Many Confederate Monuments Aren’t Historical, But Political

arizona confederate flagOpponents of the removal of Confederate monuments like to ask where it will stop, and claim the removal of any Confederate monument from public property is a threat to all of America’s historical monuments. But there’s a significant difference between Confederate monuments and flags that are used to commemorate history and those used to honor the Confederate cause.

Arizona’s Jefferson Davis Highway Monument

The Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway is a good example of something that’s not a historical monument, but a political statement in support of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis wasn’t a Confederate soldier, but the president of the Confederacy – the political leader of a violent rebellion. After the South lost the Civil War he didn’t give up and was a proponent of the myth of the Lost Cause, a continuing propaganda campaign that claims the old South had a superior culture and the Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights. In other words, the causes for which the North and South fought were morally equivalent – the South just happened to have lost the war. Furthermore, Davis was an unrepentant white supremacist until he died in 1889.

The United Daughters of the Confederacy (UDC) began promoting the idea of a national Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway in 1913. They were organized in 1894 to ostensibly honor the memory of Confederate veterans, and have successfully promoted the Lost Cause and succeeded in erecting numerous Confederate monuments and memorials across the country. The Jefferson Davis Highway project was their response to the dedication of the Lincoln Highway, an attempt to suggest that Davis’ historical status should be similar to Lincoln’s.

The UDC succeeded in getting individual stretches of U.S. highway dedicated to Davis, and after the federal government began regulating the nation’s highways in 1926, the they asked that a single route be officially designated across the entire country. But their request was denied because highway officials found that their Jefferson Davis Highway was in reality just a “a collection of routes.” But the UDC didn’t give up and for many years continued to get various stretches of highway across the country dedicated to Davis on a piecemeal basis.

Jefferson Davis Highway monument, AZ
(Jeff Burgess)

In 1943, for example, the UDC succeeded in getting a Jefferson Davis Highway monument erected along a highway near Duncan, Arizona, near the state line with New Mexico. Then in 1961, as part of their participation in Arizona’s Civil War Centennial commemoration, they succeeded in getting the state’s portion of U.S. 80 designated as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway. The monument, however, wasn’t located along U.S. 80, so the UDC got it moved it to its present location along U.S. 60 east of Apache Junction, which was part of U.S. 80 back then.

The Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops

The Jefferson Davis Highway monument wasn’t the only Confederate monument the UDC erected in Arizona. On January 8, 1961, Arizona’s Governor Paul Fannin announced the official opening of the state’s Civil War Centennial commemoration, including a plan to erect a Civil War memorial at the state capital.  Fannin was a conservative Republican and an ardent supporter of Arizona’s Senator Barry Goldwater, who opposed Federal enforcement of school desegregation in the South. During his 1960 election campaign Fannin called civil rights protest marches and sit-ins “un- American.” So it isn’t surprising that the UDC was able to hijack Arizona’s Civil War Centennial commemoration. In fact, they took advantage of the Civil War centennial to build several new memorials to the Confederacy across the nation.

On the same day that Gov. Fannin made his announcement, for example, the UDC succeeded in having the Confederate flag fly over the state capitol building. Later that year, as previously mentioned, the UDC got Arizona’s stretch of U.S. 80 designated as the Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway.

Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops, Phoenix, AZ
Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops (Jeff Burgess)

But their biggest achievement in Arizona was having the new Civil War monument at the state capital dedicated solely to Confederate troops. Its construction began in front of the State Senate building in 1961, but it wasn’t dedicated until February 14, 1962, as part of the state’s 50th birthday celebration. It wasn’t enough, however, for the UDC to dedicate a Confederate memorial on the anniversary of Arizona becoming a U.S. state. They also used the occasion to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Confederacy’s official declaration of the short-lived Confederate Territory of Arizona  on the same day in 1862. Arizona’s Secretary of State Wesley Bolin spoke at the dedication ceremony. After Bolin died in 1978 the legislature created Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza and most of the monuments at the capital, including the Confederate troop memorial, were relocated there.

