest the following:  The Boxer Rebellion and the Great Game in China by David J. Silbey (2013), The Philippine War, 1899-1902 , Brian McAllister Linn (2000), Empire by Default: The Spanish-Amercian War and the Dawn of the American Century, Ivan Musicant (1998.)

With his first term viewed a success, President McKinley ran for reelection in 1900, this time with a new Vice-President running mate, the young Republican rising star, Theodore Roosevelt. William Jennings Bryan was again the Democrat challenger and again McKinley was victorious in a landslide.

On 6 September 1901, just six months into his second term, however, President McKinley was shot by an anarchist while attending the Pan-American Exposition in NY. Mortally wounded, President McKinley died from his wounds nine days later. Remembered for his personal integrity, honesty and scrupulous tenure as Chief Executive, President McKinley’s portrait adorns the US $500 bill.

During his first term, President McKinley made this prescient observation: “The best way for the Government to maintain its credit is to pay as it goes—not by resorting to loans, but by keeping out of debt—through an adequate income secured by a system of taxation, external or internal, or both.”

 

William McKinley: Architect of the American Century Robert W. Merry (2017)

The President and the Assassin: McKinley, Terror and Empire Scott Miller (2011)

In the Days of McKinley Margaret Leech (1959)

President #26: Theodore Roosevelt (Republican)

By far, Theodore Roosevelt is my favorite President. I admire him for many reasons, foremost, for his unwavering love of country and his willingness to volunteer to serve the US in time of war. He instilled this same sense of patriotism in his sons with all four serving in the World Wars. That said, I hope my effusive praise does not overly distort the objectivity of the following narrative.

Our 26th President, Theodore Roosevelt, was the 5th Vice-President to ascend to the Oval Office following the death of a sitting President and the third to enter the White House following a Presidential assassination. At 42 years, 322 days, Roosevelt remains the youngest Chief Executive to ever serve.

Despite his young age, Theodore Roosevelt is arguably our most accomplished President. Politician, bona fide war hero, prolific author, accomplished naturalist and conservationist, adventurer, big game hunter, rancher and published ornithologist are but a few nouns that accurately describe Roosevelt. Theodore Roosevelt remains the only President awarded both the Nobel Peace Prize and the Medal of Honor. The former for mediating an end to the 1904-1905 war between Japan and Russia and the latter for his heroic actions leading the U.S. assault in the Battle of San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War, 1898.

During his childhood, Theodore Roosevelt was plagued by asthma and other illnesses; conditions that shaped his life. As he grew, Roosevelt exercised, boxed and forced himself to engage in strenuous activity as a means of building his constitution. Home-schooled, he also developed a keen interest in nature, the sciences and reading. Roosevelt’s arduous regime of study and activity proved successful and by the time he entered Harvard University in 1876, he was physically robust, mentally sturdy, tenaciously driven to succeed and, possessing an eidetic memory, leveraged these characteristics to greatness.

While a student at Harvard, Roosevelt began work on a book he later published, The Naval War of 1812.   An instant classic, this book remains one of the most preeminent studies of naval warfare ever written. All total, President Roosevelt’s prodigious literary output includes twenty-six books, hundreds of magazine articles and thousands of speeches and letters. Of the 44 men who have served as President, Roosevelt is by far the most published and prolific.  (Of Roosevelt’s many publications, Theodore Roosevelt’s Letters to His Children (1919), is one of my favorites.  A varied collection of missives addressed to Roosevelt’s children at various points in their lives.  At times illuminating, at times informative, at times guiding; always poignant and beautifully written.)

After graduating magna cum laude from Harvard, Roosevelt entered Columbia Law School but quickly grew disenchanted with the probability of a legal career. Instead, he focused on politics and running as a Republican, Roosevelt was elected to the New York State Assembly in 1881. In 1884, two days after giving birth to Roosevelt’s first child, his wife, Alice, died of kidney failure. Alice’s death came only hours after Roosevelt’s mother – who lived with Theodore – passed away following a bout with typhoid fever.

The double tragedy devastated Roosevelt. He ordered those around him not to mention his wife’s name. Burdened by grief, he abandoned politics, left his infant daughter with his sister, and, at the end of 1884, struck out for the Dakota territories, where he lived as a rancher and worked as a sheriff for two years. When not engrossed in raising cattle or acting as the local lawman, Roosevelt found time to indulge his passion for reading and writing history. After a blizzard wiped out his prized herd of cattle in 1885, Roosevelt decided to return to eastern society.

Once back in New York in 1886, Roosevelt remarried and reentered politics. First serving as a civil service commissioner, he earned a reputation as an enthusiastic and ruthless advocate against political corruption. Later, as a New York City Police Commissioner, Roosevelt radically reformed what was, one of the most corrupt police forces in the nation. During this period he was described as “an iron-willed leader of unimpeachable honesty.”  (Island of Vice: Theodore Roosevelt’s Doomed Quest to Clean up Sin-loving New York  by Richard Zacks (2011), is a rollicking historical tale of Police Commissioner Roosevelt’s attempts to wipe out widespread vice in the Big Apple.)

These exploits earned Theodore Roosevelt an appointment as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, a position he retained until resigning in 1898 at the start of the Spanish-American War.  Roosevelt resigned so that he could volunteer for military service and was appointed lieutenant colonel with the 1st U.S Volunteer Infantry Regiment, a unit he helped form. History remembers this eclectic assortment of cowboys, police officers hunters, gamblers, Indians, Ivy League college students and former soldiers as the “Rough Riders.” After a brief training period in Texas, Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders departed for Cuba to engage Spanish Army forces in control of the island.

During their time in Cuba, the Rough Riders participated in the three key battles of the war, to include San Juan where Colonel Roosevelt courageously led his men on a successful charge up Kettle Hill. Under intense Spanish fire, Roosevelt, on horseback and fully exposed, encouraged his men forward against entrenched enemy soldiers. For his actions, Roosevelt was awarded the Medal of Honor. Roosevelt considered this his supreme moment – his “crowded hour” – and forever viewed “Colonel” the finest sobriquet he ever earned. Even after leaving the White House, Roosevelt insisted on being called “Colonel” not “Mr. President.”

Upon his return from Cuba, Roosevelt used his wartime fame as a catalyst to gain the governorship of New York and from there earned the nomination as Republican Presidential Candidate, William McKinley’s, running mate in the 1900 Election. The ticket victorious in the election, Roosevelt’s term as Vice-President was short lived, however, as he ascended to the Presidency following President McKinley’s assassination.

President Roosevelt led as a “progressive” and was a champion for reform and vigorously attacked big business monopolies and trusts. His most significant contributions were in the area of conservation. Stating “There can be no greater issue than that of conservation in this country”, President Roosevelt was instrumental in the creation of four National Game Preserves, 150 National Forests, 18 National Monuments and the permanent set aside of over 250 million acres of U.S. land for the perpetual enjoyment of future generations of Americans.  (Historian, Douglas Brinkley, beautifully, and with much conviction, underscores Roosevelt’s peerless record as a conservationist in his magisterial 2009 opus,  The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, 1858-1919 as does Darrin Lunde in his equally vivid 2017 narrative The Naturalist: Theodore Roosevelt, A Lifetime of Exploration, and the Triumph of American Natural History)

President Roosevelt finished President McKinley’s term then won reelection in a landslide victory over his Democrat opponent, Alton B. Parker.   Accomplishments during this second term were many and varied with a focus on social and political reform and conservation.   In 1905, he successfully negotiated the Portsmouth Treaty, which ended the Russo-Japanese War and earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. He also created the U.S. Forest Service, dismantled the Beef Trust, and indicted Standard Oil for violating the Sherman Act.

In 1906, Roosevelt signed three acts (Forest Homestead, Hepburn Rate, and Meat Inspection), created numerous national monuments, and signed the Antiquities Act. By 1907, he had created four more national monuments, appointed the Inland Waterways Commission, admitted Oklahoma as the 46th state, and enacted the Immigration Act. The year of 1908 saw the emergency of the Employer’s Liability Act, designation of the Grand Canyon and six other national monuments, and the sale of the first U.S. postage stamp.

Throughout the remainder of his term he also found himself prosecuting war in The Philippines –  a adjunct to the victory over Spain President McKinley orchestrated in 1898.  (For more on this latter undertaking, I strongly suggest reading Honor in the Dust: Theodore Roosevelt, War in the Philippines, and the Rise and Fall of America’s Imperial Dream by Gregg Jones (2012.)  The book brilliantly captures an era brimming with American optimism and confidence as the nation expanded its influence abroad and President Roosevelt’s role at the forefront of the events.  For a more specific and scholarly glimpse of the war Roosevelt inherited, James R. Arnold’s 2011 analysis, The Moro War: How America Battled a Muslim Insurgency in the Philippine Jungle, 1902-1913, is masterful.)

Prior to this election, Roosevelt promised not to seek a third term, a decision he regretted almost immediately. Though pressured to go back on his word, he refused and left the White House in 1908 paving the way for his handpicked protégée, William Howard Taft, to follow. In retirement, “Colonel” Roosevelt remained his prominence within the Republican Party but spent a year in Africa on expedition on behalf of the Smithsonian Institute.

Unhappy with the performance of President Taft and desirous of another White House term, Roosevelt challenged the former for the 1912 nomination. His bid was unsuccessful and he ran as a third party candidate under the Progressive Party banner.  While campaigning, Roosevelt was shot by a would-be assassin. As an experienced hunter and anatomist, Roosevelt correctly concluded that since he was not coughing blood, the bullet had not completely penetrated the chest wall to his lung, and so declined suggestions he go to the hospital immediately. Instead, he delivered his scheduled speech with blood seeping into his shirt. He spoke for 90 minutes. His opening comments to the gathered crowd were, “Ladies and gentlemen, I don’t know whether you fully understand that I have just been shot; but it takes more than that to kill a Bull Moose.”

Roosevelt’s decision to run as a third party candidate split the Republican Party and although he earned more votes than the incumbent President Taft (the only time in our history when a third party Presidential candidate placed higher than one of the two primary parties) Democrat Woodrow Wilson won the election despite only receiving 41% of the vote. This defeat marked the end of Roosevelt’s amazing political career.   (To gain a keener understanding of the events that unfolded during this rambunctious election, peruse a copy of James Chace’s 2005 historical summary, 1912: Wilson, Roosevelt, Taft and Debs — The Election that Changed the Country.)

To assuage his remorse over defeat in the 1912 election, Colonel Roosevelt undertook a treacherous expedition into the Brazilian jungle. He explored and navigated an uncharted 625 mile section of the Amazon River, hereafter named Rio Roosevelt, with the harrowing ordeal almost costing him his life several times.  (For a more intricate look at this spellbinding tale of risk and survival, please read Candice Millard’s 2006 book, River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey.  It reads like a Spielberg script and begs the question:  Why has this story not become a movie?)

At the onset of the American entry into World War I in 1918, former President Roosevelt volunteered to raise a combat infantry division with the understanding he could lead it in battle. Much to his chagrin, President Wilson denied Roosevelt’s request.  Roosevelt’s four sons, however, did volunteer to serve and all engaged in extensive combat. His youngest son, Quentin, an Army pilot, was shot down and killed in France.  (For a very insightful and exciting account of the Roosevelt’s selfless and fearless contribution to the Nation at war, I cannot more highly recommend Edward J. Renehan, Jr.’s 1998 elegant narrative, The Lion’s Pride: Theodore Roosevelt and His Family in Peace and War.)

Theodore Roosevelt never fully recovered from Quentin’s death and he passed away in his sleep on January 6th 1919. In a eulogy that best personified Theodore Roosevelt, Vice-President Thomas R. Marshall, said that “Death had to take Roosevelt sleeping, for if he had been awake, there would have been a fight.”

