Category Archives: Things Past

How Bobby Thompson Changed My Life

I was a jock.

In Briarcliff Manor High School, this was not an altogether laudatory term in the four years between 1969-1973. The cultural/generational divide of the late sixties had a cascading effect on the years that followed, creating a backlash against all things conventional. Short hair was out; long hair was in. Dress codes were out; jeans and tie-dyed shirts were in. Following the rules was out; protests and sit-ins were in. Gin was out; smoking pot was in. Jocks were out; hippies were in.

imagesMuch to my consternation, I attended high school during the one brief moment in time when being on the football team did not enhance one’s social status.  Jocks were considered by many to be square, boring, and one-dimensional, if not intellectually slow.  I didn’t mind this too much.  I embraced the role of being a jock whole-heartedly and did nothing to defy the mold.  I played a sport every season (whether I was good at it or not) and was comfortable in my conventional-ness.  When Deryl Seemayer nominated me for student council president, he began his speech saying, “What’s wrong with a jock?  He works hard, ‘round the clock…”  (My speech wasn’t half as good as his and I lost in a landslide).

In part, being a conventional jock was a factor of my upbringing.  My dad was a Marine, a strict disciplinarian who had clear ideas about how my brothers and I should look and behave.  Every Saturday morning, when we were younger, my Dad would line us up in the kitchen to buzz-cut our hair.  The Gleasons played football.  We worshiped Vince Lombardi, a strong work ethic, and those who kept their noses to the grindstone.  My two older brothers were also a significant influence.  Although I never would have admitted it at the time, I revered them.  I wanted to be just like them.  To me, they were more than role models; they were larger than life.

So I became a jock and was happy to be one.  But I had a secret – one that I guarded religiously and never disclosed to my friends in high school.

I could sing.  

I don’t mean I could just carry a tune.  I could really sing.  When I was ten, I was invited to join the Columbus Boys Choir (think of it as the American version of the Vienna Boys Choir) one of two elite travelling boys choirs in the country.

Here is why it became a secret: 

In elementary school, our music teacher, Mrs. Kuch, recommended me to the Columbus Boys Choir and urged my parents to have me apply for admission. My parents had always encouraged musical endeavors, and so were happy to give me this opportunity. 

To be invited to the choir, aspirants attended a summer camp that served as a four-week tryout.  We sang eight hours a day, seven days a week and were drilled in unrelenting exercises to perfect our range, breathing and control.  One of those exercises was described like this, “Imagine you are holding an extremely hot cup of tea to your lips – so hot that if the tea touches you, it will scald.  I want you to breathe in and sing so carefully that you don’t disturb the tea.  It must never touch your lips.”  And then we’d practice our scales, breathing ever so carefully over our imaginary cups of tea. “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”  We did this at the start of every practice, every day.

Two weeks into the term, we had parents’ day.  Having never lived away from home prior to this, I couldn’t wait to see my folks.  The school, of course, put on a show for them to demonstrate what we had learned under the choirmaster’s care.  My parents proudly sat in the front row of the audience, with my two older brothers seated next to them.

And then, disaster struck.  After performing two songs, the choirmaster turned to address the parents and started to describe our daily regimen of practice.  Imagine you are holding an extremely hot cup of tea to your lips…”  Staring out from my place in the third row, I could see my older brothers clearly and I knew what was coming.   A trickle of sweat rolled down my back and it wasn’t because the weather was warm.  The choirmaster turned to us to perform our scales and elevated his hand to match the rising pitch of our voices.  “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”   

My two older brothers fell off their chairs.  They howled with laughter.  To this day, they still tell this story, mimicking the choirmaster’s hand and singing in falsetto. “Oo – oo – oo – oo –oo – oo –oo.”   When I came home from camp, the misery was unrelenting.  By the end of the summer, I concluded that singing was not a manly thing to do and vowed never to sing again.   

And I didn’t.  I made my way through junior high and the first three years of high school without uttering a note.  Those who knew I could sing forgot and my two older brothers eventually went away to school.  

