RIP Otis McDonald

In the late sixties, a justifiably obscure SCOTUS’ “decision”,  ”US v. Miller” (a depression-era case involving a robber who was murdered before his case made it to the court, and for whom no attorney argued before the high court) was dragged out of the legal ether by a series of liberal, activist judges, and installed into a misbegotten place as binding precedent that led, by a tortuous “logical” route, to the Second Amendment being interpreted for four decades as a “collective right”.   Just the way the Ku Klux Klan interpreted it until the 14th Amendment came along.

The Heller case began the process of flushing this noxious bit of authoritarian posturing down the latrine of history.

But it fell to Otis McDonald – a seventy-something black man who just wanted to defend his life and property against the crime that had overrun the neighborhood where he’d lived since 1971, in which he’d raised three of his children – to deliver the coup de grace against Chicago’s racist, classist gun ban.

Otis McDonald

It was merely the latest of several fights for McDonald, who was 76 when the SCOTUS upheld his demand to be allowed to defend himself, his family and his property, and not be treated like the government’s livestock.

It was one of many battles he fought in his long, full, unsung-but-productive life.

McDonald started life as one of 12 children of a Louisiana sharecropper who’d left the land at 17, deep in the Jim Crow era.  He worked for decades as a janitor at the University of Chicago, joined the union, earned a living, raised a family…

…and watched his neighborhood decay from a comfortable blue-collor area to a crime-ridden gang shooting gallery.

He sought “permission” to own a handgun – because as an older man, he couldn’t stand up in fight against one predatory teen, much less the whole pack.  The city of Chicago, adhering to the gun control movement’s orthodoxy that black people must only be seen and heard at the polls, and shouldn’t be getting all uppity in between elections, shut him down with, as it were, prejudice.

And so he, along with three other co-plaintiffs, filed suit – which duly led to the Supreme Court and, in 2009, victory in the case that bore his name, and incorporated the Second Amendment as law binding all lesser jurisdictions; the right to keep and bear arms was, as it has always been, a Right of The People, not the National Guard, not to be frittered away by self-appointed racist elitists out of the fear of armed brown men that motivates all gun control.

McDonald, on the day of his case’s epic victory.

McDonald, a humble man without even a high school education, accomplished more to secure freedom than many buildings full of Ivy-League-spawned pundits and lawyers ever will.

Otis McDonald passed away last week at age 79, after a long battle with cancer.

Massood Ayoub:

As a black man in America, he fought his way up from economic disadvantage to earning a good living for his family. He fought against violent crime in his adopted city of Chicago, and in so doing came to his most famous battle as the lead named plaintiff in McDonald, et. al. v. City of Chicago. In the plaintiffs’ landmark victory in that case in 2010, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that neither the Windy City nor any other city could ban law-abiding citizens from owning handguns for defense of self and family. The McDonald decision helped pave the way for the concealed carry permits now being issued throughout Illinois

.And the wages of McDonald’s victory are being felt – despite the media’s attempt to suppress them – today.  More at noon.  Oh, yes – oh, so much more at noon.

And so rest in peace, Otis McDonald.  Your legacy – leaving your world a freer place than the one you came into  - is one that shames those of a whole lot of people who came into this world with advantages you never dreamed of.

At noon today:  McDonald’s legacy is already saving lives.

RIP Harold Ramis

Via Sheila O’Malley, to whom I often outsource my show-biz obits:

Of all of the films that have come out during my lifetime, all the huge important Oscar-winning serious films, all the weighty masterpieces, all the films about important topics, all of the “instant classics”, the beloved movies, the camp classics, the game-changers, the films draped in awards … of all of them, if I had to choose one film to be the #1 contender for “Film That Will Be Watched Regularly 150 Years From Now”, it would be Groundhog Day.

Not sure I could disagree.

Pay Me My Memorial Down

Leni Riefenstahl was the world’s first notable female filmmaker, and the greatest female filmmaker of the 20th century.  She created innovations in the technique and aesthetics of film still used not only in cinema, but in the filming of crowds and athletic events; some of the techniques you see at the Super Bowl are evolutions of techniques Riefenstahl pioneered in filming the 1936 Olympics.

But it’s not considered polite to applaud Riefenstahl in public with out an emphatic verbal “asterisk”, because of her association with the Nazi Party.  Her best-known work, Triumph Des Willens (Triumph of the Will) is an epic documentary and one of the world’s best known and most influential pieces of propaganda.

And so Riefenstahl was ostracized for the rest of her long life (she died at age 101 in 2002) as a Nazi impresario, for her association with a regime that killed 11 million people directly and triggered a war that swallowed tens of millions.

I write a fair amount about music in this blog.  And when a major musical figure passes away, I often try to write something.

And in his way, Pete Seeger was one of the most important figures in popular entertainment, ever.

Not necessarily because of his music.  Oh, he had a few classics of American folks music, to be sure.  And dozens of forgettable songs – but that’s true for any songwriter, or any artist in any genre for that matter.

Many conservatives writing about Seeger’s passing note that he was a committed Communist.  It’s true – he was, and in a way that seems straight out of Orwell, as during this episode after Stalin and Hitler signed their non-aggression pact in 1939:

In the “John Doe” album, Mr. Seeger accused FDR of being a warmongering fascist working for J.P. Morgan. He sang, “I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we won’t be safe till everybody’s dead.”…The film does not tell us what happened in 1941, when — two months after “John Doe” was released — Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. As good communists, Mr. Seeger and his Almanac comrades withdrew the album from circulation, and asked those who had bought copies to return them. A little later, the Almanacs released a new album, with Mr. Seeger singing “Dear Mr. President,” in which he acknowledges they didn’t always agree in the past, but now says he is going to “turn in his banjo for something that makes more noise,” i.e., a machine gun. As he says in the film, we had to put aside causes like unionism and civil rights to unite against Hitler.

For years, Mr. Seeger used to sing a song with a Yiddish group called “Hey Zhankoye,” which helped spread the fiction that Stalin’s USSR freed the Russian Jews by establishing Jewish collective farms in the Crimea. Singing such a song at the same time as Stalin was planning the obliteration of Soviet Jewry was disgraceful. It is now decades later. Why doesn’t Mr. Seeger talk about this and offer an apology?

It’s impolite in polite society to laud Riefenstahl after her association with a regime that murdered over 10 million people.  Fair enough.

So why does Seeger escape any questioning for doing so much to support a regime that may have killed five times as many?

But as Howard Husock noted in his classic essay on Seeger, his most lasting impact on American culture may have had little to do with music.

Because there was a time when Hollywood’s political ideals weren’t all that different than the rest of the country’s.  Seeger was a vital part of a movement that changed all that:

Adopted at the Seventh Congress of the Communist International in 1935, the Popular Front tasked communists in the West with building “progressive” coalitions with various institutions—including political parties and labor unions—that the party had previously denounced as bourgeois and corrupt. The front reflected fears haunting Stalinist Russia at that time. “Hitler had shown a strength that made Communist predictions about his imminent collapse seem grotesque,” observed left-wing historians Irving Howe and Lewis Coser… Following this new strategy, the American Communist Party suddenly asserted that it wanted to build upon, not destroy, American institutions. “Communism is 20th century Americanism,” Earl Browder, the American party’s general secretary, enthused, while extolling Abraham Lincoln in speeches.

This led to the creation of the “Popular Front”, whose mission was not so much to assault capitalism as to co-opt it.  And one of the institutions it marked for co-option was the entertainment industry.