During his 59 years, Theodore Roosevelt left a volume of reflective and everlasting commentary; none more profound than this delivered in a 1910 speech at the University of Paris, Sorbonne:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”

 

 

The photos above are from the President Theodore Roosevelt homage located in my home office.  They feature the Colonel Theodore Roosevelt – in his Rough Rider uniform from the Spanish-American War, 1898 – G.I. Joe along with seven of the very best biographies of the great leader:

“The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt” – Edmund Morris

“Theodore Rex” – Edmund Morris

“Colonel Roosevelt” – Edmund Morris

“The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey” – Candice Millard

“Theodore Roosevelt: A Strenuous Life” – Kathleen Dalton

“The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America” – Douglas Brinkley

“T.R.: The Last Romantic” –  H. W. Brands

With this week’s entry complete – and counting the previous blog “These are the Presidents, Mighty, Mighty Presidents, Uh-huh, Uh-huh” – we have 10 President bios done and 34 more to go. 

This blog entry title is a verse from the 1926 American folk song, “The White House Blues” by Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers.

If you enjoyed this blog entry please share the link with your friends and anyone else you think may also enjoy it.  Thanks!-

“These are the Presidents, Mighty, Mighty Presidents, Uh-huh, Uh-huh”

Since long before I could legally cast a ballot in any legitimate election, I have been fascinated by American politics. Thinking back across five decades (gosh, nearly six) of my life, John F. Kennedy is the first Presidential name I can remember as a young child.   I was four and can vividly recall when, straddling the back rungs of a tricycle being piloted, rather recklessly I suspect, by my best friend du jour, I overheard a neighbor yell to my Mom, “President Kennedy has been shot.”

 In all likelihood, my affinity for American Presidents began at that moment. If not, then certainly my fondness for all things Presidential began with my 7th grade teacher, Sister Joan Ignatius’, decision to cast me in a lead role in Saint Mary’s grade school mock 1972 Presidential Debate. That I portrayed the hapless loser of the election, Democratic challenger, Sen. George McGovern, and not the incumbent, President Richard Nixon, did nothing to dim my fondness for Presidential history. (It should be noted that unlike the actual election itself, I, as McGovern, actually won the debate against my Nixon surrogate; so said my classmates who voted!)

The study of our Presidents has been a lifelong passion since those halcyon days of my youth. As an adult, I have read well over 250 Presidential biographies or examinations of specific events in their respective careers.   My own personal library, in fact, contains over 150 volumes devoted solely to Presidential history. So strong is my affection for the study of our Presidents, I put partisan politics aside and read about all of them with equal gusto; applying, as best I can, objectivity to each biographical analysis and study.

Of the 44 men who have served as our Chief Executive (yes, I know, kind reader, we have had 45 Presidents so why only 44 men; well one, Grover Cleveland, actually served two nonconsecutive, being our 22d and 24th President) I have read extensively about all of them save for President Trump. This omission of our current Commander-in-Chief should not be viewed as an indictment though. Simply put, he has not been President long enough to provide any author a record of performance to gauge with any degree of scrupulous effectiveness.

In my library, you will find at least one book on every President. For a few – Warren G, Harding and Martin van Buren for example – you will find only two or three narratives. For the majority though, you can locate numerous. In most cases, the number of volumes I maintain in my collection is a direct correlation to my respect and fondness for that particular President. In that regard, Theodore Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan lead the pack with U.S. Grant, James K. Polk and George H.W. Bush in close second. There are exceptions to this rule, though, as although I don’t quite admire Lyndon B. Johnson, Herbert Hoover or Franklin D. Roosevelt, I find each and their respective accomplishments fascinating and thus, have several books about them.

So profound is my respect for the office of the United States Presidency, I try very hard not to criticize any leader currently occupying 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC. With rare exception I have been able to uphold this self-imposed constraint.   My reserve at being critical is borne from a two-fold belief that 1) the position of the President of the United States is the MOST difficult responsibility in the world and 2) NO ONE seeks the position with the intention of failing.

As a corollary to this belief, I firmly – some would argue naively – believe that every President governs in a way they feel most beneficial to all Americans. At the end of the day, I feel confident NONE of the 44 people who have led our Nation, did so from the perspective of: “Let me see how I can screw this up.” Have all Presidents made mistakes? Hell, yes. But, I don’t think any did so with the overt intention of doing wrong.

Americans have proven a fickle lot when evaluating Presidential performance; harsh and unforgiving in the contemporary moment, but benevolent and lenient when viewing Presidents thru the magnanimous aperture of time. For instance, our 33rd President, Harry S. Truman left office in 1957 with an abysmal 30% approval rating. Today, 60 years removed from office, historians rank him in the upper echelon of his Presidential peers.

Most recently, our 43rd President, George W. Bush, departed the White House in 2009 with an approval rating hovering around 25%, excoriated and disparaged with unbridled ferocity by the Left and some in the Right during most of his term. Now, according to polling data, eight years removed from office, over 50% of the population approves of his performance during his eight year tenure. (Say what you will about some of W’s decisions; at the end of the day I am convinced he was a person of principle.) When President Barack Obama departed the White House, Americans were far less enamored with him then when he entered the Oval Office eight years earlier. I suspect his star will rise once again over time as well.

I recently read two new Presidential biographies that caused me to have an epiphany of sorts about both subjects: James Madison and Chester A. Arthur. When I finished the tandem of narratives, I walked away with a much greater appreciation for both men. In the case of Madison, while I knew he was an important original member of the Founding Fathers, his true significance to me was lost due to my perennial fascination with the other great leaders of that period, Washington, Jefferson, et al. Following is a synopsis of the book I posted shortly after I completed my read:

“The latest biography of James Madison, our 4th President, The Three Lives of James Madison: Genius, Partisan, President, by Noah Feldman, is nothing short of fascinating. It not only provides an insightful overview of Madison, more brilliantly, it serves as an engrossing and penetrating analysis of our Nation’s early and very tenuous formative years. Back to Madison, the narrative that author Feldman weaves underscores with great impact the critical role the former played in the creation of the United States of America. Madison helped author “The Federalist Papers”, penned the “Bill of Rights” and wrote much of the Constitution; more than any other Founder orchestrated the Constitutional Convention of 1787. He emerges as a truly remarkable visionary.”

“The book is also filled with interesting anecdotes. For example, newly elected President Washington asked Madison to write for him his first Presidential Address to Congress. Madison did, but since he was a membe r of Congress was asked by his colleagues to write the Congressional response to Washington. Finally, Washington then asked Madison to write the Presidential response back to Congress. Madison wrote all three addresses in secret so no one knew he was essentially having a conversation with himself between the three addresses.”

The volume about President Arthur proved equally illuminating. The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur by Scott A. Greenberger is a fascinating study that for me, totally upended the way I viewed a leader that in the past has been maligned and tossed into the dustbin of failed Presidents. Arthur, heretofore from my perspective, a mediocre and uninspiring leader – a Presidential afterthought if you will – emerges from the scrupulously researched narrative in a completely new light.

The allure of the Presidency and my enthrallment with the Presidents and their collective tableau of achievements and disappointments, successes and failures, strengths and weaknesses, triumphs and shortcomings and the decisions that have shaped our Great Nation for over 241 years is a passion I strive to share with all I meet. It is why, several years ago, while on one of my many deployments to Afghanistan, I started writing and posting on Facebook, a daily short bio on each.

For Presidents #1 thru #15 – Washington to Buchanan – the bios were very short. Typically one paragraph coupled with an inspiring quote attributable to the respective President (Quotes? I know, some of y’all likely thought quotes were something I started just for The Second Fifty blog; fess up.) With President #16, Abraham Lincoln, however, I turned a switch and suddenly became prolific – or verbose based on one’s perspective – and started churning out more comprehensive narratives.

Response to my Presidential musings was enthusiastic and encouraging. I was on a roll until I hit our 37th President, Richard M. Nixon, and ran out of steam. Or, my time was hijacked by a small inconvenience called war for at the time I was in Afghanistan. Regardless, I never regained momentum and the effort stopped with Nixon; until now, that is. Recently one of my close friends suggested I revisit my Presidential bios as a feature of this blog. The more I thought about the recommendation, the more sense it made so here we are: The George Reynolds Presidential Essay Encore.

This blog entry, my 27th, will be a reset of the Presidential narratives I crafted several years ago for a different forum. They are revised, updated and, I hope, improved. For this first set, I have chosen to start with the venerable Abraham Lincoln, our 16th President and conclude with Chester A. Arthur, President #21.  In addition to my narrative, you will find embedded images used to embellish my commentary. I hope enjoy.

President #16: Abraham Lincoln (Republican)

Rising from truly humble beginnings – he was born in a backwoods Kentucky log cabin – our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln, through ironclad will and steely determination, led the United States thru the most critical period of its 237 year existence, the American Civil War.  In doing so, he earned the distinction of many as the greatest of all our Presidents.

Two years prior to his Presidential election, Abraham Lincoln voicing concern over the danger of slavery-based disunion, uttered these prophetic words:  “‘A house divided against itself cannot stand.’ I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved – I do not expect the house to fall – but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

In 1860, upon his election as President, 11 southern states seceded from the Union, forming the Confederate States of America. President Lincoln, refusing to acknowledge this disunion, firmly led Union forces in total war against the Confederate Armies. During this struggle, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, making free all the slaves in the Southern States.

Abraham Lincoln’s eloquence and statesmanship were grounded in his skills as a politician. He was not only President and Commander-in-Chief but also leader of the Republican Party and was in fact, our first Republican President.  Lincoln and his party pledged to adopt a Constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Unfortunately, President Lincoln did not live to see the final ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment as he was assassinated days after General Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia to the Union forces of General Grant.

It is hard to overstate President Abraham Lincoln’s significance in our National history. His prominence among Presidential peers is rarely rivaled. More so, Abraham Lincoln remains in the eyes of many – this author included – , one of the greatest Americans ever.  In my humble opinion, while he is not my favorite, I truly believe he was the greatest President in our Nation’s history.

On 19 November 1863, a short four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, the pivotal engagement of the Civil War and one in which over 51,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded, President Lincoln addressed those gathered for the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. His profound words, lasting a little over two minutes in duration, provide the text considered by many to be one of the greatest speeches in American history:  “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”

 

Recommended Books about President Lincoln:

Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2 vol) Michael Burlingame (2008)

A. Lincoln: A Biography Ronald C. White, Jr. (2009)

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln Doris Kearns Goodwin (2005)

President #17: Andrew Johnson (Democrat)

Our 17th President, Andrew Johnson, became the third Vice-President to ascend to the office of Chief Executive upon the death of a sitting President. In 1864, President Lincoln, a Republican, picked Johnson, a Southern Democrat, as his running mate to strengthen his chances for reelection. Johnson was the only Southern senator who stayed loyal to the union and Lincoln shrewdly viewed his selection as a plausible means of appealing to the Border States (Kentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Delaware, West Virginia, Kansas and Maryland) and Northern Democrats. Lincoln’s gamble was successful as he trounced his Democrat rival, General George McClellan, in the election.

Upon Lincoln’s assassination, April 1865, Andrew Johnson was sworn in as our 17th President. Although President Johnson was disparaged by Southerners, he opposed the extension of civil rights and suffrage for former black slaves thus infuriating Congressional Republicans. In 1866, Congress passed the Freedmen’s Bureau Bill, providing essentials for former slaves and protection of their rights in court. They then passed the Civil Rights Act, defining all persons born in the United States as citizens. Johnson vetoed these two measures because he felt that Southern states were not represented in Congress and believed that setting suffrage policy was the responsibility of the states, not the federal government.

In February 1868, President Johnson became the first President to be impeached – Bill Clinton was the second – by the House of Representatives, specifically for violating the Tenure of Office Act but also for failing to sustain Reconstruction and for refusing to promote measures intended to support the rights of Black Americans. President Johnson was spared removal from office – as was President Clinton –  as the Senate failed to convict him. Regardless, his Presidency was effectively over at that point and he did not run for reelection. President Johnson is viewed by many scholars as one of the least effective men to ever occupy the White House. Despite his shortcomings, several sage quotes are attributed to President Johnson to include the following:  “Legislation can neither be wise nor just which seeks the welfare of a single interest at the expense and to the injury of many and varied interests.”