Which brings me to how Bobby Thompson changed my life.  Bobby Thompson went to Phillips Exeter Academy, a prestigious prep school in New Hampshire that one of my brothers attended the last two years of high school. I went to visit him for a weekend and got to meet his newfound friends, most of who were on the wrestling team.  Bobby Thompson was easily the most memorable.  An African American from Blueville, West Virginia, Bobby weighed 300 pounds and was rumored to have broken an opponent’s leg in the ring. 

In May of my junior year I attended my brother’s graduation from Exeter.  Bobby was the student selected to give the commencement speech.  He stood and, after some brief remarks for his teachers and classmates, acknowledged the benefactors who made his education possible and thanked them for the opportunity that it would provide him. And then, he did something unexpected. 

Bobby sang Amazing Grace.

St. Augustine is credited with saying, “He who sings prays twice.”  If that is true, Bobby’s hymn that day was worth a thousand prayers.  Big, full-throated, passionate, his voice swept the room away with him on journey that humbled everyone in its unabashed grace and humility.  He sang without accompaniment.  He sang from the heart.  And when he was done, the entire auditorium wept as one.

I had never experienced anything like it.  It wasn’t a performance; it was an act of love and gratitude.  I was riveted.  And I was ashamed.  Bobby’s hymn had laid bare for me my cowardice.  He had never been embarrassed – could never be embarrassed – by the gift he had been given.  In many ways it defined him, far more than his weight or his prowess in the wrestling ring.  His confidence and his joy transcended ridicule.  I, on the other hand, had been weak and afraid.

I returned home, went back to high school, and fell into my regular routine.  But I couldn’t escape the shame that dogged me.  I was so furious at how easily I had been cowed into silence.   I vowed to do something about it.

Every spring, Briarcliff had a student variety show.  It always was a funny mish-mash of talent featuring whatever the students that year could bring to bear.  In my years, there was a plethora of singing talent.  Billie Nininger, his sister Annie, Clay Callihan, Pat Moffett.  I wasn’t sure that I could measure up.  Their talents had progressed with the years. They played instruments.  I was stuck with what I had learned up to the age of ten.  My voice had changed.  Old fears filtered through my anger and I panicked.  My voice cracked during tryouts and I was so embarrassed that I stopped singing mid-song and walked away.

They let me in anyway.  Two weeks later I was standing on stage behind the curtain, just me and my demons.  It should be no surprise that I chose to sing the one song that had gotten me on that stage in the first place. I heard the announcer say, “And now Joe Gleason, singing Amazing Grace.” 

The curtain opened.  There was just me and a microphone.  And the crowd started to laugh.  I was a jock, after all, and jocks were supposed to be funny – they were not supposed to sing.  I took a deep breath, thought of Bobby Thompson, and hit the first note.  After a few more, no one was laughing.  And then I let myself go. I don’t remember much after that; it became more of a prayer for me than anything else. 

So, thank you, Bobby for redeeming me.  “I once was lost, but now am found.  Was blind, but now I see.”

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When the Bombs Stopped

“Seventh-century chroniclers and hagiographers had no love of the abstract; for them the purpose of political power was contained in one concrete and comprehensible word: peace.  Peace could be broken in two ways: from without…or from within.”

Paul Fouracre and Richard A. Gerberding,

 Late Merovingian France, History and Hagiography 640 – 720 

As much as we would like to think we’ve progressed since the seventh century, much about political power remains the same.  Peace comes at a price and we should honor those who shoulder that price for us.  On today, Veterans Day, I would like to thank all of those who maintain our peace through force of arms from dangers both domestic and abroad.


Given the nature of modern warfare and the consequences of recent attacks such as the bombing of the Boston Marathon I’d also like to acknowledge our first responders: the fire fighters, police and medical teams for the enhanced role they now play in keeping the peace.  Together with our veterans, they keep us safe and at liberty to pursue life and happiness every day of our lives.

Prior to World War II, we celebrated a different holiday on November 11th.  It was called “Armistice Day” and it grew out of the decision to cease of hostilities at the end of World War I (then known as the Great War).

In the fall of 1918, with its army reeling and its navy in mutiny, the Germans sued for peace based on a framework outlined in a speech given by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson called the “Fourteen Points.”  On November 10, 1918 the allied forces entered into an armistice with Germany in Compiègne, France that would provide a cessation of the war, until a new treaty could be ratified.  They signified that the shelling would stop on the 11th hour of the next day.

