A flash from the past

Doing research for my memoirs I unexpectedly came across this video of the visit Nigerian Prime Minister Abubakar’s visit to the United States in July 1961.  I appear in several frames, perhaps the only video of me at work during my long career.

In 1961, I was working as night editor in the Associated Press office in Knoxville, Tennessee, but I was pushing hard for an overseas assignment. I had been told that to get noticed by the AP bosses on the international side in New York I should be on the lookout for stories of interest AP’s thousands of clients outside the United States.

As headquarters for the Tennessee Valley Authority and a close neighbor of Oak Ridge, home of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Knoxville got a significant number of important foreign visitors every year, and I made sure to get as many as possible off to the World Services.

But one story in July of that year gave me the unexpected boost that finally got me a transfer from Knoxville to New York and subsequently to Rio de Janeiro. It was a story I had been told not to cover.

Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa, the first prime minister of independent Nigeria, was coming to East Tennessee as a part of his state visit to the United States in July 1961. Balewa had made headlines in Washington with his meeting with President Kennedy, Secretary of State Dean Rusk and other high government officials as well as with his speech before a joint session of Congress. After a state dinner at the White House, Balewa visited Chicago and then came to Knoxville to visit the Tennessee Valley Authority. A dairy farmer himself, he had also had asked to visit a modern U.S. dairy farm.

Escar Thompson, the AP correspondent in Knoxville, messaged the General Desk in New York and was told there was no interest in a story on the prime minister’s activities in East Tennessee so he nixed my request to cover the visit, fearing, I suppose, I would put in for overtime.

I covered it anyway, on my own time, following the visitor and his party, all dressed in the colorful flowing robes of their native country, across the muddy fields of Bonnie Vista dairy farm in Loudon County Tennessee. It was a Saturday and I was working the night shift, so I had to hurry back to Knoxville to get to work on time. I wrote my story and filed it to the New York World Services desk, not the General Desk.

I didn’t know what to expect from Escar, but I don’t recall that he even mentioned it. I did not ask for overtime, of course.

A few days later Stan Swinton, the director of AP World Services, wrote me with a copy to Escar that the AP’s Lagos bureau chief had written that my story was the best thing he had seen in the coverage of Balewa’s U.S. visit.

I still remember, more or less, my lead. “Politics and affairs of state were pushed into the background today as two farmers walked across a muddy dairy farm field in East Tennessee.”

I think that story, more than anything else, led to my assignment a few weeks later on the World Services desk in New York. And, I left for Rio before the end of the year.


(Footnote: the link above is to a video of Balewa’s visit on the website of the Kennedy Library. The visit to  TVA is about 18 minutes into the film and the dairy farm visit is 18:40 minutes. Yours truly appears in several frames of the farm visit, including smoking a cigarette in one frame (19:03). I quit smoking cigarettes two years later.

(Sadly, Balewa was assassinated during a military coup d’etat in 1966.)

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No joy for the nation in 2018 mid-term elections

Neither side should take pleasure in the outcome of Tuesday’s mid-term elections. Democrats may be overjoyed that they now control the House of Representatives, and Republicans are surely relieved that they have retained control of the Senate.

What we are faced with now is continuing legislative gridlock. It was bad enough when Democrats controlled both houses with a Democratic president, and at least as bad with Republicans in control of Congress and a Republican president.

President Obama did get a watered-down, imperfect version of his health care proposal enacted, and President Trump got his tax cut for the rich. But not much else of real substance has been accomplished short of keeping the government going — most of the time.

My guess is that with this divided Congress even less will get done than before. I believe we will see more intransigence, more bitterness, and more dirty tricks. And who is hurt by it? Just us, the American people trying to go about our daily lives.

President Trump has already signaled what we can expect by first saying he could work with a Democratic-controlled House, then announcing he would take a “war-like posture” against House Democrats if they try to counter the White House. In other words, “my way, or the highway.”

In my younger years, I was press secretary to Sen. Howard Baker, after he became the first popularly elected[1] Republican senator from Tennessee in 1967.

Baker, a moderate who always looked at all sides of an issue, used to give a speech before civic clubs and other groups in which he extolled the virtues of our two-party system. He pointed out that both parties were strong because they included a wide range of opinions. Some of the most liberal senators in those days were Republicans, notably Sen. Jacob Javits from New York and Sen. Hugh Scott from Pennsylvania. The Democratic Party also had its share of liberals, of course, the Kennedys and Al Gore Sr., to name a few. And some of the most hardened conservatives were Southern Democrats Midwesterners such as Sen. Roman Hruska of Nebraska and Baker’s father-in-law, Sen. Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who was the minority leader in the Senate.

Dirksen, Hruska and the Southern Democrats had successfully blocked any meaningful open housing legislation in previous years, but Baker, who had become close friends with his temporary office mate Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, a Republican and the first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote, became convinced that fair housing legislation in America was long overdue. He went to Dirksen who, after much discussion, told Baker to draft a bill that he “could live with.”

Baker, aided by his legislative assistant, Lamar Alexander, now the senior senator from Tennessee, and with input from numerous others in both parties, crafted a bill and presented it to Dirksen.

My most memorable moment during my nearly two years as press secretary came when we gathered in Dirksen’s ornate minority leader’s office in the Capitol to put together a final version of the bill. Literally sitting on the floor cutting and pasting in those pre-computer days, we cobbled together a bill that incorporated numerous changes demanded by Dirksen and others.

The result was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, as Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act had come to be called. It prohibited discrimination concerning the sale, rental and financing of housing based on race, religion, national origin and sex.

It was a huge feather in the cap of the freshman senator from Tennessee and the beginning of his long and illustrious career as an American statesman noted for his ability to find common ground among almost all political currents of the day. He was known as the “Great Conciliator.”

