The Suprising Origins of the American Christmas Tree

It took some doing, but the Christmas holiday finally became an American tradition. Long before the 13 Colonies and the War for Independence, our forefathers brought forth upon this continent a rather strict view of the celebration. It was not to be celebrated. Despite Christmas being adopted by Christianity 1,200 years before the Separatists landed at Plymouth Rock, the sect believed the tradition was too intertwined with pagan rituals. After three decades in the New World, the court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared that “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon such accounts as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shillings, as a fine to the country.”

The law was instituted in 1659, and though the law eventually went by the wayside, even after the War for Independence ended in 1783 Americans remained rather dismissive of the holiday and its traditions for religious reasons. The traditions were typically traced back to ancient Rome’s Saturnalia festival, which marked the end of the planting season and the approach of the winter solstice on December 25 (the darkest evening of the year on the Julian calendar). The festival, originally created for one day, lasted a week (December 17–23). Gift-giving, feasting, and general merry-making were part and parcel of the holiday. Another staple was the use of evergreen plants, which included wreaths and trees. This plant was seen as a symbol that the sun, and therefore spring, would return.

William Bradford, second governor of Plymouth Plantation, considered it all “pagan mockery,” but the early settlers’ puritanical influence slowly began to dissipate as America moved into the 18th and 19th centuries.

A colored lithograph titled “Under the Christmas Tree,” by Max Seeger after the watercolor painting by R. Beyschlag, circa 1892. (Grafissimo/DigitalVision Vectors/Getty Images)

German Influence

Just as the Separatists and the Puritans are known for coming to the New World to escape religious persecution and find religious freedom, the Germans did as well. Before the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, which ended the religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants called the Thirty Years’ War, many Germans had already fled across the Atlantic Ocean. Early into the 18th century, thousands more Germans came to America, where they settled in what is now Albany, New York. When tens of thousands of Germans flooded onto America’s eastern shores during what became known as the Rhine Exodus of 1816–17, they brought with them their German traditions, one of which was the Christmas tree.

Several thousand Germans immigrated to America’s eastern shore during the Rhine Exodus of 1816– 1817, many of whom settled in Albany, N.Y. “Albany, New York” by Pavel Petrovich Svinin, 1811–circa 1813. Watercolor on off-white wove paper. Rogers Fund, 1942; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

The display of Christmas trees in Germany stretches back to the eighth century—and arguably the nation’s most famous citizen, Martin Luther, was the first to place lights (candles) in his tree during the sacred holiday. His inspiration came from standing in the thick German forest and peering into the twinkling night sky.

In America, Charles Follen, a German exile who became a Harvard professor and then a minister, introduced the Christmas tree to his New England peers in 1832, a moment recounted by the prominent British author Harriet Martineau. Four years later, Hermann Bokum, a German immigrant who would become an author and a chaplain in the Union Army, wrote “The Stranger’s Gift: A Christmas and New Year’s Present,” which provided an illustration in its opening pages of a Christmas tree. This tradition of cutting down, housing, and decorating evergreen trees was continued by German Americans, but it had hardly caught on among the rest of the populace.

Martin Luther, German priest and theologian, was the first to place candles in his tree during Christmas. A portrait of Martin Luther from the workshop of Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1532. Oil on wood. Gift of Robert Lehman, 1955; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. (Public Domain)

Christmas Illustrations

It was not until December 1848, and from a rather unlikely source, that the Christmas tree began its meteoric rise to becoming an American tradition. It happened when the editor of the influential magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, Sarah Josepha Hale, came across an illustration in the Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News. The illustration was of the Royal Family―Queen Victoria, German-born Prince Albert, the royal children, and their grandmother―standing around a decorated Christmas tree. It was entitled “Christmas Tree at Windsor Castle.”

Hale decided to have the illustration recreated for Godey’s Lady’s Book, a women’s magazine, in 1850―but with a few visual edits, such as the removal of Victoria’s tiara and Albert’s sash and mustache, to make it appear more American. This editorial decision caused the Christmas tree to go mainstream.

The country’s first National Christmas Tree was erected in 1923 near the White House. Photograph titled “Community Christmas Tree” on Dec. 24, 1923. Library of Congress. (Public Domain)

In the following holiday seasons, other prominent magazines began illustrating this new American tradition. On December 25, 1858, Harper’s Weekly published a Christmas-themed piece that included illustrations by Winslow Homer entitled “Christmas―Gathering Evergreens” and “The Christmas Tree.” The article recalled, “Time was when it was unlawful to keep Christmas in New England. A penal enactment, we are told, actually forbade the pilgrims and their children from keeping Christmas.” The article trumpeted, “Nowhere, perhaps, in the world is Christmas so heartily enjoyed as in New York.” (Harper’s Weekly was a New York-based publication.)

In 1923, exactly a century ago, the country’s first National Christmas Tree was erected on the Ellipse, a park near the White House. The lighting ceremony, led by President Calvin Coolidge, has been conducted every year since. Tree lighting ceremonies are hardly confined to the nation’s capital. Every year, large cities and small towns, along with approximately 100 million households, conduct what has now become an American holiday tradition.

From Dec. Issue, Volume 3

Features Food Lifestyle Recipes

Ranching Roots to Stardom: Country Queen Reba McEntire Shares Life Lessons

Some would say the McEntires are a very set-in-their-ways, stubborn, hardheaded bunch of people. But I think that hardheadedness is what got Daddy to where he was, Grandpap to where he was, and his father, Pap, to where he was. Some might say it wasn’t all that far—but it was much further than where they started!

None of us McEntires came from money, but each generation’s been a little more prosperous than the one before it. My daddy, Clark, was determined to make a better life for himself than the one he’d been handed. Like Grandpap before him, Daddy had the rodeo bug. He knew that rodeo couldn’t pay all the bills, but it sure helped get him started.

Take, for instance, one time when Daddy won a roping competition. The prize was a new car and 500 dollars cash. He gave it all to Mama and sent her to swap it for 80 acres of land that Uncle Dale, Mama’s brother, owned. That gave Daddy enough space to expand his ranch with more cattle. It was the start he needed. A few years later, in 1957, Daddy and Mama were able to buy a much bigger plot of land in Chockie, so he moved the family and all the cattle over there. Not exactly the land of milk and honey, but little by little, he was moving on up.

Ms. McEntire’s grandfather, John McEntire, competing at Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyo., 1934. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Land in Chockie was only $6.40 an acre, and there was good reason for that! A lot of neighbors called it “sorry land,” and they warned Daddy not to buy it. It was rocky, hilly, and didn’t grow much except briars and scrub brush, but he saw something no one else saw in that “sorry land.” He turned a profit selling timber to the paper mill and rocks to the architects in Dallas. Then he struck gas.

That sorry land turned out to be worth more than anyone realized.

Daddy liked the rodeos, but he loved ranching. Rodeoing and selling timber, rocks, and natural gas all helped in the progression of our ranch. Daddy had to travel to compete in rodeos, but he wanted to be home on the ranch.

But ranch life is not an easy life. Maintaining the land and cattle takes time, and you can’t skip a day just because you’re worn out. Working the land was a whole family affair. The only time you wouldn’t find us kids helping out was when we were in school. I thought that going to college would give me a break. Nope. I was wrong. Daddy had leased some land halfway between home and the Southeastern Oklahoma State University in Durant, Oklahoma. So every other day, after my classes, I loaded 30 fifty-pound sacks of feed into my pickup truck and fed the 300 head of cattle.

Not quite the college experience everybody else had!

I didn’t really know anything else though. I had started pitching in before I could even sit in a saddle. I don’t remember exactly the first time I was on a horse, but it feels like I was born riding. Us kids spent a lot of time rounding up cattle. It was rough country, and often we’d have to ride through brush and briars taller than we were on the off chance we’d find even one lonely steer. There was always more work than hands to do it. We got cattle in the spring, straightened them up, and shipped them off to the feed lots in the fall.

Reba McEntire (center) rides on the family ranch in Chockie, Okla., alongside her parents and siblings Susie, Alice, and Pake, while filming the “Reba: Starting Over” CBSTV special in 1995. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Daddy always had a plan to get the job done. Problem was, he wasn’t the best at relaying his plan to the rest of us. He was usually looking the other direction or doing three things at once when he was giving us our instructions for the day. Most of the time, we only got a quarter of what he was trying to tell us. We always looked to Grandpap for an interpretation. I’m sure glad we had him to help us out!

