Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Woodstock's Atticus Finch

Woodstock's Atticus Finch

Copyright (c) (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved

"The farmers of McHenry County protested even against my being imprisoned there, and it was reported that they would meet the train on which I was to arrive and that a lynching might follow. Heavily guarded, I was thus delivered to George Eckert, sheriff of McHenry County, who met the train at the station and took me into custody. The farmers were there with their threats and mutterings, and with some other sheriff than George Eckert in charge might have attempted their cowardly program. But George Eckert was a man as well as a sheriff, and he told them, in words they did not fail to understand, that I was his prisoner, and that it was his duty to protect as well as to jail me, and that he proposed to do it. The would-be lynchers knew George Eckert, and slunk away in the darkness. They knew he would protect me — if necessary with his own life."

Mourning his recently deceased friend George  Eckert in 1923, Eugene V. Debs with these words remembered the beginning of their friendship in Woodstock's McHenry County Jail in 1895. Eckert and Debs agreed on few political issues, but the bond they forged endured for almost 30 years. Each knew the other to be a good man worthy of trust and respect.

"This was my introduction to George Eckert," Debs remembered. "He had read and heard all about me that was false and slanderous and had been led to believe that I was a desperate and dangerous criminal and that I should be treated accordingly. But this did not alter his determination to accord to me the treatment due to any other prisoner in his custody. That night I slept in a clean cell. The following morning the sheriff came to see me and I had a friendly chat and soon came to a perfect mutual understanding which was never once violated on either side. From that hour George Eckert was my friend and I was his, and though 27 years have passed, not one of them brought its holidays without the exchange of mutual greetings and remembrances."

Debs respected and admired his jailer. Eckert recognized Debs as a man of integrity and courage, and he understood that Debs was not a criminal but a political prisoner.

As A.C. Cantley reported for the "St. Louis Post-Dispatch," Eckert trusted in Debs's sense of honor:  "[Eckert] allows his distinguished prisoners all the liberty possible under the circumstances. They were allowed to walk into the yard and take exercise. No handcuffs and no balls and chains and no guards have been considered necessary." While incarcerated in McHenry County Jail, Debs led his six fellow prisoners in rigorous daily exercise, in studies of history and economics, and in evening debates. The prisoners played football behind the neighboring McHenry County Court House, sunned themselves on the grounds, and dined with Eckert’s family. Eckert allowed Debs to use his jail time to study and ponder the plight of working-class Americans. Debs hired a secretary to assist with his mail, and  Eckert set aside an old jail cell in the Court House basement for the production of Deb’s union publication, the Railway Times

Eckert even trusted Debs with a gun. A visitor to Debs in McHenry County Jail learned of Debs's absence because "the prisoner is out hunting with the Sheriff." Much later, other wardens would trust in Debs's integrity. After Debs began serving time in federal prison in 1919 because he had protested against American participation in World War One, he travelled from Atlanta to Washington, D.C., to discuss his case with President Harding's Attorney General. Debs went by train to Washington without an escort, and Debs returned to federal prison in Atlanta without an escort.

Others besides Debs recognized Eckert as a man of principle and honor. Upon Eckert's death in 1923 at his home (340 S. Madison Street), the "Woodstock Sentinel" eulogized him as "a manly man, a considerate, kind and thoughtful husband and father. A good neighbor, a devoted citizen of this commonwealth, and a worthy veteran." He had served as Sheriff of McHenry County for 8 years, as an Alderman in Woodstock for 16 years, as Collector for Dorr Township for 2 terms, as Captain of Company G of the state guard, and as Commander of the Woodstock Post of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR). Eckert was buried in Woodstock's Oakland Cemetery. His grave, his house, and Old McHenry County Jail survive to remind us of George Eckert.

After Debs left Woodstock in 1895, Eckert's daughter, Georgie, as president of the women's auxiliary to the GAR Post, arranged for Debs to speak to an audience in Woodstock's City Hall. After Debs left federal prison in 1921, both father and daughter visited him as he tried to recover his shattered health in an Elmhurst sanitarium. "Mr. Eckert and his daughter Georgie drove 50 miles on a cold, gusty day to pay me a visit and to comfort me with their sympathy and companionship. The visit was to be the last with my loyal old friend, and I shall never forget how touched I was at the parting. George Eckert had been a true friend to me when friendship is possible only in the heart and soul and conscience of a genuine human being."

Agreeing on little, these very different friends nevertheless recognized and respected each other as men of quality. If we are not able to emulate them, we have lost something valuable.

First published in The Woodstock Independent


Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Jack Benny

Jack Benny
Copyright (c) (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved

Jack Benny built a good living and a solid career on the flimsy foundation of sheer pretense. He pretended to be vain, miserly, and ornery, and he pretended to be oblivious about these failings. The character "Jack Benny," our self-absorbed Uncle Jack, enlarged our own traits in a mirror turned on ourselves. His embodiment so exaggerated our faults into absurdity that, by laughing at Benny, we also laughed at our own silliness.