 

Recommended books about President Andrew Johnson:

Impeached: The Trial of Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln’s Legacy David Stewart (2009)

Andrew Johnson: A Biography Hans Trefousse (1989)

President #18, Ulysses S. Grant (Republican)

Like many of the Presidents that preceded him, our 18th President, Ulysses S. Grant, was a former military officer. A graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, President Grant served in the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), left the Army, only to return at the start of the American Civil War (1861-1865.) Answering President Lincoln’s call for 75,000 volunteers, Grant accepted Illinois Governor Yates’ appointment as a Colonel in command of the 21st Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment.

Originally commanding in the Western Theater of the war (the area east of the Mississippi River and west of the Appalachian Mountains), Grant’s reputation rose quickly with capable performances at the Battles of Forts Henry and Donelson, Shiloh and his capture of the strategic Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, 4 July 1863. After General Grant’s victory at Chattanooga, Tennessee, in 1864, President Lincoln, exasperated over a series of ineffective Union Army leaders, placed General Grant in command of all Union forces with promotion to the rank of Lieutenant General of the Armed Forces, a position only ever held by George Washington.

When rivals of Grant tried to discredit him by spreading rumors of his alleged alcoholism, (subsequently and historically disproved) President Lincoln wryly replied “If it [alcohol] makes fighting men like Grant, then find out what he drinks, and send my other commanders a case!”

Moving east, Grant’s forces persistently pursued Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and engaged in a series of ferociously brutal battles of attrition that the latter could not sustain. Lee ultimately capitulated in April, 1865 all but ending the four year civil war. Following the end of hostilities, Grant commanded the occupation army of the South during Reconstruction.

Capitalizing on his popularity, the Republican Party nominated Grant their Presidential candidate and he was elected in 1868. President Grant served two terms and left office in 1877. He ardently supported the Fifteenth Amendment, guaranteeing that no state could prevent someone from voting based on race, and believed that its passage would secure freedmen’s rights and aggressively sought to prosecute white hate groups like the Ku Klux Klan.

President Grant also applied evenhandedness to his attempts to deal with American Indians and their rights. Despite these idealist accomplishments, Grant’s Administration was wracked by scandal and corruption; though himself honest, all too often he surrounded himself with those who were not.

President Grant suffered thru several failed business ventures after leaving the White House and as a means of restoring his family’s income, Grant agreed to write his memoirs. He finished his manuscript shortly before succumbing to throat cancer in 1885. The book, Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant, was hugely successful and remains today, a masterpiece of American historical non-fiction.

President Grant’s mage adorns the U.S. $50 bill.

President Grant had this to say about friendship:  “The friend in my adversity I shall always cherish most. I can better trust those who helped to relieve the gloom of my dark hours than those who are so ready to enjoy with me the sunshine of my prosperity.”

 

An homage to General Grant from my home office.   The 1998 Grant G.I. Joe sits atop original editions of both volumes of his 1885 autobiography.  Three of the best biographies of the esteemed leader flank the set up.  From my perspective, Grant the U.S. Army General is unrivaled and belongs in the Pantheon of great military leaders.  As a President, he is vastly underrated.

Recommended books about President Ulysses S. Grant:

Grant Ron Chernow (2017)

The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses S. Grant in War and Peace H.W. Brands (2012)

American Ulysses: A Life of Ulysses S. Grant Ronald C. White, Jr. (2016)

President #19, Rutherford B. Hayes (Republican)

Like President Grant before him, our 19th President, Rutherford B. Hayes, was Civil War general who heroically served in the Union Army. A politician at the start of the war, Hayes put his career on hiatus and volunteered for military service and was mustered into the 23rd Regiment, Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment as a major. Assigned to the Army of the Shenandoah, President Hayes fought bravely in many Eastern Theater (primarily in Virginia) battles and was wounded four times.

Following his wartime service, Hayes was elected to Congress. Like most Republicans, Hayes was a firm supporter of Reconstruction and thought that while the Southern States should be restored to the Union, safeguards had to be in place to ensure freed blacks were protected from persecution. Hayes left Congress in 1867 and successfully won the governorship in his home state of Ohio.

The Republican National Convention nominated Hayes their candidate in 1876 and he ran against the Democrat challenger, Samuel J. Tilden. In one of the most disputed Presidential elections in our Nation’s history, Hayes was declared the winner after an electoral commission awarded him 20 disputed electoral votes thus giving him a majority. Enraged Senate Democrats attempted a filibuster to negate the commission’s findings forcing the need for a brokered deal. Known as the Compromise of 1877, Hayes was ultimately ruled the winner when Democrats agreed to end their filibuster in exchange for Hayes’ concession to withdrawal Federal troops from the South thus ending Reconstruction.

President Hayes entered the White House having already announced he had no plans for reelection. During his four years in office he focused on Civil Service reform, supporting Civil Rights for freed blacks and is best remembered for using Federal Army troops to end the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. About his time as the Chief Executive, President Hayes noted:  “The President of the United States should strive to be always mindful of the fact that he serves his party best who serves his country best.”

  

Recommended books about President Rutherford B. Hayes:

Rutherford B. Hayes: Warrior and President Ari Hoogenboom (1995)

Rutherford B. Hayes: And His America Harry Barnard (1954)

 

President #20, James A. Garfield (Republican)

James A. Garfield was elected our 20th President in 1880 and like his two immediate predecessors, Presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Rutherford B. Hayes, was both a Republican and a veteran of the American Civil War.

As a Senator from Ohio, Garfield was a staunch anti-slavery advocate who left politics and volunteered for service in the Ohio militia. As an Army officer, Garfield commanded first the 42nd Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment and later the 20th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Brigade in combat during the Battle of Shiloh and Battle of Chickamauga.

While still in uniform, the citizens of Ohio elected James Garfield to Congress and he left the Army in 1863 for Washington, DC. Garfield served nine terms in Congress before being nominated as the Republican Presidential candidate at the 1880 Convention. To call Garfield a surprise nominee would be a huge understatement as he beat out, among others, former President Grant who was attempting a return to the White House four years after having retired from politics.

President Garfield was a promising politician who cared deeply about safeguarding the rights of black Americans and was a strong advocate for universal federal government-funded education for all freedmen. Unfortunately, many of his initial proposals were undermined by Senate Democrats and members of the Southern white resistance. Additionally, President Garfield appointed several black leaders to positions within his administration. On a side note, Garfield became the first President to speak on a telephone, conducting a short conversation with the inventor of the device, Alexander Graham Bell.

Tragically, the full measure of Garfield’s promise for greatness was never realized. On 2 July 1881, President Garfield was shot by a disgruntled Federal office seeker. Although he survived the initial gunshot wound, President James A. Garfield passed away on 19 September from massive infection caused by the bullet lodged in his body and his doctor’s less than successful attempts to extract it. President Garfield became the second US President felled by an assassin’s bullet.

For a period of time after his death, President Garfield’s portrait was on the U.S. $20 gold certificate.

On 30 May 1868, at Arlington National Cemetery, speaking at the Nation’s very first Memorial Day celebration (at the time called Decoration Day), then-Senator James A. Garfield spoke these profoundly poignant words:  “We do not know one promise these men made, one pledge they gave, one word they spoke: but we do know they summed up and perfected, by one supreme act, the highest virtues of men and citizens. For love of country they accepted death, and thus resolved all doubts, and made immortal their patriotism and their virtue.”

 

Recommended books about President James A. Garfield:

Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President Candice Millard (2011)

Garfield: A Biography Allan Peskin (1978)

President #21, Chester A. Arthur (Republican)

Prior to 2016 and the election of non-politician, Donald Trump, Chester A. Arthur, our 21st President, was the least likely person to serve as Chief Executive. Ascending to the office following the assassination of President Garfield, President Arthur, never campaigned for, let alone held a national level political office. In fact, prior to being nominated for vice-president at the 1880 Republican Convention, Arthur was Collector of the Port of New York.  Arthur’s nomination was more an attempt to gain support of New York Republicans than to capitalize on any political élan he may have possessed. When offered the position, New York party bosses encouraged Arthur to refuse the nomination, but he replied, “The office of the Vice-President is a greater honor than I ever dreamed of attaining.”

During President Arthur’s three plus years in office, he focused on Civil Service reform, immigration and the Republican Party’s perennially important cause, the advancement of civil rights for black Americans. To the latter, President Arthur voiced strong admonishment when the Supreme Court struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and implored Congress to pass new legislation to restore minority protections. Unfortunately, the Democrat-controlled Congress failed to support President Arthur’s efforts.

After completing the remainder of Garfield’s term, President Arthur contemplated running for reelection, however, soon realized he did not enjoy the support of Republican Party leadership. Thus, the ever pragmatic Arthur stepped aside and retired from politics. Much maligned during and immediately after his White House tenure, history has been much kinder to President Arthur.

Today, many view President Arthur as an unscrupulous man thrust into an office beyond his capabilities who nevertheless performed surprisingly well, always striving to do what was right with a level of dignity and honesty not present in many politicians of the time. President Arthur said this about the use of public’s funds:

“The extravagant expenditure of public money is an evil not to be measured by the value of that money to the people who are taxed for it.”

Recommended books about President Chester A. Arthur:

The Unexpected President: The Life and Times of Chester A. Arthur Scott Greenberger (2017)

As I noted when I began this missive, the study of our Presidents has been a passion for most of my life and I do not see that abating in my Second Fifty.  If anything, I will devour new written studies of those who have occupied the White House with even greater verve.  I encourage you to do the same.  

Well, six Presidents down and 38 to go.  I hope you remain along for the ride.  More Presidential narratives will appear in the weeks ahead.    

This blog is dedicated to my dear friend, Allyson Miley, who, in addition to being a faithful reader of my musings, suggested I revisit my Presidential narratives for The Second 50.  Thanks for the nudge Al!

The title of this blog entry comes from the song, “Rap of the Presidents” by Teresa Jennings.  A classic grade school ditty that untold numbers of American students likely gained their first exposure to our amazing Presidents.  Hit the link below and give it a listen.  I challenge you to resist the urge to sing along.

If you enjoyed this blog entry please share the link with your friends and anyone else you think may also enjoy it.  Thanks!

 

“Oh, There Will Be Obstacles on Your Road but the Challenge Will be Your Teacher”

In his 1963 triumphant defense of the strategy of nonviolent resistance, Letter from Birmingham City Jail, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., one of my personal heroes, eloquently proclaimed, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”

These powerful words resonated with me as a young child and have remained throughout my life. They are as important and relevant to me today as when I first read them 50 or so years ago. Over that time span, when faced with obstacles and roadblocks, I have drawn strength from the great Civil Rights leader’s powerful statement.

Less than a year before Dr. King penned these stirring words, President John F. Kennedy, in a speech delivered at Rice University, underscored the significance of overcoming challenge and obstacles declaring “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.

According to our 35th President, doing the unthinkable and accomplishing the impossible were well within reach if collectively, we demonstrated the wherewithal to overcome the hurdles and constraints necessary to achieve our National endstate.  Like King, Kennedy understood the importance of meeting adversity head on and overcoming difficulties inherent in any key undertaking.  Both leaders, the chronicled record indicates, rarely shied away a challenge.

The Second First Lady of the United States, Abigail Adams, put quill to parchment and with her erudite aplomb, proffered “The habits of a vigorous mind are formed in contending with difficulties.” As the wife and staunch advocate of one of the Nation’s foremost Founders, Adams was no stranger to challenge and controversy being one of the most resilient and intellectually determined women of the era. Her observation, perhaps to some an obvious certainty, but a praxis that from my empiricism too few people actually take the time to develop and exercise, is one that rings so very true.

From my own experience, actively pondering potential obstacles and challenges and as a corollary, identifying suitable responses – in the military we call this wargaming – has proven to be the first key to successfully clearing any hurdle I have encountered in my path. This is something I have leveraged with desirable profit in my life and tactic I encourage all to adopt. As contemporary author, E. A. Bucchaineri, noted in her garrulous novel, Brushstrokes of a Gadfly, “Well, if it can be thought, it can be done, a problem can be overcome.”

