Speeches & Eulogies

Every now and then I’m asked to make a speech or give a eulogy. Though a written text of most of my remarks doesn’t exist, links to those that do are listed below in reverse chronological order.

2021 Memorial Day speech.  I was invited to speak at Albion’s Memorial Day event at the Boone County Courthouse.

2017 Sept. 11 Remembrance Event speech.  I was invited to speak at Albion’s 9/11 Remembrance Event at the Boone County Courthouse.

Monument Rededication remarks. In September of 2015 a monument to Civil War veterans in Winsted, Connecticut was rededicated on the occasion of its 125th anniversary. My great-great grandfather, William Addison Hosford, and several of his brothers were from the Winsted area and served in that war and the descendants of the veterans listed on the monument were invited to attend. Since I couldn’t, Winsted historian Virginia Shultz-Charette kindly read my comments for me.

2014 Decoration Day Speech about Civil War veterans who settled in the Boone County, Nebraska area and the effect on the Native Americans of white settlement.

Frank Hosford’s Eulogy. My remarks from my father’s funeral.

2013 Decoration Day Speech about Nebraska’s role in the Civil War.

2012 Decoration Day Speech about my Civil War ancestors.

Norman Smith’s Eulogy. My remarks from my friend Norman Smith’s funeral.

Feather & Dance Speech. My remarks form the 2011 Feather & Dance event in Meadow Grove, NE.

Speech for 3rd District Congressional candidate Donna Anderson. Mrs. Anderson gave her speech on KLKN TV in Lincoln shortly before the 2004 general election.

The Art of Teaching Music. I gave this speech to the Albion History & Art Club.

Etta Hosford’s Eulogy.  My remarks from my grandmother’s funeral in 1995.

2021 Memorial Day Speech

You know, for many people Memorial Day is just the unofficial start of summer, and for the fashion conscious, well, they can now wear white.  Fortunately, today wearing white is optional, or I would’ve had to buy a new suit.  But my grandmother Etta wasn’t so lucky – I’ve heard both her and my grandfather Russ complain about Memorial Day ceremonies back when they were in school.  In those days it was mandatory for the girls to wear white, and the boys had to dress up, too.

My grandparents said long-winded old men would give the same speech year after year – don’t worry – now at least it’s a new speech each year.   The students would have to march from the courthouse to the cemetery and they said it was always hot, dusty and boring.  They called it Decoration Day back then, and as children, my grandparents didn’t see why it was such a big deal.

But a lot of the grandfathers back when my grandparents were young, including some of their own, had fought in the Civil War, and to that generation Decoration Day was a big deal.  Originally this day was intended to honor those who had died in that terrible conflict.  Different states had different days of remembrance, and it wasn’t until much later that the former Union and Confederate states came to agree on one national day to honor all those who had been lost on both sides.  It was originally May 30th, some say because that’s when the most flowers bloomed.

This was, of course, in the days before we learned to grow artificial flowers – and there was a great need for flowers because there were an awful lot of graves to decorate.  Though estimates vary, most historians agree that around 750,000 men died from wounds or disease.  That was about 2 1/2% of the population back then – the equivalent of over 7 million people today.

Of course, not all the wounds resulted in death.  Many men were physically disabled for life, and often became addicted to opioids, like morphine or laudanum.  And many more suffered what we today call PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  Many of those men couldn’t return to civilian life – what they had endured was too terrible.  So they would “tramp around” for a while, as they put it, and I imagine many of you have heard of the tramps who were still roaming around decades after the war, men too broken to ever go home again.

Several of my ancestors fought in that war.  In many ways my family history starts when the war ended and these battle-weary veterans came here to build new lives.  Little seems to have been said about the war, at least that my grandparents could remember, or of what life had been like before it. Recently, though, a number of letters written by my great-great grandfather William Addison Hosford and two of his brothers showed up on eBay. Buying them was expensive, but reading them has been very educational.