Benny mastered the humor of self-deprecation. If he played the violin, his butler Rochester van Jones (Eddie Anderson) cautioned that rope should not be nearby to tempt any listeners. If Benny invited guests to his home, they put coins in his vending machines, such as the lamp that sold penny candy. If Benny reluctantly dragged out some coins in payment, suction in his pocket held the coins back. If Benny went out of town for 10 days, he pawned his parrot to get free room and board for the bird. If Benny boasted about his cleverness in buying a beautifully tailored suit in Hong Kong for $17, the lapels, pockets, and sleeves fell off as he demonstrated his mastery of the violin.

Oblivious to his own orneriness, Benny maddened a department store clerk whom he badgered into repeatedly rewrapping an uncharacteristically generous Christmas gift. In the "Christmas Shopping Show," Mel Blanc hilariously conveyed the growing despair of the clerk. (The voice of many Warner Brothers cartoon characters, Blanc also impersonated Benny's parrot and "the Maxwell," Benny's elderly—manufactured no later than 1925—and barely functioning car, as it coughed itself into starting.) 

While Blanc's clerk submitted to Benny despairingly, more frequently Benny got no respect from store clerks, phone operators, or plumbers. With a pained look at the audience, a "put-upon" expression, and the drawn-out, indignant exclamation "Well!," Benny would fold his arms, place his hand on his chin, and eventually saunter away with his trademark swaying, mincing walk, "like Theda Bara," the "vamp" of American silent movies.

The audience expected "Jack Benny" to be cheap, vain, fussy, bad at violin playing, and oblivious, and the audience never tired of Benny's re-enactments of these faults. Forever 39 years old, Benny locked his savings in a vault located in a dungeon guarded by a crocodile and a Confederate soldier who had never learned of the end of the Civil War. Most famously, he prolonged a hesitating response to a hold-up demanding "Your money or your life!" Several minutes of "dead air time" later, the audience was speechless with hilarity.

Benny recycled this durable material from vaudeville and radio into the movies and then into television. Born as Benny Kubelsky, he had begun his entertainment career in vaudeville with violin playing; his childhood violin lessons got him a job in ninth grade as a violinist for the orchestra of  the vaudeville house in his Waukegan neighborhood. (His lifelong friendship with the Marx Brothers began there in 1911.) In the Navy during World War One, Benny entertained his fellow sailors at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Waukegan with comedy routines. By 1921, he was focusing on his vaudeville career as comedian "Jack Benny."

An advertising account executive for Canada Dry who had heard Benny perform during a 1932 appearance on a 15-minute radio program hosted by "New York Daily News" Broadway columnist Ed Sullivan recruited Benny to be the emcee of the CBS Radio "Canada Dry Ginger Ale Program." By the end of 1932, he was voted "Most Popular Comedian on the Air." Other sponsored radio shows followed on CBS and NBC: "Chevrolet Program,"  "General Tire Revue," General Foods's "Jell-O Program" and "Grape Nuts Flakes Program," and American Tobacco's "Lucky Strike Program." 

Benny still did radio programs while he was trying out television on a local affiliate station in 1949-50 and on his first network TV show on 28 October 1950. His last new radio program (for Lucky Strike) aired in 1955. With his concentration now on his CBS TV show, Benny won a 1957 Emmy Award, and his program in 1958 won the Emmy for Best Comedy Series. TV sponsors included American Tobacco's Lucky Strike (1950–59), Lever Brothers' Lux (1959–60), State Farm Insurance (1960–65), Lipton Tea (1960–62), General Foods's Jell-O (1962–64), and Miles Laboratories (1964–65). 

With his ratings slipping in the 1960s, CBS did not renew Benny's contract at the end of the 1963-64 season, and he went to NBC on a 1-year contract. His last regular TV program aired in 1965; TV specials and guest appearances followed during his last decade of life.

A kindly and gentle, not oblivious man, Benny was actually not cheap but very generous. The benefit concerts that he did with orchestras raised $6 million for orchestras worldwide. (He also gave $1 million to an actors' retirement home.) Concert audiences came for the "Jack Benny" that they half-knew was a fiction but wanted to laugh at anyway. Benny joked that, during these benefit concerts, the more expensive seats were the furthest from the stage on which he played his violin: "When I give concerts, the tickets sell for $5  to $100, but for my concerts the $5 seats are down in front . . . the further back you go, the more you have to pay. The $100 seats are the last 2 rows, and those tickets go like hotcakes! In fact, if you pay $200 you don't have to come at all." 