Sadly, we don’t have any “great conciliators” in Washington today. Perhaps the senator who came closest was the late John McCain of Arizona. Two other senators who dared speak their minds, Bob Corker of Tennessee and Jeff Flake of Arizona, are leaving the Senate at the end of this term. Sadly, Lamar Alexander, who should have learned something about bipartisanism when he worked with Baker, seems to have bought into the Trump camp heart and soul.

Now, as Baker predicted, the polarization of the political parties has almost destroyed our two-party system. These days it seems that our elected officials in both parties put party loyalty above loyalty to the country and to the people who elected them.

In this past election, the word “moderate” became a pejorative when describing a candidate who advocated anything other than the extreme party line.

So, now we have a divided Congress with both sides digging in to thwart the other. Will anything get done? I’m guessing very little.

The electorate at large also seems about evenly divided along party lines, voting blindly, it appears, for candidates who espouse the partisan line.

Our only hope is that the country will eventually come to its collective senses and reject this extreme polarization. It may take a third party that can tap into the moderates in the existing parties to bring this about.

[1] Until 1913, U.S. senators were chosen by the legislatures of their respective states. In that year, the 17th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified allowing the voters in the states to elect their senators.

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Statues, flags and racism

I am conflicted. I was appalled by President Trump’s reaction to the violence in Charlottesville, Va., and his obvious support of extremist right-wing groups. On the other hand, I agree with him that doing away with our Confederate monuments is a mistake.

To be clear, I have no sympathy for the Rebel cause in the Civil War. And like a lot of border state families, I had ancestors on both sides. My grandmother had a brother who was a captain in the Union army and another who was a Confederate soldier. My great-great grandfather, Lewis Baird, died in a Confederate prison. He was a political prisoner and a personal friend of CSA President Jefferson Davis. According to a letter to the family from a fellow prisoner, Davis visited Lewis at the prison in Salisbury, N.C., and told him that if he signed an oath of allegiance to the Confederacy, he could walk out with him as a free man. Lewis refused. He died a year later.

I do believe that some monuments should be removed, such as the bust of Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest in the Tennessee state capitol in Nashville. Forrest, by most accounts, was a despicable character, an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and should not be honored. But Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson and thousands of others were honorable men who felt obliged to support their native southland. I can see no reason to try to wipe out their role in our history.

We shouldn’t be so quick to condemn everybody who supported the South for views held at that time. Right or wrong, as we see it today, most Southerners, I believe, sought to defend a way of life they cherished. Sadly, that way of life included slavery, but that was not the only issue in the Civil War and most of those who fought in that war were not slave owners.

Fueling the rush to go to war were huge economic issues, such as trade barriers that protected the industrial North, but worked against the exports of the agrarian South, and political issues such as the question of the rights of the states, important to the South, versus a strong central government, preferred by the North.

Historians still debate these issues.

We have come a long way in the 152 years since the Civil War ended. But clearly we still have a very long way to go.

In my opinion, removing statues certainly will not only fail to change anybody’s racist views, but also will continue to inflame divisions and hatred in our country.

The Confederate battle flag is another question. Unfortunately, this flag has been appropriated by the white supremacists as a symbol of racial bigotry and hatred, despoiling it to the extent that it no longer represents the brave men who fought and died under it in a war not of their making.

That said, those who want to fly the flag over their homes or display it on their cars or pickup trucks should be allowed to do so. The flag says a lot about the person who flies it, and it should be that person’s right to make such a statement.

It should not fly, in my opinion, from any public building, especially a government building. But banning it from personal use would be an affront to our Constitution’s guarantee of free speech.

The really tragic thing about this whole controversy is that all these years later some of the same tensions divide our nation today as did in the 1860s. Will we ever get over it?

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Bucket list: Visit Slovenia√

My “bucket list” is empty!

In recent years, this mental list has had only one item: Visit Slovenia!

I finally went there in at the end of April (2016).

“Slovenia? Where’s that?” you ask.

That’s the response I’ve often gotten when I tell people that I recently visited Slovenia. Either that or just a blank look or “Wasn’t that part of Czechoslovakia?”

“What’s the capital city?” one friend asked.

“Ljubljana,” I replied and got an even more perplexed look.

Another friend who is a retired airline captain and widely traveled shook his head and asked, “Does the capital have an airport?”

Indeed it does. Ljubljana’s Jože Pučnik Airport offers connections to cities throughout Europe and is home base to Adria Airlines, the Slovenian flag carrier. About 1.5 million passengers used the airport in 2015.

It’s not surprising that few Americans know about Slovenia. Of the few who have heard of it even fewer know where it is. It’s not surprising: Slovenia has been an independent nation only since June 25, 1991. Before that it had been a part of various states, ranging from the Roman Empire to Yugoslavia, of which it was a part until it gained its independence.

Slovenia is a small country, 7,827 square miles. East Tennessee, for example, is almost twice as big. Its population is just over 2 million people, a little less than East Tennessee’s 2.3 million. It is a slightly smaller in area than Israel and El Salvador, but with far fewer people.

It is strategically located at a cultural crossroads, bordering Italy to the west, Austria to the north, Hungary to the east, and Croatia to the south. On its southwest, just south of Trieste, Italy, it has a 30-mile coastline on the Adriatic Sea.

The origin of the capital’s name, Ljubljana, is unclear but most agree that it stems from the old Slavic “Ljub” to love. That is bolstered by the verb “ljubiti” (to love) and the noun “ljubljena” (beloved) in Slovene. So many call it “the City of Love.”


I first heard of Slovenia 60 years ago in June 1956 when I was assigned to study the Slovenian language at the U.S. Army Language School in Monterey, Calif. Slovenia was then a part of Communist Yugoslavia, and the Army Security Agency had decided it needed some Slovene speakers to monitor the province’s radio broadcast. There were 16 of us in our group, eight in a class.

After a year of training, we were reasonably fluent in the language, and were assigned to an ASA listening post in a former German Luftwaffe base in Bavaria. My job for most of the 18 months in Germany was as an intelligence analyst, reviewing the intercepts and deciding which should be sent to higher headquarters.