Another current American novelist, M.E. Herr, provided the following admonishment in her best-seller, Deliver Us from Evie, “Obstacles are challenges for winners and excuses for losers.”   A rather harsh statement for sure, but one sadly I have discovered to be very accurate. My extended family is dotted with both those for whom obstacles are handicaps and always the cause of setback and those whom seemingly thrive on overcoming hurdles. Fortunately for the Reynolds brood there are far more of the latter than former. For the majority of my kith and kin, the words of the late writer and cartoonist, Frank A. Clark, are the more prevailing mantra: “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably does not lead anywhere.”

I once read an African Proverb which noted “Smooth seas do not make skillful sailors.” I would tweak this shrewd adage slightly and say that rough waters and the occasional sea swell make damn good sailors. At least that has been my experience in both the first and Second Fifty. In high school, I was overweight and more times than not, found myself amongst that forlorn twosome, threesome or foursome of students selected last by peer team captains for gym class events.

Regardless, I typically embraced the affront with the pragmatism those who are akin to being subtly ridiculed possess and used the slight as an opportunity to excel. Though I rarely did, I always tried my best and in doing so, in retrospect, reaped great harvest. A few years ago I stumbled upon a quote by an anonymous author, “Don’t limit your challenges; challenge your limits.” While I didn’t write it, I certainly lived that phrase during my four year stint at Octorara Area High School.

When I enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1979 – two years removed from high school graduation – I found myself in Georgia, at basic combat training, still overweight but stubbornly resilient and determined to make my mark. The 17th Century French playwright, Molière, wrote “The greater the obstacle, the more glory in overcoming it.”  While the quest for glory should not be the overarching motivator in the pursuit of any endeavor, the personal satisfaction reaped from starring down tribulation and hardship should and to this end, I was ready.

Because of my girth, the drill sergeants targeted me early and singled me out for “extracurricular activities.” Intended to weed me out, this onerous treatment had quite the opposite effect. In one particular event, a 15 mile battalion road march, I was deemed the “medic” and as such, had to carry the medical bag. Positioned at the rear of the 400 solider single file gaggle, throughout the arduous trek I was called to run from the rear to the front of the formation to treat “casualties”; only to get to the front of the formation and told to return to the rear to again restart the maddening – and quite exhaustive – process.

Through it all, I refused to quit even though time and again I wanted to stop and I developed a blister that encompassed my entire heel. Looking back, a quote I stumbled upon much later in life comes to mind: “If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you.”  I was challenged by that ordeal and I was changed that day. Overcoming an obstacle designed to break me was an overwhelmingly powerful tonic; a potent lift to my sagging self-esteem.

Late that night I was summoned by a drill sergeant from my tent who bellowed “Reynolds, get your ass out here and bring your medic bag.” Expecting the worse, gloomy apprehension preceded me as I crawled from the warmth of my sleeping bag and stepped out into the dark and frigid darkness. My dread intensified as the hardnosed NCO thrust out his rather large hand and demanded, “Give me that !@#%ing bag.” For a brief moment my life passed before my eyes and I remember thinking, this is it, they are kicking me out.

Despair quickly turned to elation as the drill sergeant instead dangled before me the coveted Squad Leader armlet. Affixing it to my sleeve he looked me in the eye and sternly uttered a phrase that was just as much a challenge as it was an accolade: “You earned it.; now keep it!” Social activist, Bernice Johnson Reagon, proclaimed “Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you, they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.” I had an epiphany that night having discovered who I was and who I pledged to always be.

Roger Crawford, the first and only person in American history to be a US Professional Tennis Association  athlete and play a Division I college sport with a severe disability – four impaired limbs – replied when asked about the source of his motivation, Being challenged in life is inevitable, being defeated is optional.” A retort that is as true as it is inspirational.

Throughout my life I have been surrounded by people who overcame tremendous obstacles, crippling setbacks, and seemingly insurmountable odds just through a stubborn refusal to give up. I served with them in uniform and during periods when deployed to combat zones and on humanitarian missions, witnessed indigenous people who refused to break despite obstacles that would have brought the most hardy of Americans to their knees.  The 17th Century English historian, Thomas Fuller, noted in his most prestigious tome, Worthies of England, “All things are difficult before they are easy.” This is a characteristic rallying cry for those who routinely stare down challenge and obstacles.

I will end this essay illuminating the life of one such person who personified the full measure of the message I offer in my commentary. I opened with the strands of one of Martin Luther King’s most stirring phrases. While Dr. King’s words were not written specifically about United States Navy Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown, they could have been. Like any courageous person who willingly embarks on a course to correct a wrong or tear down walls of injustice or strives to overcome challenge, Jesse Leroy Brown fully understood the perils of his crusade, yet possessed the fearless desire to proceed far beyond the obstacles in his path.

In becoming the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator, Ensign Brown fulfilled a childhood dream to fly. Much more than that, however, he heroically navigated through an obstacle course of institutional prejudices and racial intolerance, clearing the way for all who followed. Like any great champion of human rights, Jesse Brown served as an inspiration to all who knew him and of his perpetual determination to achieve his goal; a goal that those who were supportive, thought unobtainable and those who were critical, felt foolhardy.

His accomplishments touched the lives of many, both directly collaterally, from his wife, Daisy, and other family members who supported his efforts, to teachers and community members who applauded his every achievement. Most significantly, his example inspired young black sailors who, influenced by the example he set, refused to accept racial barriers that attempted to stifle their opportunity and advancement. Equally important, Jesse’s strong will, invigorating work ethic, commitment to duty and positive attitude changed the jaundiced opinions of many of the white instructors and aviators he came in contact with during the pursuit of the treasured gold Naval aviator wings he cherished.

Jesse Leroy Brown’s quest began, as many great journeys do, in the most unlikely of places. The Depression-sapped backlands of rural Mississippi was not the environment one would expect fertile enough to germinate a desire for one to take to the skies, but that is where young Jesse’s dream first took hold. Like many blacks in the South, the Brown family was financially poor but what they lacked in monetary security they more than made up for in good old fashioned family values.

Born in 1926 to two hardscrabble parents, John, a sharecropper, and Julia, a former schoolteacher, Jesse was one of six children reared in a series of small, clapboard houses, many times without heating or plumbing. The Brown home was a loving household where hard work, church, and education were priorities. This proved to be the perfect foundation for developing the six siblings into industrious and pious young adults.

As a child, Jesse would sneak onto the property of a scanty local airfield to gawk at dilapidated airplanes bucking down the grassy runway. Though no one knows for certain, Jesse’s dream of being a plot was likely fermented here while starring at the antique aircraft as they left the ground, touched the sky and disappeared into the horizon.

Of course it was a long way from the tiny backwoods airstrip to the flight deck of a Navy aircraft carrier but armed with an abundance of laudable human qualities honed into him by two devoted and caring parents, Jesse Brown possessed the desire and wherewithal to achieve his lofty goal.  he graduated as the salutatuorian of his high schoolclass, not withstanding its racialsegregation.

The first step in the long process was Ohio State University where Jesse, disregarding the well-intended advice of others, decided to begin his college career. That there were very few black students enrolled at OSU in 1944 seemed all the more reason for Jesse to attend. Despite working a demanding full-time job, Jesse excelled both academically – with a 3.6 grade average in an engineering major course load – and in sports, running track. Most importantly, though, he applied for, and was accepted into the Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps (NROTC) program. With this selection, Jesse quietly crossed the invisible barrier from ordinary college student to Apprentice Seaman, U.S. Naval Reserve.

After graduation, Jesse’s application for entry into the Navy’s Selective Flight Training was approved and he headed to Air Training Command in Glenville, Illinois. He arrived March 1947 and although President Truman’s edict desegregating the Armed Forces had already gone into effect, the base’s predominately white command structure and population did not uniformly welcome him. Most had seen few black sailors and never, one attempting to become a pilot. Fortunately for Jesse, however, there were instructors and fellow flight apprentices willing to look past race and accept him as a person with a similar desire to fly and serve one’s nation.

From Glenville, Jesse traveled to the Navy’s Pre-Flight School in Iowa, then graduating from that strenuous course near the top of his class, arrived at the Pensacola Naval Air Station in Florida. This would be Aviation Cadet Brown’s final hurdle and successful completion of this demanding phase of flight training would result in the coveted gold aviator wings.

While episodes of cruel racial badgering and harassment occurred at each school, the frequency was surprisingly sporadic and Jesse was accepted, albeit with some degree of ambivalence by far more white students and instructors than not. He studied and applied himself with the same level of enthusiasm that he had demonstrated his entire life. Jesse’s final training hurdle was breached when he twice successfully landed his Hellcat aboard the USS Wright. Because he refused to cower when faced with tremendous obstacles and challenges, on October 21, 1948, Midshipman Jesse Leroy Brown, age 22, proudly became the U.S. Navy’s first black aviator.

Ensign Brown’s first assignment was as a member of Air Group 3 aboard the USS Leyte Gulf where he served with Fighter Squadron 32. He was still a member of Squadron 32 when the outbreak of the Korean War interrupted he tranquility of routine training. The Leyte Gulf, as a member U.S. Naval Task Force 77, left for the Korean theater of operations in September 950. The battle group arrived just in time to assist the Marines who were engaged in a ferocious battle with Chinese Communist Army forces along the Chosin Reservoir. Jesse and his fellow flight mates performed several successful missions interdicting bridges over the Yalu River and providing close air support to the beleaguered Marines.

On December 4th, 1950, while flying another combat mission, Jesse’s Corsair was hit by enemy ground fire and he was forced to crash land into the mountainous terrain near Somong-ni, North Korea. He survived impact but was wedged in the crushed cockpit, unable to get out. Despite the heroic efforts of his wingman, Lieutenant Thomas Hudner, who purposely crash landed his own plane in an attempt to pull his friend free of the burning wreckage, and Army First Lieutenant Charlie Ward, a MEDEVAC helicopter pilot who landed hoping to free Jesse, Ensign Brown could not be extracted from the fuselage. Succumbing to his severe injuries and harsh sub-zero temperatures, U.S. Navy Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown died at age 24; a hero in service to his Nation.

In tribute to their fallen comrade, the Marines aboard the Leyte Gulf fired volleys over the ship’s stern and a bugler played taps. In the ship’s newspaper the following memorial appeared: “We bid farewell to a Christian soldier, a gentleman, shipmate, and friend. He was a credit not alone to the Navy but to our country. His courage and faith in God Almighty shone like a beacon for all to see.”

The Navy posthumously awarded Ensign Brown the Distinguished Flying Cross which reads:

The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Distinguished Flying Cross (Posthumously) to Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown (NSN: 0-504477), United States Navy, for heroism in aerial flight as Pilot of a fighter plane in Fighter Squadron Thirty-Two (VF-32), attached to the USS Leyte (CV-32), in hostile attacks on hostile North Korean forces. Participating in 20 strikes on enemy military installations, lines of communication, transportation facilities, and enemy troop concentrations in the face of grave hazard, at the Chosin Reservoir, Takshon, Manp Jin, Linchong, Sinuiju, Kasan, Wonsan, Chonjin, Kilchu, and Sinanju during the period 12 October to 4 December 1950. With courageous efficiency and utter disregard for his own personal safety, Ensign Brown, while in support of friendly troops in the Chosin Reservoir area, pressed home numerous attacks destroying an enemy troop concentration moving to attack our troops. So aggressive were these attacks, in the face of enemy anti-aircraft fire, that they finally resulted in the destruction of Ensign Brown’s plane by anti-aircraft fire. His gallant devotion to duty was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service

As for Lieutenant Thomas Hudner, Jesse’s wingman and the pilot who intentionally crash landed his own Corsair in an ill-fated attempt to rescue Jesse, the Navy intended to court martial him for his actions.  Instead, President Harry S. Truman awarded him the Medal of Honor.

Sir Edmund Hilary, the first person confirmed to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, once said of the historical and monumental accomplishment, “It’s not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.” While we all cannot have Everest moments, we all can approach our daily endeavors – challeneges and obstacles as well – with the same degree of enthusiasm and quest for accomplishment. I always tried to do this in the first half of my life and I will strive to do it in the Second Fifty.  And, never quit.  For, as magazine columnist, Marilyn vos Savant, noted, “Being defeated is often a temporary condition. Giving up is what makes it permanent.”

 I lifted the title of this blog entry from the 2014 song, “New in Town”, by the soul, reggae, pop fusion duo, Nico & Vinz.