First published in The Woodstock Independent





Saturday, February 11, 2017

Thank You, Epictetus

Searching for Serenity

(c) Copyright (2017) by Kathleen Spaltro

All Rights Reserved

For many years, I have enjoyed rereading James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon and W. Somerset Maugham's novel The Razor's Edge. In these somewhat similar stories, World War One veterans——an English officer and an American airman——seek inner peace in a world maddened by unending violence and insatiable materialism. The Englishman embraces the wisdom of Shangri-La, a Buddhist lamasery in Tibet; the American visits Tibet and also experiences the wisdom of a Hindu saint in an Indian ashram. The two novels emphasize Eastern spirituality.

Despite my longstanding liking for Lost Horizon and The Razor's Edge, my life has taught me that I need not forsake all Western traditions to seek inner serenity. The Greek and Roman philosophical traditions include the precepts and practice of Stoicism. For about the last eight years, the Roman Stoic philosopher Epictetus has greatly influenced my thinking and behavior. I am a very imperfect Stoic, but my attempted practice of Stoicism has improved my life. I have found Epictetus very helpful even though I find practicing Stoicism difficult. Reading Epictetus calms me.


Epictetus emphasizes self-control, self-mastery, duty. This seemed daunting and one-sided until I understood Epictetus's insight that other people and external circumstances are simply not within my power to control. I can control only my own thoughts, values, decisions, and actions. This insight creates great responsibility but also grants great power. It shifts focus from my futile struggle to control others and to control my external environment to my possibly successful exercise of power over myself. My seizing power over myself takes away others' power over me and diminishes the power of circumstances to distress me. "Authentic happiness is always independent of external conditions. Vigilantly practice indifference to external conditions. Your happiness can only be found within."

While I find it very hard to change myself, I find it impossible to change other people. Why should I continue to waste most of my energy on an impossible task when I could instead expend energy on an attainable goal?

The emphasis on controlling my inner world makes me responsible for my own well-being and happiness. It also refashions my approach to problems in my external world by transforming these situations into challenges to me to develop greater self-mastery. It takes away power from other people and from external circumstances and returns power to me. With that return of power to and over my inner self comes greater freedom.


Stoicism has shifted my locus of control to my inner world. Epictetus teaches me to see my difficulties as opportunities to develop greater self-mastery and resourcefulness. "Every difficulty in life presents us with an opportunity to turn inward and to invoke our own submerged inner resources. The trials we endure can and should introduce us to our strengths."

In a way, Epictetus steers me right into the storms of my life, instead of away from them. He advocates grasping the nettles of life, thinking about the inevitability of loss and death, and appreciating what I have instead of wishing to have something——anything——else. "... you move forward by using the creative possibilities of this moment, your current situation. You begin to fully inhabit this moment, instead of seeking escape or wishing that what is going on were otherwise."

One of these nettles is my inability to control the outcome of my efforts. Despite determined efforts, I can certainly fail to reach an objective. Epictetus notes that the results of my striving oftentimes depend on factors beyond my control and that I should focus on DOING my best but not on the RESULTS of doing my best. "When you...devote yourself instead to your rightful duties, you can relax. When you know you've done the best you can under the circumstances, you can have a light heart....In good fortune or adversity, it is the good will with which you perform deeds that matters——not the outcome. So take your attention off of what you think other people think and off of the results of your actions."

Another nettle is feeling frustrated by other people. Epictetus explains that I create my own sense of frustration but I could choose NOT to feel frustrated. "When something happens, the only thing in your power is your attitude toward it; you can either accept it or resent it. What really frightens and dismays us is not external events themselves, but the way in which we think about them. It is not things that disturb us, but our interpretation of their significance."


Only I can choose my thoughts, values, decisions, and actions. Only I can frame a problem as an opportunity to improve myself. Only I can face the inevitabilities of my own life with equanimity. Only I can avoid feelings of failure by doing my best and then letting go. Only I can take back the power to upset me that I have unwisely ceded to other people and to events and circumstances.
Seemingly a philosophy of self-constraint, Epictetus's Stoicism is exactly that, but it is also a philosophy of self-emancipation. "By accepting life's limits and inevitabilities and working with them rather than fighting them, we become free."


The ancients voiced a maxim that "Freedom is the knowledge of necessity." Useless resistance to the inevitabilities of life——loss, age, death——entraps me rather than frees me. Clearly understanding and accepting these inevitabilities ironically liberates me from them. I can choose to not live in dread; instead, I can lose my fear. Although Stoic principles demand that I unlearn practically all the behaviors and habits taught during my upbringing, Stoic habits of mind and patterns of behavior give the great gift of freedom from fear. Like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, I have learned from Stoicism that I have now, and I always have had, the power to liberate myself.

Quotations from Epictetus come from the contemporary translation of The Art of Living by Sharon Lebell.