The plaque fastened to the Confederate memorial reads:

MEMORIAL TO
ARIZONA CONFEDERATE TROOPS
1861-1865

This seems innocuous enough for it to be considered a historical monument, and not a political statement, as there were men from territorial Arizona that enlisted and fought in the Confederate army. But there’s also an inscription on the base in front of the memorial that reads, “A NATION THAT FORGETS ITS PAST HAS NO FUTURE.”

A speech given by Grace McLean Moses at the UDC’s 1962 national convention sheds some light on this phrase’s purpose and meaning. She described the Confederate soldier as being “touched by the divine hand of Providence” and “a knight in shining armor.” After the Civil War he “sought to pass on to future generations the ideals, manners and code of conduct for which the South has been justly renowned.” Then she warned that our nation stood at a crossroads of history and “we find America lacking in those qualities which made her great and without which she cannot hope to endure.”

Those qualities, she explained, were the ones that glorified the Confederate soldier: “Let us stand fast, in a world of change and unrest, for those high ideals for which they gave so much. Only then shall we truly honor them. It has been written that ‘a nation that forgets its past can have no future.’ It is our labor of love to make the memory of the Confederate soldier eternal.”

The speech was a thinly veiled criticism of the growing African-American civil rights movement and the Federal government’s enforcement of desegregation in the South. The fact that her speech included the same phrase that’s inscribed on the Arizona Confederate monument shows that it was part of a nationwide political strategy. The UDC, in fact, intentionally exploited the opposition to the civil rights movement in order to increase its membership during this time.

The UDC
Confederate Gen. Francis Bartow marker, 1936
Confederate Gen. Bartow marker erected in 1936 by the WPA & UDC on the First Bull Run Battlefield, VA. (Jeff Burgess)

The UDC is not just a bunch of “nice old ladies.” Since their beginning, they have been a national political organization that has vigorously promoted the revisionist history of the Lost Cause in a myriad of ways. By 1914 they had nearly 100,000 members and on Jefferson Davis’s birthday they unveiled a controversial Confederate memorial at Arlington National Cemetery. In the 1920s the Grand Army of the Republic, the organization of Union veterans, complained that the UDC had succeeded in getting public school American history books altered to remove any suggestion the Union cause in the Civil War was morally superior. During the Great Depression the UDC succeeded in getting the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to use public money to construct numerous Confederate monuments throughout the South. They have also been accused of manipulating the narratives that were collected from elderly former slaves by the WPA’s Federal Writers’ Project.

Furthermore, the UDC publicly supported the Ku Klux Klan as late as 1936, claiming the KKK had saved the South from Reconstruction after the Civil War. And, as discussed above, the UDC opposed racial desegregation in the South in the 1950s and 60s. The activities held during their annual statewide meeting in Phoenix in 1939 provide an example of what they’ve been about. The entertainment portion of their meeting included the singing of the song “That’s Why Darkies Were Born.” The song’s lyrics are:

Someone had to pick the cotton,
Someone had to pick the corn,
Someone had to slave and be able to sing,
That’s why darkies were born.

The UDC’s most visible achievement over the years has been to erect hundreds of Confederate monuments on public property. A 2016 survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center found there are 1,503 public Confederate memorials across the U.S., even after those on Civil War battlefields and in museums and cemeteries are excluded. Most of them were erected during the Jim Crow area, and more recently, in opposition to the African-American Civil Rights Movement.

The Efforts to Remove Arizona’s Confederate Monuments

The execution-style murders of nine black people by white supremacist and Confederate sympathizer Dylann Roof at the historical Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 17, 2015, prompted Arizona State Representative Reginald Bolding Jr., D-Laveen, to call for the removal of the Jefferson Davis Highway monument from public property. Bolding was the only black member of Arizona’s legislature.

“In light of everything that has happened…we can’t go through our daily lives honoring symbols of hate, symbols of separation and symbols of segregation right now,” said Bolding, surrounded by like-minded activists at the state capital in Phoenix.

