Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Melvin: Cool, confident ... a champion

Melvin Russell in action at Woodlawn:
No. 25 (top) on road, No. 24 (with ball,
 white home uniforms. 

(Second in a series)
     Melvin Russell is a "get along" and a "get after it" person, and he's never been afraid of a challenge.
      It was that way when he was among the six black kids -- and the only athlete -- to integrate Woodlawn High School in Shreveport in the fall of 1967, and it is that way now.
      His challenge all those years ago was to become accepted in a changing world, and it was a great learning experience for him and everyone. His challenge now, at age 63, is different -- a medical challenge.
      Four years ago, he found out he has failing kidneys. Three times a week, for four hours at a time, he goes to dialysis in Arlington, Texas, where he's lived for more than 25 years. A kidney transplant, hopefully to keep him going, is in the near future ... if some complications with his prospective donor (his son, Melvin Russell Jr.) can be alleviated.
     The details are here in a story that ran in The Shreveport Times a year ago: http://usatodayhss.com/2014/melvin-russell-sr-returns-to-shreveport-to-give-receive
      "Hey, I'm OK," he said when we talked a few weeks ago. "Some people have bad hearts. Some people have cancer. I've got kidney disease, but I can deal with it. I'm not that bad off."
      And if you know Melvin Russell Sr., if you look at his record of achievement in basketball and otherwise, you believe he will be OK.
---
      The basketball resume:
      -- Point guard, the 6-foot-1 floor leader of a well-balanced team that not only became the first basketball team in Woodlawn's nine-year history at that time to make the state playoffs, but then won four playoff games and the Class AAA state championship (four months after the school won the state football championship). The team's record: 33-3.
      -- First black player from Shreveport to play in the Top Twenty state tournament, first black player to be an All-State selection on Louisiana High School Athletic Association teams, first black player in the LHSAA All-Star Game. One of four Woodlawn players off that title team to sign to play at Centenary College, where in three varsity seasons he set career and single-season records for assists, thanks in part to teaming with a 7-foot freshman center named Robert Parish in 1972-73.
      -- Drafted by the American Basketball Association's Utah Stars, as was his Woodlawn and Centenary teammate Larry Davis, and Parish (after his freshman year). Parish chose to stay at Centenary; neither Russell nor Davis made the Stars' regular-season roster.
      -- Returned to Woodlawn as an assistant coach to his Knights' coach, Ken Ivy, and after two years, succeeded him as head coach. In his third season -- just as Ivy had -- his team reached the state championship game (but lost). The next season, 1979-80, his team went 31-2 and won the Class AAAA state championship. He was the state's "Coach of the Year."
      -- In seven seasons as head coach, his teams had a 173-59 (.746) record, with four district titles and no losing seasons. He left in the spring of 1983, citing the low pay for coaches in Caddo Parish as a disappointment and not foreseeing much change in that.
      And he was a person who could handle change.
---
       So here's my premise: Say Ken Ivy was the best coach in Woodlawn basketball history and Robert Parish was the best player, Melvin Russell no question is the best player and coach the school has ever had.
       I had to laugh a year ago when I opened a conversation with Melvin by asking, "Who is the second-best player in Woodlawn basketball history?" and his reply was, "Robert Parish."
       I don't think he was being serious. Some might take that as a conceited answer, but I don't and those who know him wouldn't.
        But, yes, he is a confident man, and he was a confident young man. He had to be to walk onto that Woodlawn campus in September 1967.
       "My personality was that if you didn't bother me, I wouldn't bother you," he said. "I was laid-back, I felt I could get along with anyone, black, white; I tried not to let things get to me. So I thought I would be OK going to Woodlawn."
        He chose to leave all-black Union High School -- less than a mile from Woodlawn -- on the "freedom of choice" plan designed to de-segregate schools. Kids from all-black schools could attend any all-white school they wanted, and vice versa. Few kids, certainly not the whites, made that choice.
       The six Union-to-Woodlawn transfers -- three boys (the other two were in ROTC) and three girls -- he remembers, and he can name them all, "had been handpicked because we had the right credentials and temperament" and one of the Union counselors had encouraged Melvin.
       "I wasn't sure I wanted to go," he said. "My mother didn't really want me to go; it didn't matter to my dad, and my grandmother (who had worked in the cafeteria at Woodlawn) wanted me to do it."