First appeared in The Woodstock Independent

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Not Giving Up on Gardening

Succeeding Means Not Giving Up

(c) Copyright (2016) by Kathleen Spaltro
All Rights Reserved

Gardening unearths the paradoxes of life, among them the truth that we are most in control when we accept what we cannot control. Looking at some improbably successful plants in my garden, I remember other, vanquished ones. (Seed catalogs in early spring inspire unwarranted optimism!) Life is just like a garden: plant with hope, some of what you plant takes root, but much does not, and other, surprising successes take over. Accepting what you actually get, rather than insisting on what you planned, is key to joy, in the garden or in life.

Here are some excerpts from my past gardening logs.


The only flowers up so far in our garden are snowdrops, which I was very pleased to see today, but we do have many other "little bulbs" like scilla, grape hyacinths, and crocuses, as well as wild tulips. Lovely crocuses and snowdrops blooming in our garden always endear themselves to me because I didn't plant them. They are remnants of some previous owner's garden.

Crocuses, hellebores, miniature irises, a last snowdrop or two, scilla, Grecian windflowers or anemones--all were blooming during a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon as we did an hour of garden cleanup. I stared at the flowers to affix their memory because we are returning to cold rain for the upcoming days.

It seems time to voice my annual unspoken wonderment about violets. Why do people mistreat these lovely posies by considering them weeds? I have an area full of blue violets right now and couldn't feel happier about their exuberance. Bloom on, unjustly despised wildflower!

I creaked my way through the weekend after some strenuous garden work digging 24 holes to plant mazus reptans alba as a groundcover asked to invade bare patches on the right of way denuded when the City cut down two ash trees. (Later note:  The mazus reptans disappeared and never bloomed.)  I also pruned out deadwood in the rose garden. My roses being old or antique roses, they bloom only on old wood, but some of the old wood had not leafed out and needed the guillotine. Their executioner also was punished by mosquitoes.

I began to forget a grumpy week by walking in our garden on this beautiful sunny Saturday morning. I was so happy seeing the vegetation that, when a rose prickle sliced into my thumb, it didn't break my good mood. Spring finally is here to stay, it seems. I went outside into the cold, brilliantly sunny morning and wandered to see what the garden needs. I pried out some dandelions with the dandelion fork, pruned some weed trees, admired the flowers. Primroses are blooming like mad, and I have a cherished stand of white guinea hen flowers. We might go buy some seeds or plants later. I have two concrete planters and two three-tiered metal planters. Besides the flower seeds I already have—calendula and four-o'clocks—I'd like to find some nasturtium seeds and petunia plants, maybe a New Guinea impatiens. John needs to pick up some basil plants.

Large stands of Joe Pye weed vie for pride of place with ox-eyed daisy, spiderwort, and my favorite, ironweed. I particularly like ironweed for its purple flowers. Joe Pye weed takes its name from a Native American who used the herb as a medicinal plant. Bees and butterflies flock for treatment.

A cool Sunday--it was a little too cool to hang out on the back porch, but I did weed for a while, pulling 10 gallons worth of a strange clinging, sticky weed, with whorls of skinny leaves interspaced up and down the stem. After I did some research on the Internet, I discovered that my weed is bedstraw. 

I cleaned up a wet, muddy garden for an hour and felt gloriously happy! Large stands of the herbs Joe Pye weed and valerian are flowering; my old-rose bushes are in bud. I must have certain plants: sweet woodruff, borage, southernwood, goatsbeard. All are flourishing except the borage; no signs of it yet.


I am enjoying a late-season bloom of flowers. Calendula and four-o'clocks are still going strong, and I am really impressed with the steady performance of New Guinea impatiens. The weirdly beautiful toad lily is just beginning to open up

I noticed some naked ladies in the yard today. No, not the human kind. These are lily-like purple flowers. They got the name because their foliage appears in the spring, and then it disappears, but in late summer, leafless stalks suddenly emerge, bearing purple flowers. These are the Lady Godivas of my garden.

Goldenrod is blooming in our garden this morning, and, to my surprise, another naked lady (amaryllis belladonna) exposed herself in an unexpected area of the yard, and two sweet-pea flowers suddenly appeared! This is especially mystifying because sweet peas supposedly hate hot weather!

Lady's mantle grows next to a mossy rock in our garden, as well in another, self-sown place. Now that I think of it, even the mossy rock plant sowed itself. I had planted the lady's mantle somewhere else in a location of which it apparently did not approve. We can't control even our herbs.

Elizabeth Lawrence's Gardening for Love consists of Lawrence's comments about her many years of correspondence with country women who advertised plants and seeds for sale or exchange in state market bulletins. Well-versed in botanical nomenclature, Lawrence was always trying to figure out the scientific name for the plant or seed in question. But the common names have great charm, as does her book.

First appeared in The Woodstock Independent