Norman Rockwell’s Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving in America. This is meant to be a day of thanks for the blessings we’ve enjoyed for the last year but it’s more a day of food and football. Tomorrow, as folks will spend the day buying a bunch of stuff they probably don’t need and can’t afford.

A Norman Rockwell painting we are not.

This painting is called “Home For Thanksgiving.” It was featured on the November 24, 1945 cover of The Saturday Evening Post. That was 77 years ago today.

The young man and his mother were real people. He was freshly home from the war and helping his mother with chores he likely would have hated doing in the Army Air Corps. Kitchen Patrol or KP duty probably didn’t seem so bad in the warmth of his mama’s kitchen.

Rockwell paid them each $15 to sit for the portrait. I read once that they owned the local dairy in their Vermont small town and that the young man was Rockwell’s milkman.

This painting was donated to the Eugene M. Connor Post 193 of the American Legion in Massachusetts many years ago. But they didn’t know it was an original and left it hanging in a hallway for decades. When someone offered $500 for what the Legion thought was a print, they took it to the Norman Rockwell Museum in Massachusetts for appraisal.

After learning they owned an American treasure, they loaned it to the museum for display and safekeeping.

Just last year, the Legion sold it at auction for $4.3 million. This hefty sum went into a trust and interest earned will help pay bills and fund future repairs for the Legion.

It’s a beautiful slice of Americana and I like how it illustrates a nation transitioning from wartime into peacetime. Something so everyday like peeling potatoes probably felt almost luxurious to the soldier and his mother who had suffered untold sleepless nights in his absence.

Her relief is palpable.

Gratitude would have been the only thing that mattered in many households across the nation that Thanksgiving. Our soldiers were headed home. Life was returning to a new normal. Life was good.

Wherever you are in this world today, I hope life is good. Happy Thanksgiving!

FDR Memorial

In a 1936 speech, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously said “the fundamental idea behind the parks…is that the country belongs to the people, that it is in process in making for the enrichment for the lives of all of us.”

He said of the National parks “there is nothing so American.”

It seems fitting that our longest serving president would have his own National Park Memorial on the National Mall. While there is something to be said for them all, this is my favorite for the way it tells a cohesive story.

There are five outdoor rooms, each representing a different part of his life – the years prior to the presidency and one for each of his four terms as President.

It features four and a half tons of South Dakota red granite, 100,000 gallons of flowing water and lots of trees and greenery. Some parts feel like a sanctuary while others tell the sad, unsettling stories that marred his presidency.

Sculptures depict scenes from the Great Depression like men waiting in a bread line and others listening to a fireside chat. There’s a statue of FDR with his little dog Fala, a Scottish Terrier. His own words are inscribed in stone including the phrase “I hate war” from a 1936 speech.

There’s a nice sculpture of his wife Eleanor as well.

The original design offered no depiction of Roosevelt in his wheelchair. While he was wheelchair bound for much of his life, the American public had no idea because he worked so hard to conceal his disability.

However, the National Organization on Disability argued that he should be depicted in the wheelchair he designed for himself. They raised private funds to add it several years after the 1997 dedication in 2001.

The original memorial was designed by Lawrence Halprin, an accomplished landscape architect who had fond memories of the former President. While Halprin won the design contest in 1974, it was another twenty years before Congress awarded the funds to build it.

Incidentally, there is another Roosevelt Memorial that we didn’t visit. Its a 3x7x4 foot block of white granite that was dedicated by the living American Presidents in 1965. It is located on the lawn of the National Archives.

This was actually what Roosevelt suggested. He told his friend Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter his wishes regarding a memorial. Justice Frankfurter recalled the 1941 conversation:

If any memorial is erected to me, I know exactly what I should like it to be. I should like it to consist of a block about the size of this (putting his hand on his desk) and placed in the center of that green plot in front of the Archives Building. I don’t care what it is made of, whether limestone or granite or whatnot, but I want it plain without any ornamentation, with the simple carving, In Memory of….

I can’t help but wonder what he would have to say about this stunning place of natural elements and well thought design that tells the story of his presidency so beautifully.