We were not allowed to go to Yugoslavia, but we could use our language skills, and I found many opportunities, including becoming a regular at a Slovenian-owned restaurant in
Vienna where I traveled frequently while dating the girl who would become my wife.

Our language training included learning about the culture and people of Slovenia. Listening to their radio broadcasts, including the regular broadcast stations as well as the police networks we were assigned to monitor, gave us a familiarity with the people of the country.

After my three-year hitch in the Army, I used my Slovene only twice: Once in 1959 to interview a Slovenian engineer who was visiting the Tennessee Valley Authority in Knoxville and again in September 1963 when Marshal Josip Broz Tito, president of Yugoslavia, came to Brasilia on a state visit. I made friends with the Slovenian journalists traveling with him and along with them was invited to a private press meeting.

Though I didn’t get to use the language again, I still had a strong desire to visit Slovenia. In the 1980s, I reconnected with one of my best Army friends, Ed Lanham of Clarksdale, Miss. Ed not only had kept up his language skills, but had visited Slovenia regularly and had many friends there. We made plans in the 1980s to go back there together. Sadly, Ed died before we could make the trip.


My son Edgar was transferred by his company to its headquarters in Rome last year, and he and Angela invited us to visit. Ghislaine and I had been to Rome twice before, once on our honeymoon in 1958 and again on our 40th wedding anniversary in 1998. After we arrived in mid-April for a month’s stay, I told Edgar I had only one request: a visit to Slovenia. After all Ljubljana is only about 300 miles from Rome, closer than the 370-mile trip we frequently make to Charleston, S.C.

Edgar was eager to go with us. Before leaving, I had the good fortune to meet Tomaž Kunstelj, Slovenia’s ambassador to the Vatican. He fired my enthusiasm even more. After my return, we had another delightful conversation following Mass at Marymount School, where his children and my grandchildren are students.

We set out for Ljubljana on a Friday afternoon at the end of April, Edgar and I by the high-speed train to Mestre in northern Italy, daughter-in-law Angela, Ghislaine and grandchildren Danny, Carolina and Sofia by car. We decided to meet in Trieste, which lies on a little strip of land bordering Slovenia on the Adriatic coast.

Our train from Mestre to Trieste turned out to be the last of the day and when we arrived there about 8 o’clock that evening everything was closed in the railway station, making it difficult to get information. We decided to spend the night in Trieste, leave the car there and take a tram up the mountain on Saturday to Opicina-Trieste where we were told we could get a train to Ljubljana. We discovered after walking nearly a mile to the train station that there were no trains on Saturday to Ljubljana. We called taxis and rode the short distance to Sežana, just across the border in Slovenia.

It was a bit of a hassle, but for me just arriving finally in Slovenia was a great moment. Ghislaine and I took advantage of our wait to walk around the pretty little town of Sežana. The first thing I was struck by was the how clean everything was, something I would note all during our four-day stay in Slovenia.

The train which took us two stops to Divača, where we were told to detrain and get on a waiting bus for the remainder of the trip to Ljubljana.

We arrived in the capital late in the afternoon and walked the four blocks from the bus-rail station to the City Hotel on Dalmatinova Ulica. I initially wanted to stay at the Slon Hotel, a traditional place I remembered from my language studies because of its unusual name. “Slon” means “elephant” in Slovene. But it was undergoing renovations and we decided on the newer City Hotel, which turned out to be a good choice.


View of Ljubljana from the funicular to the Ljubljana Castle. The roof of the Central Market can be seen in the center of the picture along the Ljubljanica River.

After checking into our rooms, discovering that we were the first guests in the newly renovated rooms in our wing, we took a walking tour of Ljubljana with me as guide. Using a tourist map from the hotel and my 60-year memories of the maps we had studied at ALS, we walked over to Slovenska Cesta (Slovene street), renamed from “Titova” street after independence, I assume. Much of the central business section of town is a pedestrian mall filled with little shops and restaurants.

We walked past the 13-story “Nebotičnik,” once the tallest building in Slovenia whose name means “skyscraper” in Slovene. We cut across the central promenade to Prešernov Trg (square), named in honor of 19th century Slovenian poet France Prešeren whose statue dominates the center of the square. From there went across the Ljubljanica River via the Triple Bridge (Tromostovje) and walked to the Cathedral of St. Nicholas. We continued along the riverside market, closed on the weekend, to the famous Dragon Bridge. We crossed the river again and walked along the row of restaurants and bars along the riverbank, the outside tables filled with young people despite the chilly temperatures.

Our walk ended at the Allegria Restaurant on Nazorjeva ulica in the center of the promenade. We chose the restaurant at random, but it turned out to be an excellent choice; delicious food, a great atmosphere and reasonable prices.

Congress Square

Ljubljana Castle as seen from Congress Square in downtown Ljubljana. At right is the University of Ljubljana building and the building straight ahead is the Slovenian Philarmonic.

The next day, Sunday, it was drizzling a cold rain. We attended Mass at the cathedral then toured the imposing Ljubljana Castle a medieval fortress that sits atop a hill overlooking the city and reachable by a 230-foot funicular that seems to rise almost vertically providing a spectacular view of the city and, on a clear day, the Alps to the north.

After the castle tour, Edgar, Angela and the children departed for Trieste and the drive back to Rome. Ghislaine and I stayed over for two more nights.

We had hoped to do some shopping and sightseeing as well as visiting the Ljubljana University, which has an exchange program with the University of Tennessee School of Journalism where I taught for several years, but we had not realized that Monday, May 2, was the Labor Day holiday in Slovenia. All the shops were closed and it was still raining. We had a nice lunch in another downtown restaurant and then, since the rain had stopped, decided to take the walking tour of the city with a professional guide. It was similar to the tour I had led on our first day, but included many more interesting landmarks such as the opera house, the Philharmonic building, and the various government buildings. Our guide, a young history graduate from Ljubljana University, was very knowledgeable.