       And there was the basketball factor: He had played on the Union varsity as a sophomore, enough he thought to be a letterman and get the reward for that. It didn't happen.
       To be honest, the deciding factor in the move to Woodlawn was "I was mad at [Coach Clifford] Pennywell."
       Pennywell, who -- with Parish as a freshman and sophomore -- took his teams to the LIALO (all-black) state semifinals and then when Union was closed as a high school in the integration process moved to the predominant, old-line all-black school in town (Booker T. Washington), did not give the sophomore backup point guard what he wanted.
         "We had awards day," Russell recalled, "and I was expecting that sweater. What I got, like the junior varsity guys, was a 6-inch trophy. I was pissed off. I walked out of the cafeteria and threw that trophy in one of those big trash drums they had outside, and went home and told my mother, 'I'm going to Woodlawn.'
       "If I'd gotten the [light] blue sweater with the big U on it, I would have stayed at Union."
        Union's loss, Woodlawn's gain. (Same with Parish and his Union teammates three years later, but theirs wasn't by choice.)
---
        What the transfers from Union had been counseled on, warned about, and maybe even worried about, wasn't like the reality when school began.
        "I was 16 when we walked in to register, and we're among [about] 2,000 white kids, so we stayed close to each other," Melvin recalled. "You could hear the buzz and I heard some kid say, 'black sheep go home'; that's what it sounded like. I'm thinking, 'That's your thing.' I held my head high and I registered."
        Early on, there were "racial comments every day ... I had the kind of temperament that allowed me to work with it; I didn't react to everything little thing," he said. There was taunting, resentment, defiance, alienation, and for Melvin, one memorable time when he had to fight to prove himself (more to come on that episode).
         One day in the cafeteria, he sat down at a table and "20 kids got up and left," he said. "Id get in line, and people didn't want to stand next to me."
         But he had some allies -- especially in athletics. When Coach W.B. Calvert, overseeing a physical education class, saw Melvin in action, he quickly realized this was a player.
          "They wanted me to play football," Melvin recalled, because Woodlawn at that time was very much a football school, a state power. "But I wasn't going to do that. So he (Calvert) told Coach Ivy about me. ... I met Coach Ivy for the first time in front of the trophy cases [in the gym foyer). They had those pictures up there; I asked him, 'How do you get your picture up there?' "
          He was told you had to be an All-State selection. Two years later, that's what he was.
          Ivy, about to build a perennial basketball power, would become his biggest influence at Woodlawn. Soon Melvin was practicing with the team. He was switched from a regular P.E. class to sixth-period athletics.
          Here he found a distinct difference from Union. "I was given my own basketball to use, a leather basketball, and three pairs of shoes -- Converse," he said.
           "At Union, we only saw a leather ball on game days; we only got one pair of shoes on game days. We practiced with rubber balls and we had to use our own shoes. That was some of that separate but unequal crap."
           He also had a friend on the Woodlawn basketball team -- Mike McGovern, also then a junior and a year later the Student Council president and one of the stars on the state championship team.. Melvin's grandmother had been the McGovern family's maid and she also cooked at the family's church, Sunset Acres Baptist (one of the most popular churches in the Woodlawn area).
           After some time, there were friends on the football team, too -- "I was cool with [quarterback] Joe Ferguson and [linebacker] Clinton Ebey, and others," he remembered, "so that helped me assimilate with the rest of the student body."
           On a personal note, there was one other friend ... in class: Elsa Van Thyn. My younger sister  was his lab partner in chemistry.
           I was a junior at Louisiana Tech University that fall and one day when I was home, my sister said, "I've got a black kid in my chemistry class. He's nice. I hear he's a good basketball player."
           She heard correctly. His name, she said, was Melvin Jones.
           And it was Melvin Jones at Union and that first year at Woodlawn. He had been Melvin Gladney early on, then took his stepdad's name when his mother remarried when he was 3. They moved from Houston to Shreveport when he was 10 and, before his senior year at Woodlawn, he had gotten to know his real father, Henry Russell, and took his last name. (Henry now lives in Dallas, not far from Melvin in Arlington.)
         But before Melvin Jones could play a competitive game for the Woodlawn Knights, there was one major disappointment and one long wait.
        (Next: Sitting out a season ... fighting for acceptance)