William Addison Hosford was the youngest of 9 children and being the baby of the family, was known as “Addie.”  His and his brothers’ letters reveal a deep commitment to preserving the Union.  Addie and his brothers grew up near where the Hosfords had first settled in 1629, so maybe they had a deeper appreciation for what it took to build our nation.  At any rate, they couldn’t stand by and see it dissolved.  To them the Confederates were “traitorous rebels”, and they were willing to lay down their lives to defend the Union.  Addie’s obituary in 1912 says he fought not in the Civil War, not in the War Between the States, but in the “War of the Rebellion.”

Addie’s brother, Benjamin, was the first Union officer killed in the battle of Cedar Creek.  Forced by the Confederates to retreat, Addie carried Ben’s body for over a mile with the rebels hot on his heels.  He was finally forced to abandon it, though, and when it was later recovered, it had been stripped of Ben’s ring, buttons, belt and boots.

Addie’s brother Cal was captured in a heavy fog during a skirmish in Virginia – he didn’t know he was surrounded until it was too late.  He was sent to the infamous Andersonville prison where overcrowding and lack of food, sanitation and even clothing led to 13,000 Union prisoners dying.  Cal contracted scurvy, a disease caused by malnutrition, and being no longer able to fight, he was released in a prisoner exchange.  Cal was so emaciated that it took him all day to crawl one mile to a railway station where a train would take him north.  He weighed about 80 pounds and wrote how he “hitched himself along backwards with his hands, while resting on one hip.”  Not a single person helped him – because no one could – his fellow prisoners were as bad off as he was.

Another of my great-great grandfathers was also imprisoned in Andersonville; my family said he never fully recovered from what he endured there.

Addie was wounded in the battle of Cold Harbor when his unit charged a decoy position only to find the Confederates were waiting in the brush off to the side.  Addie’s unit suffered severe casualties and Addie himself was struck under one arm by a bullet that exited under the other.  Somehow he survived, and eventually even rejoined his comrades for General Grant’s final push to Appomattox, where Robert E. Lee surrendered.  Addie never fully recovered, either, and suffered from his wound for the rest of his life.

To these men who had fought and suffered, to these men who had watched their brothers and friends – along with hundreds of thousands of other soldiers – suffer and die, Decoration Day was a VERY big deal.  Civilians like me have no idea what war is really like, and it’s easy for us to mistake tales of glory for the reality of suffering and death.  So it’s good that we’re reminded each year of why this day is so important.

Now on Memorial Day, we remember all those who died in service to our country.  It’s not which war or conflict they fought in that matters; it’s their sacrifice – and we need to always remember their families – they sacrificed, too. But without taking anything away from all those who have given what President Lincoln called “the last full measure of devotion”, now more than ever, we need to remember the dead this event originally honored – those who died defending America from its own worst impulses.

The men who fought in the War of the Rebellion understood that America is as much an ideal as it is a place.  Since civilization began, governments have oppressed their citizens.  That’s how rulers hold on to power – they use force to keep people too afraid to speak out, too frightened to object to graft and injustice.

America was the first country in the world to allow people freedom of expression, freedom to truly be themselves, freedom to realize their full human potential.  For the first time in recorded history, men and women could speak freely, worship how they wished, assemble peaceably and even petition the government for redress of wrongs.  No common person before the forming of the United States had ever been able to do these things safely.

This great freedom, though doled out in piece-meal fashion – women, for example, couldn’t vote until nearly 150 years after America was founded – this power was meant to em-power – to empower average citizens to become the best they each could be.  But with this power comes an equally great responsibility, the responsibility to use it wisely.  Freedom, after all, is not license, not an excuse to do whatever we want, take whatever we want, call people whatever unkind names we want – that’s how preschoolers behave.  Rather, freedom is the power to live our own lives to the best of our ability while respecting the freedom of others to do the same.

It’s one thing, though, for people to live together when their government forces them to think and act the same way.  It’s quite another to maintain order and civility when people can think whatever they want, say whatever they want.  But our founders had faith in us to act like mature adults rather than preschoolers, trusted us to speak truth rather than falsehoods, had faith that we would act with integrity.

We enjoy another right, just by virtue of being human, a right that’s so fundamental it’s not even mentioned in our founding documents – we all have the right to believe what our own lives teach us.  Everyone is entitled to their own way of looking at the world – we earn it as we learn more and more of life’s lessons.  And because we all lead unique lives, we all have our own unique point-of-view.