And Seeger was a key cog in that machine:

It took a while for the Popular Front’s strategy to get results in popular music—and Pete Seeger was the catalyst. Many critics mark Elvis Presley’s arrival in the 1950s as a turning point in postwar American popular culture, not just because he injected a more overt sexual energy into entertainment, but also, they claim, because his rebellious spirit anticipated the political upheavals of the 1960s. But neither Presley nor the newfangled thing called rock ‘n’ roll had any explicit politics at the time (and Elvis would one day endorse Richard Nixon). A better leading indicator of the politicization of pop was the first appearance of a Seeger composition on the hit parade.

 

It happened in early March 1962, when the clean-cut, stripe-shirted Kingston Trio released their recording of Seeger’s “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” Seeger’s lament about the senselessness of war and the blindness of political leaders to its folly soared to Number Four on Billboard’s easy-listening chart, and it remained on the list for seven weeks. “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” eventually became a standard, sung on college campuses and around campfires nationwide. At the time, the song proved one of the biggest successes yet of the folk-music revival then under way, and it marked a major improvement in Seeger’s fortunes. Not long before, his career had suffered from the fifties anti-communist blacklist. Now it was on a new trajectory—culminating in his 1993 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and his 1994 National Medal of Arts.

Seeger did not, himself, “make Hollywood leftist”.  But he was a key part of that transition.

Forget his music.  That was his real legacy.

Harmony

Phil Everly died over the weekend.  He was 74.

Rock and Roll, we are told, started as a blender-mix of rockabilly and R&B.  Elvis put a rockabilly delivery onto a rhythm ‘n blues beat.  Chuck Berry sped up the blues to rockabilly speed.  Johnny Cash did rockabilly over a persona that could have made Howlin’ Wolf go “wow.  That’s the blues”.

And the Everly Brothers brought the final piece of the “billy” half of rockabilly – the tight, keening vocal harmonies that characterized bluegrass music – out of the holler and onto pop radio.

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The Original Wrapper

Lou Reed died over the weekend, proving once and for all that only Keith Richards can ingest absolutely every recreational chemical known to modern science and live to tell the tale forever.

It took me a long time to really get into Lou Reed – which may seem really counterintuitive, if you know me and my taste in music (and if you read the “Music” category of this blog, you do, sort of; I haven’t written about everything, just yet).   After all,everyoneknows Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground were the godfathers of punk – right?

Sure. 

But even though the Venn diagram among the different outbreaks of “punk” in New York in the seventies has tons of overlaps, there was a yawning gap between the joyful, garage-band-y noise of the Ramones and the New York Dolls (and their Cleveland descendants, the Dead Boys) and the Greenwich Village scene that spawned Reed, crawling as it was with high-art pretension.  The likes of Andy Warhol and William S. Burroughs saw and were seen among the rat-bitten warrens of the Village, hobnobbing with and encouraging the likes of the largely unlistenably shrill Patti Smith, the campy “Stilettos” (featuring a young Debbie Harry, who’d form “Blondie” by the mid-seventies), and of course Reed and the Velvets. 

It probably wasn’t until I moved to the Cities and started doing music here that I took a step back, at the urging of my band’s old drummer.  “Forget all the BS”, he said, “and just focus on the fact that he’s a guy who loves doing basic rock and roll”.

And in one sense it was true – the classic Lou Reed was all about the joy of playing the most basic rock and roll, simple and unadorned and pared down to its most basic components, filtered through a layer of New York grime.

Usually. 

Reed was also an experimenter.  In “The Original Wrapper” (from 1986′s Mistrial), he wryly claimed the title of the orignal, well, rapper – since he never so much “sang” as “spoke in rhythm”.  He delved through jazz, experimental music, screeching noise…

…even some pared-down pseudo-classical music – as in this very, very, very pre-MTV video for his classic “Street Hassle”, featuring a spoken-word coda by Bruce Springsteen around the eight-minute mark:
r

So I’m going to find my old copy of “Rock and Roll Animal” this week here, and give it another spin.

The Lightning Rod

Rod Grams has passed away after a long battle with cancer. 

Son of a dairy farmer from Princeton, MN, Grams came up through broadcasting, working his way from small radio stations into the anchorman’s seat at Channel 9 by the mid-eighties. 

From there, he went into politics – defeating Gerry Sikorski, who was hobbled by a capitol banking scandal that showed the door to not a few Congresspeople that year. 

And in 1994, at the crest of the “Contract with America”, he took over Dave Durenberger’s Senate seat, after beating Ann Wynia by  squeaker in a race that showed both the nascent power of conservatives in the exceedingly moderate Minnesota Independent Republican party, and the rising power of the state’s Second Amendment lobby. 

His term in the Senate also was a barometer for the slide of the Twin Cities media into outright partisanship; the Twin Cities media lavished coverage on the twists and turns in Grams’ personal life, and breathless wall to wall scrutiny on the travails of Grams’ son Morgan – of whom Grams’ ex-wife had had full custody – in a way that they never quite managed to for DFLers. 

But it is an objective fact that Grams accomplished more in his six years in DC than the celebrated Paul Wellstone did in 12, or than Amy Klobuchar likely will in her entire career. 

After being defeated for re-election by future “Worst Senator in America” Mark Dayton in 2000, Grams went back to his first love, broadcasting; he owned a cluster of radio stations in Central Minnesota.  

I had the pleasure of interviewing Senator Grams two or three times on the NARN.  He had a broadcaster’s knack for being a great interview subject. 

I urge you to direct your prayers – or whatever your worldview calls for – to his family.

If I Were Paranoid…

…I’d look at the deaths of Vince Flynn and now Tom Clancy within a few months of each other…

…and connect it with all the other top-secret hanky-panky with the NSA, the IRS and the Justice Department…

…and figure there’s a government conspiracy to knock off conservativsm’s few iconic pop-culture figures.

Good thing I’m not paranoid, huh?

(Just in case, though?  Be careful, Gary Sinise, Ted Nugent, Joe Perry, Tom Selleck, Fred Thompson and Angie Harmon).

UPDATE:  Steven Green:  “Is it really possible that Larry King, who’s looked like day-old scrambled eggs for thirty years, outlived Tom Clancy? Stranger things have happened, but this one I’m taking a little personally. “

Doubting Thomas

“I censored myself for 50 years when I was a reporter. Now I wake up and ask myself, ‘Who do I hate today?’” – Helen Thomas

The Grand Dame of the Washington Press Corps files her last report.  Will they regret giving her so much deference?

——

The memoriams to Helen Thomas have thus far ventured no where near hagiography-status, due largely to the anti-Semitic statements and acrimonious questions that defined her later years.  But to follow Thomas’ career trajectory is to follow the style and influence of the mainstream media.  Thomas admirably fought her way into the newsroom, asked probing questions with at least a veneer of respect (hence, her concluding remarks of “thank you, Mr. President” after every presidential press conference), and then devolved into a caricature of an angry, biased reporter holding some extremely ugly and racist views.

Indeed, it would appear that most of Helen Thomas’ biography resides in her later years as she viewed American foreign policy through a Star of David lens, leading even prominent liberals to ostracize her.  Much of the coverage of her passing, from news reports to her Wikipedia page, focus largely on her 2010 comments on Israel, declaring that Israelis should “go home” to Europe and the United States.

Thomas’ start in the media was anything but controversial.

The daughter of Lebanese immigrants, Thomas worked as a reporter for the United Press in 1943 on “women’s topics” – essentially fluff articles on baking and clothing.  It wasn’t until the mid-1950s, after having written the equivalent of Washington gossip columns, that Thomas was able to cover major federal agencies and far more noteworthy news items.  From her post as the head of the Women’s National Press Club and later a White House correspondent during the Kennedy administration, Thomas was able to get women a greater role in journalism – having previously been denied access to organizations like the National Press Club and events like the White House Correspondents Dinner.