I first read the remarkable story of Jesse Leroy Brown’ s life while doing research in grad school.  I was so captivated that a few years later I commissioned two historical artists – Rick Reeves and Joe Kline – to create a painting in his honor.  The large oil painting depicted below – 36″ x 48″- hangs in my home office facing my desk.  On a daily basis, mostly when I am down, I draw inspiration from it and the Great American  it honors.  I also produced lithograph prints from the painting – depicted below which added Ensign Brown’s portrait to image – and while I sold some, I donated far more  to inner city schools and black organizations.  I sent a print to both Thomas Hudner and Jesse’s widow, Daisy, and as you can imagine, each were deeply touched.   

Next, you will find photos of Ensign Jesse Leroy Brown and Lieutenant Thomas Hudner circa 1950; likely during the period Jesse Brown lifted off from the USS Leyte Gulf towards his appointment with destiny.   Lastly, a photo of Ensign Brown in the cockpit of his Corsair.  In his face I – and I hope you – can see the pride and determination of a person who has overcome tremendous prejudice, obstacles and challenges.  For me, the face of a TRUE AMERICAN HERO.

If you enjoyed this blog entry please share the link with your friends and anyone else you think may also enjoy it.  Thanks!

“’Cause I’m Just Trying to be Happy, Yeah”

Last summer, on one of my many work related plane flights – destination unknown -, I stumbled upon an article that remained with me long after I closed the magazine and fired up my Barnes & Noble Nook reading tablet to get to the novel I was working my way through at the time. The article in question, Six Ways Happiness Is Good for Your Health, confirmed for me, with scientific veracity, a premise I had long held: Happiness and quality of life are linked. In plain speak, people who live happy, live longer!

Of course, almost 3,000 years before Greater Good Magazine collected the data and analyzed it to form this denouement, the great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, had reached a strikingly similar conclusion when he etched into lamb skin“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” And, not to be outdone by an ancient sage, two millennia later, American short story writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, acknowledged a similar perspective with arguably a tad more metaphorical eloquence, penning, “Happiness is a butterfly, which when pursued, is always beyond your grasp, but which, if you will sit down quietly, may alight upon you.”

Of course many of you do not need to hear from an ancient scholar, an esteemed early Americana scribe or modern day periodical to confirm that which you know intuitively: In many instances, we make our own happiness. And, when we do, life takes on a more full meaning, stress levels subside and in general, life is good. While those around us can contribute to our overall positive mien, in the end, we are the primary architects of our own comportment. In the words of Helen Keller, “Happiness does not come from without, it comes from within.”

Early in my adult life, I was a true naysayer with regards to this tenet. I blamed my bad moods on others. If I was having a terrible day it was always because of something beyond my control. I was never the architect of my own unhappiness anymore than I was the designer of my own displeasure. I was a faultfinder; the quintessential “glass is half empty’ kind of person.

Most undermining to my own quality of life, I let the nocent attitudes and actions of others, real and imagined, sway my demeanor and my temperament. Maker of dreams and smiles, Walt Disney, once famously said “Happiness is a state of mind. It’s just according to the way you look at things.” For me, sadly and more often than not, “Unhappiness” was a state of mind and I was all too eager to wallow in my own morose and much less inclined to execute a mental posture rudder steer – as my tactical instructors in the US Army Officer Candidate School would yell, er, say to me and my fellow candidates – needed to get me out of my funk.

Two centuries ago, the master of Russian literature, Dostoyevsky, impressed in his powerful collection of short stories,  Записки из подполья (Notes from the Underground), “Man only likes to count his troubles; he doesn’t calculate his happiness.” It was almost as if the prescient Muscovite had me in mind when he picked up a pen and stroked his cursive scrawl across paper immortalizing those words.

Unfortunately for me, I was more inclined to channel Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, who noted in his series of personal writings, Τὰ εἰς ἑαυτόν (Meditations), “The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.” In this case, the lack of amenity in my thought was the culprit sabotaging my bliss and contentment. Many times I was unhappy or upset because I told myself I should be and allowed even the slightest disturbance to result in angst and consternation. The ancient Greek,  tragedian, Aeschylus, wrote “Happiness is a choice that requires effort at times.” Dolefully, this was a choice I rarely made.

The 19th Century French novelist, Marcel Proust, submitted in his landmark opus, À La Recherche du Temps Perdu (Remembrance of Things Past or In Search of Lost Time), “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.” My charming gardener showed up in 2001 in the form of my wife, Kate. A beautiful woman who for the purpose of turning my melancholy into bliss, possessed the consummate “green thumb.”

I was reeling from a sudden divorce and truly at the apex of despair when she entered my gloomy world and quite unexpectedly and with an aura of positivity that was both uplifting and contagious, quickly changed my life. The 2006 Nobel Prize recipient in literature, Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk, wrote in his spellbinding novel, Snow, “Happiness is holding someone in your arms and knowing you hold the whole world.” I experienced this soothing feeling the first time I heard Kate’s voice; I did not need her to wrap her arms around me to experience this heady vibe.

Kate, quite frankly, is the most positive person I have ever met. Rarely is she down – despite suffering the debilitating effects of the incurable disease, Lupus – and never will she allow another to disrupt her naturally positive demeanor. Though poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, is my all-time favorite American bard, Kate personifies one of his priceless stanzas, “For every minute you are angry you lose sixty seconds of happiness”, much more than me.

Over 17 blissful years of marriage, she has shown herself to be one of those rare humans who actually derive happiness from the comfort they provide others. In that regard, she is a member of that small cadre of magnanimous souls never too busy to reach out to those in need of uplift. One of those precious few that I suspect French author, Honoré de Balzac, had in mind when he penned this passage from his 1835 classic, Le Père Goriot, “Someday you will find out that there is far more happiness in another’s happiness than in your own.” I suspect Kate discovered this early and it has been a primary raison d’être in her life since then.

Nothing gets her down. And, the few times I have seen her in a funk she has very quickly brushed away the gloominess, embraced her emblematic smile and projected her aura of hallmark happiness. The late Colombian novelist and journalist, Gabriel José de la Concordia García Márquez, offered Ninguna medicina cura lo que la felicidad no puede” (“No medicine cures what happiness cannot.) In “Doctor” Kate’s mortar and pestle you will not find medicinal compounds.  Instead, you will find  smiles and cheer.

L. Frank Baum, wrote in his classic children’s tome, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, “I shall take the heart. For brains do not make one happy, and happiness is the best thing in the world.”  Kate has an abundance of heart and she shares it with all whom she meets; stranger, family, friend, alike. She is the perennial happy person as nearly anyone who has ever met her will attest. The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once proclaimed “Those who are not looking for happiness are the most likely to find it, because those who are searching forget that the surest way to be happy is to seek happiness for others.” My wife epitomizes the veracity of this statement.  Frankly, I have never met anyone who strives so purposely to bring happiness to others.

For nearly two decades, Kate’s efforts to influence my occasionally mirthless demeanor and mindset, directly through persuasion and more subtly via her always sunny example, has paid some dividend. But, admittedly, the pace of progress has moved with the inertia of a sloth. The 19thy Century American clergyman, George Washington Burnap, noted in a landmark series of lectures,  “The grand essentials to happiness in this life are something to do, something to love, and something to hope for.” For me, these three conditions exist, thus, I remain optimistic. Plus, there is always the “Kate Factor”; a force of cheerful positivity that is inescapable.

Now, back to the article that started this disquisition, according to scientific research, these are the six ways in which happiness improves your quality of life:

  1. “Happiness Protects Your Heart”
  2. “Happiness Strengthens Your Immune System”
  3. “Happiness Combats Stress”
  4. “Happy People Have Fewer Aches and Pains”
  5. “Happiness Combats Disease and Disability”
  6. “Happiness Strengthens Our Lives”

This sextuplet is reason to embrace the recommendation of French-Polish poet, Guillaume Apollinaire, who advised “Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.” They are sound rationale to heed the counsel of Peter Pan’s creator, author, Sir J.M. Barrie, who posited “The secret of happiness is not in doing what one likes, but in liking what one does” and to regard the lyrics of American singer, Lana Del Rey, who crooned “Doing what you love is freedom. Loving what you do is happiness.”

In a fitting epitaph, I turn once again to my favorite sonnetist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, who offered “Happiness is a perfume you cannot pour on others without getting some on yourself.” In my Second Fifty, I promise to strive to douse those who surround me with happiness and in the process, bathe, hopefully,  in the same cologne of contentment.

This blog entry is dedicated to my wife, Kate; the happiest and most positive person in my life. As the pop music group, The Turtles, joyously harmonized in 1967, “The only one for me is you, and you for me, So happy together.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tvu3xiFmfDU

Props to any of y’all who recognized this blog entry’s title was a lyric from the 2009 Leona Lewis song, “Happy.”

Following are two pics of the loquacious, and always happy,  Kate.  In deference to Helen of Troy and the 1970s pop music group, Bread, THIS is truly the face that would have launched a thousand ships. 

If you enjoyed this blog entry please share the link with your friends and anyone else you think may also enjoy it.  Thanks!

“A Little Less Conversation”

It is said that admitting one has a problem is the first step towards recovery.   If so, then this week’s blog entry will serve as a self-diagnosis for me and as much as it can, hopefully provide an initial elixir for my malady. Over the years I have been plagued by an annoying propensity to say things without thinking and worse, to post comments on social media sites like Facebook that are far too motivated by emotion.

That I am not alone in this transgression – especially the latter breach of decorum – serves as no salve to the lesion. Sadly, on more occasions that I care to admit, I have allowed myself to get into public forum debates in which I have patronized, criticized, insulted and hectored other people for voicing an opinion counter to mine. Along the way I have lambasted strangers, friends, friends of friends, and most regrettably, family members in frenzied and at times, unhinged attempts to make my point.

In the end, rather than reaping any reward from “winning” a debate, I achieved nothing more than making myself appear asinine, immature and churlish. More times than not, becoming the personification of the timeless adage, “It is better to remain silent and thought a fool, than to speak up and remove all doubt”; in my case, a boorish fool.

Almost three millennia ago, the Greek playwright, Sophocles, inscribed on a slice of vellum a phrase that remains as shrewd today as then: “It is not in words that I should wish my life to be distinguished, but rather in things done.” Around that same period of time, ancient Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu, wrote “Watch your actions, they become your habits; watch your habits, they become your character; watch your character, it becomes your destiny.” The tandem message from both learned scholars: Talk less and do more.

The Father of Liberalism, English philosopher, John Locke, stated “I have always thought the actions of men the best interpreters of their thoughts.” Fortunately for me, this has been the case. My actions have always echoed louder than my words; spoken or written. Victorian-era English writer and poet, George Eliot, posited “I am not imposed upon by fine words; I can see what actions mean.” According to Mr. Locke and Ms. Eliot, speak fewer words and do more action. Or, in the words of Ghanaian motivational speaker, Israelmore Ayivor, “When the actions becomes frequent than the words, success becomes heavier than the dreams. Do more, say less.”

The 19th Century American preacher, Edwin Hubbell Chapin sermonized “Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity.” For me, an incredibly powerful thought. It is not what we say but what we do that exists as the guarantor of our Earthly or Heavenly continuance. This is in line with a belief of 14th Century German cleric, Thomas à Kempis, who insisted “At the Day of Judgement we shall not be asked what we have said but what we have done.”

Present day author, Anese Cavanaugh, states in her book, “Contagious Culture” that “You become what you believe, decide, and act upon.” I concur wholeheartedly, but unfortunately, more frequently my actions are words and key strokes not endeavors. So, much better to embrace the thoughts of another contemporary scribe, Karen Marie Moning, who wrote “The wisest man is the silent one. Examine his actions. Judge him by them.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. preached “How often are our lives characterized by a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds!” What a metaphorical call to action. Rather than vocalize what should be done or lament about or criticize a situation, actually do something about it. Personally speaking, I have been exercising an abundance of the former and a dearth of the latter. For me, time to change that paradigm. For as writer and social critic, Mark Twain, sardonically noted “Action speaks louder than words but not nearly as often.”