She was a bit startled when I asked her if she knew where the secret police headquarters under the communist regime was located. She said she had not idea, and was curious as to why I was asking.

“Just wondered,” I said. I don’t think she was satisfied, but she didn’t pursue it. I found out later in Rome from Ambassador Kunstelj that we had walked past it several times. Oh, well, next time.

Several people have asked if I was able to remember much of my Slovene. I didn’t remember very much at all, and certainly when people were speaking at a normal rate, I could not understand anything except a word here and there. I have often heard that a language once acquired stays with you, buried somewhere in the depths of your memory. If that is true, mine is buried much too deep to resurrect in a short visit to Slovenia. Perhaps with more time.

Among the things that I did remember, one of the key words was pivo — beer.  I like beer and our professors had told us how great Union pivo was. I discovered quickly that a national debate still rages over the relative merits of Union and Laško beers, the two main brands in the country. Union is brewed in Ljubljana and, as might be expected, favored by the residents of the capital. Laško is brewed in the second largest city, Maribor, in the northwest. I tried both several times and was unable to decide which was best. I liked both.

All in all, we had a brief but delightful visit to this city that I had discovered in my language training so many years ago. A beautiful, friendly, clean city, it was far above my expectations. The city is a blend of modern buildings and beautifully maintained older buildings in a variety of architectural styles, some dating back to the Roman Empire. Following a devastating earthquake in 1511, the city was rebuilt largely in the Venetian baroque style. Another serious earthquake in 1895 leveled 10 percent of its 1,400 buildings. Many were rebuilt in a Viennese style popular at the time.


My impression of Slovenia in general is that this youthful country, having found its independence, is making an impression far beyond its relatively small size. Yes, Slovenia, like other European countries, was hard hit by the worldwide recession of recent years, but apparently is recovering nicely without any expensive bailout from the European Union, of which it is a part.

It has its share of problems still, but what country doesn’t?

During the boom years from independence in 1991 to the downturn in 2008, the country made remarkable strides in upgrading its infrastructure. The roads we saw were excellent. Ljubljana sports many modern buildings, including four that are taller than the Nebotičnik, the country’s tallest building when it was built in 1933. Three of the four taller structures were built after independence. The tallest is the 20-story Crystal Palace, opened in 2011 in the northwestern part of the city. We saw it only from  the distance.

My research on Slovenia showed that the country has an incredible literacy rate of 99.7 percent. Children are taught English from the early grades in school and most young people we encountered were perfectly fluent in English. Many, particularly older Slovenians from areas near the borders, speak German, Italian, Hungarian and/or Serbo-Croatian. Our street tour guide was fluent in English, German and Hungarian.

With its beautiful Alpine regions and resorts, lakes such as Lake Bled, and the Adriatic coast, Slovenia is a natural tourist destination. It drew nearly 2.5 million tourists in 2014, including more than 65,000 from the United States, according to Slovenian government statistics.


Our next hurdle turned out to be getting back to Rome. After getting conflicting information from the Internet and the hotel concierge, we decided to walk up to the train station to find out when we could get a train. The only train, I was told, would leave around 9 p.m. and with a change in Austria would arrive in Rome the next morning. We didn’t want to spend that much time on the train so we walked over to the adjacent bus station and learned we could get a bus to Mestre at 8:15 the next morning. From Mestre, we could get hourly trains to Rome. We bought our tickets and returned to the hotel for a leisurely dinner.

Tuesday was a bright, sunny day, a relief after two days of rain and gray skies. We arose early, had breakfast, checked out of the hotel and walked to the bus depot, arriving well before our departure time. But we couldn’t find our bus. I started asking drivers up and down the line of 20 or so buses parked there. It was a true test of my Slovene because none of the drivers admitted to speaking any English. Some, from Croatia and perhaps other countries, couldn’t speak Slovene. Finally, as time was running out, I found a driver who spoke German. My German is not quite as rusty as my Slovene so I was able to find out from him that the Mestre bus would leave from slot 25 — fünfundzwanzig. Giving him a sincere “vielen dank,” I ran back up the rank of buses waving wildly at Ghislaine who was waiting for me across the street. Our bus — actually a large van — was just pulling out of slot 25. The driver stopped and let us on, joining four female passengers already seated.

The ride to Mestre was swift and beautiful. I again was amazed at how well kept the roads were, both in Slovenia and Italy.

In Mestre, the van pulled up to a stop, not at a bus station, but in a somewhat seedy-looking industrial neighborhood. The driver told us to get off, but gave no further explanation. I looked around to see about catching a taxi to the train station, but there were no cabs around.

Just then another van pulled up from the opposite direction. It stopped and several passengers got off and crossed the street to the one we had just left. We were motioned to get on the new van. It took us to the nearby railway station. I have no idea why our original van could not go all the way to the station.


I have but one regret about our trip: We were in Slovenia a total of about 72 hours from the moment we crossed the border going in until we crossed it again on our return. That’s not nearly enough time to begin to really appreciate and enjoy all this small but beautiful country has to offer.

So, while I was able to delete “Visit Slovenia” from my bucket list, I now have a new item on it: “Go back to Slovenia; stay longer; see more of the country.”

An after thought

A pretty bird

Toward the end of our Slovene language course, I heard about a church in San Francisco that had a Mass in Slovenian. I couldn’t convince any of my fellow students to go with me so I went alone to the Church of the Nativity of Our Lord and attended the Slovene-language Mass. It was in April, “Good Shepherd Sunday” and the Gospel reading from St. John 10:11 was: “Jaz sem dobri pastir. Dobri pastir daje svoje življenje za ovce.” (“I am the Good Shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep.”)

After the Mass, I waited for the priest and, speaking in Slovene, introduced myself and explained how I had learned the language. He was impressed and invited me to come to lunch at the rectory. Several parishioners were there pitching in to prepare the lunch and I was immersed in the language and culture in a way I never had been at ALS.