The most important thing about helping out on the ranch was getting in line, doing your part, and following instructions. If our instructions were to sit at a gate until Daddy returned, under no circumstances were we going to abandon our posts. You sat at that gate until Daddy came back and told you that you could leave. It could be several hours, but that didn’t matter. Hot or cold, rain or shine, you stayed glued to your saddle.

It was out there in those hills that I first learned that the work is in the waiting.

Fast-forward 15 years, when I got into the music business. I knew less than nothing about how it all worked. I thought that once your record got on the radio, you got a tour bus and a big ol’ check. You’d made it. You were a big star. Wrong!

I remember being so excited when I heard my debut single playing on our staticky, old radio for the very first time. Mama, Susie, and I were all sitting on the floor, crying with joy, thinking, “This is it.”

But then—not much happened. No fancy tour bus or big royalty check appeared. I felt pretty sure that God had called me to the dream of singing, but much like my daddy giving me instructions up in the hills, it felt like I had only gotten a fourth of what God said, and I knew I needed to wait for more information. So just like I learned as a kid, I stayed patient. And I kept working.

“Not That Fancy: Simple Lessons on Living, Loving, Eating, and Dusting Off Your Boots” by Reba McEntire (Harper Celebrate, 2023).

From hearing that first song on the radio, I spent the next seven years traveling around, playing everywhere I could, living on greasy burgers and corn dogs at truck stops and county fairs from Los Angeles to Boston—seven years of performing at fairs, rodeos, and honky-tonks, singing over bar brawls, tractor-pull competitions, and bull sales. Seven years of patience before I had a real hit, “Can’t Even Get the Blues,” in January 1983.

Even with that hit, the first time I headlined my own show, in 1984, only 800 people showed up, and I actually lost money. I had to write a check to get out of town because I didn’t sell enough tickets. And I thought, “Welcome to the big time!” I sure did appreciate the few who did show up, though!

Thank God for that McEntire determination.

When it came my turn to be a parent, I was determined to teach my son, Shelby, how important hard work is too, but I didn’t need to worry. From an early age, Shelby was a very determined young man. He has a great work ethic. When it came time for him to start his own career, he put his nose to the grindstone. When Shelby told me he wanted to be a race car driver, I wanted to help but had no clue where to start. If there had been a “Racing for Dummies” book, I would have bought 10. I asked anyone I could think of for information, but no one I knew had much advice to give. Scott Borchetta, head of Big Machine Records and a former race car driver himself, told me to buy him a go-kart. But Shelby already had a go-kart! So, we bought Shelby a membership to the Skip Barber Racing School. It’s a school that teaches kids the racing business, and it allowed him to race in as many races as possible. You have to pay your dues in racing, just like you do in the rodeo and music businesses. Shelby raced in the Southern and the Western series. He drove eight to nine races a day for three days every weekend. I gave him my airline miles and hotel points from years of touring, and he flew on Southwest and stayed in the cheapest motels to make the most of it. Funny part was, he was too young to rent a car, so he had to get a taxi or bum a ride to the track.

Ms. McEntire with her son, Shelby, at the race car track. (Courtesy of Reba McEntire)

Shelby could have followed his daddy’s, Narvel Blackstock’s, footsteps into music management, but he chose to chart his own course. He’s now into real estate and developing property. You don’t think your kids listen to half of what you tell them, but Shelby did. I’m so proud of him. He’s kind and confident and is building a life that he’s proud of and that makes him happy. And he still wants me to be a big part of that. I am so grateful.

Most of what you hope for in this life takes time and some old-fashioned stick-to-itiveness. None of us in the McEntire family were overnight successes. From generation to generation, we just keep learning, dreaming, and working hard.

One thing I’m sure of: Good things won’t come if you give up and go home.

RECIPE: Mama’s Pimento Cheese Sandwich

RECIPE: Fried Green Tomato Slices

Taken from the chapter “A Lot of Hope and Hard Work” from “Not That Fancy: Simple Lessons on Living, Loving, Eating, and Dusting Off Your Boots” by Reba McEntire. Copyright 2023 by Reba McEntire. Used by permission of Harper Celebrate.

Features American Success

From Fateful Fall to Winning Olympic Gold, Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis Shares Her Journey of Self-Discovery

Sports, like life, can be unforgiving. If anyone in the world of sports knows what that is like, it would be Lindsey Jacobellis.

Ms. Jacobellis is the most decorated snowboard cross athlete of all time (snowboard cross is a competition involving going downhill among turns and jumps). Her longevity and continued success is a testament to her work ethic and her natural talent. But, as is too often the case in the world of public opinion, a single misstep that accounted for mere milliseconds has long been the haunting taunt of her career.

In 2006, during the snowboard cross event at the Winter Olympics in Torino, Italy, Ms. Jacobellis had a commanding lead over the three other contestants. The speed and turns had thrown two off the track, and Swiss snowboarder Tanja Frieden lagged behind in second. But in the second to last jump, only seconds from the finish line, the inexplicable happened.

Ms. Jacobellis grabbed her board to perform a move called a method. It is a relatively simple and common trick. But she hadn’t planned for it. It was muscle memory taking over, and she fell. As reliable and absolutely necessary as muscle memory is in sports, in that moment, it failed her.

“I spent a lot of time in therapy trying to find out the root cause of what really happened, and I couldn’t come up with anything other than it was that lapse in judgment—just dropping the ball, whatever sports metaphor there is,” Ms. Jacobellis said in an interview. “It was just something that happened that I can’t actually look back and understand why.” At the time, the general consensus in the sports world was that it was showboating gone horribly wrong. But for anyone with a keen eye, it appeared as if she tried to restrain the move while performing it: a decisive moment filled with indecision.

For athletes competing at the highest levels—and one cannot reach higher than the Olympics—a misstep, an injury, a malfunction can leave a searing mark that may never heal. When that mark is self-inflicted, the healing process becomes even more difficult. These are traumatic moments that leave athletes haunted by what-ifs. Ms. Jacobellis, then 20 years old, was not given a moment to gather her thoughts. Reeling from the disaster, trying to understand the moment while still in it, she was bombarded by journalists with probing questions.

“I had media training, and they want you to be articulate and to make sure you are representing your country well and are being a good sport,” she recalled. “So I’m proceeding through this procession of one after another. You’re trying to be a good sport while at the same time trying to understand what actually happened. [In those interviews,] you can see that I’m sort of all over the place. I was not giving a different excuse, but a different response with each interview, which only opened me up for more ridicule.”

Ms. Jacobellis in the lead, during the FIS Snowboard World Championships held in Utah, 2019. (Ezra Shaw/Staff/Getty Images Sport)

In her new book scheduled for release in October, …

(This is a short preview of a story from the Oct. Issue, Volume 3.)


Southern Hospitality: The Vivid World of Interior Designer James T. Farmer

Timeless, colorful, and alive: such is a room designed by James T. Farmer III, interior designer, gardener, and all-around Southern gentleman. Farmer embraces the warmth of spirit and classically beautiful, seasonal lifestyle of the South, from generations of his close-knit family and his hometown of Perry, Georgia, and he brings it into his clients’ homes across the country.

Farmer is the author of 10 books on interior design, gardening, entertaining, cooking, and, in general, how to beautify everyday life every day of the year. His titles include “A Time to Plant,” “Sip and Savor,” “Porch Living,” “Wreaths for All Seasons,” “A Time to Cook,” “Dinner on the Grounds,” “A Time to Celebrate,” “A Place to Call Home,” and “Arriving Home.” His latest book, “Celebrating Home,” delves deep into his warm and sincere philosophy on staging seasonally inspired celebrations at home, to recognize life’s precious moments—both small and grand.

(Emily Followill)

American Essence: You’ve written a lot about classic, traditional style. What are some Southern design elements you find yourself coming back to again and again?

James Farmer: Mixing heirloom pieces and contemporary style is how I strive to keep designs both classic and fresh. In the South, we are proud of what came before us, so mixing what’s “mine, Mama’s, and Mimi’s” is a great way to accomplish that. I love mixing silver with contemporary art and brown furniture with freshly upholstered items. In my designs, I tend to use a classic mix of patterns with a floral, trellis, and animal print. You can’t go wrong with elements of nature.

AE: Where do you find the most creative inspiration?

Mr. Farmer: Nature is always my biggest inspiration—flowers, colors, plants. It is our greatest gift! I also love going to other people’s homes for dinner parties—how they do flowers, what they serve, how they host. We can always draw inspiration from others.

