My recent scrape with death—for those who hadn’t heard, I rolled my car in the Wallowa River canyon on Sunday on the way back from a fine Portland Thanksgiving—and the crazy recess in the war in Israel/Gaza have me thinking about fortune and history, about being in a certain place in a specific time, about the people and events that create our life stories. About my heroes.

My first heroes were baseball players. I learned to read reading sports pages, and learned math figuring batting averages. In 1952 I knew the starting lineups of most major league teams. I was a NY Giants fan in the National League, because their catcher, Wes Westrum, was from a little Minnesota town not far from mine. Westrum wasn’t a big baseball name like Willy Mays or Micky Mantle who played against him, but Clearbrook, Minnesota was on the same map as my town. I could try to follow his path, be like him.

When I had trouble hitting the curve ball and learned that I’d never be a fast runner or have a slingshot arm, I settled for more modest heroes—role models really: teachers and coaches I liked. I could do that: teach math and coach baseball.

The dreams changed in college. Like most who were alive on November 23 in 1963, I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard the news of Kennedy’s assassination. And I remember two UC Riverside students dropping out of college and joining the Peace Corps right then. “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” sent them on their way.

I had gone from thinking high school teacher/coach to college professor, but Kennedy and his words started working their way into my life. My best high school friend registered Black voters in Mississippi in what they called “Freedom Summer”; and a college roommate got me following Martin Luther King. A Vietnam “Teach-in” on the Northwestern campus was the final push—done with grad school and off to the Peace Corps. My heroes now were Kennedy and King. I picked up Gandhi too.

Those old heroes are gone. War heroes are the fashion now. Heroes and villains, but the players we follow in the news accounts and even in the games that gamers play: Zelinski, Putin, and Netanyahu, who will not rest until every Hamas militant is gone—I think that means killed.

The cries for peace seem desperate, the UN officials and journalists counting their dead, the pictures of torture victims and bombed hospitals and apartments. The ongoing attacks and reprisals, kidnapped children and ruined lives in Ukraine. The cries can’t compete with the war in Ukraine and the Israeli military and Hamas, who are at it again after that brief and crazy pause. In six or seven days a few score of hostages held by Hamas and prisoners held by Israel were released. It will take less than a week to count that many dead Palestinian children, aid workers, journalists, Israeli and Hamas soldiers.


There is a new movie out about Bayard Rustin. Rustin was the man who organized the March on Washington that we associate with Martin Luther King. Watching an interview with Coleman Domingo, who plays Rustin in the movie, sent me back to 1968 in Washington D.C. I signed on to help with the Poor People’s Campaign, and was in the capital city when King was killed and during the fires and riots that followed. We were trained by Quaker pacifists, and after the killing, listened to Coretta Scott King, Ralph Abernathy, and others urge us to continue with the campaign. Dead heroes still have power.

The story of Bayard Rustin, and the voices of Israeli and Palestinian peacemakers give me hope.
And Rustin, Abernathy, Fred Shuttlesworth, Jesse Jackson, the whole Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the chorus of white preachers and popular musicians who buoyed King as he marched, spoke, and wrote Civil Rights into the national conversation.

Kennedy rose with the hopes of a generation born and framed by WW II, and wanting peace. The people who guided him, people like Sarge Shriver, the first director of the Peace Corps, and the young Bill Moyers and Ted Sorenson, were supporters and co-authors of Kennedy’s vision for a better, and more peaceful, world. In the Peace Corps, we counted ourselves ground troops.

Today, we hear the loud voices of war and conflict. But there are other voices—Israeli, Palestinian, Russian, Ukrainian—struggling to keep people alive and drive us towards peace. It might sound corny, but there is no Willy Mays without a bunch of Wes Westrums, no Martin Luther King without Bayard Rustin.

I’m sure that most of us want peace for Israelis and Palestinians, Ukrainians and Russians. Sure also that there are plenty of strong bench players. We wait for Willy Mays, for JFK, MLK, for the Gandhi of and for our age.