But because there are millions and millions of us, there are millions and millions of points-of-view, and these can’t help but differ, sometimes greatly.  How we deal with all these different viewpoints, how we reconcile them, has always been America’s greatest challenge.  Too often we try to shout down opposing points of view rather than consider why people with different life experiences have come to see the world differently.  But as the originators of today’s holiday understood from bloody experience – when we fail to find peaceful resolutions to our differences, the results are horrific.

As last November’s election drew near, our country grew so polarized that I heard more and more people right around here say they were afraid of another Civil War.  And things haven’t gotten better since.  So the need for us to be responsible citizens has never been more urgent, at least not since the 1860s.  Because not only do many people fear a second Civil War, there are increasing numbers of people professing to WANT a new Civil War.  They say that we can only solve our problems – both real and imaginary – by killing those who hold different points of view.

Bull!  We are not barbarians – we are Americans united in our dedication to our country – or at least we should be.  But only by remembering the lessons of our past, by remembering the ideals of our nation, by remembering our nation’s motto – E Plurbus Unum – out of many, one – can we overcome this dark impulse towards violence.  It really is true that all it takes for evil to succeed is for good people to do nothing.  We have to take an active role as American citizens to raise the level of discourse in our country above that of the preschool sandbox.  We have to look for the humanity in our fellow citizens, especially when they are different in some way.  We have to remember that being Americans unites us in common cause to be the best we can be, both as individuals and as a nation.  That means we have to take responsibility for both our words and our actions; we must reach for higher highs rather than sink to lower lows.

This is Addie’s saber, and by rights it should have been hammered into a plowshare and used to break the sod.  But it wasn’t – he kept it as a reminder of the conflict that almost destroyed our nation.

Violence must not be the solution – let’s make sure this sword is never needed again.  Let’s take the lessons of our religions to heart – let’s not judge other people any more harshly than we want to be judged, remembering that we all have our own crosses to bear.  Let’s treat one another as we want to be treated, with dignity and respect.  Let’s look deep into our hearts and find that well spring of love for our fellow man that empowers us to overcome even the most daunting challenges.  And let’s never forget that our shared dedication to America’s highest values is more important than our differences.  For to forget these things would dishonor not only all those who have – and currently are – putting their lives at risk to defend the United States. Worse yet, to forget would dishonor that which is best within each of us, that inner goodness that America was founded to foster and protect.

Long ago an aged veteran complained that people born after the Civil War had a ‘tendency to forget the purpose of Decoration Day and make it a day for games and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears’.  This is a day of tears.

Let us never forget all those who made the supreme sacrifice for our country, and let us never forget why Memorial Day was created. We must all do our part to never again allow acrimony to lead Americans to take up arms against one another.

Thank you.

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2017 Remembrance Event Speech

I’d like to thank Leon Magsamen and the rest of the American Legion for inviting me to speak today.  September 11th is an important day in our nation’s history, and it’s an honor to be able to share my thoughts with all of you.

September 11th is, like December 7th, a “day which will live in infamy” – as President Roosevelt said of the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  “Infamy” is a word we don’t use very often because its rarely called for.  “Infamy” means of “evil fame or reputation” and refers to acts that are “loathsome, detestable and grossly shocking.”  So I’m glad we don’t have occasion to use “infamy” very often.  But it certainly applies to the 19 loathsome and detestable terrorists who hijacked 4 airplanes 16 years ago tomorrow, crashing three into buildings and one into the ground, killing 2,996 people and wounding 6,000 others.

As horrible as these numbers are, the hijackers were hoping to kill many, many more that day.  The first targets struck, the Twin Towers where over 2,600 people died – normally would have contained upwards of 100,000 people.  Had these buildings would have been full – as they would have been later in the day – the death toll at the Twin Towers could have easily exceeded the number of Americans who died in Vietnam.  125 people died on the ground when the third plane crashed into the Pentagon, and no one knows how many more would have died if the fourth plane, United Airlines Flight 93, had reached its presumed target, the United States Capital building.