Worthwhile accomplishments, to be sure.  But having spent most of her professional life fighting for acceptance, even once Thomas was in the door, she couldn’t stop her role as an endless antagonist to those she personally disagreed with.  Thomas was most certainly not an “example for journalists,” although her behavior of biased reporting and lack of decorum has definitely been followed by many current reporters.

Thomas’ defenders often claim she was a bitter pill to politicians of all stripes.  Of course, Thomas’ White House harangues for Democrats typically involved criticizing them for not moving further left, as she once famously declared that Barack Obama was not liberal.  Bill Clinton “personified the human spirit” while George W. Bush was the “worst president in history.”  When Thomas joined the Hearst Syndicate in 2000, whatever restraint she had held before vanished, hence her above quote about being able to “hate” whomever she pleased.

From trail-blazer, to provocateur, to angry activist with a byline – does that not also describe the evolving role of the mainstream media in the past 60 years?  Thomas was unfortunately another trendsetter in the end – a forerunner of the mixture between opinion and reporting; of a style of journalistic coverage that smears ideological opponents and debases politics regardless of facts.  Stephen Colbert might recoil at the thought, but Helen Thomas was one of the originators of the “truthiness” that Comedy Central’s mock conservative loves to sling at others.

I’m a liberal, I was born a liberal, and I will be a liberal till the day I die. – Helen Thomas

Not For Turning

Joe Doakes got to writing before I did this morning:

A research chemist turned lawyer who became a elected representative of the people of Finchley, Margaret Thatcher changed the world.

Margaret Thatcher

As Great Britain’s longest-serving (and only female) Prime Minister, “The Iron Lady” fought Liberalism and championed Conservative policies that won a war, rejuvenated the national economy and defeated the Soviets.

Margaret Thatcher passed away today, April 8, 2013. She was one of my heroes.

And mine, too.  Although it took a while.

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RIP Karl Bremer

Karl Bremer passed away from complications of pancreatic cancer yesterday.

Bremer, the co-author of “The Madness of Michele Bachmann: A Broad-Minded Survey of a Small-Minded Candidate,” died Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 15, at his house in Stillwater Township, from complications related to pancreatic cancer. He was 60.

Bremer was a tenacious muckraker, an award-winning blogger and an avid photographer. His blog — Ripple in Stillwater — was named Best Local Blog by City Pages in 2012. He also received several Minnesota Society of Professional Journalists awards for best use of public records.

I’d never speak ill of the dead.  Bremer had his friends and family.  I’m sorry for everyone’s loss.

But looking at all the references to Bremer as a “journalist”, I have to ask – is Brian Lambert going to ask to see his “badge?“, retroactively?

The Accidental Commando

Birger Strømsheim passed away over the weekend, at age 101.

Birger Edvin Martin Strømsheim was born Oct. 11, 1911, in Alesund, Norway. His parents had a small farm. In addition to his son, survivors include a daughter, Liv Kristen Oygard; four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren. His wife, Aase Liv, died in 1997.

“Birger who?”

Well, if you read this blog, you’ve met Mr. Strømsheim before.  He was one of the commandos who, seventy years ago this February, destroyed the German heavy-water operation in a daring raid on the Norsk Hydro plant in Rjukan, Norway.  I won’t rewrite the whole story (’til February, anyway), but here’s the piece I wrote about the raid a couple of years back.

Strømsheim didn’t start out that way, though; he had no military experience.  When Germany occupied Norway, he was working as a contruction contractor; he even found work building barracks for the occupiers, before escaping to Scotland:

 After the Germans took control of Norway in 1940, Mr. Stromsheim and his wife were among many people who left for England. Mr. Stromsheim had not been a soldier in Norway, but he became part of the Special Operations Executive, which the British formed to support and coordinate resistance in the occupied countries of Europe.

The mild-mannered Strømsheim, an expert cross-country skier and hunter, became an explosives expert, and the leader if not commander of the raiding party.  Older than the rest of the team, his calm stoicism (even by Norwegian standards) anchored and centered the rest of the team on the raid.

  He and other members of the mission at Norsk Hydro received medals from several Allied countries. In 1965, Hollywood produced “The Heroes of Telemark,” a film starring Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris that included shootouts, dramatic chases through the snow and love scenes. The soldiers roundly panned the movie as unrealistic.

 “He saw that,” Mr. Stromsheim’s son said. “He didn’t like it. It was too glamorous.”

And totally unbefitting the men who actually did the job.

RIP, Birger Strømsheim.

Brubeck

True story – I was watching this video (embedding has been disabled, so you gotta click over) yesterday, probably about 2-3 hours before I heard that Dave Brubeck had passed away at 91.  It’s jazz guitar great George Benson playing “Take Five”.

I’ve never been a huge jazz fan.  Not quite to this level…:

…but it’s not like I’ve never felt that jazz, especially in its late-fifties bebop incarnation, was a self-indulgent, self-referential little musical ghetto that squares just weren’t intended to get.

Sort of like this:

But I saw Dave Brubeck in 1985 at the U of M. It was bebop, and very very very proficient…

…and unexpectedly human. Which was not something I’d expected.

“Take Five” was his biggest hit – selling a million copies, which was unprecedented in the jazz business:

RIP Dave Brubeck.

The Do-It-Yourselfer

It’s a bit of a whack upside the head to see that George Chapple – better known as “Dark Star” – has passed away:

Chapple grew up in Ohio and Long Island, NY. He was a Vietnam veteran, and originally came to the Twin Cities with his parents in the 1970s.

After dabbling in the auto business, Chapple became known to radio listeners in the 1980s via Steve Cannon’s WCCO Radio show where he handicapped horse races at the newly-opened Canterbury Downs (later renamed Canterbury Park).

Before that, though, he was a regular caller on sportstalk shows all over the Twin Cities, including KSTP when I was there in the mid-eighties.

The brief Strib obit skips past what was a convoluted and almost comical path to sports-radio celebrity.  When I first met Dark, he was hosting a cable-access handicapping show at Canterbury Downs, in the next press booth over from the KSTP Sportstalk show I was producing.  I ran into him again in…er, 1988?  He and, of all people, Mike Gelfand were hosting an evening sportstalk show on the old AM1470 in Anoka, doing a remote broadcast from an old Chi-Chi’s in Brooklyn Center.  In both cases, he bellowed out “Mitch!” – to me, one of the lowliest peons on Twin Cities radio – like I was Steve Cannon himself.

It wasn’t long after that that he got his job at ‘CCO.

And I spent years thinking of that example – going from regular caller to night-time host, one of America’s dream jobs.  And the lesson of that example – make your own opportunities, and be both creative and persistent about it – was in the front of my mind in 2003 and early 2004 when I first broached the idea of an all-blogger talk show to AM1280.

So anyway – RIP Dark Star.

RIP MCA

Adam Yauch – “MCA”, of the Beastie Boys” – dead of cancer at 47:

Mr. Yauch, who went by the moniker MCA, had been battling cancer since 2009, when a tumor was discovered in his salivary gland. He did not come to the Beastie Boys induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in April and his treatments for the illness forced the group to delay the release of their last album “Hot Sauce Committee, Pt. 2.”

Emerging from the hard-core punk scene in New York in the late 1970s, the Beastie Boys were the first white group to successfully sing rap songs and have remained popular for more than a quarter century. Mr. Yauch co-founded the group with Mike Diamond (Mike D) and Adam Horovitz (Ad-Rock) as a punk band in 1981 and first began experimenting with hip-hop the following year, when they released a 12-inch vinyl rap spoof “Cookie Puss.” All three were teenagers from affluent New York families when they met.