Roses and foxgloves uplift an al fresco table set by interior designer and entertaining expert James T. Farmer. Pictured here in the garden at Farmdale, his home in Perry, Ga. (Emily Followill)

This is a short preview version of the story from the July Issue, Volume 3

Arts & Letters American Artists Features History

How John Wayne Became the Face of America—On-Screen and Off

Rarely is a man remembered for who he was when he was so overshadowed by what he did. In the case of John Wayne, however, who he was and what he did were one and the same.

John Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison on May 26, 1907, in the very small Iowa town of Winterset, became one of the, if not the, most iconic actors of the 20th century. At 13 pounds, he was born to become a large man, destined for grand entrances and memorable exits. He was the eldest child of the Morrisons, a marriage that was etched with struggles, insults, and uncertainties. The family was poor and moved a lot, eventually landing in California in 1914.

Out in the farmlands and small towns of his upbringing, he learned how to handle guns, having to protect his father from rattlesnakes while working untamed land. He learned to ride horses. He perfected his reading as he went through the Sears catalogs cover to cover, noting each item he wished he could afford. He learned the idea of hard work, even when it wasn’t profitable, something his father consistently experienced and was reminded of just as often by his mother. He honored both his parents, but he loved his father.

Studio portrait of American actor John Wayne wearing his signature cowboy hat and neckerchief, circa 1955. (Hulton Archive/Stringer/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Wayne grew up strong and tall, suitable for an athletic career. His athleticism landed him a football scholarship to the University of Southern California in the fall of 1925. While attending school, he worked on movie sets as a prop man and was at times a film extra, typically a football player. During this time, he met the already famous and successful film director John Ford. While bodysurfing on the California coast, Wayne injured his shoulder and lost his scholarship. His football playing days were over, but he was still tall, dark, and handsome, and he decided to join the “swing gang” at Fox Film Corporation moving props.

His relationship with Ford blossomed. The two were opposite in nearly every way, but they attracted, as opposites sometimes do. Ford and Wayne developed a kind of father-son relationship, as Wayne would often call Ford “Coach” and “Pappy.” Ford would be credited with giving Wayne his big break—twice.

A Break and a Name

Ford introduced the young actor to director Raoul Walsh, who decided to have him star in his 1930 epic Western “The Big Trail.” The film was a flop at the box office, though in defense of the film, the Great Depression had just begun. During the filming, however, the studio executives decided that “Marion” was not much of a name for a leading man. Anthony Wayne, after the Revolutionary War general, was considered. Anthony didn’t work either. One of the executives suggested John. When the film was released, his new name was on the posters. Much like his nickname “Duke” was given him by local firemen, his new name, bestowed upon him by others, stuck throughout his life.

A new name and a starring role, however, would hardly change his film career. Throughout the 1930s, Wayne was relegated to B Westerns. As he ascended from his 20s into his 30s, he used his time wisely to perfect his on-screen persona―a persona that he assimilated off-screen as well. His choice of wardrobe, his walk, his fighting style were all tailored for himself by himself. The Duke was an icon in the making, and the making was all his creation. He just needed a true opportunity to showcase it.

American actor John Wayne as a young boy, sitting against a fence on the prairies with his younger brother Robert. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A Memorable Entrance

That opportunity arrived in 1939 when Ford chose Wayne to star in his Western film “Stagecoach.” The director had always been a believer in Wayne. The young actor had proven to be a hard worker, receptive to directorial guidance, and willing to do many of his own stunts. Along with that, he was 6 feet, 3 inches tall, with a broad-shouldered frame, blue eyes that showed gray on the silver screen, and a strong nose and jawline. His acting also came across honest, as if he was speaking directly to the person in the audience. There was a magnetic pull with Wayne, and Ford decided to do all he could in his film to draw viewers to him.

Wayne was a familiar name and face for moviegoers, having already appeared in 80 films by this time. Familiar, yes. A star, no.

The 1939 film revolves around seven passengers trying to get from one town to the next while trying to avoid the inevitable Indian attack. Nearly 85 years removed, “Stagecoach” remains one of the great Westerns. The movie did more than tell a great story. It did something more important. It introduced the world to John Wayne. Eighteen minutes go by before Wayne makes his entrance in the film, and it is an entrance that was created specifically for the induction of a soon-to-be American icon.

In a wide shot, the stagecoach rides up a slight incline when suddenly there is a gunshot. The stagecoach comes to an abrupt halt. Starting with what is known as a cowboy shot (pioneered by Ford and also known as the American shot), the camera moves in for a close-up of Wayne, who twirls his Winchester rifle. The shot starts in focus, slightly goes out of focus as it moves toward the actor, and then finishes in focus. The actor stands majestically wearing a cowboy hat and neckerchief, which would soon become synonymous with Wayne. The shot was out of place not just for the film, but also for Ford. But it was intentional for reasons explained by Scott Eyman in his biography “John Wayne: The Life and Legend.”

“This is less an expertly choreographed entrance for an actor than it is the annunciation of a star.”

“Stagecoach” was Wayne’s big break into the Hollywood movies, making him one of America’s leading actors and soon to become a star. Theatrical poster for the 1939 American release of “Stagecoach.” ( Public domain)

America’s Leading Man

From this point on, Wayne would embrace his role as America’s leading man. There were other actors, of course, during his rise. Some on the decline, like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper. Some on the rise, like Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Their greatness in their own ways cannot be diminished. Gable with his force of nature persona. Cooper as an embodiment of honesty and kindness. Grant as the romantic symbol of the 20th century. And Stewart, a personified symbol of truth. But Wayne embodied something else, and yet he was all of these things. He became the face of the country.

Authors Randy Roberts and James Olson both noted that Wayne became America’s “alter-ego.” Wayne hoisted that alter-ego upon his cinematic shoulders, which proved more than capable of bearing the load. The Duke chose films that promoted and often propagandized America’s greatness. His primary film genres were war films and Westerns.

When America entered World War II after the Pearl Harbor attack, Wayne was closing in on 35 years of age and already had four children. Film stars, like Stewart and Gable, along with directors, like Ford, joined the war effort overseas. In 1943, Wayne applied to join the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the Central Intelligence Agency, but the spots were filled. In 1944, when there was a fear of a shortage of men, Wayne’s status was changed to 1A (draft eligible), but Republic Pictures filed for a 3A deferment for Wayne, which kept him in front of the camera. Ultimately, Wayne believed, arguably correctly, that his impact as an actor (or more cynically a propagandist) would be far greater than as a soldier.

“I felt it would be a waste of time to spend two years picking up cigarette butts. I thought I could do more for the war effort by staying in Hollywood,” he told John Ford’s son, Dan.

Cinematographer Bert Glennon (L) and director John Ford on the set of “Stagecoach”
in 1939. (Public domain)

For all intents and purposes, Wayne, who would have been classified as a private, would have most likely remained behind the scenes doing busy work or promotional bits for the military. Though he would never be a military hero, Wayne proved more than patriotic. As Eyman wrote regarding the type of roles Wayne chose to perform, “His characters’ taste for the fulfillment of an American imperative was usually based on patriotic conviction, rarely for economic opportunity.”

Between the span of America’s entry into the war and the end of its occupation in Japan (1952), Wayne starred in eight World War II films. He would also join the United Service Organizations (USO) overseas, where he entertained the troops and helped boost morale.

A Conservative Stalwart

Throughout his career as America’s leading man, he never shied away from making his conservative views known, and he never wavered from opposing liberal viewpoints. He and Paul Newman, a known Hollywood liberal, regularly talked politics and shared books with each other that discussed their differing political perspectives. Wayne’s 1974 visit to Harvard University, to possibly be disparaged by the student body, resulted in both sides walking away with mutual respect.

Wayne knew what was to be expected, especially with the anti-war movement on campuses. He took verbal barbs and responded in his typical fun-loving yet pointed manner. At one point, he told the young audience: “Good thing you weren’t here 200 years ago or the tea would’ve never made the harbor.” The comment was greeted with cheers rather than boos.

As the New York Post columnist Phil Mushnick wrote, concerning the outcome of the Harvard visit, “There were many who found themselves actually—and incredibly—liking John Wayne. They still disliked his politics, of course, but was he any different from many of their parents?”

Wayne reads a “Prince Valiant” comic with his four children, 1942. (Hulton Archive/Stringer/ Archive Photos/Getty Images)

Eyman pointed out the actor’s quasi-familial influence on the American homeland. Wayne’s growth on-screen and off-screen proved to be near equal in its cultural weight. He reminded “people of their brother or son, he gradually assumed a role as everyone’s father, then, inevitably, as age and weight congealed, everyone’s grandfather.”

