Friday, June 29, 2018

Requiem to a Retiring Museum

George Washington by Gilbert Stuart
Despite several years prowling through Philadelphia's great repositories of history to research my book Boathouse Row I had never visited the Philadelphia History Museum, formerly known as the Atwater Kent. But hearing that the museum was immediately closing after the failure of a  possible merger with Temple University, I ran out today to check it out.
The collection is odd: a little of this and a little of that. There's a gallery of oil paintings of famous and not so famous Philadelphians, highlighted by a portrait of William Penn by an unknown artist and one of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart.
William Penn

There's a room of Norman Rockwell covers for the Saturday Evening Post, published in Philadelphia. One, from 1960, asks the question "Is there a Woman's Vote?"  Fifty-eight years later, we're still wondering

An entire room was dedicated to Octavius Catto, a noted African American educator of the 19th century whose story was brought to light by my former Inquirer colleagues Murray Dubin and Dan Biddle in their book, Tasting FreedomSince its publication in 2010,  Philadelphia has celebrated Catto with numerous events, readings, and most recently a statue, the first memorial to an African American in the city.

To my disappointment, there was little to amplify my knowledge of Boathouse Row but for a James Peale portrait of Frederick Graff, the engineer who in 1821 built the Water Works, which used a hydraulic system to pump water to the city. Another result was that its dam, which flattened a turbulent river, allowed rowing to emerge as a great Philadelphia sport. Also, there were a few photographs by Frederick Gutekunst, a noted photographer of the mid to late 19th century who, I discovered, was also a rower.
Photo by Frederick Gutekunst

A few other items resonated with me. I loved seeing an old Bulletin newspaper "honor box" as it was called, because once you put in your  quarter, you could lift out as many newspapers as you wanted. I've got one in my house, which we obtained after the paper folded in 1982!

Other quirky things: George Washington's pocket watch, William Penn's shaving bowl and snuff box and a shell and leather wampum belt, dating from about 1682 . It's supposedly the one given by a Lenape chief to William Penn in a gesture of good will.
There was also a gorgeous silver and gold "presentation sword"  inlaid with diamonds and amethysts given by "grateful Philadelphians" to General George C. Meade for his victory at Gettysburg.

Let this brief report be a requiem to the Philadelphia History Museum. May it reopen some day,  hopefully with more stuff in it!
Sword given to Gen. George C. Meade 

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Great News for Older Workers

Imagine this happy consequence of a tight labor market in the U.S.: more jobs for older workers. It's a happy result I hadn't thought about before.
And a number of organizations are emerging to match older workers with employers including : Goldman Sachs Returnship project, Operation A.B.L.E in Boston, Encore Fellowships, AARP's Back to Work 50+, Senior Community Service Employment Program and Senior Job Bank, just to name a few.
But I'm not raising my hand right now. Between the talks for Boathouse House Row and a new project to dig into my family history, who's got the time?

Read more about the new demand for senior workers here.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