I hope he would be pleased. As a pet lover, I’m guessing he would be most glad to see his little Fala included by his side.

Champaign Aviation Museum

The promise of sunflowers took me to Urbana, Ohio this summer but the promise of airplanes enticed me to stay for a few more hours.

You see, Urbana is home to Champaign Aviation Museum. But this isn’t an ordinary museum. That’s because, in addition to planes and historic items on display, there’s a restoration effort underway on a B-17 Flying Fortress. The Champaign Lady is a sight to behold as she is currently in pieces and gives visitors an intimate look at the construction of this impressive plane.

They also have a Civil Air Patrol plane that sank a German sub off America’s East coast during World War II and an exhibit about the Women’s Air Service Pilots or the WASPs.

You know my favorite part was the WASP exhibit! These life size cut outs are pretty incredible. Each lady is holding a portrait of herself when she was a WASP as well as a story about herself. Sadly, all of these ladies are gone now.

I was fortunate to have a personal tour with Terri Whitlach, a retired Air Force pilot. The actual Voodoo that he flew in Vietnam is in the National Air Force Museum in Dayton.

He provided great insight into the museum, the stories behind the planes and the people who volunteer there. He made what would have been a nice museum tour an absolutely spectacular experience and I’m grateful he was there that day.

Hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. admission is by donation. Get more information at their website. If you go, be sure to talk to whoever is volunteering. You will have a much more enriching experience.

Norman Rockwell Traveling Exhibit

The art of Norman Rockwell has been part of the national conversation for over a hundred years. There’s something about his work that is so easily recognizable you can spot it from across a room or with a simple glance.

Yesterday, I journeyed up to Lithopolis, Ohio to view a traveling exhibit called “Norman Rockwell in the 1940s: A View of the American Homefront.” It’s on display at the Wagnalls Memorial Library and is available for viewing on select days through this month.

It’s on loan from the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockwell, Massachusetts which is home to the world’s most significant collection of Rockwell’s work.

This isn’t a large collection but it is powerful and well worth a stop if you’re in the area.

You’ll find his most famous works – the Four Freedoms which depict freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of speech and freedom of worship. These are some of the most reproduced works in the world.

There are also patriotic works depicting Rosie the Riveter and life on the home front. In 1945, this cover depicted a young soldier, home from war and happily helping his mother peel potatoes.

Look closely.

This is an illustration, not a photo. However, it looks so realistic you almost expect the woman to turn and smile at you.

Look at the veins in her hands, the lines on her face. The expression of joy and relief is mixed with something else. Maybe a little disbelief that her son is home. Maybe a little wonder at how much he has changed. It’s truly a lovely moment and one so skillfully illustrated that it draws the viewer right in.

Another depicts a sailor home on leave while yet another depicts a young soldier returning home to a tenement. You have to wonder how many young men left less than ideal circumstances at home and found a better life trajectory because of the war.

There are some fun pieces too including a tattoo artist crossing out women’s names on a man’s bicep. There are a couple of April Fool’s covers that are much like an Easter egg hunt to find the things that are off. How many things can you find wrong with this cover?

In all, it’s a nice collection.

I have read that artists and critics of his age didn’t take his work seriously. It is often sweet and sometimes sentimental. It is sometimes a bit idealistic but I like to think Rockwell’s work reflects the values of another time while preserving threads of humanity that we all can still relate to some eighty years later.

He created 4,000 pieces of artwork in his lifetime. There’s something very smart about his work and something practical in that sensible New England kind of way. I think that Rockwell could see the world for what it was but sometimes chose to show his audiences the world as he wished it to be.

Despite what the critics said, he must have done something right. After all, we’re still talking about him.

Go if you get a chance. It’s free but only open during certain hours Thursday and Saturday through June 30. Get more info by clicking here. If you go, be sure to explore this magnificent library and view the two original Norman Rockwell pieces in their permanent collection.

This library is amazing so check back to see imagery and to read a little story about it this week.

Veteran Laid To Rest 77 Years After Death

A soldier came home for the last time yesterday. He received a hero’s welcome and his family found closure but it all was 77 years in the making. Private First Class Wilmer White was a young man, a 21 year old newlywed, when he was killed in action.