On June 11, 1979, America’s grandfather passed away from stomach cancer. He had beaten cancer once before, and it had cost him a lung and some ribs. His final film, “The Shootist,” is about an old gunfighter dying of cancer. Though he had another film lined up, his death after his final film is, still tragically, more fitting than ironic.

Wayne was America’s cowboy. He was the war effort on film. He worked to root out communists in Hollywood. He was a man who believed in patriotism when many Americans tried to give that a bad name. John Wayne was, and, according to polls, still is, part of the American family. When Wayne was being considered for the Congressional Gold Medal in May 1979, the stars came out in support. Elizabeth Taylor told Congress, “He has given much to America. And he has given to the whole world what an American is supposed to be like.”

He was awarded the medal a month after his passing. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter posthumously awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Of all the attributes one could give John Wayne, the one recommended to Congress by his five-time co-star Maureen O’Hara seems to be the most appropriate.

“I feel the medal should say just one thing,” O’Hara tearfully said. “John Wayne: American.”

Wayne stars as Robert Marmaduke Hightower in the 1948 western “3 Godfathers.” (Hulton Archive/Stringer/ Archive Photos/Getty Images)

From April Issue, Volume 3


Gibson Guitars: Fascinating Stories Behind an American Icon Serving a Century of Musicians

It was Ray Whitley who started the excitement. Throughout the 1930s, Whitley traveled with the World’s Championship Rodeo, providing musical entertainment with his band, the Six Bar Cowboys. In 1937, he prodded the Gibson Mandolin-Guitar Manufacturing Co. to develop a “super jumbo” instrument, one that could go lick for lick with the nearly 16-inch-wide, rosewood-and-mahogany Dreadnought guitar issued by C.F. Martin & Co.

A Gibson L-4 CES, fit for jazz players. (Heath Brandon CC BY 2.0, licenses/by/2.0)

“Of course, what somebody at Martin saw, and what no one at Gibson apparently did, was that players were forsaking banjos for guitars and demanding louder instruments,” wrote Walter Carter in his history of the Gibson company. There was no other way to match the volume of the singer and microphone. Playing live dates, Gene Autry, a star at Chicago’s WLS radio station, was already strumming an elaborately ornamented Martin D-45, which replaced the smaller Martin that had been stolen along with his Buick the year before. Whitley’s demands of Gibson resulted in a 17-inch-wide body with a mosaic pickguard and the slogan “Custom Built for Ray Whitley” inscribed on the headstock. The Super Jumbo 200 took its name from its generous size and steep list price: $200 (a 1938 Ford could be purchased for just over three times that amount). After World War II, the model would be known simply as the SJ-200, and Elvis Presley cradled one when he appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1957.

“The Gibson-made instruments were louder and more durable than the competitive, contemporary fretted instruments, and were the go-to instruments demanded by players of the day,” explained ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons in an email.

Elvis Presley’s Gibson J200 on display at his home, the Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tenn. (Mr. Littlehand CC BY 2.0, licenses/by/2.0)

Whitley carried his SJ-200 to Hollywood, where he wrote “Back in the Saddle Again” for the cinematic mystery-romance “Border G-Man.” Meanwhile, Gibson made a dozen more SJs for key influencers. Autry bought two at the discounted price of $150 each, and his biographer, Holly George-Warren, wrote of one guitar that it was “embellished with a two-tone mother of pearl border; horses and bucking broncos inlaid with pearl; and his name writ large alongside horseshoes inset on the fingerboard.” It was a spectacular instrument and showpiece, indeed, making a lasting impact.

In 1939, Autry recorded his version of Whitley’s tune and adopted “Back in the Saddle Again” as his enduring theme song. Heard today, the lyrics still evoke feelings of truth and triumph, but cowboy singers would soon fall out of fashion. The music made by electric guitars took over radio airwaves. Autry finished his career with landmark recordings of holiday songs, namely “Here Comes Santa Claus,” “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “Peter Cottontail.”

The integration of Gibson guitars into the upper echelons of popular music deserves some explanation. The company’s founder, Orville Gibson, had migrated from his native New York state to Kalamazoo, Michigan, by 1881, when he was 25 years old. After more than a dozen years as a clerk in a shoe store and a restaurant, he started manufacturing musical instruments. In his small workshop, he made mandolins from a patented design. The patent application of 1895 said existing instruments were made of too many parts, “to the extent that they have not possessed that degree of sensitive resonance and vibratory action necessary to produce the power and quality of tone and melody.” He boasted of having achieved “a sound entirely new to this class of musical instruments.” The first Gibson catalog offered a family of mandolins for the popular mandolin orchestras, as well as round- or oval-hole guitars and harp guitars with 12 or 18 strings. Five stages of ornamentation, from plain to fancy, were available.

A 1964 Gibson Country Western acoustic guitar (L) and a 1963 Southern Jumbo SJ. (Tony 1212 CC BY-SA 4.0, licenses/by-sa/4.0)
A Gibson magazine advertisement from around 1939 to 1940. (Public Domain)

By 1902, an investor group took over Gibson’s enterprise, and the next year the founder—who had become a consultant for the company—quit, in order to teach music and collect royalties. Eventually, Gibson returned to New York; he died in 1918. His namesake company adopted an innovative marketing approach, turning music teachers into salesmen and letting customers pay small monthly installments. The Gibson banjo was introduced, but the 1911 L-4 and 1923 L-5 guitars were better fits with Jazz Age outfits like Duke Ellington’s Washingtonians at a time when people were losing their heads dancing the Charleston. With the finest materials and craftsmanship, the 1934 Super 400 extended the trend of successful rhythm instruments. Gibson’s first electric, the hollow-body ES-150, made its debut in 1936 and was popularized by the ill-fated jazz player Charlie Christian. Extolling “electrical amplification,” Christian showed the world how to perform a proper solo, before he died—too young at 25—of tuberculosis.

Singers Ray Whitley and Redd Harper, and actor Frank Seeley (far R), with fellow musicians at the Armed Forces Radio Service studio. (Public Domain)
An Orville by Gibson guitar, a line of instruments made for the Japanese market. (Public Domain)

While worthy competition came from the 1950 Fender Telecaster and 1954 Stratocaster—solid-body electrics made in Southern California—Gibson made a wily move in advance of the era of rock ’n’ roll and electric blues: In order to avoid the disdainful label of “plank” guitar, the solid-body 1952 Gibson Les Paul was developed with collaboration from Les Paul (Lester Polsfuss), who was a master player and something of a mad scientist. The guitar that bore his name had a carved maple top with no sound holes, and the gold color was intended to disguise a trade secret: the mahogany back. Like Orville Gibson’s mandolins, the new guitar was an innovative departure and an instant classic. The challenge was to figure out what to do with it, but players stepped to the fore. Bluesman John Lee Hooker, to name one, extracted grit and passion from his Les Paul. Billy Gibbons dubbed his own 1959 example “Pearly Gates,” explaining that the guitar “possesses those rare qualities found in a precise combination of elements which miraculously came together on that fateful day of fabrication.”

Renamed Gibson Guitar Corp., and now Gibson Brands, Inc., the company moved operations from Kalamazoo to Nashville by 1985, with acoustic guitars produced in Bozeman, Montana, since 1989. The company has experienced ups and downs in conjunction with fickleness in the national economy and the guitar industry—even restructuring in Chapter 11 bankruptcy in 2018. However, the pandemic has brought about a surge in guitar sales—“Did Everyone Buy a Guitar in Quarantine or What?” asked Rolling Stone—putting the company in a good position to capitalize on the upswing. Gibson guitars continue to lend their great sound and seriousness of intent to new musical acts. And it all started with Orville Gibson and his carving tools in Kalamazoo.

This article was originally published in American Essence magazine.

American Artists Arts & Letters

Norman Rockwell’s America

“I was showing the America I knew and observed to others who might not have noticed.”
—Norman Rockwell

Norman Rockwell’s career spanned six decades, and he is certainly one of America’s best-known 20th century artists. Many of us love him. Many dismiss him as a romanticist and kitschy caricaturist, but a showing of his works gives a much deeper appreciation for “America’s Best Loved Artist.”