An Encounter with a Mobster's Son

As a reporter back in the late 1970s, I had written about the Mafia and its corrupt financial ties to a Philadelphia city union. The exposé had even prompted an anonymous phone call: “You will end up like Jimmy Hoffa,” the voice said, implying we might end up encased in cement somewhere.
But now I was in Sicily, retired and vacationing, when a talk arranged by our tour group, Overseas Adventure Travel, brought me face to face with two middle-aged men whose lives had been touched by the Mafia in ways I had never imagined.
The two were both born in Corleone, the traditional hometown of capos of the Sicilian Mafia (and, of course, the raison d’etre for the name of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Godfather.” )
Angelo Provenzano, son of the notorious Sicilian chief, Bernardo (Binnie the Tractor) Provenzano, was one of the speakers. The other, Gino Felicetti, had fled Italy as a youngster with his family after a relative was murdered by the Mafia.
Gino, who has long lectured about the Mafia in Sicily, acted as the historian of the program, showing slide after slide of gruesome killings presumably orchestrated by Angelo’s father and the capo under which he worked. The visuals included blood-drenched scenes of the 1992 murders of two Italian magistrates, Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, who had tried to prosecute the Sicilian mob.
Magistrate Giovanni Falcone's 1992 death scene
For his part, Angelo revealed what it was like growing up in hiding with his mother, father and younger brother. He was home schooled, he said, moving often and had no friends. He had no clue as a youngster what his father did for a living. But he felt loved by him.
Angelo Provenzano, a son tries to build a life 
In 1992, Bernardo reinstated his wife, 16-year-old Angelo, and Angelo’s nine-year-old brother back to Corleone, in an effort to allow them to be educated and lead honest lives, Angelo said.  Living openly for the first time, he learned his father’s true occupation.
Meanwhile, his father continued to hide out, even as he became Sicily’s capo di tutti capi (boss of bosses) in 1993 upon the arrest of his superior,Toto Riina.
From the mountains, communicating only by pieces of paper, Bernardo ran the organization while police hunted him as a suspect responsible for orchestrating 15 murders. Some news reports say he tried to steer the mob away “from the attacks on high-profile figures that were hardening public opinion against the Mafia and provoking police to respond.” 
In 2006, police finally cornered him; he died in prison 10 years later, at age 82 having spent 43 of those years in hiding.
Angelo’s life struggle has been trying to reconcile the love he still holds for his father with the mobster’s heinous deeds. Not to mention that neither he nor his brother, tainted by the sins of their father, has been able to land good jobs or create sustainable businesses. Even a laundry that Angelo tried to run with his mother in Corleone failed.
Bernardo Provenzano, arrested 2006
“He might have been wrong. He might have made choices that I don’t understand that I don’t know about,” Angelo has said. “That’s basically his business, his choices. To me, he’ll always be my father.”
In his talk to us, Angelo said he experienced his father as a loving, protective figure.  “I think of him as a father, not as a man.”
The evening with Gino and Angelo is now a routine part of the Overseas Adventure Travel tour of Sicily, though in its first year, 2015, it caused an uproar as Italians protested the platform being given to Angelo to say kind words about his father and by extension the Mafia.
But it has quietly continued, with Angelo earning money for his participation.
Responding to the Italian media criticisms, he said this was an opportunity to work in an important sector, tourism. “Do I have the right to a normal life or not?”

Friday, March 9, 2018

On International Women’s Day, there was Good news about getting older, especially for some of us of a certain gender and a certain age

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Retiring my wood burning stove

For sale: Vermont Castings "Defiant" style wood burning stove
Excellent condition, barely used, dated 1975 
 $400 or best offer. Located in Grantham, N.H.
Contact me at

(For followers of this blog, forgive this posting, but I need a URL to post on social media--and even vintage items are beloved by many).

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Arguing for A "Democracy Movement"

Even before the 2016 primaries, even before Donald Trump was elected President, even before Americans began marching over concerns about immigration, women’s rights, the environment, health care, science, and more, Bruce Berlin was calling for a “Democracy Movement” that would mimic in size and impact such upheavals as the Suffrage Movement, the Civil Rights Movement or the Anti-Vietnam War Movement.
In his self-published treatise, Breaking BigMoney’s Grip on America,  Berlin argues that our nation has become a plutocracy, run by the “economic elite.“ The results, he says,  are exactly what we are seeing now:
--Lobbyists pushing the agenda of corporations and the wealthy, to the detriment of the people;
--Elected officials beholden to the big money that supported them – a reality only amplified by the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United;
--A revolving door of corporate executives and lobbyists swinging into and out of government, bringing with them their agendas benefiting companies and the affluent.
“It is the curse of unbound capitalism,” he writes, “that America’s factory workers, farmers, housewives, machinists, shopkeepers, and others have toiled to build, or fought to preserve, democracy in our country only to have the economic elite reap disproportionate financial benefits while tens of millions of Americans barely get by, many others are homeless, and over 15 percent live in poverty.”

For Berlin, like so many of us "unretiring" folks, the book is a culmination of his life's work as a lawyer mediator and social justice activist.  It's clear he poured himself into it: the book, published in januariy 2016, is filled with real facts supported by more than 200 footnotes (about 2 footnotes per page in this slim volume). 
Even Obamacare, Berlin argues, was compromised by the influence of insurance companies; a health insurance VP and lobbyist helped the Senate draft it. 
(And who knows what financial interests are helping to draft the Senate's current health care bill, being hammered out behind closed doors.)

Half of the book outlines the problem; the other half spells out a route to mobilizing the Democracy Movement Berlin envisions. 
Given that the most expensive House race in U.S. history just took place in Georgia, it's clear that money alone will not create a "Democracy Movement." It's also clear that the money spent on that race -- some $60 million --- would leave the victor (it doesn't matter who) in serious debt to moneyed interests. 

Saturday, January 21, 2017

Notes from the Refugee Ball

Jason Dzubow, asylum lawyer

If you think the transition after retirement to "the next great thing" is huge, imagine what asylum seekers in the United States are facing. I got a glimpse of that challenge at an extraordinary event this week in Washington, D.C.: the Refugee Ball.
Among the 500 or so people attending were asylum seekers still in limbo as to their fate; those whose quest for a safe home in the United States had already been granted by the courts; immigration lawyers and those who support a compassionate immigration policy for victims of torture or persecution.  