But in 1986, they crossed into the rap mainstream with “Licensed to Ill,” which was the first hip-hop album to hit No. 1 on the albums chart and featured hits like “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party)” and “Brass Monkey.” It was just the first of a string of hit records, like 1989’s “Paul’s Boutique,” 1992’s “Check Your Head” and 1994’s “Ill Communication.”

And the fun times from my twenties just keep on passing along.

I wrote about the Beasties at some length last year, in my “Real Eighties” series,in my “Things I’m Supposed to Hate But Don’t” series, and life with the Beasties in the clubs back in the day, when Paul’s Boutique was just about the best thing in the history of hip-hop.

Here’s one of my favorites:

No Sleep Til Brooklyn!

 

Sara Tiedeman

Sara Tiedeman has passed away.

She and her husband, PR guru Chris Tiedeman, were gravely injured in a collision with a drunk driver last month.  Sara’s prognosis was dire from the beginning, according to a source close to the Tiedemans, but we all hoped and prayed that every day she hung on was a day closer to turning the corner.

Chris has been recovering well.

Please direct your thoughts and prayers toward Chris and the rest of their families.

Cowles

Long-time Strib publisher John Cowles passed away over the weekend at 92.

Brian Lambert at the MinnPost carries the lengthy list of paeans to Cowles and his regional media legacy, which includes ponying up money to help found the MinnPost.

Of course, if you follow politics in Minnesota, Cowles’ legacy is inescapable; he ran the Star Tribune, from an institutional perspective, as a prime mover for the Strib’s own interests – Cowles was a key lobbyist for putting the original Metrodome downtown, and was a vital player in the “Downtown Brotherhood” that has has such a disproportionate impact on state politics these past forty years – and for the DFL.

The Strib didn’t become a cheerleader for the left on Cowles’ watch – although one could make a case that that cheerleading became more institutionalized and ingrained in the paper’s culture (the results of the Strib’s “Minnesota Poll” started swerving into left-leaning fantasy land in the eighties, after Cowles merged the Star and the Tribune).   And Cowles’ personal and financial support for the DFL and the the left was a matter of record.   In the Twin Cities mainstream media, support for the center-left is so institutionalized that it’s considered “balance” and the norm; Cowles and his generation of business and news staff did as much as anyone to make it that way.

Which is not to belittle his accomplishments – giving the Strib a legacy worth squandering, creating a media and business-political powerhouse notable enough that its decay and retrenchment over the past 15 years would be of national note.  Far from it.  Cowles, along with the seniors of the Hubbard clan, was a throwback to the long-lost golden age of Minnesota media.

My condolences to Cowles’ friends and family.

Andrew Breitbart – 1969-2012

Andrew Breitbart passed away this morning in Los Angeles.

Larry Solov at BigJourno writes:

We have lost a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a dear friend, a patriot and a happy warrior.

Andrew lived boldly, so that we more timid souls would dare to live freely and fully, and fight for the fragile liberty he showed us how to love.

Breitbart gave the conservative alternative media something it needed; a full-time, tireless, fearless crusader, a rebel without a pause.

Liberals hated him, because he and his group of fellow media Visigoths played their game, only better; BigJourno and Big Hollylwood were like the Huffington Post, only not vapid and obsequious to their subjects. Andrew and his protegees did John Stewart and Steven Cobert one better; news, sometimes straight, sometimes satirical, but without the miasma of self-satisfaction in which the lefty shows marinade themselves.

I only met Breitbart once, at a party at Lileks’ place during Right Online last summer:

Lileks, Chad The Elder, Breitbart, Margaret Martin, David Strom, Laura Hemler, Laura's friend Cindy Olson, and the Giant Swede, last summer.

My biggest impression, other than the fact that he’d been pretty much mobbed, with admirers and, er, detractors during the entire event (he was the star of both Right Online and the sad, dyspeptic ”Nutroots Nation”, also in town that weekend) was that, as much as he was into, as big a counter-media-culture empire as he’d built, as potent an instrument as he controlled, the greatest adventure of his life was raising his son, whom he very visibly couldn’t wait to get home to see, and whose fourth birthday party was going to be the real highlight of the week.

And it’s for his family I pray, and to them I send my sympathy and condolences.

For the rest of us?

Solov quotes Breitbart in the foward to his latest book:

Three years ago, I was mostly a behind-the-scenes guy who linked to stuff on a very popular website. I always wondered what it would be like to enter the public realm to fight for what I believe in. I’ve lost friends, perhaps dozens. But I’ve gained hundreds, thousands—who knows?—of allies. At the end of the day, I can look at myself in the mirror, and I sleep very well at night.

Breitbart discovered – on a grand scale – what a lot of us bloggers did almost a decade ago; that showing up, that deciding to make a difference, could be the beginning of something great.   For many of us, it has been.  And here’s hoping his example creates a thousand more like him.

Solov:

Andrew is at rest, yet the happy warrior lives on, in each of us.

And that’s the key.  To be a warrior – but a happy one.  A gentleman.  A full, completely realized, multifaceted human being, not a frothing acidic polibot.

He’ll be much missed.  But he’s created thousands of memorials, and God willing there’ll be ten thousand more today and tomorrow.

RIP Mike Colalillo

Minnesota’s last living Medal Of Honor recipient, Mike Colalillo, has passed away.

He was awarded the Medal for an action near Untergriesheim, Germany on April 7, 1945 – bare weeks before the end of the war, at a time when the battle in the West alternated unpredictably between Germans eager to surrender to any Western army, and fanatical SS or Hitlerjügend holdouts who fought ferociously.

Colalillo encountered the latter, according to this story in the Winona Daily News:

“Inspired by his example, his comrades advanced in the face of savage enemy fire,” the citation read.

When his pistol was disabled by shrapnel, Colalillo climbed onto a friendly tank and manned its machine gun. And, as “bullets rattled about him, fired at an enemy emplacement with such devastating accuracy that he killed or wounded at least 10 hostile soldiers and destroyed their machine gun.”

After that gun jammed, he borrowed a submachine gun from the tank crew and continued the attack on foot. When his company was ordered to withdraw, Colalillo remained behind to help a wounded soldier cross “several hundred yards of open terrain rocked by an intense enemy artillery and mortar barrage,” the citation said.

Colalillo was later sent to Washington, where President Harry S. Truman presented him with the medal on Dec. 18, 1945.

A few years back, at the dedication of the Minnesota World War II memorial, Ed and I were slated to interview Colalillo.  The interview fell through – the dedication ceremony ran too long.  As much fun as I had talking with the mass of World War II veterans that day, missing out on talking with Colalillo was a major loss.

RIP Christopher Hitchens

Christopher HItchens, one of the last of a dying breed of intellectual progressives commentators, has passed away after a two-year battle with cancer.

“Cancer victimhood contains a permanent temptation to be self-centered and even solipsistic,” Hitchens wrote nearly a year ago in Vanity Fair, but his own final labors were anything but: in the last 12 months, he produced for this magazine a piece on U.S.-Pakistani relations in the wake of Osama bin Laden’s death, a portrait of Joan Didion, an essay on the Private Eye retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, a prediction about the future of democracy in Egypt, a meditation on the legacy of progressivism in Wisconsin, and a series of frank, graceful, and exquisitely written essays in which he chronicled the physical and spiritual effects of his disease. At the end, Hitchens was more engaged, relentless, hilarious, observant, and intelligent than just about everyone else—just as he had been for the last four decades.

