The Americans

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When Rusty Staub joined the brand new Montreal Expos in 1969, something bothered him. “I couldn’t talk to a child,” he told the Montreal Gazette.

I took about 24 French classes after the first season, and the next year I took longer classes… There’s not a question that my making the effort is part of the reason that whatever Le Grand Orange represented to Montreal and all those fans, they knew I cared and tried. I tried to be part of their community and I always tried to do that wherever I went – it’s what you should do. 

Le Grand Orange carried that spirit with him to New York, where the Rusty Staub Foundation raised millions for the hungry and homeless, as well as for the families of fallen police officers and firefighters. As he explained in the New York Daily News, it was personal:

My mother’s brother was a policeman killed in the line of duty in New Orleans. I was just a little kid, sitting on my bed with my mom and my brother saying the rosary, and I never got over that.

 

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While Rusty Staub was learning French, halfway around the world Sachio Kinugasa was learning English.

Kinugasa’s father, a US soldier stationed in Japan, was African-American. As his New York Times obituary recounts, Kinugasa’s mixed race had made him the object of torment as a child, and remained “a sensitive subject that was not mentioned in two unauthorized biographies and that his teammates did not discuss.”

For him, it was personal:

Years later, a Carp teammate told a Japanese newspaper that he once asked Kinugasa why he stayed up late studying English. Kinugasa replied that he wanted to go to America to search for his father, whom he had never met. “If you become the No. 1 player in Japan,” the teammate said, “he’ll come to see you.” Kinugasa nodded, with tears in his eyes.

According to his Japan Times obituary, that reunion never occurred. But Kinugasa did become a top player, legendary for his endurance. The Iron Man – as he was known – eventually broke the consecutive game record of the Iron Horse, Lou Gehrig.

Nine years later Kinugasa traveled to America to personally congratulate – as one Iron Man to another – the new record holder.

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The Modelers

 

Maryam Mirzakhani was the first woman to win the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for math.

She liked to do her work on huge pieces of paper on the floor. You can see her in action in this video:

 

As her obituary in The Economist recounts, surfaces and geometric structures weren’t her only challenges:

She belied stereotypes. To Americans, she had to explain that in her native Iran (unlike Saudi Arabia) women’s education and careers were not just tolerated but encouraged: her girls’ high school was run by a national organisation responsible for hothousing young talent. She was not only the first woman to win the Fields medal, but the first Iranian, making her a celebrity there. Some media flinched piously from portraying her without a headscarf, a taboo which frayed after her death. Her marriage to a non-Muslim was not recognised, hampering family visits. Many also bemoaned her emigration, part of a debilitating brain drain. She moved to America for postgraduate study in 1999, a time when today’s anti-Muslim immigration policies were unimaginable.

According to her obituary in The Atlantic:

Both in Iran and and internationally, Mirzakhani became a heroic figure for women in the sciences. Colleagues described her as very modest, and hesitant to take credit. But when she won the Fields Medal in 2014 she acknowledged her impact by saying, “I will be happy if it encourages young female scientists and mathematicians.”

 

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Hidden Figures tells the story of the black female mathematicians who helped the first American astronaut orbit Earth.

The film’s cast and crew relied on Rudy Horne for their math. As his Chicago Sun-Times obituary explains:

The professor did more than check the math. He provided a vintage concept – Euler’s method – that helped solve a problem in a pivotal moment in the movie.

 

Described by friends and colleagues as a “braniac,” “consummate egghead,” and “rock-star teacher,” Mr. Horne was, also, an example:

“Rudy Horne was a direct role model for African-American male students because they could see themselves as hardcore applied mathematicians and have fun while doing it.”

 

 

The Welcomers

 

 

 

When Marjorie Silverman became a concierge, it was unusual.

Back when Marjorie entered our field, most people didn’t know what a concierge was, much less how to pronounce the word… What she did was a big deal. Our international organization was very male and European-dominated, so she single-handedly broke that glass ceiling.