As organizer Jason Dzubow, a prominent Washington asylum lawyer, put it in his address to the group:
"Critics of our humanitarian immigration policies will tell you that asylum is a gift, given to needy people because Americans are nice. And it's true that giving refuge to people fleeing persecution is the right thing to do.... But America did not create the asylum system to be nice.
"Since its beginning during the Cold War, asylum was about advancing our country's strategic interests. It was about demonstrating our moral superiority to our Soviet adversaries. We celebrated famous dissidents, athletes, and artists who defected to the West. Now the Soviet Union is gone, but asylum remains an essential tool of U.S. foreign policy.... 
"When we give asylum to interpreters who served with our soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, we demonstrate our loyalty to those who served with us. When we grant asylum to women's rights advocates, we show our support for the cause of gender equality. When we support journalists, we show that we stand for free speech. And when we grant asylum to religious minorities, we reinforce our founding principle of Religious Freedom."
Artist Antonio Flores with Q-tip sketch made in detention

Among those I met at the event was Antonio Flores,  who came to the United States at the age of 15 – his mother has been here since she left him behind at age 4 in Honduras. With legal help from the University of Maryland, this aspiring artist, now 18, was out on bond from a detention center after being arrested as an undocumented, illegal immigrant.  He's never taken formal art lessons, but in detention learned that you can paint with the most meager of materials. Rub a colorful magazine (he used Food and Wine) with a deoderant stick, then touch the magazine with a Q-tip and you can get enough color to draw with the Q-tip.  

Michael Namalum,  who was in 2015 was granted asylum status here, would not talk about the torture he suffered in his home country of Azerbaijan, because, he said, children were present at the ball,  but he would not wish what he went through on his very worst enemy.
Coming to the United States, this human rights advocate faced more suffering after he was placed in a detention facility by ICE, he said. "I was insulted and humiliated in detention and my rights as a human being were outrageously violated. Well, isn't it a paradox? You come here, you seek protection and the next thing you know, you're sitting completely naked in a freezing room – like a refrigerator."

Nonetheless,  now he can speak out freely, and he is. His wish for America is that it will become a place where "no Arab guys would be kicked out from the plane for speaking Arabic, no hijabs would be taken down by force... no Hispanic immigrant would be attacked in Kentucky for taking a longer time at the cashier, no "N" words will be written on vandalized cars of African American people, no Nazi meetings will take place here in Washington, D.C.,  and no woman would be grabbed by her genitals against her consent.  That was my hope, that was my wish , and I'm still hopeful."

Mark Hatfield, president of HIAS – the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, the oldest refugee agency in the world,"  founded in 1881, lamented the door that America slammed on immigration in 1921 and the many who perished in the decades after until our immigration policy was expanded.
He reminded those gathered of the many ways in which  refugees "made this country great." 

"America is a country that welcomes refugees, and i don't want an America that's any other way."


Sunday, December 18, 2016

Anne Boyle Gilmartin: A Pioneer of Women's Rowing

When she was Anne Boyle 

On a recent night, when I was talking about my book at the new Narberth Book Shop, Anne Boyle Gilmartin turned up. Now in her 80s, she is as enthusiastic about rowing and the Philadelphia Girls Rowing Club (PGRC) as she was as a teenager back in the 1950s.

She reminisced with me about those days, when PGRC --the first competitive rowing club in the country -- was still struggling to find women to row against. "I heard about rowing and thought, 'that sounds interesting,' Anne told me as we sat in her Drexel Hill, PA home, sparkling with holiday decorations.

What followed was nothing but fun and laughter. She made friends. She flirted. She got great coaching. And she traveled. "We raced on the Potomac, in Boston, in New Rochelle, N.Y.," she said, showing off her medals.
Anne's medals

And she competed in the first major races that PGRC had against a serious women's team, in 1956 against Florida Southern in Lakeland.

According to the research I did for my book, PGRC raced against a sorority team. A Lakeland, Fla. newspaper called the match-up historic -- the day "women took over man's traditional eight-oared shell and launched intersectional competition."

Anne rowed that day with Ernestine Bayer, widely called the "mother of women's rowing," and a founder of PGRC in 1938. By 1956,  the intrepid Ernie was 47 years old "and not to be dissuaded from racing, despite criticism that she was too old," I wrote in my chapter on women's crew. PGRC lost, but only by a foot.

Anne remembers being coached by Tom Curran, a champion rower of the 1930s who by the 1950s was also leading La Salle College crew to victory. "He was a rogue," she said, laughing, as she remembered "the Bear." But he was tough, too. "If you didn't dance the way he fiddled, you were in trouble," she said.