“Triple Self-Portrait,” cover illustration for The Saturday Evening Post, Feb. 13, 1960. (Norman Rockwell Museum Collection)

When the show came to the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley, we went to see it with anticipation. “Will it have any original paintings in it?” my wife asked. “I certainly hope so,” I replied. Yes, I would have enjoyed a selection of Saturday Evening Post covers, but I really wanted to see brushstrokes! I was not to be disappointed!

Rockwell began painting professionally at a young age. At 21, he was painting covers for the Saturday Evening Post. He was a disciplined and masterful painter and achieved solid success very early. While most of us are familiar with the oft-reproduced Saturday Evening Post illustrations, few are aware of other masterful works that appear early in his career. These paintings show a keen sense of observation and composition, and a genuine knowledge of the techniques of the old masters.

“Young Valedictorian” by Norman Rockwell, circa 1922.

She stands erect before an audience, lit from above and behind, in a style reminiscent of the works of Degas or Rembrandt. The light is accentuated by a touch of impasto and skilled brushwork. The subject is a serious one. “The Young Valedictorian,” painted in 1922, captures a young girl standing before her school in a white dress at graduation. The interior behind her is meticulously detailed. In the shadows, a row of seated faculty members listens. A globe on stage reflects a spot of light in highlight on its varnished surface. A clock on the wall, to the upper right of the speaker, marks time.

All eyes are on the face of the young speaker. Rockwell’s lighting and masterful composition see to that. Here are the brush strokes of a genius! Amazingly enough, this work was never published. Few people are aware of it, and if it were on a wall by itself, perhaps few would attribute it to Norman Rockwell. There is no irony, no humor, and no caricature. It is a beautiful capture of a poignant moment. It reveals a Norman Rockwell I want to know.

“After The Party” by Norman Rockwell, circa. 1922

“After the Party” is another painting by Rockwell from the same year. It was painted as an advertisement for Edison Mazda (later to become General Electric). In a masterful bit of chiaroscuro, Rockwell captures a conversation between a young woman and an elderly lady. A single electric lamp backlights the two figures—presumably talking late in the evening after an important social event. The composition creates the conversation. Again, it shows Rockwell’s mastery of his art, as well as his observational skills.

In “Two Children Praying,” painted much later in his career—in 1954—Rockwell captures an America still in touch with its core values. This painting was done for a billboard advertisement for Longchamps Restaurant, Union Square, New York. The background is a night sky illuminated by a bright star, and its light falls across the faces of a young boy and girl as they pray. Rockwell’s detailed pencil study for the work shows the artist’s commitment to excellence in a work like this. The sketch is reminiscent of those that Leonardo da Vinci did leading up to painting “The Last Supper.” When one remembers that Leonardo took a commission for a rather common refectory scene and added the drama of the betrayal—rendered in the relatively new medium of oil paint—one can begin to appreciate that Rockwell stepped up to the easel of an illustrator and brought to it the drama that his artistic skills made possible.

Both da Vinci and Rockwell could capture the fine nuance of personality. Though Rockwell would often push it to the limit in his magazine covers, he could pursue subtlety. In a painting entitled “Norman Rockwell Visits a Country School,” painted in 1946, Rockwell depicts a loving teacher in a small (perhaps one-room) schoolhouse reading to a rapt group of students hanging on her every word—all but one! There, on the other side of the wood stove that heats the room, sits a girl lost in her own book. The painting tells its own story. Here I must tell you, Rockwell’s interiors are gorgeous! If I wanted to recreate a country schoolhouse, this painting is the template, rendered down to the minutest detail. Even the children’s art on the walls is amazingly realistic. Norman Rockwell was witness to an America in transition.

The body of his work is no less than a historical record. His work spans the Roaring ‘20s, the Great Depression, and the Great War. Read the headlines of the Saturday Evening Post covers, and you discover an America whose journalists were not afraid to call out the evils of Communism. Rockwell may indeed have romanticized some of his work, but he had a sense of the life and struggle of ordinary Americans.

Nowhere is this more evident than in a series of posters he designed for a commission from the government: “The Four Freedoms.” The paintings are based on Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union Address. The president laid out four “fundamental freedoms” in that speech: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. The first two, taken directly from the First Amendment of our Constitution, reiterate freedoms unique to people living under a system of limited government—freedoms that belong to the people. In the painting “Freedom of Speech,” a man in a worn work jacket stands to address a meeting of local government. The image resonates with all of us who are now standing up at school board meetings to protect the interests of our families.

The second painting, “Freedom of Worship,” shows a rich composition of diverse faces—the faces of the devout. This resonates with all of us whose ancestors came here for freedom to practice our faith’s dictates. But here, the freedoms take a turn from freedom to “do” something to freedom “from” something.

Freedom from want and freedom from fear are not in the Constitution. They are rather a statement of some of FDR’s New Deal ideals. They would play out in the work of the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center, near Washington, D.C., where much work was done to create our modern, chemically dependent agriculture. Located next to Beltsville is Greenbelt, Maryland, originally an example of Eleanor Roosevelt’s idea of a centrally planned city, intended to replace the squalor of depression America. Here, the government proposed that it could eliminate want and fear. That was a new idea. All one had to do was “democratically assent to central planning.”

In 1963, Rockwell left the Saturday Evening Post, and worked for Look magazine. Here he was given more creative latitude, and he freely pursued his passion for civil rights and space exploration. He painted right up to his death in 1978 at the age of 84, leaving an unfinished work on his easel.

Veterans Features

Healing Waters

In the spring of 2014, while returning from “a whirlwind RV road trip” to his sister’s wedding, Josh and Neysa Grzywa and their two children learned that two more of Josh’s military “brothers” had committed suicide. Both of these suicides happened within a week. Eight of his military friends had died this way. All eight died within a six-week span. As a result of these significant tragedies, Deep Sea Valkyries, or DSV, was born.

Josh and Neysa began to consider why Josh, who had served 15 years in the Army and had been deployed multiple times in support of the global war on terror, had been able to readjust successfully after his back surgeries and his return from the military. In 2014, he was medically retired because of severe spinal injuries that he sustained in a mortar attack in Iraq. He received the Purple Heart.

“I could no longer do skydiving or rock climbing,” Josh remembered, “so diving became essential to my recovery.” This awareness led to the couple’s founding Deep Sea Valkyries (, a veterans’ trauma-counseling retreat program.

“We chose scuba diving as the primary activity because of its unique benefit for people with physical trauma,” Josh explained. “Amputees, people with partial paralysis, and those with neurological conditions can all participate.”

DSV is open to vets of all eras, and it’s tailored specifically toward combating post-traumatic stress disorder. DSV has served vets from the present time all the way back to those from the Vietnam War, according to Neysa, who is the director of business operations.

“Diving was the activity that Josh took up as a new hobby, because regardless of one’s disability or injury, she or he is weightless in the water and can participate fully,” she said.

DSV’s first retreat was held in July of 2016. Josh, who is president, emphasized the importance of meaningful counseling, in which the veteran can be fully invested. Vets often begin counseling with the Veterans Administration for an hour each week. But around that, Josh said, they are bombarded with all of the issues that we all deal with day to day, which can be overwhelming for them.

Jason W. on a DSV trip. (Courtesy of Neysa Grzywa)

DSV’s retreat program takes vets out of the home setting. They don’t have Wi-Fi or cell phones. Being separated, they are free of concern about what family members or friends might think of their counseling sessions, he explained. “They only need to focus on themselves and how to shift the trajectory of their lives.”

“Treating trauma effectively doesn’t happen in a week,” Josh observed. “There’s no quick fitting of a cast and prescribing medication for pain, as one would receive with a broken bone. Trauma counseling takes time.”

Rich M. on a DSV trip. (Courtesy of Neysa Grzywa)

“We tell people right up front, we’re not going to fix you in a week,” Josh continued. “They need to shift the trajectory of their lives. We try to arm them with tools so that after they return home, they will seek out treatment in long-term care programs, so that they’ll be in a better place with friends or whatever the case may be.”

He said that when many of the vets return home, they don’t have large vet groups in their communities. “One of our members has participated with his daughter. After the vets’ initial retreat, they can include family members.”

“People with soft-tissue injuries are freed by being under water,” Josh explained. “The only sound is the sound of their own breathing. Very tranquil. It’s well known that breathing exercises help to bring people who have suffered trauma back to the present moment and remove them from painful memories.”

In February of 2022, DSV will hold a reunion event in the same place where the alums’ first retreat took place, Josh said. “They will be engaged in physical activities together, and they open up to share the beginning of the changed trajectory that flowed from the first retreat. This helps family members to connect in deeper, more meaningful ways.”