Friday, February 27, 2015

My schools' basketball pioneers

Melvin Russell, as a Woodlawn High School
senior guard in 1968-69
(First in a series)
     I have thought of Melvin Russell and George "Petey" Thornton a lot lately, and they will be the subjects of the next few blogs.
     Those names might be familiar to old-time basketball fans in North Louisiana because they were trailblazers -- the first black players (first black athletes, period) at the schools from which I graduated.
     Both broke the color barrier in the 1968-69 basketball season -- Melvin at Woodlawn High School, four years after I graduated there, and George at Louisiana Tech University. He was a freshman when I was a senior working in the sports information department.
     They were admirable young men, and to me, they remain admirable young men as they hit their mid-60s.  They are, in my opinion, success stories, and that's in life, as well as in athletics. They were championship caliber.
---
     One of my recent reads was Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South by Andrew Maraniss, the detailed and fascinating biography of the first black basketball player in the Southeastern Conference.
     Wallace was a kid who grew up in Nashville and stayed close to home to play at Vanderbilt, the rare SEC school where academics actually matter more than athletics. He had been a great leaper, great player, at Pearl High School, which won the first integrated state championship tournament in Tennessee.
     As you can imagine, in the late 1960s (he was a freshman in the 1966-67 season and joined the varsity the next season), he caught hell on trips to Ole Miss and Mississippi State and Auburn and Alabama -- among other tough venues.
     But even on the relatively progressive Vanderbilt campus and in town, acceptance of his place on the team and in the university often came grudgingly and with difficulty. He was "profiled" and ostracized repeatedly and this was a polite, soft-spoken, clean-cut young man who was very studious and determined to success in the classroom, as well as on the basketball floor.
     Long story (467 pages) short: He was an All-SEC player, graduated with a degree in engineering, earned his law degree from Columbia University in New York City, worked as a trial lawyer for the U.S. Department of Justice and now is a professor at American University's Washington College of Law. His jersey No. 25 was retired by Vanderbilt (but it took more than three decades).
     Reading the book, re-living those rocky days of the civil-rights movement in the '60s, made me think of the basketball trailblazers I knew.
---
George Thornton, Louisiana Tech, early 1970s
     Neither Melvin Russell nor George Thornton had as rough a time as Perry Wallace. But their transitions into Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech -- and into the basketball programs -- weren't seamless; there were hardships and challenges.
     That's just the way it was for black athletes integrating programs and black students integrating what had been all-white schools.
      I had done stories on Melvin and George in the past, but those stories did not deal with race relations -- not in any detail -- or with the issues they faced. So in talking to them the past couple of weeks, we talked about those times.
       They were not familiar with each other -- maybe just name recognition -- although they played in college at almost the same time (George was a year ahead of Melvin in school).
        I thought maybe they had played against each other -- Melvin played for Centenary while George play for Tech -- but in a strange twist, the two years that their teams could have met were two years that the Tech-Centenary series was interrupted (they had played twice or three times a season for 25 consecutive years prior to that).
       They each have their examples of where they faced racial prejudice, and I think it'll be a good read to see what they had to say.
       So I'm going to do some blog pieces on each, take them back to their Woodlawn and Louisiana Tech days, and follow the "whatever happened to ..." format that worked so well for our sports staff at the Shreveport Journal in the early and mid 1980s. And we'll tell you where they are now.
     