At one point, I goofed. Talking to some parishioners as we cleaned up after lunch, I pointed out the window over the sink and said what I thought was, “Such a pretty bird” (“Taka lepa ptica.”) There was sudden silence around me. The woman I was helping said, “I think you mean ‘ptica.’” I agreed, but had no idea what I had actually said until I returned to Monterey and asked one of my professors. He was horrified and where I had heard that word. He was even more horrified when I told him. Turns out the word was a very profane term for a woman’s private parts.

Fortunately, the priest and his parishioners understood and accepted that it was an honest mistake. Later that afternoon, the priest and I attended a celebration at the Slovenian community center. After that, he told me about a great new group he had heard of that was performing at a club called the hungry i. The group was the Kingston Trio, which about a year later would become a national sensation with their hit song “Tom Dooley.”

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the priest’s name.

Footnote: Our professors at ALS quickly introduced a couple of classes and slang and profanity to make sure we didn’t make such mistakes again.








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Christmas Party or Holiday Party?

Growing up in a small East Tennessee mountain town in the 1930s long before TV, computers, the Internet, smart phones and the like, young boys found amusement in a lot of different ways. One way to have “fun” was to poke a stick in a wasp nest.

It only took one time for me to realize that the wasps get very angry when their nest is disturbed and that no matter how fast you could run the wasps were faster.

I get the  impression that Rickey Hall, the vice chancellor for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, likes to symbolically poke a stick into wasp nests to see what happens. When he announced “guidelines” for “holiday” parties recently he found out. The wasps are still swarming, many calling not only for his ouster but also for UT Chancellor Jimmy Cheek to resign.

Like many, my first reaction to Hall’s suggestion that campus groups make sure their “holiday party is not a Christmas party in disguise,” that may include “games with religious and cultural themes” bordered on outrage.

But on further reflection, I think he may be right. But I would change it to say a “Christmas party is not a holiday party in disguise.” How many so-called Christmas parties are really about celebrating the birth of Jesus? In my experience, not many outside of specifically religious celebrations. Christmas parties typically involve a lot of merriment, drinking and even at some gift-giving, but at what point do the revelers stop and consider the true meaning of Christmas?

Outside of organized religion, Christmas for many people has become a purely secular holiday. For the retail business, it is a time to make money and the exploitation of Christmas starts weeks ahead of time. Santa Claus is not really a religious figure, even though the concept was based on St. Nicholas, a fourth century bishop who gave secret gifts to the poor.

In the Catholic Church, such things as singing Christmas carols or saying “merry Christmas” are discouraged during Advent. You are supposed to wait at least until Christmas Eve before singing “Silent Night,” “Joy to the World,” or any other carols. Until then we sing “O Come Emmanuel” and other Advent songs. Outside the church we are bombarded daily by Christmas music everywhere, from the media to piped-in music in supermarkets.

While I certainly would not support banning true Christmas celebrations by religious groups, I think it makes a lot of sense to get rid of the fiction that most of the big bashes at this time of year are “Christmas parties.”

I think that Hall has done Christians a service by reminding us that Christmas is not about revelry but about the birth of the man we believe to be the Son of God.

UT fortunately did not fire Hall for his suggestion, but merely “counseled” him. And to make sure he doesn’t poke anymore wasp nests, they took away his control of his website. Now everything he wants to post will have to be channeled through Margie Nichols, vice chancellor for Communications. So in effect the university has chosen to muzzle Hall.

I think that a university’s position should be to praise Hall, not censor him, and let him continue to stir up controversy and bring issues out for public discussion.

In my years as a reporter, writer and editor in the news business, I tried to adhere to the saying, “Comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” I think that’s a good motto for a university as well.

A final thought: We hear a lot of people saying they want to “put Christ back into Christmas.” In other words, they want to combat the secularization and commercialization of Christmas and make it once again a purely religious holiday.

One way to do that would be to quit labeling secular parties as “Christmas parties.” Maybe that’s how Hall should have couched his messaged.


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Chile Redux

A week after we arrived in Santiago on our second visit to Chile, we were on another airplane flying toward the Atacama Desert, a place I had never heard of before. We left late in the afternoon for the two-hour flight on a LAN chile Airbus from Santiago, heading


Sunset into the Pacific on flight to Alama

almost due north for 765 miles to Calama. It was a pleasant flight with a spectacular sunset over the Pacific to our left.

As on our first visit at Christmas-New Year’s 2011-2012, we were in Chile to visit our son Edgar, his wife, Angela, and their four children. They have lived in Santiago about four years. Edgar is the chief legal officer for Enel Latin America, a subsidiary of the giant Italian energy company.

As our plane began its final approach to Calama, a city just north of the Tropic of Capricorn, about 9:30 p.m., we could see below us a sea of flashing red lights. Since our plane was flying directly over them, I thought they were some sort of navigation aid. We learned later that the lights were atop windmills in Enel’s huge wind farm near Calama.


Carolina at the windfarm near Calama

In Calama, we rented two vehicles. The negotiations for the vehicles, although my daughter-in-law had reserved them before leaving, took about an hour. Instead of the SUV she had wanted, we got a pickup truck with an extended cab and four-wheel drive. Angela drove the sedan and Edgar and I and two of the kids went in the truck for the hour and a half drive to San Pedro de Atacama, our destination. We drove through the wind farm area but it was so dark we could see very little other than the flashing red lights we had seen from the air.

When we pulled into San Pedro de Atacama shortly before midnight, I thought we had mistakenly gotten into a slum. The streets were narrow and unpaved. The buildings, none higher than two stories, looked like they were constructed of dried mud. The dirt streets were mostly deserted, save for a few young stragglers coming out of the restaurants and bars, which were closing for the night. The restaurant where we were supposed to meet the owner of the cabins where we were staying was closed.