Hitchens was a contradiction in ways that didn’t used to contradict each other; an irascible wit; fiercely civilized; an open-minded and spiritually-questing atheist (among an atheist scene that has become more dogmatic, rigid than Wisconsin-Synod Lutherans, and intellectually dead to boot), a progressive who sought human progress.

RIP Al Stene

Al Stene – who was thrust into the center of the Crow Wing County voter fraud scandal – has tragically passed away.

From a source close to the Stene family:

I just got off the phone with Sharon Stene. She said that Al had died yesterday of a heart attack. He had just returned home with James Stene after Crow Wing County had denied justice for the exploitation of their son James at Clark Lake Homes by Lynn Peterson. No one in Crow Wing County helped him and his son. In talking with Al before he left you could tell just how heart broken he was. I had never seen Al that way in all the years I have known him.

Let’s be clear on exactly what happened:  as we showed a few weeks back, there was clear, documentary evidence that four vulnerable adults who had been ruled incompetent to vote (along with Stene, who had never been ruled incompetent, but in testimony to the Crow Wing County Commission showed no interest in or knowledge of elections) were in the Crow Wing County Courthouse exactly when Monty Jensen said they were, and all voted, despite not only the court orders but the presence of group home workers who are supposed to keep their charges in compliance with the law.  The County Attorney convened a grand jury – which, in case the point is lost on you, essentially confirmed that everw single thing claimed by Stene, Monty Jensen and the Freedom Council was true, but nonetheless ruled (according to sources close to the case) that ignorance of the law is an excuse under Minnesota law, at least when it comes to election fraud.

This is tragedy beyond words. Please pray for his family. Al is in a better place, the is justice there.

I spoke with Al Stene.last spring,  He was furious at his son’s exploiitation at the hands of the group home staff – and at the sense of entitlement they expressed at his objections.

Jobs

Much of the developed world has been eulogizing Steve Jobs for the past couple of days.

The world may not need another obit – especially from a guy who hasn’t worked with any Apple products in 17 years, and owns only one old IPod.

But Steve Jobs has had an extremely large impact on my own life – or at least my livelihood.

Before the Apple Macintosh, computers were the province of the geek, the twidgie, the engineer.  They were functional tools, to do functional things; remember the term “Data Processing?”

Doing graphics was as much a mathematical as aesthetic project.

In conceptual terms, computers had a huge, obtuse vocabulary; a very literal one, in fact, in the forms of lists of commands, usually cryptic and often byzantine, to do…everything.  From seeing the files (itself a vocabulary term) that you had to actually doing anything with them, you had to know, or find, a long list of things to type into the machine – itself a foreign and unnatural process.  And then once you got past the process of finding your stuff, you had to actually try to accomplish something.  Remember WordPerfect, with its’ big blue page with not a single hint of what to do next, and the industry of classes to teach you how to use the program?   Or WordStar, with its array of “dot commands” inset into the text you were typing, to control things like indentation, formatting, font and everything else?  In both WordPerfect and WordStar (and early versions of Microsoft Word for DOS, if you remember it), you didn’t even see what your document was going to look like, other than a clunky and not-very-literal “preview mode”.

The problem was that computers required you to learn their vocabulary, and to learn to work with the computer. Jobs – and, from the very beginning, Macintosh – realized the process of making the computer work with you, rather than the other way around – and beyond that, to make them help you accomplish things that made intrinsic sense regardless of the technology.

Like typing and drawing, sure…

Jobs changed that by slashing the “vocabulary” – from “DIR” and “CD HOMEWORK/HISTORY” and “cat *.exe” and “roff termpaper” to point, click, and drag; from having to know what the the computer needed, to a simple set of actions that would make it do what you needed.

And to do that required a new class of IT worker – people whose job it was to help understand what users really needed out of software (and hardware, and everything else, really), and to work with programmers and analysts to, essentially, make software at least suck less,and, with enough effort and vision, basically disappear from the equation – to essentially get out of the way between the user and what they were trying to accomplish.

I did say “with enough effort and vision”.  It’s harder than it looks.  I fell into “User Expeirence” in its various forms in 1994,and made it my career in 1998, and have been doing it ever since.  When I got into the field, it was almost unknown in the Twin Cities – no more than a dozen of us, I don’t think.  Even today, it’s in the low hundreds, if that.

It’s a fascinating field.  And while it’d exist without Steve Jobs – it was actually started in World War 2, to make flying aircraft more intuitive and less dangerous – and it might even have reached the influence it has on technology design that it has today, eventually, it would have been an evolutionary process.  And evolution is slow and sloppy.

Jobs was a revolutionary – and the revolution was getting technology out of your way.

And it’s ingenious.

———-

I didn’t say I’d never bought an Apple product, other than the IPod.  That’s true.  But I do have a Jobs computer.

In the eighties, after he was first exiled from Apple, he founded “NeXT”.  And in an era when DOS computers used amber or green text monitors and books full of keyboard commands, and the Mac was still in its infancy, the NeXT brought a sleek, powerful DisplayEPS monitor with a fully-realized Graphical User Interface with a fully-developed user interaction idiom allowing users to accomplish breathtakingly complex things with simple actions (and a UNIX core for the geeky stuff that made DOS look like the rickety piece of garbage it was).

A NeXT screenshot circa 1988. What was your DOS monitor doing back then?

It came at a cost, of course; a new NeXT would run $4-6,000 at least (in an era when a new 286 PC could top $3,000, to be fair).  I got one at a fire sale as one of the last existing NeXT consulting companies folded, for $50.  And it was still better than the Windows 95 box I had at home.

And owning it conferred so much geek cred on me that I know I got at least one job purely because I owned it…

———-

I thought for a while – what’s the best way to explain how Jobs “got technology out of the way?”  And then it hit me.

I’ve been becoming fascinated by the Hammond B3 organ lately.  I want to learn the instrument. I’m somewhat hampered by being not at all a good keyboard player – but the tone and harmonic dynamics of the instrument are boundlessly intriguing to me.

And Wednesday night, right about the time I’d heard Jobs had died, I checked out Mac’s “Garage Band” on an IPad.  It’s got a fairly slick little B3 emulator – one where you can work the drawbars and presets to get the various tones out of the instrument, and plug in a MIDI keyboard to actually play the registrations you set up.

Which is cool – it gets the technology of the computer out of the way, and gives me a direct simulation the instrument to play.

Which leaves me the hurdle of having to conquer the technology of playing the keyboard.  Which I can do, more or less.  Long story.

But then Apple went one better – focusing on the task (“making the organ play something”), it gives you a simpler mode:

A set of vertical bars – one for each chord in a selected key (the key of A, for example, includes A, D, E, G, F#m, Bm, C#m and Bdim,I think).  Tapping the lower bar plunks a bass note – the farther down the scale, the lower the registration.  Pressing the middle and upper bars plays the chord on the “keyboard” – the farther up, the higher and brighter and louder the registration; lower down the scale gives you a mellow, subtle sound, while pressing the very top sounds like you’re going to blow the cone out of your Leslie speaker.  The very top bar?  It gives you a B3 with all the bars pulled to the stops and everything cranked; think Tom Scholtz at the beginning of “Long Time”, or Danny Federici during the “from the churches to the jails” part of “Jungleland”.

Bam!

(Note to Apple:  include some sort of gesture to make a palm glissando possible, and you’ve got me…)

And I sat down and played “Refugee” and “Sixth Avenue Heartache” and “Jungleland” – not just like the record, but pretty darn cool.

Because technoloy got out of the way.

And that is such a great thing.

At any rate – RIP Steve  Jobs.

The Conductor

It was a chilly, rainy night in March of 1983.

I had a horrible cold – but no matter.  I was standing on a riser in a tumbledown little church in Pendelton, Oregon, with 69 or so other college kids.   And by this time in the tour, cooped up on buses for day after day, most of us were sharing colds.