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

"Little people" are big people, too

      "What about the little people?" The Man has asked me repeatedly over the years. "Why don't you write about the little people."
      The Man is one of those people I listen to, always have. He is a philosopher, a keen observer of life, of those around him. So I've had to think a long, long time how to approach this subject.
      He is not talking about people small in stature (like me or my parents). He is talking about unsung heroes, those who aren't in the headlines, but who are essential to whatever cause they're dealing in.
      The Man and I look at this from the standpoint of athletics because that was our initial common bond. But it's more a big-picture issue. We have these "little people" in our everyday lives. We need them.
---
      Most weeks, I see this man a few times, some days twice -- maybe in mid-morning and after dusk. He's wearing his brown uniform (usually with shorts) and driving a brown truck. He's a UPS delivery man in our area.
      I wave at him; he waves at me. If I'm close enough, I kid him about working so many hours. He's always smiling.
      When I was on an elevator in our apartment building recently, it stopped on the third floor, and the UPS man stepped in. It was after dark. "Hey, how ya doing?" he said as pleasant as could be. I noted that it was after 7 and he was still delivering. "Got to work," he answered.
      I asked his name. It's Jesse.
      So you could say he's one of the "little people" in our world, an unsung hero. But is he, really?
      Because Jesse might be a father, husband, brother, uncle. Bet he's a big person to some folks, to his UPS bosses, to the people receiving his deliveries.
      And we have our mail delivery people -- I see three or four "regulars" many weekdays on my walks -- and our clerks at the convenience stores/gas stations, the officers and tellers at the bank, the checkout people at the grocery stores, the people in our apartment office, the custodians at our place, the workers at the YMCA where we work out. Unsung "little people."
      Do we even know their names? First names ... if they're wearing name tags. Rarely do we know the full names; rarely does it matter.
---
      The person with whom I share our apartment -- we've shared for 38-plus years and she is, to be certain, not an unsung hero -- does not like "labeling." I learned long ago that while watching athletic events using the terms "choker" and "stupid" and "gutless" was unacceptable. So the "little people" concept does not work for her.
      But for the purpose of this blog, I continue. Her question is: Where do you draw the line between "little people" and "big people?"
      I'm taking this under advisement.
      I consider doctors, nurses, scientists, attorneys "big people." Important jobs, and most have put in the years of study to reach their positions. I admire educators at all levels; when you havea classroom of people you're trying to fill with information and guidance, it's not easy.
      Politicians? I'd like to because they can make a difference in our lives, but so many seem so misguided. Policemen and firemen ... unsung heroes so often.
      But in each case, you experience those doctors and attorneys -- just to pick on them -- who are in it strictly for the money, who don't have people skills to our liking. We dealt with a doctor recently who was demeaning and arrogant and dismissive. I could go on; you get the idea. He was a "little people," and I mean attitude-wise.
      In my fields of interest, coaches were always "big people." Newspaper editors, too. Columnists, especially sports columnists. Lots of respect for those people, and I tried to learn from as many as I could.
      But again, I thought some coaches (really abusive, foul-mouthed ones) and editors and writers were bullies and self-serving and, while very successful, their reputations were overblown, at least in my opinion. They might have been "big people," but I thought they acted small. Still, many people revered them. Go figure.
      If you've read my blog at times, you might know that I think there are many TV/radio blowhard announcers (many in sports, but others, too) who think they're big, but they're not. Only thing big about them is their mouth and maybe their salary.
      I was always better in the "little people" role, whether I was a football/basketball/baseball team manager-statistician or a behind-the-scenes sports copy editor. When I had a kind of "big people" role as a sports editor, I was only as good as the people working with me. When they weren't as good, I didn't handle it well.
      Besides, the "big people" role as a husband, father and Opa was a helluva lot more important than anything in sports or newspapers.
---
      In athletic terms, what The Man had in mind, perhaps, was the linemen who do the really hard work in football, the small guard in basketball who dishes out the assists and sacrifices his body to take charges from much bigger players, the light-hitting second baseman who puts down the sacrifice bunt to put the winning run in scoring position and whose defensive play turns around the game (or a World Series).
      In football, the offensive linemen used to be a 140-pound guard or 165-pound tackle 50 years ago; these days, even the "little people" in high school are light at 225 pounds. When it's college football or the NFL, you might be talking 250.
      But those guys are crucial to a team's success, just as the everyday "little people" in our lives.
      "Some would think that these people are simply low-level producers and ride the waves of the more elite," The Man told me in a message a few weeks ago before a big football game. "I love good leadership; it so necessary, and is hard to find.
      "But we hear too much about the talent and heroics of these [people]. What about the foot soldier that took the bullet so the general could get the reward? So it will be this Super Bowl: Which team has the best foot soldiers, not the best generals."
      Think about it: The game's most crucial play, at the end, was made by a player you probably had never heard of. A "little people" coming up big.
      Here's what the Official Blog Adviser said: It doesn't matter who you are or what you do; it's how you treat others, how you live your life that really determines where you are a big person or a little person.
            