Arizona’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey subsequently said that he would ask for a governmental review of the marker because he’d rather see the state’s highways named after Arizonans. But Phoenix’s Arizona Republic newspaper reported on May 28, 2017, that Gov. Ducey never asked the Arizona State Board on Geographic and Historic Names (ASBGHN) to consider removing the monument or renaming the highway.

In August of 2017 three proposals to remove the name Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway from the stretch of U.S. 60 east of Apache Junction were received from the public by the ASBGHN. The board held a public meeting to discuss these proposals on September 25, 2017. The board’s staff presented research which indicated there probably wasn’t a Jefferson Davis highway anywhere in Arizona anymore, and that the status of the Jefferson Davis monument on U.S. 60 is the responsibility of the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT), as it’s located in the public right-of-way.

On October 4 the group Progress Now Arizona delivered petitions with more than 1,000 signatures to Gov. Ducey’s office demanding he advocate for the removal of Confederate monuments on state property and for the changing of the name of the Jefferson Davis Highway.  They also delivered 100 letters of support from Arizona NAACP chapters, religious leaders, and multiple history and ethics professors from NAU, ASU and the U of A.

Then on October 13 the Arizona Department of Transportation issued a letter wherein they stated that their official position is that a Jefferson Davis Memorial Highway no longer existed anywhere in Arizona, and that, in their opinion, the Jefferson Davis monument along U.S. 60 is privately owned. Subsequently, on October 23 an ADOT spokesperson said that the agency’s director believes the monument should be relocated to private property because it keeps getting vandalized, and Confederate groups, like the Sons of Confederate Veterans, periodically gather around it to conduct ceremonies that could create safety problems because the monument’s in the public right-of-way. Nothing has happened since then, except that the monument was vandalized again in November.

As for the Confederate soldier memorial at the state capital, on June 5, 2017, several of Arizona’s black leaders called for the removal of all six of Arizona’s Confederate monuments, including the three located at veterans’ cemeteries. A spokesman for Gov. Ducey responded that their complaint about the Confederate soldier memorial on the Wesley Bolin plaza was misdirected at him because the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission is in charge of the plaza’s monuments, even though the governor appoints two of the commission’s members.

When Gov. Ducey was asked about the issue on August 14, 2017, he said, “We fought the Civil War and the United States won the Civil War. We freed the slaves and we followed up with civil rights after that.”

The Memorial to Arizona Confederate Troops was vandalized with paint on August 17. “I think it’s absolutely irresponsible and non-productive. It does absolutely nothing to promote the cause of removing symbols of hate in the state when individuals take matters into their hands and vandalize state property,” said Rep. Bolding in response to the vandalism.

The on August 19 Tucson’s Arizona Daily Star newspaper reported that Ducey claimed he has no legal role in deciding the future of the memorial. The Legislative Governmental Mall Commission’s chairman Kevin DeMenna explained that’s because the commission doesn’t have the legal authority to remove the monument from the plaza, so it would require the Republican-controlled legislature to pass a bill to authorize it. Arizona House Speaker J.D. Mesnard, R-Chandler, and Senate President Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, agreed. Rep. Mesnard added that it would be good to have a public conversation about each Confederate monument on state property when the legislature reconvened in January 2018, but it never happened.

At the February 14, 2018, meeting of the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission State Representative Lela Alston, D-Phoenix, a non-voting advisory member of the commission, asked chairman Kevin DeMenna, to consider putting a discussion about the mall’s Confederate soldier memorial on a future commission agenda. She explained that many Arizona voters had told her they don’t like the memorial because they believe it honors the Confederate cause, and that a public discussion about it could be useful. Chairman DeMenna was noncommittal and soon gaveled the meeting to an abrupt close. The topic was not included in the commission’s subsequent meeting agenda.

Which Confederate Monuments Should Be Removed?

The real problem with removing Confederate monuments from public property is deciding which ones should remain because they are truly historical, and which ones should be removed because they glorify the Confederate cause. The  SUVCW, which is the  official successor to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), has tried to address the issue. Its members are descendants of Union soldiers that served during the Civil War – white and black.