I had just finished a brisk walk up to the stage for the second of three sets of the evening’s performance.  It was our seventh or eighth concert in as many days and nights.

The house lights dimmed, and the stage lights came up, blotting the audience from view.  We focused on the conductor’s podium, where presently a guy in a formal tuxedo climbed onstage.  His cheeks were puffy and red, but his eyes were clear and sharp- “fierce”, I’d say, if the fashion industry hadn’t so devalued the word.  He smiled -partly greeting, partly saying “can you keep up with me?”

He lifted his hands, and brought them down.  And we sang - launching a capella and without fanfare directly into “Have Ye Not Known/Ye Shall Have A Song”, two movements from Randall Thompson’s oratorio “The Peaceable Kingdom”, a piece lifted from Isaiah 40:21:

Have ye not known?

Have ye  not heard?

Hath it not been told you from the beginning?

Hath it not been told from the foundations of the earth?

(Here’s a high school choir doing it).

I sang my part, nestled into the midst of seventy college kids who, for a couple of hours, felt like a single organism that was much better than the sum of our parts, as the conductor – listed on the program as Dr. Richard Harrison Smith, and never anything else – wrung the last little bit of execution, passion and yes, joy out of the evening.

And while I didn’t dare make any facial expression, or even take my eyes off the podium, I smiled inside.

———-

I remember “Dick” Smith, as my dad always called him, probably about the same time he moved to Jamestown, ND.  He and his family – his daughters, Kristin and twins Karen and Kathryn, all about my age – came by our old house in Jamestown, along with his wife, June, who’d just been hired as Dad’s colleague in the Jamestown High School English department.   Smith had just taken over the music department at Jamestown College, after earning a PhD in music and an MA in Biochemistry.  I wonder sometimes if academia today would know what to make of a guy like him.

But  I was years away from knowing any of this.  I was six years old.

Now, if there’s one thing people in small college towns appreciate – or appreciated, in those days before the internet and ubiquitous TV and travel - it’s whatever scraps of culture they can get.  And Dr. Smith quickly started producing some amazing culture.

In town, we noticed this mostly from the college’s annual Christmas concerts – which morphed from sleepy little affairs into six-night runs with choir, concert band and elaborate production, lighting and sets, that drew packed houses and TV coverage.  Packing into the college’s Voorhees Chapel, to the smell of pine boughs and scorched gels, is one of the most potent memories of Christmas as a child.

Unbeknownst to me – because I was years away from caring about such things – Dr. Smith, starting in 1969, built the JC Concert Choir into one of the premiere college choirs in the United States.  One review from the seventies – and no, I couldn’t find it if I tried – placed JC’s choir among the top three small-college choirs in the US – in the same league as the legendary St. Olaf Choir, in the (choir geeks will know this) Christenson era.    In 1972, the Jamestown College choir became the first American choir to sing at Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris.  In 1978, he engineered a visit to Jamestown by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra to accompany the choir in a concert – the highlight being Bach’s Magnificat, if I recall correctly.

You might be thinking “this is a small college choir that fought above its weight”.  It was – but that wasn’t even the amazing part.

The amazing thing about Smith’s choirs throughout their history?  While the other top-flight choirs, like St. Olaf’s, were made up of music majors and especially voice students, Jamestown just wasn’t that big.  In the seventies, the place had 600-700 students, maybe a couple of dozen of them music majors.   Over ten percent of the entire campus sang in the choir – less than a quarter of them music majors.  Imagine a tournament-grade basketball team that was 3/4 walk-ons from the Theatre and English and Nursing departments; it was the same basic idea.

And so year after year, for almost thirty years, Dr. Smith created top-flight college choirs from virtually nothing.

———-

When I graduated from high school.  I didn’t know what I wanted to be – but I knew I wasn’t going to major in music.  Still, I’d had some musical training – none of it involving singing.  I played guitar, cello and harmonica, and sang in a garage band, in a voice that was best suited for shouting out Rolling Stones and Clash covers.  That was all the singing I ever wanted to do.  I was an instrumental guy, and proud of it.

I’d known Dr. Smith and his family for about 12 years by that point – his wife June was my high school creative writing teacher; Karen and Kathryn were classmates at Jamestown High School (Kristin graduated a year before me).

My mom worked as a secretary in the nursing department at Jamestown College, which would net me a nice tuition break, so in the spring of 1981 I enrolled at “JC”.  Of course, every penny counted, so I seized on every scholarship I could find.  I got a grant to work as a stagehand in the theatre department and, late in the game, was recuited to play cello in a chamber group, and percussion and guitar for the concert and stage bands.

One day, my senior year of high school, I went up to the campus to close the deal on the music grants.  I walked into Voorhees Chapel for a chat with Linda Banister – and my spidey-sense started buzzing away; something seemed just a little bit off.

There were always plenty of women auditioning. then and always, for 35 or so soprano and alto slots – but in a school like JC, finding guys who could fill the choir’s 35-odd tenor, baritone and bass seats was a constant battle.   Smith, and his assistant, Linda Banister (a voice teacher who did double duty as the choir’s manager) prowled the campus, looking for guys who sounded like they that could be jury-rigged into instruments in a choral ensemble; they filtered through high school transcripts looking for hidden semesters in “choir”; they staked out football practice, listened in the cafeteria, and even (rumor had it) prowled the dorms, listening for guys singing in the shower.  The men’s sections – the tenors, baritones and basses – were a grab bag of football players, computer-department night owls, and just-plain guys who could, to their amazement, carry a tune, most of them with absolutely no musical training whatsoever, most of them enticed by having $1,000 a year  lopped off their $4,000+ tuition; such was the choir’s clout.

Anyway – after a too-short discussion that ended up with grant in hand way too quickly, Mrs. Bannister said “Now you need to go down to Dr. Smith’s office”.

“Er – to  talk about the instrumental stuff?” I asked, warily.

“Yeah, sure!” she said, fast enough to make me even more suspicious.

I walked downstairs into Dr Smith’s office, in the basement of the chapel.  He was already sitting behind the piano.

“Hi, Mitch”, he said – first names were fine, he’d known me forever.  Then, before I could respond, “OK, say “Mi Mi Mi” and sing along with this pattern”.  He pounded out a “C” arpeggio.

Nonplussed, I sang.  “Mi Mi Mi Mi Mi Miiii”, up and down the “C” chord..

He walked me through several more patterns, up and down the keyboard, figuring out my range.  “You have a good ear; we can work on the technique.  You’re a baritone!”

And that was pretty much it. I’d been shanghaied. Linda Banister was waiting outside the office.  “We really need you in the choir…” she said.  Being a small-town Scandinavian, my need to please others would have kicked in even had she not told me that singing in the choir was worth a $500/semester off tuition.

And so I joined the choir.  I’d be in the baritone section come the fall.

———-

Or would eventually, anyway.  Because before we could start choir that fall, Dr. Smith – and all of us, really – had a wrenching, existential diversion.

On top of being a great musician, arranger and director, Dr. Smith was also a footnote in medical history.  A very important one, actually.

In the summer of 1981 – the hot, arid three months before I started college – word made the rounds in Jametown that Dr. Smith had gotten very, very sick at the family’s lake cabin in northern Minnesota.  A very rare congenital enzyme deficiency had caused his body to start to destroy its own liver. He was in a coma and near death at a hospital in Fargo.

And at the metaphorical and literal last moment, the decision was made to fly him to the University of Pittsburgh for a medical procedure that teetered on the brink of science fiction at the time; a liver transplant.