            
            
                   

Monday, February 16, 2015

Remembering Tommy Spinks, and what he believed in

Tommy Spinks (mid-1990s photo)
      I wanted to share a Friday Facebook post by Teri Spinks Netterville, her father Tommy's credo -- statement of religious belief (I had to look up the definition).
      Many of Teri and Tommy's friends have seen this, but I think it's meaningful -- thus the "share."
      Tommy Spinks, for those who don't know, was one of the best multi-sport athletes -- and one of my favorites -- in the 1960s for Woodlawn High and Louisiana Tech. We also went to the same junior high (Oak Terrace).
      We shared memories and times, games and practices, and a lot of laughs, including my saying that he made a great quarterback of Terry Bradshaw.
      Tommy was a sensational receiver in football and a cornerback, a shortstop in baseball and a pole vaulter in track/field. He had plenty of talent, but it was his desire to excel that drove him.
      He was a good preacher's son, he was one of the most popular kids in school, he was smart, he was funny, and he used to tell me he was good-looking.
      Actually he was a quarterback through his junior year in high school, but so were Trey Prather and Bradshaw. He then realized that the big, blond kid with the strong right arm could be something special, and he decided to move to receiver.
      Bradshaw became his best friend -- male friend -- and their work ethic in the off-season (winter of '64-65) helped make them a passing combination to remember.
      Bradshaw-to-Spinks was a major reason Woodlawn almost won a state championship in 1965 (lost in the finals) and why Louisiana Tech had a 17-4 record in 1968 and '69 -- including 15 wins in a 16-game stretch. Tommy was All-State in high school and set receiving records at Tech that stood for years.
      He wasn't as fast as some receivers, but an excellent route runner and had such body control and instincts to make hard-to-believe catches, including those rifle shots fired by The Blond Bomber.
      He had his shot at pro football that injuries cut short, then went into coaching for a while, broadcasting (Tech football analyst) and then into a variety of business interests, some of which turned out to be very successful.
      His best friend from high school on was the gracious Barbara Lindsay, who became Barbara Spinks soon after they came to Tech. They were a team, the epitome of love. They had three beautiful daughters and a son, and the family has grown much in the past 15 years.
      We lost Tommy much too soon, in August 2007 at age 58 to a virulent, excruciating rare form of cancer.
      His daughter Teri (familiar name) writes beautifully about life and her family and her Facebook posts offer much insight about her father and our friend. I think you will agree when you read her Friday post. (The photo, as Teri noted, is when he was 43 or 44).
      Here is a portion of that credo ...
---
      ... I just hope that I am growing. The only way I personally can grow is to question my own thoughts and the thoughts of others. I have been unable to grow by sitting and listening to others and accepting what is said as "the way." On the other hand, if someone can grow by sitting and listening to others and accepting what is said as "the way," then for them, it is "the way."
      I think we are all on separate paths. I think our beliefs are based on what we grew up hearing, what we have heard from others, what we have read, and liked, and from our own feelings and experiences. How in the world should we expect someone else to believe the same way we believe?  So, why do we judge someone wrongly or put them at a lower level on the "Christian totem pole" if they don't agree with our own beliefs, or if they don't say the same words that we say. We are just on different paths. No one is more right and no one is wrong.
      So, I am trying to put some of my thoughts on paper for myself. I might share them with some of my friends that I feel will not judge me, but who will question some of my statements out loud and make me explain some statements, which will only help me grow more.
      Some of my statements might evoke criticism from some individuals, but I can learn from them also. But I will try to be open and honest with my thoughts because if I'm not, there's no sense in writing it. So, without being overly dramatic here and a little hokey, here is what I feel about a few things:
      I believe in laughter and a whole lot of it.
      I believe in crying, but not a whole lot of it.
      I believe it is OK to show emotion in public.
      I think children are the neatest things on earth.
      I love people who can laugh at themselves.
      I love people who can kid and take kidding.
      I have a hard time figuring out people who can't take kidding.
      I believe we take things too seriously, especially religion.
      At the moment, I can't believe I'm trying to be serious.
      I believe religion gets in the way sometimes of spirituality.
      I believe many of our churches are dying because they are boring.
      I believe many preachers are boring.
      I believe a lot of church curriculum for our children is boring.
      I believe a lot of church curriculum for adults is boring.
      I believe I am boring right now.
      I believe in Heaven.
      I believe in Hell.
      I love people until they become too hard to love. Then I become angry with myself that I do not possess unconditional love.
      Making love to people has nothing to do with sex.
      I would rather children like me than adults.
      I have difficult feelings for people who are judgmental.
      That is a judgmental statement. Sorry.
      I have trouble with Bible quoters who talk behind people's backs.
      People's actions speak so loud, I can't hear which scripture they are reading.
      I love people who are honest with their feelings, even though others may judge them for it.
      I love Love.
      I believe Jesus understood love like no one else.
      I believe Jesus was the greatest man who ever lived, whether we think he was God, God-man, or whatever. I believe He was a man.
      Jesus would be my hero whether I was religious or not.
      I believe Jesus was the son of God.
      I believe we could be like Jesus, because He said we could.
      I believe in miracles.
      If I could be anyone in history, I would be the man who carried the cross for Jesus when He no longer could.
      I believe Jesus had a great sense of humor.
      I believe in God. Infinite, eternal, only one, that to which all things are known and in which every physical object has its being... this is God, and all of God is in us this moment, right now, and all the moments to come. There is nothing that isn't God.
      God simply "IS."
      "Who hath seen me hath seen the Father." -- Jesus
      I respect other people's beliefs if their beliefs make them better people.
      I can't get over how much other people's thoughts make me think about my own beliefs.
      I believe in families.
      I believe in marriage.
      I believe in divorce.
      I believe in sports.
      I believe in competition.
      I love to watch married couples argue on the tennis court.
      I don't believe in harming the body through excessive alcohol, smoking or eating.
      I believe in good.
      I believe good and evil is thought, nothing more, nothing less.
      I think I could, as well as anyone else could, go on forever about what I believe or disbelieve in. I think, like most people, my quest is to find what makes life worth living. When I think of God, images come to my mind more than anything else. These images are a private dimension of my life, but to omit some of these images, would be omitting my image of God.
      Thus I believe, and put value in and see God in and have seen God in:
      -- Watching the glow on my father's face as he preached each Sunday.
      -- A cork disappearing beneath a lily pad.
      -- A bride advancing toward me down the aisle all those years ago.
      -- Stiff, aching muscles the day after a game.
      -- Sights and sounds of a son and daughters only minutes old.
      -- My mother's smile.
      -- The passion of competition.
      -- Bright autumn days.
      -- The 1960s.
      -- The eyes of those I could have helped but didn't.
      -- Recurring sounds of words regrettably never spoken.
      -- 2325 Alma Street, Alexandria, La.
      -- Any sweet innocent child.
      -- Finding out about a great happening in a friend's life.
      -- Looking down from a jet at 35,000 feet.
      -- That same jet landing safely.
      -- My first home run.
      -- My first touchdown.
      -- The injury in Pittsburgh that ended my youth-long dream.
      -- The smiles I am sometimes able to bring forth.
      -- My Sunday School class.
      -- Securing a business deal.
      -- My first car, a 1951 Chevrolet.
      -- My junior year in high school -- a picnic ... I knew I would marry her.
      -- Old pictures in old yearbooks.
      -- New pictures of our family.
      -- My whole family lying on our bed talking and laughing.
      -- The phone calls from my babies in college.
      -- High school reunions.
      -- Friends who died before our high school reunions.
      -- Little old ladies and little old men.
      -- The greatest tree house ever built in 1961.
      -- My awareness that the feelings I really have don't come across the way I would like when I put them in typed words.
      -- The numbers 11 and 43.
      -- A friend trusting me with a secret.
      -- Memories. Why do I get so sad when I think of the past?
      -- Friends that I haven't stayed in touch with; I miss them so much.
      -- Playing golf with my dad. Oh, how I wish I could talk to him again.
      -- Watching my best friend become a true national football star.
      -- Holding my second best friend at the moment cancer took his life.
       The longer I live, the more questions I have as to why am I here and what is life really all about. I sometimes believe that I complicate those things which shouldn't be complicated. In my estimation, life should not be complicated. It should be fun and full of love for other people.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