Eying the photo of Curran coaching a men's eight  on page 116 in my book (a photo I wrote about on my Boathouse Row website), she spied Romeo Boyd and swooned. Sounding like Shakespeare's Juliet, she recalled calling out to him: "Romeo....Oh, Romeo..." 
"He'd take me and throw me in the water. We just had fun."

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Shun the phrase "This Stage of Life"

For reasons I don't fully understand, my Columbia University journalism school class has remained close for decades now. Maybe it's because we graduated in an era of "sensitive training," when on our own we organized a three-day weekend to learn to listen to each other. (After all, isn't listening what journalists are supposed to be good at?)
Maybe it's because we've had a list serve run by the same dedicated class member all these years.
Or because, every five years at reunion time, the same lovely couple hosts all of us at their New York apartment and we reconnect.
When one of us lost his health and then his job, the class stepped in to network and find him a new position.  When one of us, author Larry Leamer, announced that he had a play opening in New York based on the life of Rose Kennedy, some 40 of us flocked into the city to go to the opening of Rose.
So, of course, now that I have a book just published, I thought I'd share my good news with my J-School class.
Along with dozens of cheers and congrats --and book purchases (thank you!) -- came this note from a classmate,   Inderjit Badhwar. Indy, as we called him back in the day, has had an illustrious career as editor of the India Times and other international publications. Currently he's editor in chief of India Legal.
I had made the mistake of saying in my class email that it was fun to have a new career "at this stage of life."

Indy was indignant:

"Stage of Life" Dotty? duh! what a defeatist sentiment after you prove that life's the biggest stage on which nothing alive can be 'staged'. It does not age. There is no chronological progression. I've observed this as an editor and a novelist. I saw this most lucidly in the last two months when I met and dined and stayed with Michael March in Prague where he conducts the International Writers Festival featuring Nobel Laureates (this time [John Maxwell] Coetzee."

Indy then went on to remind me of others in our class, all climbing new heights at this so-called "stage," including  Jim and Jill Gabbe, who did a "magnum opus documentary on India/China, "To the Mountaintops." 
To that list, here are a few (not all) other classmates still very much engaged in a stage that doesn't age:  David Gumpert may well be the nation's expert on raw milk, having written three books on the issue of "food rights," and the government's efforts to regulate choice. Connie Bruck continues her award-winning writing in the New Yorker magazine and elsewhere.  And there are so many other who continue to leave their mark on the world...Michele MontasDon Ringe.
Among many others, all still very much on the stage. Thanks, Indy for ribbing me.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

What "Unretiring" has Wrought!!

First big regatta on Schuylkill, 1835, Nicolino Calyo
It took me three years, but my book, Boathouse Row, Waves of Change in the Birthplace of American Rowing is finally out. Taking on this project has been transformational.
First of all, I was totally absorbed by the crumbling minute books, old newspapers, photo archives, and documents stashed in boathouses, people's homes and such repositories as the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and the Library Company. The stories I discovered fascinated me. They took me inside a time when immigrants were pouring into Philadelphia and the country, a time when people clung to clubs and traditions for a sense of belonging somewhere. They had costumes, nicknames, and other strange customs. Gambling was rife, races were thrown, and Boathouse Row pushed for amateur rules for the sport. (They were the first amateur rules for any sport in the U.S.)  Hundreds of thousands would descend on the river to watch the most popular spectator sport of its era. You can find lots of photos and information on my website, BoathouseRowTheBook.
Then, too, I got to interview a lot of people with long memories of more recent times. Such fun, having an excuse to get to know some fascinating folks.
Signing my book at the Head of the Schuylkill Regatta
And picking the more than 160 photos for the book tapped into my experience as a projects editor at the Philadelphia Inquirer, where I focused not only on words, but how a big story would appear visually.
In other words, every skill I ever learned as a journalist -- reporting, writing, research, fact checking, visuals -- all came into play in this, the biggest project of my career.
As I look at the book on my kitchen counter, with its gorgeous cover, color photos, many stories and its heft, I'm stunned that I was able to create this.
Of course,  I could not have done so without Temple University Press and a generous grant to the press from philanthropist H. F. Gerry Lenfest. Daniel J. Boyne, author of several important rowing books, wrote a gracious blurb for the jacket.
As I am interviewed on public radio's WHYY  Radio Times  or excerpted in the Philadelphia Inquirer , or in Main Line Today, it's like an out-of-body experience for me. My calendar is filling with appearances and book signings.
Never could I have imagined that my journey to the "next great thing" would be so much fun.