Tyson G. on a DSV trip. (Courtesy of Neysa Grzywa)

The essential goal of their week at sea is to shift the trajectory of their lives, according to Josh. “The vets who join us are not happy with the status quo of their lives. They’re looking for a change. Many have participated in VA programs in which they haven’t really had needs met,” he explained.

He indicated that the objective is to get them on a path of greater hope and for them to have a brighter outlook. Josh and Neysa said they know firsthand that there are challenges that vets face with some of the organizations that serve them.

“We try to be very careful not to over-promise or to guarantee that we can do something that we can’t,” Josh emphasized.

Primary retreats are held each summer, and the window for applying to participate usually runs through the entire month of December. Each retreat departs out of Nassau, Bahamas, for a week. Participants will be at sea the entire time, according to Neysa.

She reflected that each day begins and ends with a devotional, led by DSV’s military chaplain, who focuses on the moral injuries of war. DSV is open to vets from all religions and to those without religious affiliation, but it was founded on Christian principles. This is a prominent foundation of the program, she said.

All participants are expected to participate in all aspects of counseling. There are morning and evening group-counseling sessions, facilitated by a licensed counselor who focuses on combat PTSD. Travis, the current counselor, who served in the Marines, also works as a counselor for the VA.

A former Navy fighter pilot and current counselor helped to create the DSV program, she said. Jeff Hensley still serves as DSV’s director of clinical services and oversees the content of the counseling materials. He retired from the Navy after 21 years and went through the VA counseling system himself. He experienced all of the shortfalls of that system, and this prompted him to go back to school to become licensed so that he could help other vets.

According to Neysa, the program has added two additional counselors. Both are vets.

Participants must be dive-certified before their first event, she explained. DSV works with local dive shops to arrange training for applicants who aren’t certified, so that they can become dive-certified and open-water scuba-certified prior to the retreat.

DSV provides all gear needed by participants, so there is no cost to vets to participate. Patriots for Disabled Divers, an affiliate organization, provides dive training on a year-round basis, if the vet lives in an area with one of their affiliate shops. Vets need to apply separately for this service, she indicated.

During retreats, participants typically dive three to four times, depending on the day. Opportunities for deep-sea fishing and exploration of remote, uninhabited islands also are provided. “A lot of vets who join us heard about DSV from word-of-mouth referrals from other vets.

“These activities reinvigorate participants, allowing them to experience again, service-related camaraderie, while equipping them with tools for dealing with issues that many vets face when transitioning from service,” she explained.

Former participants often return in various staff roles, as a way to pay it forward to other vets. The present primary counselor, Travis, was a participant in 2018, and he has returned for the last three retreats as a counselor.

A current dive master, Matt, was a participant in 2017. He has returned in three subsequent years in staff roles, she said.

A 2019 participant, Felipe, had never dived prior to applying to the program, and he has now worked his way up to the highest level of instructor, through the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, PADI, and is working in the dive shop that trained him, according to Neysa. He now trains other vets. He returned as a dive-master in the recent retreat, which had to be rescheduled because of the pandemic.

Previous participants have gone on to either start school, return to school, or open their own businesses and give back in various volunteer roles to other nonprofits serving vets, as well as programs that serve communities.

“It has been such an honor to be a part of their healing process, as they write their next chapter, post-service,” Neysa said.

Up Armor, a new project that was created by Project Healing Heroes founder and CEO Lieutenant Colonel David Tharp, will partner with DSV in January 2022 to provide continuing care via Zoom counseling sessions, Josh and Neysa said. “He has graciously partnered with us to be an extension of our program.” Meetings will take place once or twice a week, led by a psychologist. Up Armor will focus on some of the same issues that the primary retreat dealt with.

Up Armor will serve vets from around the world, Josh said. Those from Japan and Australia, for example, and from across this country, will meet in real time for these Zoom meetings. This will allow them to maintain their connection within the vet community, and it will encourage their continuation of care.

Both of Neysa’s brothers served in the military. Aaron Fulsome served in the Marines, while Owen served in the Army and was stationed in Iraq, along with Josh. Owen was wounded in Samarra, Iraq. Neysa explained that when she traveled to visit Owen, she met Josh. Owen, like Josh, received the Purple Heart. Josh and Neysa’s two children are Sydney, 10, and Killian, 8.

“Sydney just completed her junior open-water scuba certification through PADI and is a natural at diving,” Neysa reported. “Killian can’t wait to turn 10, so he can get certified as well.”


When Imagination Perseveres

James Von Allmen Hart, lovingly referred to as “JV” by his family and protégés, is the creative force behind several of our nation’s most prominent family films, including “Hook,” “Tuck Everlasting,” “Dracula,” and “August Rush.” Well before he began his career as a Hollywood screenwriter, he grew up on drive-in movies and Saturday matinees in Fort Worth, Texas. His whimsical childhood adventures and deep connection to his family helped to shape him into the great creative that he is today.

In 1952, when JV was 5 years old, his father built a two-story Cape Cod house overlooking several acres of land, called “the field” by him and his brother. “It became our fantasy world, our Neverland,” said JV. “We built forts, tree houses, slayed dragons, buried and unburied treasure. It was literally a field of dreams for the imagination.” It would be the place where, at only eleven years young, he would film his first eight-millimeter movie.

Every Saturday at 10 a.m., JV’s mother would drop him and his brother off at the Gateway Theater, a classic Art Deco style cinema with a large marquee and tall neon sign. “For 25 cents we got a truckload of cartoons, two serial installments like Flash Gordon and Commando Cody, and then a double feature,” said JV. These Saturday mornings would serve as the foundation for his future creative endeavors in the film industry.

There is something so extraordinarily authentic about the characters that JV dreams up. “There is always part of me in everything I write,” he said. Though JV attributes this iconic authenticity to letting his characters, rather than his pen, take the lead, it is obvious that there is a tremendous connection between writer and character. Take, for example, Peter Banning of Hart’s quintessential swashbuckler adventure film, “Hook.” When asked which character in the picture he relates to most, it’s no surprise that it is Peter Banning, the grown-up version of Peter Pan. Banning’s childlike wonder is nearly a mirror image of JV’s own disposition.

(SAM Photography)

“Certainly the grown-up Peter Banning who pursued success at the expense of his family came from my personal fears about losing [my] imagination as an adult and missing [my] children’s milestones.” This idea deeply resonated with Dustin Hoffman, Robin Williams, and Bob Hoskins, who marvelously acted in “Hook,” and Steven Spielberg, the film’s director.

Always on the lookout for a good idea to turn into a story, JV credits his family with providing him with the most inspiration. After all, it was a game of “What If” in 1985 at the dinner table with his son, Jake, then 6 years old, that inspired JV to develop “Hook.”

“This is now part of our family mythology as Jake, now grown up and one of my writing partners, claims he does not recall this evening. It went something like this:

Jake: Hey Dad, did Peter Pan ever grow up?

Dad: Now that’s a really dumb question. (Good Parenting.) Of course he didn’t grow up. He was the boy who couldn’t grow up.

Jake: (Defiant.) Yeah, but what if Peter Pan grew up?”

As soon as he asked the question, something clicked. Jake had unlocked the code of the Peter Pan story that so many talents in Hollywood had been trying to crack.

“We cobbled together the story based on Jake’s innocent and brilliant question. Captain Hook would kidnap grown-up Peter Pan’s kids and force the adult Pan to return to Neverland with all his adult hangups, and having forgotten how to fly (since all adults do), and having to face his old nemesis Captain Hook in order to save his kids.”

The next day, JV wrote a story treatment and called his agent, who then shopped the project around. Every producer and studio passed. The following years were misery for JV as “Hook” was, in his own words, “the best idea [he] had ever stolen from [his] kids.” His family remained ever supportive; they tried lifting JV’s spirits by gifting him with Peter Pan themed presents at holidays and birthdays.

Finally, the year 1989 brought a break. A producer read the script and believed it to be one of huge potential. The script was then taken directly to Robin Williams and Dustin Hoffman, who attached themselves immediately. And the rest is history.

“Hook” went on to generate over $300 million at the box office and is globally known as one of the most exemplary American family films of all time. He explains, “I never would have written ‘Hook’ had I not been a father with Jake and Julia to inspire me.”

JV is constantly preparing new content and brainstorming new ideas in order to bring more joy to the world. Of all the lines he has ever written, one of his favorites is, “Music is proof that God exists in the Universe.” This comes from his Oscar nominated film, “August Rush.” The picture traces the life of a boy (played by Freddie Highmore) who uses his musical talent as a clue to find his birth parents.