One last glimpse of Abraham

      I thought of my grandfather Abraham last week, and of my mother, as I watched a BBC (British Broadcast Corporation) video tour of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp.
      A good friend sent me the link to the video, which was done as part of the recent 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation.
      My mother and father were among those who survived the Holocaust and their time in Auschwitz. My grandfather -- and the rest of my parents' families -- did not survive.
      Tough video to watch, just to see the ruins of the camp -- preserved much the way it was in the early 1940s. One scene was a little extra harrowing.
      When the camera-equipped drone flew over the space (a "courtyard," I think it was called, as if a concentration camp had a courtyard) between Blocks 10 and 11, it brought to mind a story my mother included in her USC Shoah Foundation interview in 1996.
      That space is where she said she last saw her father, where -- as a prisoner in the infamous Block 10 women's medical experimentation block -- she caught a glimpse of him.
      She didn't know, and he didn't know, that soon he would be sent from Auschwitz to Warsaw, Poland, where his life ended.
      "He went to Warsaw and they [the group of men he was with] had to dig ditches," my mother told the Shoah Foundation interviewer. "I heard this after the war from somebody who had come out, who was in the group with him, who had known him before.
      "Then they shot him and they buried him in the ditches."           
---
Mom's family: her father Abraham, her mother Rachel,
older sister Annie -- and Rose (top right)
      In the records of the Dutch Jewish victims of the Holocaust -- the records at the memorial center in Amsterdam, where all my family lived before World War II, Abraham Lopes-Dias is listed as having died on Dec. 31, 1943. He was 50.
      He was married for 25 years to my paternal grandmother, Rachel (yes, our daughter is named in her honor). Her death is listed as Sept. 10, 1943.
      My mother was 22 at the time. Her sister Anna (called Annie), some two years older, died Sept.30, 1942, sent to the gas chambers not long after arriving at Auschwitz on the cattle-car train.
      Rozette -- Rose, as everyone knew her -- loved her mother and sister. She adored her father. That is clear from her Shoah Foundation interview and the family history she wrote for us.
      "What do you remember about him most?" the interviewer asked Mom.
      "He was wonderful," Mom replied. "I don't think anybody could have had parents like I had. He was so funny. He was well-liked. ... He was the life of [any] party. He knew all kinds of songs, he would perform, he was just an all-around wonderful man."
       In the family history, she wrote, "Both of my parents had a terrific sense of humor; Daddy really could keep an audience."
       They each loved amateur acting, opera and plays.
       About those songs, the songs Abraham taught his daughters ...
       In her Holocaust interview and her talks to groups over the years, Mom often mentioned that in the years at Auschwitz, she would teach -- or try to teach -- her "camp sisters," as she called them, those songs or would sing them for entertainment or to kill the time.
       They were sung in Dutch, of course. When Elsa and I were kids, we got to hear the great majority of those songs ... when we weren't rolling our eyes or trying to escape the room. Mom wasn't a bad singer (like me), but still ...
---
       The oldest of seven children in his family, he began working, Mom said, "when he was 10 years old, went to school until he was 14; that was required by law. He was a self-taught man, [and] was well-educated. In addition to working hard, he gave bridge lessons, and also learned and taught Esperanto, a language designed to be universal."
       Founded by Dr. L.L. Zamenhof in the late 1880s, Esperanto was popular in Europe, but never became what its founders -- and my grandfather -- hoped it would be.
       "He spoke very well," Mom said of her father. "... He learned the language and taught it to other people, and corresponded with people all over the world. We had people from all over Europe who came and that stayed with us. This was one of his great hobbies. ... Esperanto was a language formed by different languages; it had some French, some Polish, some German, a mixture ... We really didn't have a choice, we had to study it a little bit. But as children, I had enough. I said, 'I don't want to do this.' "
       In the 1930s and early 1940s, leading up to and after the Nazi Germany occupation of The Netherlands, my grandfather was the manager of a company that bought and repaired second-hand burlap sacks.
       And he was very interested in politics and labor unions.
       He was, my mother said, "the non-salaried president of a union of manufacturers in Amsterdam -- the 'Factory Labor Union.' He strongly believed in better working conditions for people and in the 40-hour work week; he worked very hard for that.
       "He could debate for hours with people about his favorite labor party."
       He was, Mom said, "a Social Democrat," a member of the board of that party in Amsterdam. "He and my mother both worked very hard on getting [fair] laws for children working. At that time, children would work when they were [as young as] ages 8 or 9. They helped pushed through a law -- and my father wanted this -- that children could nt work until they were 14, and they wanted to limit work (for everyone) to 40 hours a week.
       "When that passed, that was frosting on the cake for him."
       Interviewer: "Did you understand what they were doing?"
       "Oh, yeah, we were very involved," Mom answered. "We were in youth groups as children, the Social Democrat youth group. First of May, there were big celebrations and we had a big red flag -- Social Democratic party -- by our house, and an Esperanto flag. Everyone knew who my father was by his Esperanto flag."
---
       My grandfather, Mom said, was not a devout Jew.
       "He was not involved in Jewish affairs," she said. "I always said [one of Mom's favorite expressions], as far as that was concerned, he was ahead of his time. He was a reform Jew.
       "Before the war, there was no reform temples in Holland. It was strictly, strictly Orthodox, the men separated from the women ... and he felt hypocritical if he would go to shul and sit there and listen to things he really didn't believe in. Even his father already, he never learned Hebrew. He would go to shul if it was necessary, like for a wedding, or a funeral; he used to kid and said, 'I have a head for funerals and weddings.' "
       That did not matter to the Nazis when the "arrests" began in 1942.
       Abraham continued to work at his job, but Mom said that the company "was taken over ... by the Germans, and they put a Nazi in [charge]." In April 1942, my grandfather "was picked up and sent to a work camp in Holland."
       There is a lot to the story, and Mom details it in her interview. Here's a condensed version ...
       My grandmother, with her husband gone, "got very depressed and very scared"; my mother and her sister each married because, with the curfews in place, it was the only way they could see their then-fiances.
       "My husband and my father didn't come home from work," Mom recalled. "We didn't know where they were."
       Abraham was first sent to a labor camp in Holland, then to Westerbork (the "transit" camp the Nazis established in the eastern part of Holland).
       "And then were got a card from him from the labor camp," Mom said. "My husband we didn't know; we never heard from him.
       "Then my sister and my brother-in-law were picked up in July and ... my mother had a nervous breakdown. In August, I was fired from [her sewing job]. All the Jews had to get out."
       Did you hear from your sister and brother-in-law?     
       "Never."
        Do you know if they ever met your husband and your father?
        "I don't know. (softly) I don't know."
---
       But there was a reunion with her father. When my mother and grandmother were picked up and sent to Westerbork, they saw Abraham again.
       "When we came there, the tracks from the train didn't go right to Westerbork, it went outside of Westerbork to what they called Hooft-Haaren, and my father helped lay down the railroad," Mom said. "Now my father had worked for a Jewish company and one of the bosses, who was hidden later, put money in a factory in Westerbork, in a mattress factory, and he put my father in charge of this mattress factory. That's why he could stay. He had a stamp, we were spared."
        One side story: My grandfather knew friends who were working in the underground and who had gotten papers for my parents to leave the city of Groningen, where they were [at one point], to go into hiding." But my mother said Abraham and Rachel did not want to leave their kids, so the plan never developed.
        My mother's parents were sent to Auschwitz on Sept. 7, 1943.
        "My mother went straight to the gas chambers," Mom said. "and my father was picked out with another group of people. ...I saw him because a week later my husband and I went [to Auschwitz]."
        "I was in Block 10," she said. "I don't know if you've ever been to Block 10 ... on the right side was Block 11; that was for punishment. We had shutters [on that side], although we could see on the street and we could hear on the other side."
        The interviewer asked her to explain that.
        "Between the blocks, they had streets, and this Block 11 was the punishment block," Mom  said. "And we could hear the screams and we could see through the holes in the shutters, and we would see killings, shootings, we could hear them scream.
        "On the other side, between the blocks, was a street, and the group my father went with, before they got sent to Warsaw, they were there and we could see out and I saw my father with this group."
        Interviewer: "Did you have a chance to talk to him (her father)?"
        "No, I don't know if he saw me. I saw him, you know."
        With that, she smiled at the thought. Maybe it was a rueful smile, but maybe -- this is the way I like to think of it -- it was a knowing smile, a smile that remembered "a wonderful man." A man named Abraham.