From that day forward, on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, countries around the world would honor the 20 million who lost their lives during the war with a minute of silence.  A second minute of silence honored those who had survived them, their spouses, their children and their comrades.

The holiday changed after World War II when it became clear that “the War to End all Wars” would not live up to its nickname.  Since we honor those who died in combat on Memorial Day, Veterans Day was dedicated to the living.

While I support the change and honor those who have fought for our country, a part of me still appreciates the idea of a holiday honoring the moment the bombs stopped.

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J.C. & Me Part II

“Gentlemen.”  Adams’s voice rumbled through the classroom, ominous in its implication.  “The mid-term examination is Wednesday next.  It is yet but a cloud on the horizon, but let me assure you…it is an ever darkening cloud.”

From the first day of class, Adams’s “The World Since 1919” had us careening through the cataclysm that was Germany in the wake of the war to end all wars.  As the Weimar Republic struggled to assert itself, ultra-nationalist parties attacked it for betraying the fatherland by signing the Versailles Diktat. Centrist candidates and mainstream leaders were assassinated in the street. Violent putsches flourished; one so successful that the government had to flee from Berlin to Dresden.

With Adams as our guide we rode the “toboggan slide” of the German mark as it fell from 4.2 marks to the dollar in 1922 to 2.5 trillion to the dollar, a year later.  When the Germans failed to keep up with their reparations, we saw the Allies occupy the Ruhr – seizing 80 percent of the nation’s coal, iron and steel.  Hunger riots became common.  Separatist movements flourished.  Despite Allied efforts to stabilize the mark and the German economy, one weak government followed another until the rise the National Socialist German Workers Party (NSDAP), or as we have come to know them: the Nazi Party.

Hitler’s movement spread through the nation’s beer halls, tapping a nativist hatred for Jews and a country’s resentment of occupation.  As it grew into a national power, violence became the signature of German politics.  Hitler’s “brown shirts,” the Sturmabteilungen, were deployed to disrupt opposing political rallies by brute force and to ensure the enthusiastic support for rallies of their own.

After seizing power, Hitler became a master at using mass demonstrations to whip up his allies and to cow his opposition.  And Adams gave us a ringside seat.  As he described the procession of arms and armies marching down Berlin’s Vossstrasse to the German Chancellery, his voice reverberated throughout the room.

“When they reached reviewing stand, the elite guard of the German infantry, the Wachtruppe, snapped their left arms upward in salute of der Fürher, and they commenced the Stechschritt, a march that is called, mockingly in the west, “the Goose Step.”

Someone in the classroom chuckled.  Adams’s head snapped up from his index cards. He frowned.

“It is not the sight of the Goose Step that made it impressive.  It was the sound of ten thousand boots pounding the cobblestones at the exact same instant and thousands of voices around you screaming in unison, ‘Sieg Heil!  Sieg Heil! Sieg Heil!’ “ He offered up a rueful smile.  “And you are a nice young graduate student doing post-doctoral work in Germany…what do you do?”

I felt a trickle of sweat roll down my back.  He left us all to wonder what we would do in his place in pre-war Nazi Germany.

As the fall marched on, Adams again warned us of the gathering storm that would be our final exam.  But, in class after class, his stories grew more familiar.  The Marshall Plan, the Berlin airlift, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of President Kennedy, Nixon’s visit to China.  With each passing day, I had to reconcile my memories with the more worldly account that Adams proffered.  On the last day of class, Adams covered the news from that morning’s newspaper, bringing “The World Since 1919” finally up to date.

Forty years ago, during a fall much like this one, Adams took history out of the books and made it come to life.  It was no longer an abstract discussion of socio-political movements with little impact on our daily lives; it became a precursor to all that defines us today. I discovered that history is not about the past.   It is about the present.  And I’ve been trying to keep up with it ever since.

For the record, I passed both of Adams’s classes.  I felt lucky to pull down a C in each of them.   And for those paying attention, I snuck a reference to those boots pounding the cobblestones into ANVIL OF GOD.  I thought it was an appropriate reference for Carloman’s army and it was my way of paying homage to a true master of history.

I found the above picture of Adams as a young man, about the age he was during his post-doctoral work in Germany.  He is on a ship.  I don’t know if he is going to Germany or coming home.  But from the sober look on his face, I’d guess the later.