What does a concierge do? Her Chicago Tribune obituary explains:

Silverman’s workdays typically started with a meeting of luggage attendants to advise them of the arrivals and departures, particularly of large groups. She would also check the VIP arrival list and send those guests a note or, when appropriate, a gift. As business travelers left for appointments, she made travel arrangements and arranged baby-sitting services, dinner and theater reservations. Then she began preparing for the next wave of guests.

In short, a concierge upholds one of humanity’s oldest and noblest traditions, hospitality. The details have changed over millennia, but the essence remains the same:

When a stranger came to the house, he was always entertained with a warm bath for his “poor feet” and with food and wine. He was never (vide Homer’s poems) rudely, or even civilly, questioned as to his name, country, and business, until his bodily wants had been attended to. It was not, indeed, until the cloth was removed, the dessert put upon the table, and the wine-cup passed around, that the questions were put: Who are you? Whence come you? What is your city?

– A Few Reflections on the Rights, Duties, Obligations and Advantages of Hospitality, Cornelius Walford, 1885

 

 

 

Toni Mascolo, an Italian immigrant to the UK, opened a hair salon with his brother in London in the 1960s. Over the next half-century, they created an international chain in 48 countries.

As Mascolo’s Financial Times obituary notes, Toni & Guy’s success was in part due to historic good timing:

During the “swinging Sixties” models and pop stars set new style trends. London became a fashion capital. Women began entering the workplace and they spent some of their earnings on haircuts and beauty treatments. More recently men have begun to take more care of their appearance as well.

But the success was also due to listening. As his Wall Street Journal obituary recounts, “Women began asking if the salon could cut their husbands’ or sons’ locks, so the brothers turned their shop into a pioneering unisex establishment.”

Listening wasn’t just good business sense; Mascolo understood it was an obligation – and advantage – of hospitality.

“He had a tremendously strong set of values and passed them on to the staff. He said you had to treat clients as if you are inviting them into your home.”

 

 

Henry Saglio

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In the 1920s, supporters of Herbert Hoover claimed he’d bring about such prosperity that America would have a chicken in every pot.

That would have raised the living standard of the average American family, even in the Roaring Twenties. As this article explains, “a chicken dinner was such a rare treat that the few chickens raised for meat were sold directly to high-end restaurants, first-class dining cars, and luxury caterers.”

Chicken is now the most commonly eaten meat in the United States. This transformation is in large part due to the ingenuity of a man Frank Perdue called “the father of the chicken industry.”

 

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Henry Saglio began breeding chickens as a teenager. His initial motivation was the respite it provided from farming in the open sun. Within decades, as his Boston Globe obituary notes, “three out of four birds sold were descended from Mr. Saglio’s breed stock.”

Mr. Saglio, who had only an eighth-grade education, took his expertise to the developing world as well, and, at the age of 87, founded a company dedicated to antibiotic-free breeding.

“I’ve dedicated my life to making chickens affordable to poor people,” Saglio told Associated Press in 1987. “And that’s what I did. Everybody’s eating chicken now.”

 

Continue reading “Henry Saglio”

Riskers

The Private

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“He brought four people out. When he went to bring a fifth person out, the fire caught up with him.”

Emmanuel Mensah, a Ghanaian immigrant, was a National Guardsman. Although not on duty two weeks ago, he remained true to his vocation.

 

The Philosopher

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Anne Dufourmantelle was at the beach last summer when she saw two children struggling in the water. She went in to rescue them, dying in the effort. She probably had a sense of the risk involved, as she was a student of the concept:

“We say in French ‘to risk one’s life,’ but perhaps we should say ‘to risk being alive.’ To be truly alive is a risk few take.”

 

Continue reading “Riskers”

A Christmas Memory

 

On December 6, 1917, two ships collided near the shore of Halifax, Nova Scotia. One, filled with munitions for the Western Front, caught fire. Most of the city’s inhabitants were unaware of their mortal danger.

Vince Coleman, a train dispatcher, saw that calamity was imminent, and delayed his own evacuation so that he could warn inbound trains to halt. He, along with almost two thousand others, perished in one of the largest explosions in history.