Thursday, February 5, 2015

My mother to a U.S. World War II veteran: "Thank you"

    I posted this as a Throwback Thursday item on Facebook, and the response was strong enough that I wanted to include it on the blog with some of the comments ...
---
     Credit to Teresa Davis, who is on staff at Ringgold (La.) Elementary School -- in the town where Bea went to high school -- and sent me this story and these photos. It is a remembrance of one of my mother's speaking engagements on the Holocaust at Martin High School (where Teresa was a social studies teacher then).
      From Teresa ...
      "The man she is talking to is a World War II veteran who died [little more than a year ago]. He ...was on the beaches of Normandy. His name is Ernest Howell. He was very young when he joined the Army. When his time was up to go home, he refused because he had a job to do.
      "His son comes to our Veteran's Day programs. Mr. Howell came to talk to my students about his time during the war. When he and your Mom and Dad were at my school together, Martin High School, it was a very moving time.
      "Your mother sat on the front row after she had spoken to our students and listened to every word he said. He told my students that he was not a hero. He was doing what needed to be done and what was right. Mrs. Van Thyn raised her hand and said, 'To me, you are a hero.' This put the whole place into silence and of course I cried.
      "After the program she walked up to him, and as you can tell she had to look up at him, and said, 'Thank You.' This was the one most memorable days in my entire teaching career, and I remember like it happened yesterday.
      "They shared a special bond although they had never met one another until that day.
      "I loved your Mom and Dad."
      (Ernest Howell was Coach "Slim" Howell, a coach and teacher at Northwestern State University in the late 1950s and through the 1960s who coached and taught at a lot of places before and after his time at NSU.)
      "Those like your Mom, Dad and Mr. Howell went through so much, and they deserve to be remembered and honored. They have left a lesson for all of us and I take great joy in teaching that to our young people today. There is so much of that era that has long been forgotten. It is so important to teach those coming along who paved the road for them and the great price that was paid."
