Sofia stands in the door of one of our cabins near San Pedro de Atacama

Fortunately, Angela reached her by cell phone, and she agreed to come into town to lead us to the cabins. We followed her through the village onto a road, also unpaved that led into the desert. Then she turned off into what looked like a field, but turned out to be a narrow country lane just wide enough for one vehicle. After a couple more minutes, we turned off the little lane into a courtyard where the headlights showed four small rectangular buildings that looked like a cheap motel or a trailer park.

I kept thinking, “What have we gotten into?”

But when we went into the cabins we were pleasantly surprised. They were spacious, with a small kitchen, dining area and sitting area as well as an inside bathroom and two good-sized bedrooms. There were large screen television sets in each room. And the rooms appeared to be spic and span. I relaxed a bit.

Cabin dining

Kitchenette and dining area of Atacama cabin

The next day we went into San Pedro and quickly saw that, contrary to our midnight impression, it was a charming little town, bustling with tourists and small shops catering to them. The “tourists” were mostly young backpackers, undoubtedly en route to the nearby Andes.

The Atacama region is billed as “the driest spot on earth.” One website I visited proclaimed: “In fact, it has hardly ever rained here in recorded history.”But while we were there it rained, not much, but rain nonetheless.


Rainbow in Atacama

A historic, if ironic, occurrence. As brief as it was, it produced perhaps the most spectacular double rainbow I’ve ever seen.

For a place so dry, I was surprised also at the amount of vegetation around San Pedro. It was like an oasis in the desert. Edgar, Angela and the kids went higher up into the Andes one day to visit the famous El Tatio geyser field. Since the area is about 14,000 feet above sea level, Ghislaine and I decided to stay behind. Another day we visited the salt ponds in the area.

The Atacama Desert occupies 41,000 square miles in northern Chile, as area almost as big as Tennessee, extending from the Pacific in the west to the Andes in the east. To the east is Bolivia and to the north Peru. This is a region of llamas and alpacas, and garments and other articles made from their wool abound. It is also the area where much of Chile’s famous copper comes from.

The visit to the desert was quite a change from the trip we took in 2012 to the south. On that trip, we drove down — about 12 hours — to Pucón. A friend and business partner of another son, John, has a kayaking school and camp near Pucón, and we stayed there next to a whitewater river amid lush vegetation in contrast to some of the moonscape-like areas of the Atacama.


Sculpture at entrance to Cultural Center

Except for a one-day excursion to the beach at Viña del Mar, about two hours away, the rest of visit to Chile was spent in Santiago. Ghislaine and I took the Metro downtown one day and wandered around, visiting the Cultural Center near the La Moneda presidential palace. The center features an unusual sculpture at the entrance (see photo).

Ghislaine and Ed with Eduardo and Mati at their home in Santiago

Two other events stand out: First was a delightful visit with very dear friends from my days with the Associated Press in Brazil, Eduardo and Mati Gallardo. Eduardo is retired after winding up an illustrious career with AP as bureau chief in Santiago in his native Chile. Joining us for dinner at his home was Sergio Carrasco, another retired AP man who holds the longevity record with the news agency where he worked for 57 years all around the South American continent. He started with AP as a messenger boy in Santiago at age 14. It was a great night of reminiscing and remembering the “good old days.”

Garden party

The "churrasco" in backyard

The other event was a garden party at Edgar and Angela’s home. Nearly 40 people showed up for the barbeque (churrasco) around the patio and pool in their backyard. It was truly an international event with guests from Chile, of course, Brazil, Venezuela, Italy, Germany, China, Taiwan, and, of course, the U.S.

Angela and Edgar

It was also Angela's birthday party and, of course, there was a cake


Carolina in her riding habit

But the overall highlight of the trip was none of this: It was just being with our son, daughter-in-law and, especially with our four grandchildren, Lucas, 17, Danny, 15, Carolina, 12, and Sofia, 7. Lucas is almost grown up and already looking forward to college, hoping for a possible appointment to a U.S. military academy.Danny is busy with his scientific experiments and inventions. Carolina is an accomplished swimmer and horsewoman. Sofia is still into her dolls and stuffed animals.


Sofia climbs out of the pool as Ghislaine does her water aerobics

The girls joined Ghislaine and me almost every day when we would do our water aerobics in Edgar’s backyard pool. The first day we were discussing which exercises to do. Sofia listened intently to us, the suggested: “And then there’s swimming!”


Sofia and Carolina and friends


The men of the family: from left, Ed, Edgar, Lucas, Danny

Chile’s summer weather for our entire trip was spectacular: warm days with highs in the high 70s or low 80s and cool nights in the 50s.

The visit confirmed my earlier impression that Chile is the most advanced country that I have visited in Latin America. It has good roads and things seem to work efficiently. It also struck me as a very clean country, without a lot of litter and debris on the roads and streets.

I am always surprised when I talk to people who know very little about this amazing country, except perhaps that it’s in Latin America and had a very repressive military regime starting in the 1970s.

The days of Pinochet and his military cronies are in the past, and Chile today is a thriving democracy. In March, Michelle Bracelet, a member of the Socialist Party, will again take the oath of office as president. She previously served as president from 2006 to 2010, the first woman ever to be president of Chile.

Chile is a 2,670-mile long, narrow (217 miles at its widest spot) country on the west coast of South America, bordered by Peru to the north, the Andes mountains, Bolivia and Argentina to the east, and the Pacific Ocean to the west. What many people don’t realize is that it lies to the east of the United States.

Palm tree

This huge palm tree stands guard at the pool in the backyard

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Eugene Harter: Mountain Editor

Many of us old timers in the news business dreamed of owning and running our own newspaper. Few of us ever did. Eugene Harter had that dream and made it come true.

Gene had been a newspaperman in suburban Chicago before taking a job with a company that made web offset presses. He traveled around the country helping small newspapers convert from old “hot type” to the new “cold type” offset system, a relatively new printing process for newspapers in the early 1960s. John Kennedy had inspired many people to seek to live out their dreams, and Gene was no exception. Appropriately, Dorothy’s first chapter is titled “Searching for Camelot.”