This isn’t the first time Albion’s veterans have honored my wife Lori and myself – six months ago the local VFW and VFW Auxiliary helped us travel to Washington, D.C. to see our son Thomas represent Nebraska in the 2017 Voice of Democracy National Parade of Winners.  Their assistance was a gift we’ll always be grateful for – it gave us not only the chance to see our son during his proudest moment, it gave us a chance to see a few of Washington’s important sites the next day, including the U.S. Capital.

Our guide at the Capital was an energetic older woman who, before taking us through the rest of the building, showed us a modest plague in an out-of-the-way corner.

This plague contained the names of the 40 passengers and crew on board Flight 93, the only hijacked plane that didn’t reach its destination that infamous morning.   Our guide explained to us that the passengers on Flight 93 were aware of what had happened on the other three hijacked planes and, knowing the terrorists who had seized control of their flight intended to do something similar, joined together in a heroic attempt to prevent any more death and destruction.  And though they failed to regain control of their flight, they did force the hijackers to crash it into an unpopulated area near Shanksville, Pennsylvania.

Our tour guide told us that she had been working at the Capital that morning and would, in all probability, have died – along with many, many others – had it not been for the sacrifice these brave souls made.  And though Lori and I knew about their heroism from news reports at the time, hearing this story from someone whose life these people saved really made their sacrifice hit home…

Looking back to that infamous morning I remember thinking what many other people probably thought as well – why?  Yes, terrorists do terrible things, but not here, not to us.  What had changed?  What could possibly make anyone do something so heinous?

It wasn’t long before the story emerged.  The 19 hijackers were members of an extremely conservative branch of Islam that hates America intensely, in large part because they find our freedoms loathsome, detestable and grossly shocking to their warped sensibilities.  They hate us, for example, because in America we are free to say what we believe – even if what we say goes against the government, religion or popular opinion.  They hate us because in American we can vote, a right these radicals have a particular hatred for because democracy gives people the power to decide things – a power these radicals reserve only for God – and, of course, themselves.  And they hate us because they hate how we treat women – these misogynistic radicals are outraged that American women are active in all areas of our society.

We have been fighting these radicals openly since 9/11, and to date, 6,930 of our military men and women have been killed in this struggle, while another 52, 413 have been wounded – a huge sacrifice that must never be forgotten.

So what do these radicals want?  They want a world that they rule according to their interpretation of God’s will, a world without diversity, a world governed by the constant threat of violence to anyone who dares to disagree with them – or even anyone who doesn’t grow a full beard.  They proclaim themselves to be doing God’s work, to be the only ones who understand His will.  And they do their best to convince others that the world they are committing loathsome acts to create will be a utopia, a heaven on earth.

Unfortunately, a number of misguided people have fallen prey to these radicals’ deceitful promises, joining organizations like the Islamic State and committing all manner of atrocities.  Some of those radicalized by these self-proclaimed servants of God have carried out attacks in both this country and in Western Europe, killing innocent strangers and sometimes even their long-time coworkers.

These radicals are morally unhinged people who do their best to spread hatred and fear.  Indeed, the true power of these radicals lies not in their ability to convince those with psychopathic leanings to commit mass murder – their true power lies in what they can manipulate us as a society into doing to ourselves.  These radicals know that they speak only for a tiny portion of the Muslim world, they know that the vast majority of Muslims don’t hate the United States.  So these modern-day masters of deceit have devised a straightforward and well-documented plan – a plan to get us, the American people, to do much of their work for them by frightening us into abandoning our values.  They want us to become so afraid of Islamic terrorism that we see every Muslim as a potential terrorist – and treat them accordingly.  That is the only way that the majority of Muslims can be made to hate us – by us hating them first.

These radical terrorists do all they can to inspire fear in us, fear that they hope will make us give up some of our civil rights in order to feel safer.  WE are seen as THEIR most effective soldiers – only WE have the power to sacrifice freedom for security, only WE have the power to alienate enough moderate Muslims to turn the Islamic world against us.  This is their acknowledged plan, and we must be vigilant not to inadvertently help them realize its goals.