SUVCW leaders issued the organization’s official policy on Confederate flags and monuments in August 2017. They condemned their use by hate groups, but called for the protection of Confederate “veterans” monuments, and supported the flying of Confederate flags at Civil War battlefields and in museums. They also told their members they are free to express whatever personal opinions they might have about the issue, but they can’t to do it in the name of the SUVCW, and all inquiries from the press should be forwarded to their national office for an official response. It’s obvious that the SUVCW is reluctant to endorse all types of Confederate monuments, or flying the Confederate flag in any situation.

A statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee in a public park, for example, might be a historical monument if it’s located on a battlefield where Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia fought, or in the former Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia.  But if it’s located elsewhere, it could be considered a political statement. The Memorial to Arizona’s Confederate Troops also falls into this gray zone. At first glance, it appears to be a simple monument to the Confederate troops from Arizona, but its history and the inscription in front of it indicate that it’s a political statement.

Americans have the right to make these sorts of decisions about the public monuments displayed in their communities. The complaint that removing a Confederate monument from public property amounts to erasing history is nonsense. In fact, when the monument glorifies the Confederacy, its removal actually serves to reinstate history by refuting the myth of the Lost Cause.

Updates

On April 5, 2018, Gov. Ducey signed Senate Bill 1179, which authorized a monument to Arizona’s black Buffalo Soldiers on the Wesley Bolin plaza. The bill was introduced by Democrats, but received unanimous support from the legislature’s Republicans, even though none of them were willing to support a simultaneous effort by the local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War (SUVCW) to authorize a Union soldier monument on the plaza.

On May 3, 2018, Gov. Ducey signed Senate Bill 1524. One of its provisions abolished the Legislative Governmental Mall Commission and delegated its authority to the Arizona Department of Administration (ADOA). Instead of public hearings held by a diverse commission, the review of new monuments authorized by the legislature for Wesley Bolin plaza will now be handled by ADOA’s administrative personnel. This provision was opposed by Democrats in the legislature.

On June 4, 2018, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report showing that more than 1,700 monuments, place names and other symbols honoring the Confederacy remain in public spaces.

On July 25, 2018, U.S. District Judge Robert G. James granted a request by Louisiana’s Caddo Parish to dismiss claims made by the local chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy that a Confederate monument they donated could not be relocated from public property.

On October 2, 2018, the Madison, Wisconsin, City Council voted to remove a Confederate memorial from a Confederate prisoner of war cemetery and relocate it to a museum because it was not a gravestone but a political statement.

On October 15, 2018, the Associated Press reported they had discovered that the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs was spending millions to guard Confederate cemeteries.

On November 3, 2018, I gave a speech titled, The History of Confederate Monuments in Arizona, at the fall meeting of the local chapter of the Sons of Union Veterans of the Civil War.

 

What Would Tony Merten Think About Our Situation Today?

Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo 1886
Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three warriors, 1886 (Wikipedia)

On Saturday, March 2, 1996, I was surprised to receive a large, padded envelope in the mail. The return address showed it had been sent from New Mexico by someone named Tony Merten. I didn’t know who that was until I opened the envelope and found a bright red t-shirt with a large black graphic on its front.  The image was a copy of the famous 1886 photo of the hostile Chiricahua Apache leader Geronimo and three of his warriors, taken in Cañon de los Embudos in the Sierra Madre Mountains in northern Mexico during their peace talks with U.S. General George Crook. There was also some text surrounding the image on the t-shirt that read, “MY HEROES HAVE ALWAYS KILLED COWBOYS.”

There wasn’t a note in the package, but the t-shirt reminded me that I’d met Tony at an environmental workshop on public lands grazing at Arizona State University a few weeks earlier, the first weekend of February. The event was sponsored by the Arizona Grazing Clearinghouse, a loose consortium of local public lands grazing activists. I was a founding member of that group and had been one of the featured speakers at the workshop. Prior to that event I’d never met or heard of Tony, but he came up to me after I finished my bit and introduced himself. He complimented me on my presentation and also said that he appreciated all the articles I’d written on the topic and was glad to finally meet me in person.