 

 

The city of Boston responded quickly. Abraham Ratshesky, a banker, public servant, and philanthropist, led the way:

Ratshesky mobilized that first “relief special,” getting the workers out of Boston on the night of December 6. The group was so determined to reach Halifax that its members climbed out of the train in the snowstorm to help shovel the tracks.

In gratitude for Boston’s help, every year the province of Nova Scotia sends the Hub its official Christmas tree.

 

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The Doctor, the Submariner, and the Cook

 

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In 1958, a Soviet virologist proposed that all countries work together to end smallpox.  As this tribute notes,” no disease had ever been eradicated. No one knew if it could even be done.”

In 1977, the last case was found in Somalia.

Smallpox is the only human disease to have been eradicated. Thanks to what Viktor Zhdanov started, efforts to end polio, malaria, and several other diseases are now underway.

 

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During the Cuban Missile Crisis, a US warship began to fire warning shots at a Soviet submarine. Unfortunately, only the Americans knew it was a warning.

Continue reading “The Doctor, the Submariner, and the Cook”

The Explorer

 

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In her spare time, Alexander wrote two books on science for children and mentored young people, especially African American girls. “She wanted children of color to see themselves as scientists,” her sister Suzanne said.

 

The Rosetta Stone was discovered in 1799. Carved two thousand years before, its text was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphs, which had been a mystery.

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Claudia Alexander was NASA’s top scientist on the Rosetta project, which launched a spacecraft on a ten-year mission to a comet. Comets are small icy worlds created when the planets were formed, billions of years ago. By studying comets, we learn about our own origins.

As she said in a LA Times profile, published less than a year before her death from cancer, “For me, this is among the purposes of my life — to take us from states of ignorance to states of understanding with bold exploration that you can’t do every day.”

 

 

 

The Guarantors

The French Revolution, like the American Revolution, advanced an idea that was then revolutionary: people have basic rights.

Police officers Ahmed Merabet and Xavier Jugelé died protecting these rights.

 

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“He was very proud of the name Ahmed Merabet, proud to represent the police and of defending the values of the Republic – liberty, equality, fraternity.”

Officer Merabet, a Muslim, was killed by terrorists who attacked a satirical newspaper known for mocking Islam.

Officer Jugelé, a gay man, was killed guarding the cultural bureau of Turkey, a Muslim country.

 

Continue reading “The Guarantors”

The Vexillologist

 

 

Before Whitney Smith, the study of flags didn’t have a name. So he invented the word vexillology. He was 18 years old.

According to his New York Times obituary, this scholar not only increased our knowledge of flags; he added to them:

Mr. Smith came up with a prototype, a golden arrowlike triangle with an overlapping red triangle against a green ground. He then asked his mother to sew it and sent it in. It was adopted, with slight modifications. Mr. Smith did not find out for six years, when Guyana gained formal independence.

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There have been over two dozen versions  of the Stars and Stripes since independence. Which was Mr. Smith’s favorite? The Betsy Ross flag, because “a ring of stars better symbolizes our harmony in diversity.”

 

 

The Laugher

Junko Tabei was the first woman to climb Mount Everest, and the first woman to climb the tallest mountain on each continent.

 

Her obituary in the Christian Science Monitor observes:

The early climbing achievements of Tabei, a married mother of two, were especially noteworthy at a time when most women were expected to stay home and perform domestic duties.

They are all the more noteworthy considering she was once labeled a “weak child.”

She had the last laugh, though: even after a cancer diagnosis in her seventies, she continued to climb, working toward her goal of scaling the highest peak in every country in the world.

 

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There is a poetic device in Japanese haiku poetry called a kigo, a word or phrase associated with a season. Fittingly,  Tabei’s favorite, expressing spring, was “the mountain laughs.”

 

 

Bob Kalsu

 

In 1968, Bob Kalsu was the Buffalo Bills’ rookie of the year. The next year he was an artillery officer in Vietnam.