In his travels, Gene heard of a weekly paper for sale in Campbellsville, Ky. He bought the paper and he and his family moved there in 1962. Mountain Editor is the story of those four years in Taylor County as told by Gene’s wife, Dorothy, and taken largely from the columns he wrote for the newspaper as he battled for racial integration, new roads, good schools, and many other things.

I first met Gene a few years after his Campbellsville interlude when he was the press officer for the U.S. Consulate in São Paulo, Brazil, in the early 1970s. I was the correspondent in charge of the Associated Press bureau there. Our friendship continued until his death Dec. 13, 2010.

Gene’s story, as told so well and beautifully by Dorothy, is a profile in courage. He was not intimidated by those who vilified him for his support of equal rights for all regardless of race. He confronted local politicians when he thought they were wrong, even if it meant losing advertising. But most of all, we see in this book a man who was having a great time living out his dream. His good humor and positive attitude come shining through in those long-ago editorials and columns. Gene and Dorothy were a couple who truly loved life and lived it to the fullest, wherever they were.

Did the Harters find “Camelot” in the hills of Kentucky? You’ll have to read the book and decide for yourself.

While in Kentucky, they bought a house boat and took family excursions on it on the weekends on the Kentucky River. Later on, when Gene was assigned to the State Department in Washington, D.C., the family lived on a houseboat on the Potomac River until they retired and moved to Chestertown, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, taking the houseboat with them but living in a beautiful old house near the center of town. The family included their four children, Ann, Butch, David, and Melissa. Melissa was born while they still lived in Campbellsville.

Dorothy writes that that Gene had intended to write a book about his experiences under this same title, Mountain Editor. I’m glad she was able to complete the work for him. Gene wrote two other books, Lost Colony of the Confederacy (available at Amazon.com for $17.96) and Boilerplating America (out of print, but I see that new copies can be bought online for $87.75). Lost Colony is perhaps the best book available about the mass migration of Southern Americans to Brazil following the Civil War. Mountain Editor is also available at Amazon.com for $10.48.

After four years, Gene was encouraged by many in his Kentucky district to run for Congress. He thought it would not be ethical to run as the owner of a newspaper, so he accepted an offer and sold the paper. He lost the race, but gained a new chapter in his life that took him around the world to places like Beirut, Mexico City, and São Paulo.

I had encouraged Dorothy to write this book because I strongly believed Gene’s story should be told. She has done a great job in doing just that.

Mountain Editor: Trials and Triumphs of a Small Town Editor, by Dorothy Harter, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (October, 2013), 182 pp.

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On becoming a professional translator

Recently I had to fill out a form for a company looking for Portuguese –to-English translators. One of the questions was something like: “How long have you been translating professionally?” That set me to thinking. Since a good part of my job as a correspondent for The Associated Press in Brazil in the 1960s involved translating—for which I was paid, of course—I could have said since 1961. But the translating and interpreting I did then was not my real work, but an incidental part of it. So I thought further ahead. And therein lies a tale.

During the military coup d’etat in Brazil in 1964, I was taken into custody by a squad of soldiers that invaded our offices on Avenida Rio Branco in the “clean-up” phase of hunting “communists” that followed the coup. I had managed to call a good friend, Alfredo Machado, to let him know what was happening.

Alfredo, at the time, Brazil’s leading publisher and distributor of books, was also a close confidant of Carlos Lacerda, the governor of Guanabara (as it was called then) state and a key player in the conspiracy to overthrow the presidency of João “Jango” Goulart. Alfredo got an army general to come with him to the AP offices to secure my release.

After having spent a couple of hours inside a stinking police paddy wagon while the driver stopped to have a few shots of booze on the way to the Political Police Headquarters, I was not a happy camper. So when I was brought back to the office, I gave the general and the captain who had ordered my arrest a piece of my mind—in very fluent, street-savvy Portuguese.

Alfredo grabbed me by the arm and started pulling me out of the room.

“General,” he said, “the only way to end this is just to end it now.” With that he jerked me into the hallway. “If you don’t shut up,” he admonished, “we’re both going to wind up in jail.”

I had known Alfredo well since I first arrived in Brazil. He spoke almost perfect English, so in the early days it was easier for me to talk to him in English. He had never before heard me speak Portuguese.

Fast forward three years: I had returned to the States and was working in Washington as press secretary for Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee. I got a call from Alfredo asking me if I was interested in doing some translating. I said yes. The next call was from Alfred A. Knopf, the iconic New York publisher whose eponymous brand was synonymous with quality literature. He asked me to read a Brazilian novel and tell him whether I thought it was worth publishing. After reading my critique, he decided to publish the novel, Uma vida em segredo, by Autran Dourado. I did, and the English version, A Hidden Life, turned out to be a critical, if not commercial, success, and that started a close relationship between me and Knopf and his company.

Knopf had a volatile personality and our relationship ended abruptly a few years later. But that’s a story for another day.

I should point out that from those early translations to the present, my best resource has been Ghislaine, my Brazilian-born wife. She proofs my work and corrects my mistakes—in both languages.

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Who speaks for creation?

Father John Rausch, a Glenmary priest who devotes his life to working for the people of Appalachia in Eastern Kentucky, is a dear friend of mine. In fact, I gave him his start as a columnist and now he is syndicated nationally, giving a voice to  people who often aren’t heard and speaking out in defense of God’s creation. In his latest column, he asks: “Who speaks for creation?” I think Father John Rausch does. Here’s his column (used with his permission):

Who Speaks for Creation?

by Father John S. Rausch

Judy Bonds had her eyes opened the day her 6-year-old grandson scooped up dead fish floating in the creek by her house. Something terribly wrong happened to the water due to the mine runoff originating from the coal preparation plant above Marfork Hollow where her family had lived for seven generations. The water tested positive for polyacrylamide, a cancer-causing agent used to prepare coal for burning. Within six years all the residents in the hollow near West Virginia’s Coal River had to abandon their homes for their own safety.