But, one may ask, isn’t Islam fundamentally a violent, intolerant religion which teaches its followers to hate anyone who is different?  These days it is often portrayed that way.  But is it really, or have its teachings been warped and twisted to meet the needs of violent, intolerant people?

While I won’t pretend to be an expert on Islam, I took note of a verse from the Qur’an – the Islamic holy book – many years before 9/11.  I encountered this passage in the transcript of a talk given by an Islamic scholar to a gathering of world religious leaders, leaders of all faiths.  The speaker asked why there are different religious faiths and quoted this passage from the Qu’ran as providing his religion’s perspective:

For each one of you – the different peoples of the world – God has appointed a Law and a Way of Conduct. If God had so willed, He would have made all of you one community, but He has not done so that He may test you in what He has given you; so compete in goodness. To God shall you all return and God will tell you [the Truth] about what you have been disputing.

This really caught my attention – I had had no idea that Islam accepted other faiths as legitimate.  A little investigation revealed more about Islam’s relationship to other faiths – with regard to the Jewish Faith, the Qur’an states:

It was [God] who revealed the Torah [the first 5 books of the Old Testament]; therein was guidance and light. By its standard the Jewish people have been judged by the Prophets who surrendered to God’s will, as well as by the Rabbis and the doctors of Law, for to them the protection of God’s book was entrusted…

With regard to the Christian Faith, the Qur’an says:

[God] gives you good tidings of a Word from Him who shall be called the Messiah.  And in the footsteps of the prophets [God] sent Jesus, the son of Mary, confirming the Law that had come before him: [God] sent him the Gospel: and therein was guidance and light and confirmation of the Law: a guidance and an admonition to those who are conscious of God.

And finally:

…[R]espect for all sincere religious communities is enjoined upon Muslims: O you who keep the faith! When you go abroad in the way of God, be clear and circumspect and say not to anyone who offers you a greeting of peace: “You are not a believer!”

This is not to say Islam is perfect, but it seems to me that anyone who genuinely believes its message of tolerance would not kill others simply because they aren’t Muslims – a justification the radicals routinely use.  And so I have to believe that our enemy in the War on Terrorism is not Islam’s 1.4 billion peaceful followers; our enemy is instead those who debase Islam for their own loathsome purposes.  These “true Muslims” – as the radicals portray themselves to be – are nothing more than craven killers who, under different circumstances, would kill in the name of whatever creed or tradition best suited their needs.  These terrorists, after all, mostly kill innocent Muslim civilians, with car bombs and suicide bombers, in market places and at weddings.  They kill simply to kill, no matter what they’d like us to believe.

When I told my son Thomas, who has just started his freshman year at Nebraska Wesleyan, that I had been invited to speak here today, he asked me to mention that we are hated by Islamic radicals because America is “the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.”  Thomas understands that the greatest threat terrorists pose to our way of life is not their acts of violence, infamous and loathsome as they are.  No, the greatest threat we face is from our own fear and hatred; fear that leads us to sacrifice freedom for the illusion of security and hatred that turns us against our brothers and sisters of the Islamic faith.

And so we must follow the example of all those who have fought – and are today fighting – in the War Against Terrorism; we must be brave, we must be courageous, and we must never abandon our freedom – or give in to blanket hatred of our fellow man – just because a small group of killers masked in the guise of any religion or any cause challenges us to stand up for what we believe in.  Americans have a long history of standing up for what we believe in, and we must continue to do so today.

In some ways September 11th, 2001, changed everything.  America’s sense of security was shattered.  Our enemies are no longer easily recognizable, our wars are no longer fought against other armies, and no longer are there any rules of war in play – civilians are now as much targets as our military is.  Our enemies can attack from anywhere at any time.

We’ve had no say in any of this – these are changes that were thrust upon us that infamous morning.  But we do have a say in how we respond.  So let’s honor all those whose lives have been lost and all those who have lost loved ones to terror, let us honor all those who must deal with injury and disability as a result of fighting against terror, and let us honor all those who are risking their lives this very moment to protect us from terror, by remaining true in our hearts to our American ideals of freedom, justice, equality and acceptance.