Contemporary Palestinian-Australian author, Randa Abdel-Fattah, offered that “Belief means nothing without actions.” I will add that words – spoken, written or typed – mean nothing either if not bolstered by action. So, in the future, I pledge to choose my words more wisely and to add to the currency of them thru action. In doing, I will remember an observation of Queen Elizabeth II: “The true measure of all our actions is how long the good in them lasts.”

Russian novelist, Anton Chekhov, noted “Tell me what you want and I’ll tell you who you are.” I offer in many instances, what one writes, how they speak and what they actually do is a clearer indication of who they are. As such, additional motivation to exercise more restraint and discipline prior to engaging in verbal and social media jousting matches is a step in the right direction. 

In the Second Fifty, I offer that before you speak, or like me, type away on Facebook, you employ the “THINK” principle:

“T”: Is it true?

“H”: Is it helpful

“I”: Is it inspiring?

“N”: Is it necessary?

“K”: Is it Kind?

If the answer to any of these questions is “No” then perhaps you should channel Sir William Shakespeare who wrote “Discretion is the better part of valor.”

The title of this blog was lifted from the 1969 Elvis Presley song of the same title. Remixed and rereleased in 2001, it became an International #1 hit. Long live “The King.”

 

 

“I’d Rather Laugh with the Sinners than Cry with the Saints”

Poet and master of the American colloquialism, Robert Frost, said of humor, “If we couldn’t laugh we would all go insane.” While I will not go as far as to agree with such a clamorous assertion, I can declare my staunch belief that a sense of humor and the ability to laugh are vital towards enhancing one’s well being and mental fitness. About laughter, actress, Audrey Hepburn, noted “It’s probably the most important thing in a person.’ This is an observation I could not endorse more.

From my experience, nothing can diffuse a tense situation quicker and with more certitude than humor or a good laugh. Usually laughter is the perfect extract to cure a sour disposition; a reliable tonic to sooth bruised feelings; an appropriate bandage to mend relationship fissures. Now, this is not to say mirth and whimsy are a tandem panacea that can cure all ills, but, more times than not, they represent an effective first step worth taking. As Danish pianist, Børge Rosenbaum, correctly surmised, “Laughter is the shortest distance between two people.” And, when in doubt, defer to English bard, Lord Byron, who advised “Always laugh when you can; it is cheap medicine.”

I love to laugh. I love to be around people who make me laugh. (My sister-in-law, Judi Chisholm Welch, comes hilariously to mind here.) I love to have people around who I can make laugh. (The latter need is keenly important as I am far from the most humorous person in any group.) The 19th Century English author, Charles Dickens said it best: “There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.”

This has certainly been true in my personal life as everyone in my immediate family shares a profound appreciation for tomfoolery and playfulness. The Reynolds clan is at its best when levity is the overriding atmospheric and witty and clowning banter, the prevailing acoustic in our engagements with each other. Looking back, our best times have always involved laughter and humor. As British novelist, William Makepeace Thackeray, noted, “A good laugh is sunshine in the house.”

Laughter and humor have also been very important in my professional endeavors. Drawing on my own painful experiences, there are few things more stifling in an organization than staid and humorless leadership just as there are few things more stagnant than dreary and somber workmates. Herman Melville wrote in his epic novel, “Moby Dick”, “A good laugh is a mighty good thing, a rather too scarce a good thing.” Unfortunately, the latter sentence fragment a truism found in all too many workplaces.

When building my own work teams I won’t say sense of humor or propensity to laugh are criteria I use in choosing subordinates, but I can say without hesitation, selecting qualified people and finding out after the fact they possess these attributes is a very welcome discovery. And while I won’t go as far to say I fully embrace the late Maya Angelou’s admission “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t laugh”, I will admit some of my worse subordinates sadly had that shortcoming.

My own elevated sense of humor and proclivity for laughter has also proven useful in my career spent serving in many countries and engaging with people of varied cultures. Ukrainian-American humorist, Yakov Smirnoff, posited “Everybody laughs the same in every language because laughter is a universal connection.” An observation I have found shrewdly accurate.

I once served four years in Afghanistan advising senior Ministry of Defense and Interior leaders. Though always serious, laughter was also a part of our daily routine and a crucial aspect of our mutual rapport building. One Afghan general underscored the importance of humor in a relationship quoting to me a verse from The Holy Qur’an, “He deserves Paradise who makes his companions laugh.” In a nod of deference, he quickly pointed out there was also a Holy Bible quotation that said essentially the same thing. All I had to offer was a Hebrew proverb I read once, “As soap is to the body, so laughter is to the soul.” But as they say, point well taken.

In her book, “Anne of Green Gables”, Canadian author, L.M. Montgomery, wrote “Life is worth living as long as there’s a laugh in it.” Again, as with the earlier Frost comment, I am not prepared to accept this statement as a literal imperative, but I will bellow my strong conviction that life is better with laughter and humor in it. Irish dramatist, Seán O’Casey, best captured the essence of my belief noting “Laughter is wine for the soul – laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness – the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.”

Writing in “The Magic Mountain”, Thomas Mann, author and social critic, beautifully stated “Laughter is the sunbeam of the soul.” Some of the most grounded people I have ever met were those who laughed; especially at themselves. Laughing at the foibles of others; a blemish. Finding humor is the failings of oneself; refreshing, and, quite admirable. I always strive to be amongst the latter.

According to the time-worn adage, “it takes more muscles to frown than to smile.” (43 to 17 I have read.) That, despite Mauritian writer, the late Malcolm de Chazal’s, claim that “Laughter is regional: a smile extends over the whole face.” As such, if for no other reason than to expend less physical energy, we should all strive to embrace more gaiety and less dolor in our lives. And if that is not reason enough, hearken to a comment by one of America’s leading pragmatic philosophers, the late William James, who offered “We don’t laugh because we’re happy – we’re happy because we laugh.”

Over a hundred years ago, the typically mordant American satirist, Mark Twain, wrote “The human race has only one really effective weapon and that is laughter.” In the Second Millennia, this statement is even more apt. So, my friends, if you have not already, I encourage you to arm yourself with a holster full of laughter, a bandoleer of smiles and a shield of humor. And when a situation arises and you want to frown, instead try to laugh remembering the words of writer, Mary H. Waldrip, “A laugh is a smile that bursts.” This is my goal in the Second Fifty.

If you did not recognize the title of this blog entry as lyrics from singer songwriter legend, Billy Joel’s, 1977 hit song, “Only the Good Die Young”, then you are probably not in your Second Fifty. If you did make the connection upon reading the title, how many of you starting subconsciously signing the lyrics as you read the words? “Come out Virginia, don’t make me wait, you Catholic girls start much too late…”

“But to Me You’re Still a Collector”

  

Over the last few fortnights I have offered up blog entries that have explored a number of subjects which I felt thoughtful, and hopefully, interesting for you to ponder. Looking back at the menu of topics I covered – and rereading the narratives – though, it occurred to me that at best, the array may have become a tad ponderous and at worst, my musings may have appeared to some as sermonizing.

While the feedback I have gotten from many of you remains positive and supportive, admittedly, some of my reflections of late have been somber, meditative and sententious. Irish author, Oscar Wilde, wrote in his novel, “The Picture of Dorian Gray”, “Humanity takes itself too seriously. It is the world’s original sin.” Heeding the esteemed author’s warning then, I think now is the perfect juncture to deviate from my current course and offer up something light, fun and, I trust, interesting.

Another renowned Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, bandied that “Happy is the man who is living by his hobby.” I fully agree with the legendary polemicist’s contention as this has certainly been the case in my life. My hobbies and interests have brought both enjoyment and purpose. I also concur with an observation from Spanish philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset, who noted Dime a qué le prestas atención y te diré quién eres.” (“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”)

One step into my home, or in particular, my home office, will provide the visitor with a panoramic glimpse into my life; a bird’s-eye view into who I am and what I like. Contemporary philosopher and author, Kilroy J. Oldster, offered in his book, “Dead Toad Scrolls”, “The items people own reveal something about the owners. As a people, we assign a value meaning not only to the things that we presently possess, but also to the items destined for one generation to hand down to the next generation.” You will get this tiptoeing into my office.

I started collecting things early in life. A fact my Mom can confirm. As a kid, I hoarded stamps, Elvis records, coins, and of course, the adolescent collector’s pièce de ré·sis·tance, trading cards, with an unquenchable thirst. With the exception of stamps, this affinity to collect stuck with me through the early years and is just as much part of my life today as when I was flipping baseball cards against Saint John of the Cross’s outside walls with my grade school cronies during recess.

Though as an adult, the scope of my “affliction” ( my wife’s well intended but still, snarky descriptor, not mine) has broadened (much to my better half’s chagrin) and now books – thousands – G.I. Joes – hey, I am a soldier after all – and motorcycles – a dozen or so – are included in my stockpile of cool things I just need to have. Without doubt, my hobbies and the things that I collect with unconstrained gusto are more a reflection of me than the mug shot gracing my current Military Retiree ID card.

While I think a 2,000 word tractate about any of these keepsakes would be interesting to you, – a roll of my wife’s baby blues here – the focus of this week’s missive is books. More specifically, I want to discuss a fascinating sidebar my affinity for reading and books has rewarded me with over the last decade.

Over a hundred years ago, French novelist and critic, Marcel Proust, wrote “There are perhaps no days of our childhood we lived so fully as those we spent with a favorite book.” That was true for me as a kid and it is even more bona fide today. I noted in an earlier blog entry – “To Read or Not to Read” – http://www.thesecond50life.com/to-read-or-not-to-read-that-is-the-question/ – I had read over 9,500 books in my lifetime. What I did not mention though, is my home library includes over 4,000 books; almost all hardback 1st editions and most of them signed by the author.

Very few of my autographed books were signed, however, when I added them to my collection. The inscriptions came later after tracking down respective authors thru a process of internet sleuthing Sherlock Holmes himself would have admired. It is this latter detail I want to share with you today. A story of how a budding proclivity to track down authors morphed into a passion that in turn led me on a journey in which I corresponded with, met and in some cases, befriended, a group of the most successful authors of fiction and non-fiction in contemporary times.

I remember the very first email I sent to an author seeking their scribe on a book plate for my copy of their manuscript. The year was 2003. I approached the solicitation with a pronounced degree of trepidation fearing the author would view my request as an intrusion. My angst proved unfounded as the author in question, Steve Berry, was more honored I asked than I was, he considered my request. The book in question, “The Amber Room”, was his first, and he was so excited I asked for his autograph, he sent me an ACTUAL PAGE FROM THE ORIGINAL MANUSCRIPT signed for posterity. Since then, over 20 million of Steve’s books have been sold. All of Steve’s subsequent 14 “New York Times” best sellers – signed of course – are housed in my library while the manuscript is on my wall.

Another author I contacted, Thomas Mullen, treated my request with equal deference. As I found out, the book in question, “The Last Town on Earth” was his first but more amazingly, I proved to be the initial reader to ever contact him. A fact he reminded me of when his next novel appeared and I again, hit him up for a book plate signing. This interaction led to me subsequently serving as a technical advisor for his book “The Revisionists.” 

In 2007, while still in the Army and deployed to Operation Iraqi Freedom, I read the latest book from “Black Hawk Down” author, Mark Bowden, “Guests of the Ayatollah.” I was so mesmerized by his narrative on the 1979-1980 Iran Hostage Crisis I tracked him down and asked for an autograph for my book. Ever gracious, he not only provided me with his “John Hancock”, he gave me contact info for many of the former hostages. With Mark’s help, I was able to get the autographs of 21 of them; several who have sadly passed away since then. In a very surprising side note, I also found out that Mark lives about five miles from my parents in a bucolic area of Pennsylvania.

In 2009, again, still in the Army, I was in Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, and contacted author, Ace Atkins, who had written a series of historical crime novels. In the flow of our email discourse, Ace mentioned his desire to start a fictional series based on an Army Ranger returning home after a number of deployments. The initial book, aptly titled “The Ranger” was an immediate success and has since spawned six sequels.