Most other draftable pro athletes elected to serve in the reserves. Kalsu’s family and friends urged him to go that route. “I’m no better than anybody else… I gave ’em my word,” Kalsu said, referring to his promise, on joining ROTC, to serve on active duty. “I’m gonna do it.”

The Sports Illustrated profile of Kalsu is well worth reading any day, and especially on Super Bowl Sunday.

Word had gotten around the firebase that he had played for the Bills, but he would shrug off any mention of it. “Yeah, I play football,” he would say. What he talked about – incessantly – was his young family back home.

Grantland‘s “The Death of Bob Kalsu” describes the toll of his loss on that family.

For almost 30 years, Bob Jr. felt partially responsible for his father’s death. As the story went, Bob Kalsu was killed while running out to meet a helicopter that might be bringing the news of his son’s impending birth.

It took this NFL documentary to relieve Kalsu’s son of that burden.

If you’re watching today’s game with friends and family, take a moment to remember this devoted friend and family man who wore both his professional uniforms with distinction.

 

The Lover

 

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Mr. Barnes was known for his trademark “I love you” greetings which he bestowed on hundreds of commuters every morning from about 5am until 10am at the Crow Lane Roundabout.

 

There are a lot of rotaries in and around Boston. I drive through three each commute. Of the many interpersonal exchanges I’ve witnessed, the predominating theme is not love.

Johnny Barnes’s obituary in Bermuda’s Royal Gazette is a reminder that the unpleasantness we accept as normal could be otherwise.

The Economist eulogized Mr. Barnes with a parable, “Clothed with Happiness.”

This short film shows Mr. Barnes in action:

 

 

PS Boston drivers: note how Mr. Barnes extended all digits when he waved.

 

The Inventor

 

Who’s the most brilliant scientist to have immigrated to America?

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Is that your final answer?

Did you consider the inventor of washable crayons?

Colin Snedeker came to the United States as a youth. After inventing a non-staining shoe polish, he went to work for the maker of Crayola Crayons. As his obituary in the Wichita Eagle tells it:

[H]e had run out of ideas as to what to make next… He went into the company’s complaint department, where they had all kinds of mail from people complaining about what was wrong.

Thus inspiration struck.

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“He had that kind of mind that could just figure things out,” his sister said. Snedeker is just one of the brilliant minds America has been blessed with from abroad: since 2000, 40% of Americans who won Nobel Prizes in chemistry, medicine, and physics have been immigrants.

Mr. Snedeker may not have been a Nobel Prize winner. He is, however, (yet) another immigrant who has improved our lives.

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The Librarian

 

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“Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in these books?” – Walter Dean Myers

 

Pura Belpré was the first Puerto Rican public librarian in New York City.

As this NPR tribute recounts, “Belpré could not find any books in Spanish – so she wrote them herself.”

Moreover:

Belpré travelled all over the city, from the Bronx to the Lower East Side, telling stories with puppets in Spanish and English. Nobody was doing that back then.

Today there is an award in her name, given each year by the American Library Association, to honor a Latino author.

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The chances of winning this prize are, alas, not as slim as they should be: “the proportion of books for kids by Latino authors is so “shockingly low” that “it’s insane,” says the award official.

The problem is even larger. “Children’s and young adult literature… represent a stubbornly white world even as U.S. children are increasingly people of color,” Amy Rothchild concludes in FiveThirtyEight.

Ms. Belpré needs our help.

 

Roald Dahl

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“For many children Roald Dahl is synonymous with reading.”

 

Fighter ace, surgical device inventor, and FDR’s drinking buddy. And then there’s his services to literature, and literacy.

For Roald Dahl’s 100th birthday, the Oxford English Dictionary added several of his words – that’s how we’ve come to think of them – to their volumes.

He is rightfully known for his inventiveness with English. But as the Independent noted in Dahl’s obituary a quarter-century ago, “The quality of his writing is easily discernible by the fluency with which it can be read aloud.”

