The first farmer was the first man. All historic nobility rests on the possession and use of land. Ralph Waldo Emerson

10 January 2011

A Towering, Quiet Hero Says Goodbye

We lost a great man last week. Major Dick Winters died on January 2, but--in his inimitably humble and quiet fashion--he asked his family to release the news only after his memorial service had been held. Winters was the commanding officer of the now-famous Easy Company of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Division of the U.S. Army.

Made famous by Stephen Ambrose's exceptional book "Band of Brothers" and the subsequent Emmy Award-winning HBO miniseries, Winters was the hero among heroes in a company of soldiers who fought on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, through the hedgerows in France and the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, the liberation of Kaufering (a sub-camp of the infamous Dachau concentration camp) and--finally--the occupation of Hitler's Eagle's Nest at the very end of the war.

Winters grew up in central Pennsylvania in the beautiful and pristine town of Lancaster. After graduating high school, he entered Franklin & Marshall College. He mowed lawns, worked in a grocery store, and painted electrical towers in order to earn his way through college, graduating in June 1941 with a business degree. In order to shorten his time in the service, he voluntarily enlisted in the Army in August and was soon selected to complete Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia.

Winters was thrust into leadership in the crucible of D-Day. His CO was shot down in the early hours of June 6, 1944 and Winters--unaware of his CO's loss, became acting commanding officer of Easy Company throughout the D-Day campaign.

Winters' character and personal qualities were perfectly suited for leadership. He was quiet and unassuming, courageous to the point of fearlessness, gathered and rarely impulsive, always ready to lead from the front rather than the rear. His men were singularly devoted to him because they knew he would never ask them to do anything he was not willing and ready to do first.

Winters married his wife Ethel in 1951, raised two children, went into business for himself and retired in 1997. He lived his later years in Hershey.

Winters' extraordinary leadership, coupled with his remarkable humility, are so characteristic of The Greatest Generation. His life and his legacy inspire me--and thousands of other deeply appreciative Americans.

11 December 2010

Public Education Gets A Wake-Up Call

As faithful readers of this blog already know, I have little love or respect for the National Education Association--the strongest teachers' union in the country and one of the strongest unions in the United States. To briefly reiterate, my biggest argument with the NEA is that it's grossly self-interested in the preservation and expansion of its membership--not the education of our nation's youngsters. The NEA promotes mediocrity, rewarding teachers with the longest service with top salaries while completely disdaining individual initiative and achievement so that the best teachers receive the highest reward. Sure, the NEA gives plenty of awards, but real incentives are financial--and there's no way the NEA will allow anything but remuneration based on seniority.

The preservation of the mediocre is not the NEA's only goal. It also fiercely defends the grossly incompetent. This was most graphically revealed this week in the Southern California city of Compton. McKinley Elementary School has consistently underperformed over the past decade, and ranks in the bottom 10% of California's elementary schools. The students' parents--exercising their rights under a law passed by the California legislature in January--signed petitions demanding school reforms, including the firing of the administration and the faculty, in favor of a charter school. Under the new law, if more than 51% of the parents sign such a petition, they can choose from a menu of school reforms--from conversion to a charter school to removal of the principal and faculty to closing the school outright.

The move by the parents was applauded by Governor Schwarzenegger, as well as by Obama's Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan. "This is the beginning of a revolution", said Ben Austin, executive director of Parent Revolution, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit organization focusing on education reform. "Parents are waking up to the fact their schools are failing because they are run on an agenda designed for adults. We advocate a kids-first agenda."

The new California law has inspired similar legislation in the state of Connecticut with six other states now considering parent trigger laws similar to California's.

The reaction of the California Teacher's Association was predictable: it is questioning the way the signatures were gathered and intends to pursue legal action.

But Mr. Austin concludes: "Parents are the only ones who truly care about their children. The only way to truly change things is to take power away from adults with an agenda."

07 December 2010

69 Years Ago Today...

...America changed forever. On a leisurely Sunday morning in Hawaii--December 7, 194--"a date that will live in infamy"--America's nervous peace was ripped apart by the attack of 353 Japanese fighter planes in two waves, launched from six aircraft carriers in the infamous and never-to-be-forgotten bombing of Pearl Harbor.