Long story short, I ended up providing technical assistance to Ace’s efforts and was rewarded with a very nice acknowledgement in the book. Even cooler, in the first couple of books in the series I actually appear in name – Colonel George Reynolds – briefly as a character.  A simple but very meaningful homage. Best of all, however, my simple autograph request has blossomed into a wonderful and lasting friendship with an amazing author and even better person.

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In 2011, again back in Afghanistan, this time as a Department of Defense civilian, a request for an author book plate signing led once more to me being asked to serve as technical advisor on a book. Lori Armstrong solicited my help on a few Iraq War flashback scenes she was trying to draft for her book “Mercy Kills.” I obliged – what bibliophile wouldn’t???? – and Lori acknowledged my support with a very nice shout out in the book. In a more meaningful turn of events, I drafted out my own version of the entire flashback scene and Lori used my prose – two full pages – almost verbatim in the final manuscript.  For me, the ultimate compliment.

 

By far, one of the most exciting by-products of my book collecting was a personal invitation from famed reporter/author, Bob Woodward, for an interview. I was returning from Iraq in 2007 and Bob was researching his book, “The War Within”, the fourth and final volume of his epic analysis of President George W. Bush’s presidency. He graciously met me at his Washington, DC home and spent two hours talking with me about the war in Iraq. That nothing I said that day ended up in his book never dampened the pride I felt being interviewed by someone I have admired since I was a young adult.  Again, an opportunity presented as a result of a hobby and a penchant for collecting.

 

I think I could continue this stream of consciousness forever but I believe now is a good time to bring the curtain down on this mini-magnum opus.  Serbian poet and philosopher, Dejan Stojanović, opined “To write good poems is the secret of brevity.” I believe the same holds true for blog entries.  (Although at over 1700 words I believe I have stretched the limits of that edict.)  My objective today was not to come across as a braggart and I hope I achieved that goal.    Instead, I wanted to share with you my joy of collecting and the important benefits I have reaped from this passion.  In that regard, I hope I hit my mark

As a kid, collecting provided me an outlet to expand my interests and occupy my time. Looking back, I am convinced the hobbies I embraced provided me with alternatives that perhaps allowed me to avoid trouble and bad experiences others around me found inescapable. As an adult, collecting things gives me diversion, gratification and a sense of purpose. To my ever tolerant wife, sorry, sweetie, I do not see this changing in the Second Fifty.

This entry is dedicated to my wife who encouraged to write something a little more personal.    She is proof positive that someone’s staunchest supporter can also be their most useful critic.

Major kudos to anyone who realized I lifted the title of this blog entry from the song “The Butterfly Collector” by the 1990s alternative rock band, Garbage. 

 

“Once You Learn to Quit, It Becomes a Habit”

According to a survey I saw recently in Psychology Today magazine, a large majority of the world’s psychologists agree parents are the number one influencer in shaping their children’s emotional attributes and character. While there are dissenters who would argue society plays a greater role in this process, I am not one. Without question, I am who I am – good and bad – because of my parent’s example and influence. Before he became, in 1895, the first black student to earn a Ph.D. from Harvard University, W.E.B Du Bois noted “Children learn more from what you are than what you teach.” I am with the great civil rights activist on this one as throughout my life, without question, this has been the case.

In earlier posts I have underscored the ways my mom helped mold me into the adult I am today. So, it is only fitting, now, that I take a moment to provide my dad with a shout out of his own. Of the number of good qualities I learned thru his example, by far the two most critical to my success have been perseverance and grit. Englishman, H.G. Wells, “author of the acclaimed science fiction novel, War of the Worlds , noted with a challenging tone “If you fell down yesterday, stand up today.” Though emanating from the pen of the esteemed British writer, this prose could have just as easily been bellowed from the diaphragm of my dad for it has been his mantra for all of his 77 years of life.

In my lifetime, I have seen my father fail numerous times but with each setback, I also witnessed him rise up, move forward and in every instance, ultimately succeed. In this regard, he embodies, with perfection, the Japanese proverb, “Fall seven times and stand up eight.” A ninth grade dropout and father at 17, in the early years my dad worked three jobs to provide for his family. As an adolescent, I saw him only on Sundays.

Offsetting the lack of a formal education with tenacity, common sense and an obstinate desire to succeed, my father pushed forward working for others until he was ultimately able to start his own business. In an observation seemingly penned with my dad in mind, American author, William Feathers, wrote “Success seems to be largely a matter of hanging on after others have let go.” I never saw my father ever let go regardless of the adversity or blow or more importantly, hang his head in shame.

To the contrary, he all but embodied the ethos Portuguese philosopher and writer, Fernando Pessoa, noted in his tome, The Book of Disquiet, “I carry my awareness of defeat like a banner of victory.” It is difficult for me to overstate just how important these examples of perseverance and doggedness were to me during the early years of my development. My father demonstrated stick-to-itiveness in spades and I was the beneficiary. Long before writer of young adult fiction, Gena Showalter, wrote and I read, “Giving up is the only sure way to fail”, I learned this important lesson from my dad’s example.

When he wasn’t putting bold and vibrantly colored brush strokes to canvas, Dutch artist, Vincent van Gogh, was also a person of words. In one of his more memorable verses, he asked “What would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?” I cannot help but to think of my dad when I read this stanza. He has spent almost his entire adult life attempting, and for the most part, accomplishing, what those around him deemed improbable and forlorn.

Former South African President, Nelson Mandela, declared “It always feels impossible until it is done”; a claim that could be my father’s credo. Looking back at his life, he proved every critic and doubter wrong and accomplished more of the impossible than many people achieve of the mundane. In the process, he validated a pledge from college football deity, Paul “Bear” Bryant, “If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride – and never quit – you’ll be a winner.” More importantly, my dad’s unyielding example underscored for me the importance of never giving up.

In addition to the exceptional life lessons I gleaned from watching as my father refused to buckle under adversity and never yield to a challenge, as a young kid, working with him in his own business provided me with another positive boon to my development. I did this from age 12 until I left home at 19.. The hours were long – time in school being my only respite – and the work was quite arduous. Many days I wished I could have been anywhere else and lamented the situation where fate had placed. Now, however, in my Second Fifty, I can say without equivocation, I was quite blessed to have had those experiences.

Sir Thomas Fowell Buxton, an 18th Century English Member of Parliament and social reformer, remarked “With ordinary talent and extraordinary perseverance, all things are attainable.” This is a statement that typifies my life. Learning thru observation of my father and the tenacity and fortitude I developed working for him allowed me to overcome my rather pedestrian talent and enjoy a life in which I achieved moderate academic and professional success.

Some time ago, my father, feeling remorseful and melancholy, called and said he was sorry for, in his words, working me so hard has a kid. I told him then and I will repeat it again now: Dad, you do not owe me any apology. What I learned from your example and those experiences were invaluable in forging my character and molding me into the person I am today.

Because my dad never lost faith in himself, I came to realize as 16th Century French Renaissance, philosopher, Michel Eyquem de Montaigne, did “A wise man never loses anything, if he has himself.”  By watching my father move forward each time he failed, I came to realize the fidelity of British playwright, Oscar Wilde’s, recognition, “I have learned this: it is not what one does that is wrong, but what one becomes as a consequence of it.”

In watching my dad take chances many thought foolish or ill advised, I came to appreciate the sagacity of President Theodore Roosevelt’s boast, “It is hard to fail, but it is worse never to have tried to succeed.”  Because he never cowered in the face of adversity or uncertainty, I came to appreciate the importance of pushing myself to the limits. I gained understanding of the criticality of moving outside my comfort zone in order to reap the potential benefit of an opportunity many would be too fearful to take. To realize as English author T.S. Eliot, did “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.”

That my father failed many times but never gave up and ultimately did succeed due to tenacity of purpose, allowed me to appreciate the significance of American journalist, Leigh Mitchell Hodges’, observation “Failure is often that early morning hour of darkness which precedes the dawning of the day of success.” That my father constantly continued moving forward in the face of extreme hardship, never took a knee and always refused to offer an excuse left an indelible mark on me. The former slave who became one of America’s foremost botanists and inventors, George Washington Carver, noted “Ninety-nine percent of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.” I never heard my father make an excuse.

Almost 3,000 years ago, the Roman poet, Ovid, chiseled into limestone the following words that resonate as loudly today as they did then: “Dripping water hollows out stone, not through force but through persistence.” An example I learned from watching my dad. And, an admonition I have carried with me through life and one that has served me well.

The American odist, George Edward Woodbury, rhapsodized “Defeat is not the worst of failures. Not to have tried is the true failure.” This is a phrase as unknown to my dad as it is to me. My father has always dared to try and as such, so have I. In the end game, this is his greatest gift to me. Shortly before he was assassinated in1968, Senator Robert F. Kennedy, proclaimed “Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” In his life, while he has failed greatly, so too, has my father achieved greatly. In his shadow, I think I have as well.

Dominican Order nun, Saint Catherine of Siena, remarked “Nothing great is ever achieved without much enduring.” I will add, to endure is to succeed. A lesson in perseverance I learned from my dad. Never give up. As, British author, Rudyard Kipling, penned in his poem, If a Father’s Advice to His Son:

“If you can fill the unforgiving minute With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it.”

When I was promoted to US Army Colonel in 2005, I read this as a dedication to my dad, George E, Reynolds, Jr.,  during my promotion ceremony. I offer it again today as it is just as relevant. It is an excerpt from a speech, “Citizen In a Republic”, my favorite President, Theodore Roosevelt, delivered in France, at the Sorbonne, in Paris, 23 April 1910.

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

In the Second Fifty, always strive to be the “man in the arena.”

The title of this blog entry is one of many iconic quotes from the legendary coach of the National Football League’s most storied franchise, the Green Bay Packers, Vince Lombardi, Jr.

Tom and Marianne Mabry, this one’s for you!

Me and my Dad “working” together in his Mobile gas station, Philadelphia, PA, circa 1968.  Good times and humble beginnings.

“Oh, You’re My Best Friend”

Family members and those who know we very well are likely starring at the title of this week’s blog entry aghast. In fact, I would not be surprised, if, upon seeing this, my Mom does not call alarmed that I have somehow been kidnapped by the “congeniality police” or my wife expresses equal concern my website has been hacked. To say I am a person with very few close friends is like calling the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team’s stunning upset of the Soviet squad in the 1980 Winter Olympiad a dinky victory.

Now, this is not to declare I eschew camaraderie. Nor, to admit I disdain the amity of others, possess some deep seated aversion to making acquaintances or have some cheeky, prickly or otherwise loathed set of character attributes folk deem undesirable. In fairness, I have cultivated several really close friendships over the years, but admittedly, have exercised very poor diligence staying in touch with these comrades; a shortcoming exacerbated by the constant moving one experiences in a career in the military. In layman’s term, I suck at staying in touch! 

Ok, enough admissions of fault on my part lest my self-deprecating introspection undermine the substance of what I want to share with you today. Making friends and maintaining friendships are critical elements to the achievement and continuity of well being across all planes, physical, emotional and even, spiritual. In the words of Saint Thomas Aquinas, “There is nothing on this earth more to be prized than true friendship.” This is a pronouncement, I suspect many reading this epistle have experienced firsthand and in a multitude of ways.

About friends and friendship, the great Dutch painter, Vincent van Gogh offered, “Close friends are truly life’s treasures. Sometimes they know us better than we know ourselves. With gentle honesty, they are there to guide and support us, to share our laughter and our tears. Their presence reminds us that we are never really alone.” Roughly 100 years later, four lads from Liverpool noted essentially the same message when they harmonized in one of their many iconic pop songs, “I get by with a little help from my friends.”

Whether you go with the Dutchman, Fou-Roux’s, esoteric ode or the Beatles’ more whimsical lyric is immaterial. What is important is the acknowledgment that a real friend is an irreplaceable touchstone of stability, comfort, understanding, support and at times, needed advice and even criticism; many instances supplanting family members in the delivery of these crucial benefits. To quote Sir William Shakespeare, “A friend is one that knows you as you are, understands where you have been, accepts what you have become, and still, gently allows you to grow.”