At the time, liver transplants were almost as rare and difficult as heart transplants; the liver may be, after the brain, the body’s most complex organ.  The biochemical system that the liver manages is as convoluted as anything in nature.  And it showed, medically speaking; at the time, nobody had lived even a year with a transplanted liver.   The body inevitably rejected the tranplant, as if it was a bacterium or a splinter.  The way it was designed to do.

Liver transplants were so experimental, insurance companies were still years away from covering them.  The key to success – and it was an immutably elusive key, up until the spring of 1981 – was to quell the body’s immune system’s natural response of sequestering it off and killing it.

Shortly before Dr. Smith flew to Pittsburgh that summer, a new drug – Ciclosporin - was introduced.  Refined from a fungus found in the soil somewhere in Norway, it’d been used in treating a variety of other diseases – but it was going to be tried for the first time to prevent organ transplant rejection.

And Dr. Smith was Patient 1.

It wasn’t just the drugs.  Some of the very equipment and techniques that make the miracle of liver transplantation seem so commonplace today were invented as a result of Dr. Smith’s surgery.  From a Pitt Medical School publication on the transplant:

Fortunately, a donor liver became available. As Dr. Starzl  (the surgeon who pioneered the technique of the live transplant at Pittsburgh) pointed out in his book, the surgical team fought throughout the night to control the bleeding during Richard’s surgery.

Anesthesiologist Dr. John Sassano administered two hundred units of blood, pumping each unit by hand. When Richard survived the operation and Dr. Sassano’s job was done, Dr. Starzl reported that Dr. Sassano broke down and cried out of relief and exhaustion. Dr. Sassano went on to invent the Sassano pump, a rapid blood infusion system still in use today.

The surgery lasted 14 hours.

That I’m writing this article today should tell you it worked – all the pieces; the surgical skill, the brand-new, untried techniques and drugs, and of course the liver, from a 19 year old auto-crash victim.

———-

It was a solid semester before he came back to the choir.  The cocktail of drugs he’d been given, including the Ciclosporin, had played hob with his system.  He’d gained a lot of weight; his formerly hawk-like face was swollen.  And he could only direct for short periods, sitting on a stool, before he’d get tired and hand the choir over to his backup director.

But once he started, you could tell he lived for it.

And during the second semester of my freshman year, Dr. Smith gradually worked his way back onto the podium; by the time of our spring tour, he managed to direct (as I recall) every concert at every stop on the way.

I’ll let that sink in; in eight months, he went from comatose to doing his job (albeit not at 100% just yet), with a stop along the way for a gruelling, body-crushing, experimental, never-before-seen bit of beyond-major surgery.

We knew it was remarkable back then; having nobody to compare it with – every previous liver transplantee had died in that kind of time – none of us knew how remarkable it was.

———-

If my experience with high school music groups – orchestra, stage band and the like – was like Pop Warner football, choir with Dr. Smith was like suddenly walking into Vince Lombardi’s training camp.

Smith was a renowned arranger and conductor; his specialty, oddly, was traditional Afro-American spirituals; a Canadian paper once praised the Choir for being the most authentic-sounding choir of rural white kids they’d ever heard.

Beyond that?  The programming every year was very non-trivial.  It spun between spirituals, modern/avant garde choral work, and the classics of the repertoire – and by classics, I mean the hard stuff.

The highlights?  Every couple years, Smith would break out a new Bach double-choir motet.  My freshman and senior years, it was Motet Number 7, Singet Dem Herrn.  15 minutes and 90-odd pages long, it required the choir to split into two separate choirs, singing Bach’s, well, baroque composition in eight part counterpoint and harmony.

All from memory.  Smith allowed no sheet music on stage, and the choir was rarely accompanied (as in, one song that I recall in four years).

Go ahead and try it in the shower when you get a moment.

That took discipline.  All practices were mandatory; you got two excused absences a semester, and even those were discouraged (I don’t remember taking more than one in four years).  The rules on stage were simple and uncompromising; once Smith stepped on the podium, in concert or late “concert rules” rehearsals, you didn’t look away, at the risk of a ferocious tongue-lashing during the break.   If you got sick on stage, you did not walk offstage; you sat down on the riser and your neighors closed ranks around you.  If your nose itched?  You let it itch; scratching your nose, or anywhere on your face, inevitably looked like picking your nose.  You didn’t question Dr. Smith on any of this.

The choir practiced four days a week, over the noon hour, to accomodate everything from after-school football practices to afternoon chem labs.   You earned that $500 tuition break every semester.

To turn that throng of misplaced football players, dorm-potatoes, waylaid cross-country runners, computer science majors and the odd musician into a solid choir, Dr. Smith smacked us with something that most of us had never encountered before, and only rarely since; an uncompromising demand for excellence.

Excellence is a word that’s gotten abused horribly in the past thirty years.  A wave of business books perverted the terms into meaning  ”a businessperson given him/herself license to be a prick”.

The word itself never came up, that I recall, in four years with the choir.  But it’s what Dr. Smith demanded of all of us.  Whoever we were – wrestlers, pre-meds and vocal majors alike, we had it in us to do great music – Bach, or spirituals, or avant-garde adaptations of Shaker liturgical chants alike – the way God himself intended them to be done.   Perfectly.

And he didn’t tolerate half-assed choral music, and he never cared who knew about it.  Botching an entrance or scooping a high note could earn a section, or a singer, a chewing out in front of the whole choir – and the privilege of singing the part yourself, solo, over and over, as the whole choir sat and listened, until you hit it perfectly.

So we – wrestlers, pre-meds, dorm-potatoes, phy-ed majors and voice majors alike – developed a keen ear and a sense of precision that was new to many of us, even if we had some experience with formal classical music.

He had no time for contemporary music.  At least once a year, he’d get frustrated by some bit of pop-music frippery, and bellow “Do you think people will be listening to the Beatles in 300 years?”  I was often tempted to respond “if there’s an entire academic discipline dedicated to seeing that it does, then sure!”, but he didn’t sound like he wanted a discussion…

Even other choirs felt his wrath.  A choir from another college performed an assembly before practice one day.  A “contemporary” choir with microphones and a PA and accompanists and a repertoire of mediocre modern choral music, they were also – by Smiths’ standards – unforgivably sloppy in their intonation and timing; they were also slow in tearing down their elaborate stage rig as we filed onto the stage for our noon practice, and milled about in the chapel, chattering away, getting ready to go back on the road themselves.   We saw Smith, fuming at both the late start and the sloppy music, and took our places quickly and silently as the other choir milled about the place.  We just knew this could not end well.

When Smith finally got the podium, his face was red with rage.  He uncorked one of his vein-bulging jeremiads about the worthlessness of sloppy, inferior music – he referred to “this…crap!”, as I recall, which shut the other choir’s kids up but fast.  He ran down their intonation, their entrances, their reliance on a mixer to balance their – shudder – microphones, their sloppiness – and compared some of our own traits with what he’d just endured.  Then he had us ready up one of our own songs, in a tone that strongly hinted we’d best blow the doors off that tune.

And we did, as I remember.  We didn’t dare not stick the landing.  We sang the hell out of that tune, as the other choir silently shrank from the sanctuary.

We were the JC Choir, dammit.

Of course, Smith’s temper was tempered with a sense of humor and an approachable affability.  Sitting in his office, or on the choir tour bus, or during a good rehearsal, he was quick with a joke – usually awful – and a smile and a word of encouragement.