# # #

JFK on Indians

In 1961, Alvin Josephy moved from Time Magazine to American Heritage, where The American Heritage Book of Indians was his first major assignment. The text was written by William Brandon, but Alvin oversaw designers and assistant editors who fact checked and copy read, and I am sure it was Alvin who scoured the country’s libraries and museums for images to accompany the text. The early reviews, neatly summarized by American Heritage staff members and stuffed behind the cover of Alvin’s own copy of the book, which sits in our library, extol the effort, and comment on the breadth and depth of text and illustration. General readers will love it, one reviewer says, but even scholars will find something new.

I think I’d glanced at the one page introduction by President John F. Kennedy at some point, but recently found myself reading it again—and it struck me that Kennedy’s message was or became Alvin’s message throughout his long career as writer, editor, and Indian activist: “American Indians remain probably the least understood and most misunderstood Americans of us all,” says JFK. And he goes on to say that we have things to learn from Indians, etc.

I don’t know how editor Josephy got JFK to introduce this volume, or who actually penned the words—speechwriter Ted Sorenson? Or JFK himself, who had a strong background in history and was no slouch as a writer. But this one page “Introduction” could neatly serve as our mission statement here at the Josephy Library of Western History and Culture.

The end of November

It is the end of November in my 72nd year and my mind churns.
I guess for many of us of a certain age November will always be associated with John Kennedy’s death. Yes, I remember the day, remember riding my bike to class at UC Riverside, putting it in a rack and walking across campus and coming on a distraught Dr. Dennis Strong, waving his hands, tears streaming down his face, shouting that they had shot the President.
Although a couple of UCR students I knew checked out almost immediately and joined the Peace Corps, it took me almost two years to do the same. We went to Turkey with Kennedy half-dollars stuffed in our bags, tokens we would hand out to friends we made. And, like Volunteers across the world, I found newspaper and magazine pictures of JFK, in my country alongside photos of Ataturk, in small villages across the land.
This November, teaching a class on ecosystems and tribes in nearby La Grande to Oregon State University ag and natural resource students, trying to get them to relook at what was here before our European ancestors arrived, I told them that new world potatoes probably saved my Norwegian ancestors from starvation and that Indians, people of the salmon who lived and worked what we now call the Pacific Northwest, were here with sophisticated societies and economies long before trappers, missionaries, explorers, and settlers came to change and replace them. I reminded them that historical perspectives change slowly, and that they had probably participated in the same fourth grade Thanksgiving pageants that I had watched and played in 60 years ago, that no one had encouraged us then to wonder where the corn and squash and beans that the Indians shared came from—and for that matter, how Squanto had learned enough English to tutor them in agriculture. Our history—and our stereotypes of hunter-gatherer Indians—have been handed to us flawed.
But there is change. A few days ago a group of Joseph fifth and sixth graders came to the Josephy Center to see the Indian art exhibit and the library. We talked about the Nez Perce and how they got their name. I told them about Indians from the coast, the far north and the inland high desert congregating at Celilo to fish and trade goods and stories. I said that when they got the horse, the Nez Perce had gone over the mountains to hunt buffalo. “Where did the Indians get horses?” I asked, and a bright-eyed fifth grader, hand bouncing in the air, said “I know, I know—the Columbian Exchange.”
I try to tell my grandchildren, who are in 7thand 9th grades, about Kennedy and how he tried to change the world—and in some ways did so—and how he changed my life. We have a campaign poster that I have hauled with me from 1960, my freshman year of college at Denver University, that promises “Leadership for the Sixties.” Their eyes glaze. I take them to the community Thanksgiving feed to help serve. As they feared, it’s mostly old people. They’re miffed—but they buck up and do a good job of it.  
Kennedy didn’t get many years—and watching it all again it seems that he knew that the work was big and his time was short. He wrote the foreword to the American Heritage Book of Indians (which Alvin Josephy edited; JFK on Indians for previous post) and showed an understanding of that history—we can wonder how Indian policy might have changed.
I am brought to his book, Profiles in Courage, and Alvin’s book, The Patriot Chiefs. Both men believed in the importance of individuals in their times. Alvin was a historian with an urge toward action; JFK an actor with a sense of history. My mind goes from Kennedy to Tecumseh, one of Alvin’s Patriot Chiefs, an Indian leader who dreamed a pan-Indian stand against the European invasion. He failed, but is with us still in the genes of Indians still fighting for sovereignty, still struggling for a place in their native land.
Dreams stay with us; Tecumseh and Kennedy are with us.