He was far from his Meigs County, Ohio home and bringing him back wasn’t an option at the time.

A part of the famed Merrill’s Marauders, he was killed on July 2, 1944. His remains were unidentifiable and he was temporarily buried in U.S. cemeteries in Burma and India. One set of remains, identified only as Unknown X-52 Kalaikunda, was interred in 1949 at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.

Imagine that.

A family – parents, eleven siblings, a young wife – who waited for him to come home. Most who knew him went to their graves waiting for closure, waiting for their young man to be found and buried in their southern Ohio community.

It’s unimaginable.

Forensic evidence last year finally allowed this to happen. His remains were identified, in part thanks to DNA from a living relative.

Yesterday in Pomeroy, Ohio people lined the streets to pay their respects in a swell of patriotic pride. A Girl Scout troop passed out flags, veterans came in their POW/MIA shirts and strangers stood together in the street. We all were temporarily united by our pride, respect and an odd mix of sorrow and joy as we watched the horse drawn hearse turn the corner on his final journey.

Someone wrote a beautiful obituary for PFC White, describing him as a young man who collected treasures from his adventures roaming the countryside and playing in the Shade River.

PFC White was a talented artist who could draw a realistic likeness. He was a good hunter who also enjoyed building things with wood and repurposed items.

“He was a well loved young man by all that knew him” reads the obituary.

When I heard that the public was invited to pay their respects, going seemed like the right thing to do. My feelings were a mix of sorrow for a life cut short and joy that he was going home to be buried in a cemetery on the family farm.

It’s hard to imagine the anguish felt by a family waiting for 77 years to have their loved one identified. While scientists have been busy identifying PFC White and others like him, there still remain about 6,000 World War II soldiers whose families continue to wait.

At least one family and one community can rest knowing they did their best to give their hero the long overdue welcome he deserves.

We tend to think of soldiers killed in history as names or statistics. It tends to all be very impersonal. It’s when we humanize the stories that we gain understanding of the profound loss and the magnitude of their importance. To that end. I hope you will take two minutes to read his brief life story at this link.

Real People, Real Stories

Rosie the Riveter courtesy of theAtlantic.com.

A trip to the doctor for a sinus infection this week left me sitting in a waiting room filled with strangers. Nearly all of them were like me or like people I know – white, middle aged or elderly. The one person in the room who was different was an elderly Amish woman.

If I had been asked to start a conversation with someone in that room, she’s the one I was most curious about. And it occurs to me that I am naturally drawn to people who are different than me.

I’m interested in where they’re from and how our paths crossed. What’s their world view? What do they enjoy? What do they wish people knew about them? I often am surprised at what I learn from talking to those who have a worldview different than my own.

Maybe that’s why it’s such a shock to me when people dismiss those who are different or, worse yet, bully and discriminate against them.

I like human stories and sometimes share them on Facebook – the Louisiana brothers who survived D-Day and who lived to be old men; the elderly woman who smuggled hundreds of Jewish children out of Germany; and the many strong women who we call Rosie the Riveter have all appeared on my Facebook page. I often give attention to those who can no longer speak for themselves or who don’t make it into the history books. Sometimes I share stories of people who do have a voice but who often are ignored.

More recently, I’ve been sharing the stories of people of color. Maybe no one is reading or watching the videos but I like to at least give them a platform. It’s healthy to hear the human side of the story as opposed to the headline version of what’s happening in the world.

I’m convinced of two things:

1. It’s easy to hate people you don’t know.

2. People who think they hate history believe that it’s all about memorizing dates, places and names of people long dead. And that’s not what matters most when studying history.

If you think about it, we are living history right now. That Amish woman has a story to tell that will be a valuable thread in the fabric of our history someday just as the female biracial pilot who told her story on YouTube does. Just as you and I do.

Someday, historians and kids in schools across the nation will study 2020 American history. Wouldn’t you like them to know how you lived and contributed? What you think of our world today?

Go look for the people and the stories that don’t make the history books. You never know what you might find.