When reflecting on the important themes that are artistically woven into his works, JV believes Americans should pay most attention to “Tuck Everlasting.” The story of Winnie Foster, a girl on the cusp of maturity who must ultimately decide to live forever or let her life continue as planned, instills in the audience a sense of the importance of a life well lived on one’s own terms. “Don’t be afraid of death, be afraid of the unlived life,” said JV. “You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.”

JV Hart with filmmakers Rachael (R) and Laura Doukas. The Doukas sisters are working on turning their award-winning short into a feature film, “The Ryan Express.” The story is about a boy with autism who loses his right to play on his little league team after a violent outburst, working on building a time machine in his bedroom so he can go back in time and apologize.  SAM Photography)

Rachael Doukas and Laura Doukas are sisters and filmmakers currently working their first feature film, “The Ryan Express,” based on their award-winning short, “Rocket Man.”

History Founding Fathers

Roger Sherman, Low-Key Founding Father

Among the Founding Fathers, Roger Sherman is one of the best-kept secrets. But he shouldn’t be, especially in light of the cumulative and lasting effect he has had on this nation, including the present-day debates on the meaning and legal effect of the Ninth Amendment.

Most notable is the fact that he is the only Founding Father to have signed all of these prominent founding documents: the Declaration and Resolves (1774), which contain many of the rights that are enumerated in the First Amendment; the Articles of Association (1774), which was a trade boycott with Great Britain; the Declaration of Independence (1776); the Articles of Confederation (1777); and the U.S. Constitution (1787).

Sherman’s influence on the Constitution was greater than most realize. Historian Richard Werther wrote in 2017 in the Journal of the American Revolution that, at the Constitutional Convention debates, “of 39 issues cited, Sherman prevailed on 19, Madison on 10, and 7 resulted in compromises (the other 3 were interpretational issues for which no clear-cut winner is determinable).” Werther adds, “While no one is arguing that Sherman, not Madison, assumes the mantle as ‘Father of the Constitution,’ clearly Sherman had a bigger role than may have been previously understood.”

As a boy in Connecticut, Roger Sherman was self-educated in his father’s library and later by a newly built grammar school. He managed two general stores. Although he had no formal education in law, he passed the bar exam and was admitted to the bar in 1754. He wrote and published an almanac each year from 1750 to 1761. He served as a mayor, a justice of the peace, a county judge, a Connecticut Superior Court judge, and as a delegate to both the First Continental Congress and the Second Continental Congress. After ratification of the Constitution, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1789 to 1791 and in the U.S. Senate from 1791 until his death in 1793.

Sherman’s reputation was stellar. He was described as honest, cunning, a staunch opponent of slavery, a devout Christian who was outspoken about his faith, and a protector of states’ rights. William Pierce, a delegate to the Constitutional Convention who took extensive notes, said of Sherman, “He deserves infinite praise, no man has a better heart nor a clearer head. If he cannot embellish he can furnish thoughts that are wise and useful. He is an able politician, and extremely artful in accomplishing any particular object; it is remarked that he seldom fails.”

Role in the Bill of Rights and the Ninth Amendment

Originally, Sherman was opposed to adding a bill of rights to the Constitution due to its being “unnecessary” and “dangerous.” He, like other Federalists, stated that it was unnecessary as the powers enumerated in the Constitution granted limited authority; if certain powers were not enumerated and delegated, then the federal government wouldn’t have the authority to infringe upon the rights in question. Plus, the states had their own constitutions protecting their citizens’ rights, and the Constitution is concerned only with federal guarantees, not states’ guarantees. The Federalists considered it dangerous to list certain rights as it could be construed that other rights not singled out were surrendered to the government; in other words, if they were not written down, then those rights would not be considered protected.

The original Constitution was signed by 39 delegates on September 17, 1787. It was during the First Congress on June 8, 1789, that James Madison proposed to “incorporate such amendments in the Constitution as will secure those rights, which they consider as not sufficiently guarded […] to satisfy the public that we do not disregard their wishes.” After Madison persuaded Congress to create a Bill of Rights, the proposals were referred to a House select committee, the Committee of Eleven, which took up the debates. In 1987, the National Archives discovered among Madison’s papers the only known copy of the deliberations of that House Committee, and they are in Sherman’s handwriting, most likely reflecting the thoughts of the committee as opposed to his personal views.

This discovery has created a vigorous debate among legal scholars as to the meaning and legal effect of the Ninth Amendment, the text of which reads, “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people”: namely, what are the rights “retained by the people” referring to, and what legal effect do they have? To give context, it is essential to go back to Madison’s original draft regarding retained rights:

The exceptions here or elsewhere in the Constitution, made in favor of particular rights, shall not be so construed as to diminish the just importance of other rights retained by the people, or as to enlarge the powers delegated by the Constitution; but either as actual limitations of such powers, or as inserted merely for greater caution.

After the House committee’s debates and revisions, Sherman’s notes read:

The people have certain natural rights which are retained by them when they enter into society, such as the rights of conscience in matters of religion; of acquiring property; and of pursuing happiness and safety; of speaking, writing and publishing their sentiments with decency and freedom; of peaceably assembling to consult their common good, and of applying to government by petition or remonstrance for redress of grievances. Of these rights therefore they shall not be deprived by the government of the United States.

According to the Bill of Rights Institute, once the Bill of Rights was drafted, Sherman supported it, just as the people of Connecticut supported it.

Deborah Hommer is a history and philosophy enthusiast who gravitates toward natural law and natural rights. She founded the nonprofit ConstitutionalReflections (website under construction) with the purpose of educating others in the rich history of Western civilization.


Three Sisters on a Mission to Make Tahini an American Pantry Staple

Say the word “tahini,” and most Americans might conjure up an image of a jar gathering dust on the bottom shelf of the international aisle in the grocery store. Press them for one of its uses, and the answers will generally be one of two foods: hummus or tahini sauce.

Amy Zitelman, one of the three sisters who founded the Philadelphia-based tahini company Soom Foods, knows this because she used to feel ambivalent about the sesame seed paste herself—until a cake changed her sister’s mind.

“My middle sister, Jackie, moved to Israel after high school,” she said. “She went to college there and met her husband, Omri. Omri has been in the tahini business for 20 years now.”

Tahini is a paste made with roasted and pressed sesame seeds. It’s rich and nutty, and healthy, too: full of omega-6 fatty acids, calcium, iron, magnesium, and vitamins. What Jackie noticed in Israel was how integral sesame seeds and tahini are to Middle Eastern culinary traditions. An ancient food, tahini is not only an often-used ingredient, but central to many dishes, taking on far more interesting roles than a supporting act for hummus.

She also noticed how much better it tasted: rich and smooth, earthy and nutty, with just a hint of bitterness. It was a far cry from the often dull, chalky options back in America.

Jackie started talking to Amy and Shelby, their oldest sister, about the tahini she found in Israel, and its superior texture and flavor. When Shelby went to visit Jackie, she finally tasted what Jackie had been raving about.

“We started asking a lot of questions,” said Amy. “Why was this tahini so much better than anything in the United States? Why was it so much more revered in Israel than it has ever been in the United States?”

The sisters went to see Omri’s mother, who made them a carrot cake that changed the trajectory of their lives.

“When Shelby tasted that carrot cake and learned it was made with tahini instead of oil, that’s what pushed us to start this business. We realized, if you can use tahini in carrot cake, the possibilities are endless.”

The idea for Soom Foods was born, with a mission: to make tahini a staple ingredient in the American pantry.

Rachella’s Tahini Carrot Cake. (Photo copyright Jillian Guyette, courtesy of Agate Publishing)

Starting From Seeds

Though all three sisters were new to the tahini business, they were no strangers to the food industry. Their maternal grandfather was a butcher, and their father was raised in the restaurant industry.

“Because our father was raised in the restaurant industry, it was family law we couldn’t go into the restaurant industry. Our grandfather always said he didn’t work so hard for his grandchildren to have to go into restaurants. We joke that we ended up going through the backdoor,” Amy said.

The Soom sisters. (Jillian Guyette)

As they worked toward making tahini a more visible product in the United States, Shelby asked Amy to do some market research. She went to grocery stores and took notes on the labels of tahini, what they cost, what they tasted like.

Her findings? The labels were generic and uninteresting, and the tahini itself tasted bland and unexciting.