These are the qualities that have long made us stand out among the nations of the world.  That we are sometimes attacked by evil men because of our beliefs should come as no surprise.  Let us use the memory of 9/11 as a rallying point and once again, as our nation has done so many times in the past, demonstrate to the world the strength and the goodness we Americans truly possess.

Thank you.

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Winsted Monument Rededication Remarks

These remarks were read for me at the rededication of the Civil War Veterans’ monument in Winsted, Connecticut in September, 2015…

My name is Paul Hosford and I am the great-great grandson of William Addison Hosford who, though his name is not on this monument because he enlisted in New Haven, was a member of the regiment being remembered today.

My great-great grandfather was one of the earliest settlers in Boone County, Nebraska, and I live only a few miles from where he homesteaded. William lived out his life here and worked tirelessly to promote education, the arts, and a concern for social justice on this frontier. But first and foremost he was a proud veteran of Litchfield County’s “Old 19th” and was forever married to the ideals of freedom and justice that led him to be wounded in the carnage at Cold Harbor and lose his brother Benjamin Franklin Hosford at the battle of Cedar Creek. Today, based on what I know of him, I cannot help but feel he would want me to share these thoughts with all of you:

At a time when our nation is yet again confronting racial division, the rededication of this memorial reminds us that the men whose names appear upon it were willing to give their lives for the cause of freedom. And though their sacrifice freed the slaves, the struggle for justice never ends. It rests with us, their descendants, to carry on their work, and this monument serves as a reminder that such struggles, though never easy, are ultimately worth the effort.

Speaking for myself I commend all those who have made this rededication possible and regret that I cannot be here to help celebrate our shared heritage of commitment and courage. We are the inheritors of a just and noble legacy, and I have faith that for as long as this memorial stands, it will serve as a reminder that that which is best within us can – and has — overcome that which is worst.

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 2014 Decoration Day Remarks

This speech was given as part of the 2014 Boone County Historical Society’s Decoration Day event…

They say “Nature abhors a vacuum,” and that’s what this area used to be – a vacuum. The Great Plains were called the Great American Desert not just because they were dry but because they were deserted. With the exception of some trappers, traders, and a few missionaries, for a long time – well past the time of Lewis and Clark — the middle of the United States was inhabited mostly by buffalo.

The vacuum of the deserted Great Plains didn’t exert much suction on the first pioneers to encounter it. They passed right on through, headed towards Oregon, California and the Great Salt Lake. It wasn’t until the Homestead Act in 1862, which gave free land to anyone who would just stay on it for a few years, that Nebraska’s endless prairie began to attract settlers. And since Civil War veterans could subtract the number of years they’d served from the time it took to “prove up” on a land claim, many of the early settlers in Nebraska – and here in Boone County – were Union veterans of the War Between the States.

Since this was considered a desert, prospective pioneers were told that “rain follows the plow,” meaning that if they broke the sod the freshly exposed earth would draw rain to it. This isn’t the case, of course, but Nebraska was actually experiencing an unusually wet climate period during those early years, and in retrospect the pioneers can be forgiven for thinking that their coming brought the rains.

What they did bring from Nature, though, were songbirds. Yes, there were birds here already – hawks and owls, eagles and buzzards, kingfishers and woodpeckers. But the songbirds, robins and cardinals and the other small birds who waken the sun with their songs each morning, came with the whites.

And though they, like the white settlers, were new to this area, they soon embraced it as their home. Scientists have found that the birds in our yards, the birds who come in the Spring and leave in the Fall, are the same birds year after year. No one knows for sure how they find their way back each year, but they do. This is their home and they come back generation after generation.

This land doesn’t exert a similar pull on people. It’s been said that the leading export from most of Nebraska’s rural counties is their children. But this hasn’t always been the case. And though the white explorers who first traversed the Great Plains saw in them a desert, they weren’t deserted. It’s just that the people who lived here didn’t count in the eyes of the Whites. They were, after all, just Indians, “redskins” who were nothing more than an impediment to settlement and travel.