It wasn’t the first time I’d been recognized for my work. In 1993 I’d been  chosen by the National Wildlife Federation as Arizona’s representative to go to Washington, D.C., for several days as part of a campaign to lobby Congress for public lands range reform. And I was one of the local environmentalists selected to sit on the panel with Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt in 1994 when he visited Phoenix to discuss his Rangeland Reform ’94  proposals. But it was quite memorable to have a stranger seek you out at a crowded meeting to shake your hand and compliment you in person.

Several days after receiving the t-shirt I was shocked to learn that Tony had been found dead at his remote home in rural southern New Mexico from an apparent suicide. The news story said that Tony had been under suspicion by local authorities for shooting about a dozen cattle grazing on public land near his house, and that he’d recently sent letters to friends implying that he was going to kill himself. One of those folks had notified the Luna County Sheriff’s office and on February 28 they discovered Tony was sitting dead in the greenhouse behind his house with a pistol in his hand and a bullet hole in his head. He’d obviously been dead for several days. I realized that sending me the t-shirt was one of the last things he’d done, but more importantly, I couldn’t understand why he had killed himself. I decided to keep the t-shirt to remember him.

I wasn’t the only one that couldn’t understand why Tony had killed himself. One of his friends, Will Baker, was a writer. He was so puzzled by Tony’s suicide that he published a book about it in 2000 titled Tony and the Cows. The book included more details about the official investigation into Tony’s death. The effort to identify the killer of the cattle began on February 15 when their carcasses were discovered. Investigators visited the few homes in the area later that day to ask if anyone had seen or heard anything, and Tony’s house was one of them. Tony denied any knowledge of the shootings. The investigators found more evidence the next day and it seemed to point to Tony. They stopped at his place to talk to him again, and were soon joined by the rancher who had owned the cattle. Tony became defensive and the conversations ended.

The following day, February 17, Tony penned the letter to his friends wherein he wrote that humans were destroying the Earth’s ecosystem and he saw “no hope” for the planet. “It is better to check out now than sometime later,” he explained. “Tell everyone I loved them all.” Tony may have killed himself later that day, or another day afterwards, but the official date on his death certificate is February 27.

A few days ago I was cleaning out my dresser and at the bottom of one of the drawers I came across the t-shirt Tony had sent me. I noticed, for the first time, that it’s size was extra large, which made me think that Tony had probably worn it, as he had been a large, athletic man.

Finding the t-shirt also renewed my bewilderment about why Tony had killed himself. Baker suggested in his book that Tony had been very lonely because he lived out in the Chihuahuan Desert by himself and hadn’t had a girlfriend in more than a year. But I decided I would use modern information technology to search through public records online for more information about Tony.

I discovered that his given name was George Anthony Merten. He was called Tony because his father’s first name was George too. He was born in 1952 in Los Angeles and grew up in West Covina, a suburb of LA. He had two brothers and three sisters, and was a star wrestler at West Covina’s Edgewood High School. He subsequently wrestled for the University of Redlands, in nearby San Bernardino County. My online research also discovered that Tony was divorced, and had no children.

Tony Merten
Tony Merten, May 1981 (Marce Guerrein)

On April 12, 1980, a  group of 37 people left San Francisco with the intent to backpack across the entire U.S. They traversed 13 states before finishing at Delaware’s Cape Henlopen State Park on May 27, 1981.  Tony was one of the hikers interviewed there by a newspaper reporter covering the event for the The Baltimore Sun.

“I wish it could go on forever,” he told her. He said that he’d left the U.S. Army, where he’d achieved the rank of lieutenant, in order to join the hike.* “I have achieved autonomy in my life,” he explained, and said that the hike had given him freedom from “boredom, routine, and authority.” Financial solvency was the key, he told her, and he explained he’d achieved it by saving most of his Army pay.