 

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See for yourself by reading the passage below out loud. A lesser writer would have crammed it with detail or been oblivious to its rhythm:

Continue reading “Roald Dahl”

Tommy Kono

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“Weight lifting is 50 percent mental and 30 percent technique. Power is only 20 percent, but everybody has it reversed.”

 

Grit is a popular topic in education these days,* and Tommy Kono’s life provides a case study: the man whose New York Times obituary twice includes the word frail was a world champion weightlifter.

His life offers instruction in irony, as well: Kono began lifting weights in the internment camp where his own country imprisoned him, then went on to serve that country’s military and represent it at the Olympics.

It also provides a notable example of cause and effect. Mr. Kono, recounting a conversation with someone who had attended one of his competitions in Austria, said: “He told me he was a 13-year-old boy in the audience that day and was so inspired he ran home and started working out.”

 

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*What is grit? It’s passion and perseverance for long term goals, according to Angela Duckworth on the Freakonomics podcast “How to Get More Grit In Your Life.

 

 

Jerry Parr

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One of my favorite lessons is to put students in Jerry Parr’s shoes. He was the Secret Service agent who had to make a life-or-death decision for President Ronald Reagan.

We read “The Day Reagan Was Shot” from the Wall Street Journal, stopping at the last sentence below:

Parr spun quickly through his options, wondering whether they should return to the White House or head straight to the nearest hospital. But what if the assassination attempt was part of a coordinated attack? What if there were other assassins out there? In that case, the White House was the safest place on earth, and that was where he should go. Besides, if he decided to take the president to a hospital and he hadn’t been seriously injured, the visit might unnecessarily panic the country or trigger a financial crisis. Moreover, the hospital wouldn’t be guarded, so he would be putting the president at great risk, especially if co-conspirators were lurking there, waiting, if need be, to finish the job. 

Still, what if Reagan was badly injured? Going to the White House could be disastrous; they’d be much better off at the nearest trauma center, in this case the one at George Washington University Hospital.

Parr weighed the two options. Neither seemed particularly good.

 

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A dilemma, I explain to students, is when you have two bad choices. The trick is to decide which one is less bad. So before finishing the article, we complete this exercise: students list the pros and cons of each option, make their decisions, and write persuasive essays to Agent Parr.

Agent Parr didn’t have time for contemplation. His agile mind, however, made the right call, and his heroism provides a lesson in how to make decisions under intense stress.

His obituary can be found in the New York Timesthe Washington Postthe Los Angeles Times, and via the Associated Press.

 

 

Leila Alaoui

 

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“She was fighting to give life to those forgotten by society, to homeless people, to migrants, deploying one weapon: photography.”

 

Years ago I spent many pleasant weeks in the capital of Burkina Faso, and have fond memories of the place. Last month’s terrorist attack there was all the more distressing because it took the life of a gifted photographer.

Leila Alaoui’s obituary gave us not only a geography lesson, but the opportunity to discuss the role of photography in human rights. (It also – I’m sure she’ll forgive us – gave us some fun saying Ouagadougou.)

The obituary’s opening sentence describes Ms. Alaoui’s work as hauntingly beautiful. In her honor, I gave students a homework assignment with neither due date nor grade: to take a photograph whose beauty is haunting.

 

 

Challenger Crew

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“They had a hunger to explore the universe and discover its truths. They wished to serve, and they did. They served all of us.”

 

Gym class came to a halt when a kid ran in and shouted: “The Space Shuttle exploded!”

I was a middle school student then, I’m a middle school teacher now. To honor the Challenger crew we read the transcript of the president’s speech on the evening of the tragedy.

 

 

We also watch this short film about one of the astronauts, Ronald McNair.

 

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I teach about the Challenger each year in a two-part lesson on how small causes can have large effects. “The first story is not a happy one,” I warn the students, and we learn the consequences of low temperatures on O-rings.

The second story, however, is joyous: “The Doughnuts,” by Robert McCloskey, the tale of a mechanical malfunction’s several benefits. I like to think the Challenger crew – especially the teacher – would approve.

 

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