“Redskins” like the ones who crafted and used this centuries old stone hammer I’m holding in my hand. Made from granite carried here on foot from very far away, this is as hard as the monuments in Rose Hill and St. Michael’s cemeteries. I cannot imagine how someone carved this without the aid of metal tools. And it speaks volumes about the skills of those who came before us if we just take the trouble to listen.

Boone County was actually one of the last areas of Nebraska to be settled. That’s because for a time the whites and the Indians co-existed. Boone and Nance counties were originally set aside as home to this area’s largest Native tribe, the Pawnee. So as the surrounding counties filled with homesteads and towns, Boone and Nance counties remained off-limit to homesteaders.

But as the lands around them filled, the “vacuum” of this area began to exert its pull. In time Boone was split away from Nance and opened to settlement. Several branches of my own family were among the first to take advantage of this, settling here as early as 1872. And it’s no coincidence that my ancestors, like most of the others to first settle here, were veterans of the Civil War.

One of the provisions of opening Boone County to settlement had been that the settlers not collect firewood from what remained of the Pawnee’s land. Though far reduced in number from the estimated 20,000 who once lived between Fullerton and Genoa, these long-time occupants of this land needed the sparse timber that could be found along the creeks for cooking and for heat in the winter.

But so did the whites. And though they tried everything from burning bundles of dried grass to mining peat in the northwest corner of this county, in order to survive they had to raid the wooded stream courses to the south.

The Pawnee were already in desperate straits – their population had been severely reduced by disease, hunger and incessant attacks by the Sioux. The Sioux were unabashedly genocidal – they were dedicated to wiping out the Pawnee and they did so by attacking Pawnee women. It was the women who did the farming, as their foremothers had for at least a thousand years before them. And, of course, it was the woman who had babies. The Sioux would lie in wait near their fields, and attack them when they came forth to hoe or harvest. [Fort Hartsuff, near Ord, was actually built to try to stop these Sioux war parties as they followed the Loup from the Sandhills to Genoa.] The Pawnee were also under a lot of official pressure to relocate to the Indian Territories of Oklahoma, and when they could no longer cook their food or stay warm in the winter because whites had taken all the timber, they embarked upon a long and arduous journey to the south, giving up the home where their ancestors lay buried on hilltops just as our ancestors do today.

I have been honored to know some of the modern Pawnee and I have danced with them to ancient songs that had once been sung here. One of the newer songs – and the saddest – tells the story of the Pawnee Trail of Tears. Though I could not understand the words, the sadness was none-the-less palpable.

The Pawnee weren’t the only Native Americans forced off their land by the coming of the Whites. The Otoes – who had taken in their kindred, the Missouria when they were displaced, were moved to Kansas. And though the Omaha tribe was lucky enough to retain some of their ancestral lands, their close cousins, the Ponca, who lived near the mouth of the Niobrara, suffered the same fate as the Pawnee and Otoe.

Leaving these people’s home did much to break what famed Lakota visionary Black Elk referred to as the “hoop of the nation,” a series of intricate and ancient relationships that joined Native Americans to not only one another but the land and those who lay beneath it. Everything was part of one large family, and thus everyone knew how they were related to everything around them. But when taken away from their ancestral lands these relationships broke apart, and the people became lost both literally, by having to travel to a strange land, but also spiritually, by having their link with the cosmos broken.

All of the exiled tribes trekked through settled lands, and all of these tribes suffered greatly on their journeys. It was especially painful when a loved one died en route, for they could neither be buried with their ancestors nor with the tribe in its new home. One such burial occurred in the Laurel Hill Cemetery at Neligh where 18-month old White Buffalo Girl, the daughter of a Ponca also named Black Elk and his wife Moon Hawk, died. In an act of compassion that still resonates today, a monument was erected, and on it is inscribed the heartfelt message of her father. That message reads:
“I want the whites to respect the grave of my child just as they do the graves of their own dead. The Indians don’t like to leave the graves of their ancestors but we had to move and hope it will be for the best. I leave the grave in your care. I may never see it again. CARE FOR IT FOR ME.”