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J.C. & Me

To appreciate my fascination with the past, you have to understand how I was introduced to it.  It started with my older brother Jimmy in the fall of 1973.

“You have to take History 54.”  He was insistent.

“I can’t take that class.  I’m a freshman.  I’m supposed to take History 5 with Shewmaker.”

“Adams is going to retire this year.  And he’s only teaching two more classes.  One this fall; the other this winter. You should take both of them.”

“I’ll fail both of them.”

“It would be better than not taking them.”

So, I signed up for “History of the World Since 1919,” bought the single assigned textbook (of the same name) and trudged to Reed Hall to take a seat among the fifty-or-so upper classmen who deserved to be in the room.  I arrived early, which was lucky, as more than 100 people were crowding into the auditorium.  I remember thinking that maybe I had misread the course guide.

I had been fortunate to have good history teachers in high school: Doc. Farrell, Doc. Pruitt, and Ms. Koob.  Each employed a different approach to studying the past, but all were inquisitive, engaging and most of all entertaining.  Now that I was in college, I wondered how they would compare.


The room grew quiet as the first of Baker’s bells signaled the start of class. I heard the door open at the back of the room and turned to find an elderly man shuffling down the aisle with a tripod cane.  His hair was white and stood straight up from his head in what, at the time, was called a “crew cut” (a worrisome sign in 1973).  He wore a grey suit, with a black shirt tied to the top button.  What drew my attention, however, were the largest and blackest pair of sunglasses I had ever seen.  They wrapped around his face so that light was blocked on all sides.  (I would learn later that these were designed for cataract patients).

My brother is hazing me, I thought.  There was no way I could relate to this ancient relic.  Adams slowly made his way to the front of the class and sat down at a small desk.  He’s sitting down! I screamed in my head. He’s going to teach the class from a chair.  I wanted to strangle Jimmy.  I wondered whether or not I still could transfer out of the class, and readied myself for an hour and ten-minute snooze.

Once seated, Adams pulled out a stack of yellowed 3 X 5 index cards and placed them carefully on the desk.  Next came a huge magnifying glass, the rectangle kind my grandmother used for reading the paper.  He’s going to read them to us?  I groaned aloud.

Adams lifted the first index card off his carefully arranged stack, drew it before his huge magnifying glass and, lifted his head.  I had the distinct impression he wasn’t looking at the card.

And then, he opened his mouth to speak.

He had a voice that made James Earl Jones sound like Mickey Mouse.  It boomed across the room with such resonance and authority that it swept all of us into its embrace and transported us across time and space until we found ourselves in the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles just outside Paris in 1919.  We watched a pale and nervous Herman Müller, the German Foreign Minister, blink into the blinding light of the mirrored hall before picking up the pen to sign what was called by his countrymen back home, the “Diktat.”  The treaty acknowledged German “guilt” for World War I and promised “reparations” for the damages inflicted on the allied nations during the war. The terms “guilt” and “reparations” took on an ominous tone coming from Adams’s mouth, as if they foreshadowed the dawning of the Apocalypse.  I would learn weeks later how much they did.

J. C. Adams taught history at Dartmouth College for 34 years. A 1970 Esquire cover story named him one the 10 best college professors in the country.  An expert in Balkan and Russian history, Adams was a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and received his M.A. & Ph.D. in modern European diplomatic history from Duke. He spent a year in 1937 doing post-doctoral work in pre-war Europe and served with U.S. Army military intelligence during WWII.  He received the Bronze Star and one battle star before being discharged as a major in 1945.

“John made history come alive,” eulogized fellow history professor Charles T. Wood, when Adams died in 1986, “and his courses were always filled.”  Revered by his students, Adams also was renowned for his tough grades.   So tough that, Woods said, “His was a course that the seniors took in the spring after they had been admitted into law school.” (Italics added).

Exactly and hour and ten minutes after he had begun, the Baker bells began to chime again and Adams put down his last index card.  I, and my 100-plus classmates returned from our trip into the past to our classroom in Reed Hall, in Hanover, New Hampshire during the fall of 1973.

“Until Wednesday,” Adams’s voice promised.  I couldn’t wait.  Next: The Gathering Storm.

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