And it’s worth noting that his relentless pursuit of precision and perfection didn’t cover every aspect of his life.  Navigation was a good example.  While on tour, generations of choir members learned the meaning of the”Smith block”, as in Smith ordering the bus to a stop in some strange city in a place where the bus had a hard time finding our destination, and telling everyone to grab their luggage and walk the rest of the way.  ”It’s just a block”, he’d assure us.  I remember walking a solid mile through the streets of Basel, Switzerland, enjoying a warm, humid evening on a “Smith Block”-long stroll, lugging my backpack and my concert clothes down the Totengässlein, feeling like a tourist.

Smith could laugh about that along with everyone. There’s a reason generations of students loved the guy.

———-

Jamestown College was a small, private, Presbyterian-affiliated school – a sister-school to Macalester, although without the political implications, in those days.  And like a lot of small colleges, Jamestown went through some lean years.  Part of it was the farm crisis; lots of small colleges failed back then.  Part of it was bad management; the college had a really, really bad president for a few years there.

But the school excelled at three things; athletics (the football, basketball and track programs were at the top of the NAIA Division III standings), nursing (one of the best nursing programs in the US at the time) and the Choir.

And so part of the job was to go out and raise money for the college.  For four years, our “spring break”, every year, was to go out on the road on a national concert tour.  Tours involved long days on the bus, taking off often before the sun rose, arriving in a new town late in the afternoon, setting up our risers and lights (that was my gig – I was a stagehand, after all), suiting up for the gig, taking a deep breath, singing a couple of hours, and then going home with a host family from the church that was sponsoring the gig.  We got a free day at the apex of the tour.

As of spring break my Freshman year, the biggest city I’d ever seen was Fargo.  Tour changed all that; each stop in turn, St. Cloud and Madison and Toledo and Philadelphia and Washington DC, was the biggest city I’d ever been in.

That's us. We're in the rotunda of the Cannon Congressional Office building, March 17, 1982. I'm in the third row, eighth from the left. Dr. Smith is conducting, natch. On the right is former longtime ND Congressman Mark Andrews. Photo courtesy Katie Hall, who is "Doctor Hall" to you now, and lives in Fargo and is, I think, the far right girl in the front row.

And in the three following spring breaks – Seattle, Denver and Phoenix, and every mid-sized city and tiny town with a Presbyterian church with a music-loving minister in between, we toured, ten or twelve days at a shot.

And the biggest tour of all – our trip to Europe, in 1983.  We sang in little villages – Uitgeest, Holland, and Altenburg, in Schwabia – and major cities, Basel and Mainz and Köln and, biggest and best of all, Notre Dame de Paris.

Where we stood, in a church nearly a thousand years old, built long before sound amplification systems were built, in a building designed to magnify the unamplified human voice, and sang at a mass stuffed with Bishops and Archbishops and other popery, and sang to packed houses, and thought for a brief moment that God had taught Man to build buildings like this just for choirs like ours.

And a few days later, in Köln, where we sang a duo concert with the Köln Polezeichor, the city’s police choir, themselves an excellent group.  After the show, the cops hauled us all and sundry to a bar frequented by Köln’s finest; our money was no good there.  And it was noted that Dr. Smith’s liver was now of legal age.  And as we partied into the wee hours, Dr. Smith had a beer (with his doctor’s blessing; Dr. Smith was as diligent with the gift that had saved his life as any human could be).  And as we walked – I was probably staggering more than walking – back to our hotel through the streets of Köln in the weeest hours of the morning, I looked at Dr. Smith.

And he was as happy as happy gets.  This – making music, and getting flocks of kids to make it, and make it very very well, was his happy place.

———-

The last time I sang with Dr. Smith was October, 1994.  The college threw a 25 year “All Choir Reunion”.  About 400 people – around half of the people who’d ever sung in the choir in those 25 years – came back to Jamestown to sing a concert with Dr. Smith.  It was such a huge event, we used the Jamestown Civic Center.   And people from my class in the choir sat with and sang among several generations of choir “kids”; some who’d been there at the beginning in 1968, and who’d been at that first “gig” at Notre Dame in 1972; some who’d just graduated, and hadn’t yet assimilated all that Dr. Smith had taught them.

And it was a joyous night – one of a short list of highlights of my own life.  I was able to tell Dr. Smith pretty much exactly that; how glad I was to make the reunion, and the impact he’d had on my life.  Of course, I had to stand in a long line; I think everyone was there to say the same thing, one way or the other.

Smith retired in 1998.  The travelling was harming his health.

———-

The average liver transplant holds out for ten years.  Partly it’s due to the whole “new liver” thing – all the risks attendant to transplants.

Partly it’s the drugs that bombard the body to make the transplant happen at all.  They take a terrible toll on the rest of the body – especially the kidneys.   Dr. Smith got a kidney transplant in 1997 – from his wife June, incredibly.   It bought time – and bought it for a guy who’d already run the account a lot further than anyone could reasonably expect.

Dr. Smith was the longest-lived person in the world with a liver transplant.  His transplant surgeon, Thomas Starzl, “the father of the transplant”, featured Smith prominently in his book Puzzle People – his own look into medical miracles and the people who live them.   Starzl chalked Smith’s survival up to many things – an iron-clad constitution, rock-solid faith, and a mission in life among other things- but at the end of the day, even that most gifted of medical scientists had little empirical idea how Smith had so clobbered the odds.

But the run ran out.  Dr. Smith died late last night; the kidneys, and the liver which had served two owners so well, finally gave out.  He was 73.  He leaves behind June – one of my favorite high school teachers – and his daughters, Kristin (a reproductive endocrinologist on Long Island), and the twins, Kathryn and Karen, my high school classmates, a teacher and nurse respectively, both in the Fargo area.  They’ll miss him of course – and so will the thousand or so of us whose lives he touched as director, and the hundreds of thousands who watched and listened to his work over the decades.

Yeah, me too.

Rest in peace, Dr. Smith.  And from the bottom of my heart, my condolences to June, Kristin, Kathryn and Karen.

———-

Back on that rainy night in Pendelton in 1983, the song turned into its homestretch; from the bombastic “Have Ye Not Known!” of the fanfare, through a turbulent middle section that seemed to represent the nagging doubts of the faithful, into the ending, the best part; a three-minute canon, simply repeating one line, over and over again:

And gladness of heart…

The line never changed – starting with the sopranos, quietly hinting it; the altos came in, more broadly, then the tenors, and then the basses, in a broad, three-minute crescendo.  But the song modulated through a circle of…fourths?  Fifths?  Mostly?  Big, broad, beefy resolutions  that just as suddenly modified into another set of fourths, like doubts resolving into answers and then into more doubts with even bigger, more satisfying answers.

I looked at Dr. Smith, on the podium, growing more animated as the volume swelled- because looking at the director, and nothing else in the world, what you did in the choir.  But as the song swelled, the diffusion from the stage lights seemed to me to form a corona of refracted light around the Conductor; maybe it was a trick of the light, or maybe it was my eyes getting every-so-watery from the sheer sonic glory of it all.  And as his arms thrashed at the air, wrenching more sound, more passion, more joy from the moment, Dr. Smith looked ecstatic; the song and the choir were like a natural phenomenon, like he was riding a Harley whose throttle just keeps twisting back, or playing a pipe organ whose pump was driven by a hurricane, like he’d wrapped his arms around a tornado with a “speed” button that only he could control.

Like God Himself could hear his choir, so he’d better keep us on our A game.

And I stood in the middle of that swirl of spine-tingling modulating fourths and fifths and ricocheting parts and,  for one shiver-up-the-spine moment, felt as close to transcending the here and now as I ever had, or have, in my life.

And I think Dr. Smith did, too.

It may have been a first for me.

Dr. Smith?  With all the choirs of farm kids and wrestlers and business majors that he wrangled into musicians?  He was a regular there.