The next step was to find out what Americans thought about tahini. The sisters began asking friends, neighbors, even strangers at the farmers market what came to mind when they heard the name. Most people, if they had even heard of it, said it was something you put in hummus. Few people could think of any other use for it.

“We saw an opportunity in making tahini accessible to American consumers by educating them, and branding it more familiarly than brands coming over from the Middle East,” Amy said.

To do that, they would also need a premium product. Since the only ingredient used to make tahini is sesame seeds, they needed to start with premium-quality seeds.

Omri had long been in the industry, buying tahini from large manufacturers and distributing it to his own network of restaurants and caterers. Through Omri, the sisters found a manufacturer in Israel that used the seeds they liked: Ethiopian White Humera sesame seeds. Grown around the town of Humera, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, this buttery, nutty variety is the world’s most prized. Most sesame seeds are used to make oil, but Humera seeds are used solely to make tahini. The sisters ordered a container-load of the tahini to be shipped to the United States.

“I think they [the manufacturers] were surprised to hear from three American girls who wanted to buy tahini,” said Amy, “but we were committed to our idea and seeing if it worked.”

Grown around the town of Humera, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, buttery, nutty Ethiopian White Humera sesame seeds are the world’s most prized. (Photo copyright Jillian Guyette, courtesy of Agate Publishing)

In 2013, Soom Foods received their first import of tahini and hit the streets—literally, taking samples to markets and restaurants, trying to sell to chefs, restaurant owners, and vendors. They were given the opportunity to meet with Michael Solomanav, owner of Philadelphia’s award-winning Israeli restaurant Zahav.

“When we asked him what tahini he was using, he said, ‘I don’t have access to good tahini and I’m looking for something better.’ So his restaurant was actually one of our first customers.”

Today, Soom Foods is going strong. The company sells both to restaurants and directly to consumers, both online and in retail stores. It ships and distributes to restaurants and chefs in over 25 states, and more than 500 retail stores across the country.

One Ingredient

Most surprising to Amy about her journey with Soom Foods is that they’ve built an entire business around one ingredient.

“It’s something that I take a lot of pride in,” she said, “doing one thing and doing it well. It would have been easy to get distracted by launching other products, and we almost did. … But when we took a step back and really focused on tahini, we saw our most success.” Soom Foods also sells Chocolate Sweet Tahini, a chocolate spread made with their tahini, cocoa powder, and cane sugar, and silan, an all-natural date syrup, but their original tahini remains the heart of the business.

(Jillian Guyette)

All three sisters are still involved with Soom Foods, now balancing work, family, and motherhood. “We often bring our children into our warehouse,” said Amy, who lives in the Philadelphia area near her sister, Shelby (Jackie still lives in Israel). Their children are being brought into the family fold of food and entrepreneurship.

Last November, Amy released a cookbook called “The Tahini Table,” about incorporating the versatile ingredient into everyday cooking. Packed with gorgeous photos and simple but delicious recipes, the cookbook is all about making good, uncomplicated food with quality ingredients—which has been the heartbeat of Soom Foods all along.

And yes, the recipe for the carrot cake that started it all is in there, too.

RECIPE: Rachella’s Tahini Carrot Cake
RECIPE: Mom’s Chicken With Turmeric Tahini, Chickpeas, and Onions
RECIPE: Tahini-Dressed Tuna, Chicken, Egg, or Whatever Salad

Rachael Dymski is an author, florist, and mom to two little girls. She is currently writing a novel about the German occupation of the Channel Islands and blogs on her website,


Baking With Love

Kristina Cho has vivid childhood memories of the scene at her grandparents’ Chinese restaurant in Cleveland, Ohio. It was the kind of place where literally everyone in the family chipped in to help.

“I remember growing up, all my aunts and uncles and my mom had full-time jobs elsewhere working at hospitals and banks—you know, very normal professional jobs. But they would still come to the restaurant after work,” Her mother was an all-around talent. “She would do everything,” Cho said in a recent interview, from hostessing to making drinks at the bar to being the carry-out runner. “I just remember my mom zipping through the restaurant constantly, even though I knew that she was working at the hospital, like 40 hours a week.”

Her maternal grandparents immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong in the late 1960s and later decided to open a restaurant to support the family. Her family members worked hard to keep the American dream going.

Cho’s family instilled in her a love for food. She recalls regular childhood trips with her grandfather to get dim sum, the Cantonese brunch meal that typically serves bite-sized treats with tea. “When we would order things, he would whisper in my ear and explain” what the different dishes were. Later, while researching for her cookbook, “Mooncakes & Milk Bread: Sweet & Savory Recipes Inspired by Chinese Bakeries,” she discovered a little more about her family history: her grandfather’s first restaurant job was as a baker. The job was a step above dishwasher in the kitchen. “It also was a rare station, because few Chinese restaurants served desserts beyond fortune cookies and sliced oranges. He spent day after day making endless trays of his golden, almond-studded cookies,” Cho writes in her cookbook.

Grandpa’s Influence

This discovery also held special significance—her grandfather’s background as a baker meant that her passion for baking had a family connection. “When I was writing the book and I learned a little bit more about my grandpa’s baking journey, it made me feel like, ‘Oh, there’s some type of connection there.’ I’m not the first baker in the family. My grandpa actually did it first,” she said.

Cho writes in her cookbook that her grandfather, who passed away several years ago, once made his family-famous almond cookies for her before she left for college; the cookbook includes a recipe for the treats as she remembered from that day baking with her grandfather. She also turned to her grandmother for help developing recipes for traditional Chinese desserts (which are often steamed, not baked), but she wished she learned more from her grandfather. “Looking back at it, I wish I took better notes to fully remember how to do this stuff. He always had a mind of tinkering and figuring out how to do stuff. I definitely took that with me as I got older and went through different career paths and ended up doing what I do now,” Cho said.

She wasn’t always a baker; she trained to be an architect and moved to San Francisco to work as a designer for several firms. But being an architect did not satisfy her creative energy the way baking and cooking did. In early 2017, Cho started a blog called “Eat Cho Food,” creating recipes inspired by her family’s Cantonese cooking and developing her own twists on her favorite foods.

Unique Flavors

“Mooncakes & Milk Bread” is a compilation of her inventive projects, as well as an homage to the Hong Kong-style bakeries that are a fixture of Chinatowns across the country. Owing to over 100 years of British rule, bakers in Hong Kong adopted Western baking traditions, creating pastries, biscuits, and cakes “using the ingredients they had access to and incorporat[ing] flavors and ingredients more aligned with the Asian palate. Sugar levels were reduced, cakes became lighter, and ingredients like black sesame seeds and mango worked their way into everything. Thus, the classic Chinese bakery style is a quirky melding of Western and Eastern cultures,” as Cho explained in the book.

(Courtesy of Kristina Cho/Mooncakes and Milk Bread)

Cho said that this is similar to how bakers in America use the ingredients native to their region. “[They] are adjusting their recipes and flavors to wherever they are. So did the bakers back then in Hong Kong. Instead of using cream or butter, maybe they’d use coconut milk or lard, because that’s what they had, you know? So they adapted it.”

Cho melds East and West in her recipes, too, with fun takes on classic Western pastries like black sesame souffle cheesecake, Asian pear turnover, and Thanksgiving “guabao” with leftover turkey, brussels sprouts, and cranberry sauce sandwiched between steamed buns. Sometimes, she celebrates her Midwest upbringing; the book includes a recipe for “pepperoni bread,” what she calls “an Ohio delicacy”: pepperoni stuffed into a roll. Her version uses milk bread, a fluffy bread made with “tangzhong,” a roux of milk and flour.

Cho also pays tribute to pillars of her Cleveland community who are not blood-related, including Auntie Lydia, a close family friend. Cho’s grandmother first got to know Lydia through the latter’s mother-in-law. “After living in Hong Kong and immigrating to Cleveland, she hung on tightly to the practices she’d learned from her own family and found Lydia’s mother-in-law’s food comforting and familiar. Over decades, the three of them bonded in the kitchen as they gossiped, swapped recipes, and made enough food to feed their loved ones and more,” Cho wrote in the book—noting that without Auntie Lydia, her grandmother may not have learned to make some of the traditional recipes showcased in the book.

The baker expressed gratitude for these keepers of important food traditions, too. “I’m thankful that someone like her exists in our small Chinese community and continues to carry on the history, culture, and recipes for future generations. It’s not only the bakeries and restaurants carrying on our food traditions—it’s also the quiet home-cooks and Auntie Lydias of the world,” Cho wrote.