When Tony died he was a leader of the Southern New Mexico Group of the of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club, and an active member of many other environmental groups. Perhaps environmental activism had become the most important thing in his life, and when it looked like it was going to be taken away from him, he decided to end it? But part of his decision to die obviously came from his belief that humans were irrevocably destroying the Earth’s ecosystem. So, in honor of Tony, let’s compare the current situation with the way things were back in 1996.

In regards to the specific issue of livestock grazing on Western public lands, today’s situation isn’t great, but it’s better than the bad old days, when public land managers routinely ignored environmental laws in favor of the ranchers. The fees ranchers pay to graze their cattle on public land were never increased to match the rates paid for private grazing land. But due to the steady pressure applied by local grazing activists, accompanied by lawsuits from conservation groups like Center for Biological Diversity and Western Watersheds Project, existing environmental laws were finally applied to many grazing allotment management plans – despite strong opposition from ranchers.

In Arizona, for example, many perennial streams on public land have been protected from livestock damage and forage utilization rates on numerous upland pastures have been limited to conservative levels. Public land managers have also started admitting that some areas, like hot deserts, aren’t suited for grazing. And conservation groups have “bought out” ranchers holding grazing permits for public lands that needed to be permanently retired from grazing.

But these days it’s costing the taxpayers more than ever to subsidize public lands ranchers because millions of dollars are now available to them through Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) grants. And well-intentioned but misguided people are still promoting the junk science of Holistic Resource Management (HRM) grazing schemes. Furthermore, there’s a persistent, but small, number of right-wing kooks, like Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, that are ideologically opposed to the concept of public lands, and think they should be turned over to the states or local governments.

Overall, however, there have been significant improvements in livestock grazing management on the nation’s public lands, especially those with sensitive resources. This was accomplished by a generation of dedicated Western environmentalists. Some of the major contributors, like Tom Lusting, Joe Feller, and Bob Ohmart, are already gone. Their achievements are significant because livestock grazing is the most pervasive use of our public lands, with about 27,000 permittees grazing livestock on about 270 million acres.

But these improvements in the management of livestock grazing on public lands are threatened, like so much other progress, by the anti-environmental agenda of the Donald Trump administration. Since he took office in 2017 some Forest Service staff in Arizona have arbitrarily classified controversial livestock management decisions as categorically exempt from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) public review process. And the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proposing a national pilot project that turns livestock management over to grazing permittees, without any public input, in order to give ranchers more “flexibility” because they know “better than anyone” what to do.

If Tony were alive today I presume he would want to oppose Trump’s regressive environmental policies. Maybe, however, he would think activism is entirely futile now because there’s no hope for the planet because human caused climate change from the burning of fossil fuels is accelerating in alarming ways that weren’t predicted. I wish he was still here though, so that we could try and convince him to help us fight.

* According to the National Personnel Records Center at the National Archives, George Anthony Merten served in the U.S. Army Reserve from 06/24/77 to 06/23/80, achieving the rank of 1st Lieutenant.

A Family Christmas Story

The year 2017 was a rough one for me. But I have a story that cheered me up, and I think it will cheer you up a bit too. A couple of weeks ago I received a Christmas card and letter from one of my Burgess cousins which contained some news about his family, including the fact that he had a couple of grandchildren that I didn’t know about. After reading it I logged into my Ancestry.com account to add the new information to my online family tree.

Donald & Agnes Burgess
Donald & Agnes Burgess (Jeff Burgess)

While I was working on it I saw some notifications regarding new records the website had discovered about Donald Burgess, the grandfather I had in common with my cousin. I clicked on them and learned that our grandfather had been married to a woman named Nelle before he married our grandmother Agnes. This revelation was shocking to me because I’d never heard anything about it, and to my knowledge, neither had anybody else in our family.