More than 2400 Americans perished that day--and many of them still call Pearl Harbor their final resting place. Five battleships--the USS California, the USS Utah, the USS West Virginia, the USS Oklahoma, and--most famously--the USS Arizona--were either destroyed or run aground. A total of eighteen naval vessels were destroyed.

The next day, President Roosevelt asked Congress for a formal declaration of war against the Empire of Japan. Less than an hour later, the war authorization was approved. Three days later, the Axis powers of Germany and Italy declared war on the U.S.--and America reciprocated with a war declaration of its own later that same day.

Thus--within the space of just four days--America was plunged into a massive two-front war that ultimately claimed the lives of 416,000 Americans before the war finally ended with Japan's surrender in August 1945.

I have visited the USS Arizona Memorial on two different occasions. It is a place of solemn remembrance and reverent respect. Even today, oil droplets still bubble to the surface of the sea from the fuel tanks on the ship--a quiet, poignant reminder that Pearl Harbor is yet a home of the brave.

06 December 2010

The History Behind "I'll Be Home For Christmas"

Often, the meaning of songs and the circumstances under which they are written make the songs eminently more interesting. That's the case with one of America's all-time favorites--"I'll Be Home For Christmas". The song was written in 1943, at the height of World War II. Hundreds of thousands of young GI's were stationed in Europe and the Pacific, far away from their loved ones and the comfort and safety of home.

The mood of the country was perfectly captured in a new Christmas song penned by Kim Gannon and Walter Kent. In it, the song begins cheerfully and hopefully, affirming that the subject of the song will be home for Christmas "where the love-light gleams". But the song ends with the haunting closer: "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams".

When the song was recorded by Bing Crosby and released in the fall of 1943, it shot to the top ten in the record charts and became an instant classic.

For millions of Americans during the War--and today for those serving our country in Iraq, Afghanistan, and throughout the world where our troops are stationed--the closest the troops would get to home at Christmastime is in the dreams they share with their loved ones who would readily welcome them.

01 December 2010

A Grief Observed

As faithful readers of this blog already know, I am an immense admirer of Abraham Lincoln--not only for his astonishing leadership in the our nation's years of greatest crisis--but also for his unutterable eloquence and dexterity with the English language.

I've recently come across a little-known letter that Lincoln wrote in the early days of the Civil War to the parents of Elmer Ellsworth, who died in Alexandria, Virginia after he had torn down a Confederate flag and was subsequently shot by the owner of the hotel upon which it was displayed. Ellsworth was Lincoln's friend, a young protege of Lincoln who had worked with him in Lincoln's law office in Springfield, Illinois before he was elected President. He had formed a largely ceremonial detachment known as the Zouaves, a drill team that thrilled spectators with its exotic costumes and precision choreography. When the war began, Ellsworth--only 24 years old--asked for and received a commission in the U.S. Army and led the Zouaves as they were sworn into military service. Less than three weeks later, the young officer was dead--and the loss hit Lincoln hard.

In the midst of his grief, he wrote this letter to Ellsworth's parents. It is a model of timeless grace, personal remembrance, and tender compassion--and I commend it to you...

My dear Sir and Madam,

In the untimely loss of your noble son, our affliction here is scarcely less than your own. So much of promised usefulness to one's country and of bright hopes for one's self and friends have rarely been so suddenly dashed as in his fall. In size, in years, and in youthful appearance, a boy only, his power to command men was surpassingly great. This power, combined with a fine intellect, an indomitable energy, and a taste altogether military constituted in him, as seemed to me, the best natural talent in that department I ever knew. And yet he was singularly modest and deferential in social intercourse. My acquaintance with him began less than two years ago; yet through the latter half of the intervening period, it was as intimate as the disparity of our ages and my engrossing engagements would permit. To me, he appeared to have no indulgences or pastimes; and I never heard him utter a profane or intemperate word. What was conclusive of his good heart, he never forgot his parents. The honors he labored for so laudably and, in the sad end, so gallantly gave his life, he meant for you no less than for himself.

In the hope that it may be no intrusion upon the sacredness of your sorrow, I have ventured to address you this tribute to the memory of my young friend, and your brave and early fallen child.

May God give you that consolation which is beyond all earthly power. Sincerely your friend in a common affliction.

A. Lincoln