   

Monday, February 2, 2015

This does not honor Heity's memory

      I did not anticipate writing another blog piece about our friend Kent Heitholt and his murder case. But here it is. I feel compelled to do this.
      First, until Sunday, I had never heard of globaltickets.com -- a ticket broker for all sorts of sports events and concerts -- nor had I seen the Facebook page "Freed Ryan Ferguson." But now I have, and frankly, they make me sad.
      I am writing this while the Super Bowl is being played in Phoenix (I am not watching) while Ryan Ferguson and his father Bill are in the stands, having been provided a free all-expense paid trip by globaltickets.com.
      The New York Daily News, having learned of this trip and this case, ran a lengthy story today about the Fergusons, and Heitholt's Nov. 1, 2001, murder in Columbia, Mo., at about 2 a.m. in the newspaper parking lot.
      Ryan Ferguson, the headline says, was "wrongly convicted" in the case and is free -- thanks to the efforts of his father and many other people -- after some 10 years in prison.
      Here is a link to the Daily News story: http://www.nydailynews.com/sports/i-team/ryan-ferguson-heads-super-bowl-wrongful-conviction-article-1.2099220,
      I knew Friday that the story was being done when the main reporter, Michael O'Keeffe, contacted me and wanted to talk about the case. I'm certainly no spokesman for the Heitholt family or his friends, but I wrote a blog on Heitholt a little more than two years ago -- one of my most popular blogs-- and O'Keeffe referenced that.
      Here is the link to that blog: http://nvanthyn.blogspot.com/2012/11/hey-now-heity-big-guy.html
      I want to expand on some of the things I told O'Keeffe that didn't go in the story, my feelings about the case and about this free trip to the Super Bowl.
      Short version: I think it is an ill-conceived idea. That's a nice way of saying it. Not-so-nice: It's a bunch of crap.
      I told O'Keeffe -- who at the time we spoke was not clear about the sponsoring source but obviously found out -- that this is a "twisted" idea. The wrong people are being rewarded.
---
      What the heck are Ram Silverman, the director of operations at goldentickets.com, and his cronies thinking? Why are the Fergusons being "rewarded" -- my opinion -- for this case?
The Kent Heitholt photo the New York
Daily News ran with the story Sunday.
 
      Quickly, let me add: I don't know these people and I am looking at this strictly from the viewpoint of Kent Heitholt's family and friends. I suspect they feel much the same way I do.
      Wish we didn't have to re-live all the case entails. Wish we didn't have to read the painful details again.
      And I want to try to be fair. The law is the law, the courts are the courts, and I am no attorney; I was a sportswriter, just as Heity was. Ryan Ferguson was found guilty, then -- after a long process -- found wrongly convicted. So be it.
       I can't blame the New York Daily News for doing this story; it's an unusual angle. It needed all the details to explain the case.
       I can't blame Bill Ferguson for battling for his son's release. I can't blame the attorneys who helped him, or CBS News' 48 Hours program that first examined this case and started the impetus for Ryan's freedom.
       I can't blame Ryan for trying to live his life, for starting over after 10 lost years in prison. He seems to be doing well; he has written and released a book, a "fitness survival guide" about his time in and after incarcaration. He is promoting it on the Facebook page mentioned above.
      He has lots of support, and that's fine. And here is where globaltickets.com comes in.
      When I looked up its web site, honestly I was dismayed to see that it is located in Plano, Texas -- and that's where Silverman lives, according his Facebook page. Plano is a place we visit.
      On the "Freed Ryan Ferguson" Facebook page -- one of Silverman's "likes" -- it repeatedly says it was "a crime he didn't commit." The attorney most responsible for helping free him builds a good case tearing up the investigate process of the crime and the lack of substantial evidence. But she also implicates or questions -- repeatedly -- the sportswriter who was the last known person to see Heitholt alive.
      The claim is that Heitholt was critical of this guy's writing, so there were hard feelings that night.
      I can tell you this, and I believe all his friends will agree, that was not Heitholt's way. He was one of the easiest people to work with, a non-critical co-worker.
      Who is to judge on this case, really? Who knows what happened? It was a mystery, and it is a mystery. I'll let my attorney friends sort it out.
      But the young man, Charles Erickson, who two years after the murder had a dream in which he envisioned the murder scene and then implicated himself and his underage-drinking buddy of that night, Ryan Ferguson, remains in prison.
       My view: Erickson's conscience might have been talking to him. Whether Ferguson was there or not -- and Ryan has insisted all along he wasn't -- well, no one else knows.
       So my problem is the glorification of Bill and Ryan Ferguson, globalticket.com's promotion of this trip, the publicity-seeking angle by that company and by Ryan.
       But, yes, if you're offered a free trip to the Super Bowl -- quite a reward for their travails -- and you've always wanted to go, take the trip. But when you brag about it, flaunt it, when it's publicized on your Facebook pages and on Ron Silverman's Facebook page, it just seems to me to laugh in the Heitholt family and friends' faces. It is disrespectful.
       Our hearts always hurt for the Heitholts. Their loss is unchangeable, immeasurable; their grief is forever. A story likes this just pours it on.
       So to globaltickets.com, you want to do something grand, something nice, do it for the Heitholt family. Show them some love. Give Deb and Vince and Kali a great trip, built them a house, pay their house note, whatever. That would be some really positive publicity.
       I know the Fergusons, their friends and supporters don't see it this way, but what you did here stinks. That's just my opinion. It is a matter of respect.