I began digging around on the website and found more information. My grandfather had married Nelle in Michigan in March of 1925, but the public records also showed that Nelle had subsequently married another man there in January of 1926, so my grandfather and Nelle were together for just a few months. They additionally showed that Nelle gave birth to a son named Richard sometime in 1926. I wondered if my father had an uncle he’d never known about. But further research showed that Richard was Nelle’s only child, and he was born 11 months after she had married her second husband. I also discovered that Richard was still alive and I was able to find his current living address in Michigan, with the help of Whitepages.com.

I sent Richard a letter last week asking him if he could tell me anything about my grandfather Donald, and why his mom and my grandfather split up. Richard is 90 years old so I was a little worried that my letter might cause a fatal shock if he wasn’t aware of his mom’s first marriage. But I wanted to know if my grandfather had been a bad guy, instead of the good guy I’d always thought him to be.

Yesterday I received an incoming phone call on my mobile phone from an unknown number in Michigan. I usually don’t answer unidentified numbers but this time I did and it was Richard responding to my letter. His mind was very sharp and he was eager to help me in any way he could. He told me that he didn’t know anything about my grandfather, other than his name. But he said that whenever my grandfather’s name came up in the presence of his grandmother, she’d tell his mom that she should have stayed with my grandfather because “he was a nice guy” – unlike his father.

I then asked Richard about his father and he told me that he had never met him. He explained that his father had abandoned him and his mom when he was a baby, and that his mom had raised him on her own. He said that he only talked to his father once, when his father called him after he became an adult to ask him if he could meet his wife and see his children. He responded by telling his father to get screwed and that he didn’t want anything to do with him. Richard told me this in a practiced, businesslike manner, but I could tell there was deeply buried pain.

“So, you don’t know anything about your father?” I asked. No, he responded, other than his name, of course. But after some more prodding he recalled that he knew the first name of his dad’s father, and the town where his grandfather had raised his family.

We concluded our conversation by speculating about why my grandfather and his mother had split up. I told him that my grandfather had moved back to his hometown in Indiana in 1926 for a new job, and that by 1927 he had moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for another job. I suggested that maybe they split up because his mother didn’t want to leave Michigan. He agreed that sounded like a strong possibility. I was glad that I could still consider my grandfather to be a good guy. I was 15 when he died and I have many fond memories of him, like when he snuck me my first taste of a cold beer.

I thanked Richard for calling me and he promised to let me know if he ever learned anything more about my grandfather. But after we said goodbye I couldn’t let go of his story. I wanted to know more about his dad. I logged back into Ancestry.com and began looking among the public records for his grandfather. He was relatively easy to find because he had unique name and had lived in a small town. As soon as I added Richard’s grandfather into my online family tree the website began notifying me of more records about him. They included accessible family trees for his family which had been built by the website’s other users. I clicked on one of them and it included photos of his family members. I clicked on an icon of the photo of his grandfather and my browser loaded a scanned version of a high quality black and white close-up. The reality sank in that Richard had never known his grandfather, or seen this photo of him. And I wondered if his grandfather had ever know that Richard existed. (There was no mention of Richard in his family’s online trees.) Tears began to well up in my eyes. I kept digging in the family trees and came across another good photo of all of the family’s five children, taken when they were young adults, including Richard’s father.  Further research revealed that they had all passed. I realized that the photo could be the only thing Richard might ever have about his father, or the two aunts and two uncles he never knew.

I didn’t tell Richard about my online discoveries, but I downloaded the photo files and printed them off, along with copies of the obituaries for his grandparents. I couldn’t find an obituary for Richard’s father, but I learned that he eventually married another woman. They didn’t have any children but the marriage lasted so I printed a copy of his step-mother’s obituary too. This morning I sent them to Richard by Priority Mail. They’re supposed to get there this Saturday, the 23rd. On Sunday the 24th it will be his 91st birthday, and Monday is Christmas Day.

Update

On Christmas Day, 12/25/17, I received an email from Richard wherein he thanked me and said that he “greatly appreciated” the information I sent him about his father. His email had an attachment that was a scanned photo of his mother Nelle. It had been taken when she was the young woman my grandfather had known.

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