The ancient Greek teacher, Aristotle identified a friend as “A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” Admittedly, I have never experienced this sensation with anyone other than a close family member. As a kid growing up, my sister, Denise, and I were incredibly near and remained so until I left home at 19. She was the other body that comprised our single soul. Now, my, wife, Kate, ably fills that role. Regardless of the source, family member or traditional friend, it is imperative that we have someone in our lives that is our other body to our singular soul.

Helen Keller, American author, political activist, and first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, wrote “I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” French philosopher, Albert Camus added to that declaration, “Don’t walk in front of me… I may not follow…Don’t walk behind me… I may not lead. Walk beside me… just be my friend.” I think both passages capture the relevant importance of a friend. Looking back on the more bleak moments of my life, I can always point to at least one friend who stepped forward and provided support when most needed. (Mark Ensign, are you reading this?)  “In the words of Roman orator, Cicero, “Friendship improves happiness, and abates misery, by doubling our joys, and dividing our grief”

America’s Savant of the Short Story, O. Henry (“The Gift of the Magi”) stated “No friendship is an accident. ” Though fate may bring people together it really does require effort to forge a friendship. Especially one that nears a level Bengali Nobel Prize laureate , Ravīndranātha Thākura, envisioned when he wrote “The real friendship is like fluorescence, it shines better when everything has darken.”

Nearly all my deepest and long-lasting friendships – with some notable exceptions – developed through my military career and subsequent post-Army retirement civilian employment.   While true, chance had a primary role in these encounters, all of us expended energy solidifying our relationships; hardly the result of a random convergence of two people.

Around 2500 years ago, Chinese philosopher, Mencius, proposed “Friends are the siblings God never gave us.” For me, there is much truth to this lovely statement. As one who never had a male sibling, I have a tendency to see my really close male friends in that familial role: Brothers more that friends. From a converse perspective, I have probably had just as many close women friends as men, a fact some of the latter find strange. Perhaps, however, my need for platonic female friendship is somehow a reversal of Mencius’s pondering; my sister was my first real friend thus I am forever seeking her replacement. Then again, maybe I am way over thinking this!

In her masterwork of literary fiction, “Jane Eyre” English author, Charlotte Brontë, wrote “There is no happiness like that of being loved by your fellow creatures, and feeling that your presence is an addition to their comfort.” Prose that beautifully underscores the feeling of self-fulfillment many gain from being a friend. The 17th Century Welsh poet, George Herbert, once put quill to parchment and scribed, “The best mirror is an old friend.” A stave of prosody that amplifies the value most people assign the role of a friend to their lives. In either case, friend serves as the lodestone of goodwill and felicity that many of us crave.

My go-to poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, once drafted the following in one of his many sonnets, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” Admittedly, one of the most difficult functions for me to perform; in honesty, a shortcoming I grapple with on a daily basis. Intuitively, I know what English cleric, Charles Caleb Colton, proclaimed “True friendship is like sound health; the value of it is seldom known until it be lost” is sadly, oh so true.

My vow in the Second Fifty is to address this flaw in my persona and to be strive to be a better friend to those who seek me out. If you are like me, I ask you to follow suit. Poet, Henry David Thoreau, wrote “The language of Friendship is not words, but meanings.” Instead of talking the talk, I challenge you to walk the walk. If you do, you will experience what the 17th Century English historian, Thomas Fuller, stressed when he wrote, “Be a friend to thyself, and others will be so too.” I suspect, you will rejoice like poet, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who etched in one of his many quatrains, “Ah, how good it feels! The hand of an old friend.

Kudos to any of you who realized I lifted the title of this blog entry from the classic Queen song “You’re My Best Friend.”

This blog entry is dedicated to my sister, Denise Reynolds Riley. My original “best friend.”

“Knowledge Will Give You Power, but Character, Respect”

No matter how many times I view footage of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s historic 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, I am moved by the riveting and powerful words that resonate from his lips. The sermon-like fervor in which Dr. King catapults his forceful message to the hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists massed in the shadow of the Lincoln Memorial is both gripping and inspirational.

Memorable lines from that historic homily abound, but for me, the most indelible remains I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” What is character and why is this attribute the one, more than all others, someone like “America’s Gandhi” would single it out as a critical benchmark of racial equality? That, my friends, is the query I choose to address in this week’s blog entry.

Heraclitus of Ephesus, an ancient pre-Socratic Greek philosopher, offered that “Character is destiny.” Over 2,000 years later, another philosopher of sorts, Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th President of the United States, proclaimed “Character, in the long run, is the decisive factor in the life of an individual.” Though separated by two millennia, both esteemed sophists derived the same conclusion: Character defines who we are.

Channeling Heraclitus, American essayist and diarist, Anaïs Nin, goes one tall step further, stating, “What we call our destiny is truly our character.” This is perhaps a bit of a stretch; an inflation of character’s import towards charting one’s life. While there is no denying on my part the significance of character in shaping the outcome of a person’s future, I believe there are other equally important factors at hand (several, I have discussed in previous blogs and others I will address in the future), but nonetheless, character is a critical ingredient.

Character, for the intent of this essay, is best defined as an aggregate of traits forming the individual nature of a person. There are good traits, among them compassion, empathy, diligence and enthusiasm. Conversely, there are poor traits to include arrogance, conceit and dishonesty. Lastly, there are some I think best defined as neutral or situational such as stubbornness, stoicism and outspokenness.

Though hardly a mathematician, I can view this as an equation and surmise, at least in the abstract, having more good attributes than less desirable ones will boost the positivity of one’s character. In reality, however, this theorem is only correct if all traits are valued equally and we know they are not. As such, determining someone’s character remains for the most part, a subjective venture.

German writer, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, made clear his perspective on defining the trait, writing that “You can easily judge the character of a man by how he treats those who can do nothing for him.” The Teutonic statesman singled out benevolence as his most desirable determinant. For his part, American poet, Ralph Waldo Emerson, offered “People do not seem to realise that their opinion of the world is also a confession of their character.” The New England bard deferred to perception as his most coveted trait.

President Harry S. Truman posited “Fame is a vapor, popularity is an accident, riches take wings, those who cheer today may curse tomorrow and only one thing endures – character.” Another President, Abraham Lincoln, delivered a more folksy but no less assertive view stating “Reputation is the shadow; character is the tree.” Both of these much admired individuals underscore character as the element most contributing to one’s eminence and perpetuity. Interestingly though, neither political giant seemed dissuaded by the subjective ambiguity of defining character while amplifying its preeminence as a barometer of life standing.

In an example of self-reflection, Dwight L. Moody, a leading 19th Century American evangelist, agreed with the two Presidents, affirming “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself.” However, I think he is even more in line with University of UCLA basketball coaching legend, John Wooden, who said “Be more concerned with character than reputation. Character is what you are, reputation is what people think you are.” From my own experience, the bulk of people I have met view this assertion from the same optic.

British playwright and novelist, W. Somerset Maugham, pondered “When you choose your friends, don’t be short-changed by choosing personality over character.” This is a foreboding that at first glance may appear a tad obvious. After all, who would choose something as seemingly superficial as charisma over such a deep-seated collection of attributes as character? Sadly though, throughout history, the masses have demonstrated a propensity to opt for the former as the names Adolph Hitler, Jim Jones, and Idi Amin tragically bear out.

Contemporary American author, Joan Didion, states in her book, “On Self-Respect”, “Character — the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life — is the source from which self-respect springs.” Her viewpoint is crystal clear: Character is defined by personal responsibility. Fellow wordsmith, the late James A. Michener, wrote “Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.” This speaks to the importance of tenacity and determination. A presence of being the ancient Greek philosopher, Aristotle alluded to when he put quill to papyrus noting “We cannot live better than in seeking to become better.”

The venerable Hellenic intellect, Aristotle, also proclaimed “Character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion.” Perhaps this is a nod to the ability to influence others by the projection of one’s example, in line with French-German humanitarian, Albert Schweitzer’s, comment “Example is not the main thing in influencing others. It is the only thing.” While I agree with Schweitzer leading by example is the most effectiveness means of motivating others, I break ranks with Aristotle. Persuasion is an art not a character trait.

Ok, time to wrap this session up. What began as a simple blog commentary has morphed into a monograph (fortunately for me, brevity is NOT deemed a character attribute!) As such, as a means of bringing this treatise to a close, I defer to this comment from revered German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, “Character is determined more by the lack of certain experiences than by those one has had.”

This has certainly been the case in my life. There is no denying my character has been forged by a multitude of experiences – good and bad – over my lifespan. In that regard, it continues to evolve as I continue to learn, develop and grow as a person. In the words of Helen Keller, “Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, vision cleared, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

The title of this blog is a quote from the late Martial Arts legend, Bruce Lee.

Following is a list of attributes generally considered desirable strands in the DNA of “Good Character.” Not saying I agree with all but as I roll through my Second Fifty I may add a few I am missing.

  • Availability – Making my own schedule and priorities secondary to the wishes of those I serve.
  • Benevolence – Giving to others basic needs without having as my motive personal reward.
  • Boldness – Confidence that what I have to say or do is true, right, and just.
  • Cautiousness – Knowing how important right timing is in accomplishing right actions.
  • Compassion – Investing whatever is necessary to heal the hurts of others.
  • Contentment – Realizing that true happiness does not depend on material conditions.
  • Creativity – Approaching a need, a task, or an idea from a new perspective.
  • Decisiveness – The ability to recognize key factors and finalize difficult decisions.
  • Deference – Limiting my freedom so I do not offend the tastes of those around me.
  • Dependability – Fulfilling what I consented to do, even if it means unexpected sacrifice.
  • Determination – Purposing to accomplish right goals at the right time, regardless of the opposition.
  • Diligence – Investing my time and energy to complete each task assigned to me.
  • Discernment – Understanding the deeper reasons why things happen.
  • Discretion – Recognizing and avoiding words, actions, and attitudes that could bring undesirable consequences.
  • Endurance – The inward strength to withstand stress and do my best.
  • Enthusiasm – Expressing joy in each task as I give it my best effort.
  • Faith – Confidence that actions rooted in good character will yield the best outcome, even when I cannot see how.
  • Flexibility – Willingness to change plans or ideas according to the direction of my authorities.
  • Forgiveness – Clearing the record of those who have wronged me and not holding a grudge.
  • Generosity – Carefully managing my resources so I can freely give to those in need.
  • Gentleness – Showing consideration and personal concern for others.
  • Gratefulness – Letting others know by my words and actions how they have benefitted my life.
  • Honor – Respecting those in leadership because of the highter authorities they represent.
  • Hospitality – Cheerfully sharing food, shelter, or conversation to benefit others.
  • Humility – Acknowledging that achievement results from the investment of others in my life.
  • Initiative – Recognizing and doing what needs to be done before I am asked to do it.
  • Joyfulness – Maintaining a good attitude, even when faced with unpleasant conditions.
  • Justice – Taking personal responsibility to uphold what is pure, right, and true.
  • Loyalty – Using difficult times to demonstrate my commitment to those I serve.
  • Meekness – Yielding my personal rights and expectations with a desire to serve.
  • Obedience – Quickly and cheerfully carrying out the direction of those who are responsible for me.
  • Orderliness – Arranging myself and my surroundings to achieve greater efficiency.
  • Patience – Accepting a difficult situation without giving a deadline to remove it.
  • Persuasiveness – Guiding vital truths around another’s mental roadblocks.
  • Punctuality – Showing esteem for others by doing the right thing at the right time.
  • Resourcefulness – Finding practical uses for that which others would overlook or discard.
  • Responsibility – Knowing and doing what is expected of me.
  • Security – Structuring my life around that which cannot be destroyed or taken away.
  • Self-Control – Rejecting wrong desires and doing what is right.
  • Sensitivity – Perceiving the true attitudes and emotions of those around me.
  • Sincerity – Eagerness to do what is right with transparent motives.
  • Thoroughness – Knowing what factors will diminish the effectiveness of my work or words if neglected.
  • Thriftiness – Allowing myself and others to spend only what is necessary.
  • Tolerance – Realizing that everyone is at varying levels of character development.
  • Truthfulness – Earning future trust by accurately reporting past facts.
  • Virtue – The moral excellence evident in my life as I consistently do what is right.
  • Wisdom – Seeing and responding to life situations from a perspective that transcends my current circumstances.

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