In 1998 Judy volunteered with the citizens’ group, Coal River Mountain Watch, and eventually was hired as the outreach director, then became co-director with Vernon Haltom in 2007. Her job included organizing protest rallies, testifying at regulatory hearings, lobbying the West Virginia statehouse and picketing stockholders’ meetings of mining companies. Her humor and passion made her an engaging speaker.

“She became the voice for communities around the country fighting mountaintop removal (MTR),” Haltom said. MTR is the aggressive mining practice of shearing off the tops of mountains, sometimes by 600 feet, to extract coal, which in the process destroys the entire ecosystem.

Her message underscored that the health and safety of Appalachia’s poor were being sacrificed for energy company profits. She cast the indifference of the mining companies and MTR in terms of a human rights story, and one of her applause lines harkened back to her young grandson standing in polluted water: “Stop poisoning our babies!”

Only months after first being diagnosed with cancer, Judy Bonds died on January 3, 2011, at age 58. The passing of this strong advocate for environmental justice raises a basic question when decisions are made almost exclusively from economic concerns: who speaks for the ecosystem, i.e. who speaks for creation?

Federal and state regulators, charged with enforcing the provisions of the National Environmental Protection Act and the Clean Water Act frequently follow the politics of the current administration. Enforcement becomes extremely lenient when an administration promotes industry-friendly practices.

Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, an avid conservationist, once wrote a dissenting opinion in a case involving a scenic valley by proposing society expand the notion of community capable of seeking legal protection to include soils, waters, plants, animals and in general “the land.” The law already allows spokespersons for the inarticulate, such as corporations, small children and those who are comatose. Why not have people speak for a river, a valley or a mountain before it’s despoiled, defaced or destroyed? He argued that people who have frequented a place would know its value and wonders, and could “speak for the entire ecological community.”

While American jurisprudence has not progressed to the vision of Justice Douglas, papal statements have begun emphasizing the integrity of creation. In 1990 Pope John Paul II linked together respect for the environment and world peace, then wrote that the right to a safe environment “must be included in an updated Charter of Human Rights.” Pope Benedict XVI in his 2008 World Day of Peace Message also pleaded for the care of creation “with the good of all as a constant guiding criterion.”

Until the courts grant civil rights to the earth with all its features, the “good of all” must be upheld by community people like Judy Bonds. In 2003 she won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize. After settling some family debts and paying off the mortgage, Judy contributed nearly $50,000 of the prize money to Coal River Mountain Watch.

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State of the Union

It was gratifying to see Democrats and Republicans sitting next to each other during President Obama’s State of the Union address Tuesday night (January 26). And it was even more gratifying that no boos or jeers marred this year’s speech. But I am under no illusions that this marks the beginning of a new era of good feeling or bipartisanship. Still, it’s a start, and Obama seemed to be reaching out to Republicans offering to meet them more than halfway.

The truth is the state of our union could be improved immensely by a return of cooperation and compromise—in a word, civility—among our elected officials. And it wouldn’t really be all that hard.

Partisan wrangling and in-fighting are not new. They’ve been with us since the nation was founded, but there seems to be a new intransigence that threatens the union itself.

Susan Alexander, features editor of the Knoxville News Sentinel, summed up the way a lot of us feel about the current situation in an open letter to Senators Alexander and Corker and Congressman Duncan titled “Time to man up, Congress,”  published December 6:

What I heard voters clearly say last month [November] is that we’re tired of Washington gridlock. We’re tired of listening to the endless blame game on both sides of the aisle. We’re tired of watching you all care more about the next election cycle than actually getting anything accomplished.

And we are all terribly sick and tired of hot air. …

So I’m asking you Congress folks to put on your big-boy pants, to listen to people, including each other. To tell some uncomfortable truths. And occasionally to shut the hell up.

When I went to Washington in 1967 as newly elected Senator Howard Baker’s press secretary, the nation was already sharply divided over the Vietnam War, race relations and a myriad of other issues. We had gone through the trauma of the assassination of President Kennedy and in a short time would have the double tragedy of the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. Those were turbulent times that tore at the very fabric of our national identity.

But as divided as the Congress was, there was civility and a spirit of doing what was best for the country that seemed to override in critical moments those partisan concerns.

Senator Baker, even though a freshman senator from a Southern state, quickly became a master at bringing diverse elements together in compromise to get needed legislation passed.

The best example of Baker’s expertise in bringing together opposing sides that I participated in was on the bill that became the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Republicans, led by then Minority Leader Everett Dirksen of Illinois, who also happened to be Baker’s father-in-law, had successfully blocked Democratic efforts to pass an open housing bill in the previous Congress, and it looked as if it would be DOA in the 90th Congress. Baker, with the aid of his legislative assistant, Lamar Alexander, who is now Tennessee’s senior senator, worked tirelessly to bring the parties together, going through draft after draft of a bill that would address the concerns of liberals and conservatives alike. The final version of the bill was put together one afternoon in the minority leader’s office, with Baker, Senators Dirksen, Hugh Scott and Jacob Javits, Lamar, myself, and other staffers sitting on the floor taking typed up substitute paragraphs, cutting out old paragraphs and pasting the new ones into the bill.

The bill passed both houses and was signed into law by President Johnson. It was a victory for the American people, particularly minorities.

We need that kind of cooperation today if we are going to accomplish even half of the ambitious and optimistic goals President Obama set on Tuesday night. Sadly it seems that my friend Lamar did not take to heart the lessons he learned with Baker for today he seems to pander to the most partisan of Republicans to secure his leadership post in the Senate minority.

Baker is a partisan Republican and he firmly believes in the American two-party system, but first and foremost he is a true patriot and he always put the interests of the nation above those of narrow party concerns.

I would join Susan Alexander in urging Senators Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker and other legislators to listen to the American people and end the gridlock in Washington before it’s too late. All they have to do is to stop talking long enough to listen—to their colleagues and to the people.

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