Like the parents of this little girl, the people who were already settled in this land when our ancestors settled it, left here in the hope that their relocation would “be for the best.” And like Black Elk and Moon Hawk, the Native Americans left this land, like her grave, in our care, clinging to the eternal hope that though they might never see it again, we would care for it for them.

It is now my honor to introduce today’s featured speaker – whose coming here was made possible by the support of Humanities Nebraska – Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Joe Starita, who will discuss a most notable Ponca Chief who, like our song birds, could not be kept from this land, even though to do so required he establish in court that the people who lived here when this land was just a desert were every bit as human as you and me.

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My Father Frank’s Eulogy

I gave these remarks after the unexpected passing of my father, Frank, at his funeral on Dec. 31st, 2013…

It’s hard to think clearly after a loved one passes away suddenly. But through the swirl of thoughts and emotions memories soon emerge, and I’ve found it interesting that the first things to come to my mind while preparing these remarks are that Frank didn’t like his middle name and that he genuinely hated taking piano lessons. He had to practice an hour every day for ten years, which, I suppose, explains why he didn’t like it.

That next thing that came to mind was how much Frank loved his country. Frank enlisted in the Navy the day he turned 18, passing up both a Regents scholarship and a congressional appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy. Young men from across our nation were fighting and dying, and Frank felt his place was beside them rather than in a classroom. Though the war officially ended before Frank reached the Philippines, he was involved in efforts to mop up Japanese guerrillas who refused to surrender, once nearly losing his life to a sniper’s bullet.

Frank also loved the outdoors. Some of my fondest memories are of collecting “beaver wood” – small trees beavers had gnawed on so I could take them to Kindergarten for Show-and-Tell, and later of hunting pheasants with him. Though we rarely got close to any pheasants it gave us time to talk.

Frank dearly loved to read and learn, something he took pains to pass on to me. Before I’d even learned to read he’d given me my own atlas, dictionary and desk encyclopedia. When we cleaned out his room at the nursing home after he passed away, we found three books on advanced physics he’d been reading.

But most of all when I think of Frank I think of his life-long love of jazz. I wanted Frank to play some examples for you this morning, but he’s long been shy about performing in public, and today is no exception. The music you heard before the service began, though, is from his solo CD which was recorded in the nursing home and released just over a year ago.

Jazz, like learning, was such an important part of Frank’s life that he was teaching me to play it long before I started school. And jazz was such an important part of Frank’s life that the only instructions he left for his funeral were that in place of hymns, he wanted us to listen together to some of his favorite recordings.

One of the instrumental artists Lori and I brought to Albion said he’d recently been told music without words isn’t really music. But I disagree. Music is a form of communication that transcends words and thus music allows us to share feelings that we couldn’t share otherwise. The piece that was played a few moments ago [Dick Hyman playing Vicksburg Blues] evokes the essence of the blues better than any piece I know, elevating feelings of sadness and loss to a spiritual level.

Music is what life sounds like to our hearts, and no music captures the full range of human emotions more than jazz.   And while jazz is not generally religious, jazz is a very spiritual music. The heart of jazz is improvisation, making things up as you go. When a jazz musician plays he doesn’t know what’s going to come out of his instrument, and he never plays things the same way twice.

The thought of having to just make up your part on the spur of the moment frightens a lot of people away from playing jazz. But we all have music in our hearts. Jazz musicians simply allow that music to flow through them, and this allows their spirits — and the listeners’ — to soar. Unless you’ve done it yourself, it can be hard to understand just how free a person is, how alive a person is, when you can express your self freely yet in harmony with those playing with you. Many jazz musicians say that their music comes from some place beyond them, a place richer and better than the world we otherwise inhabit.

And that’s why Frank’s funeral is so much about music. Though I know darn well that Frank is here with us right now, there’s no denying that he’s moved on to a place beyond our understanding.   I believe in my heart that place is the same place where his beautiful music originated. And while losing Frank has been a terrible shock and a terrible loss, I have no doubt that he’s gone to where music lives. Thus he’ll be with us always, with us when we listen to the heart-felt playing of other musicians, with us even when we just sing quietly to ourselves.

He’ll be with us in many other ways as well, including through the musical legacy he passed on to first me and then to his grandchildren. My son Thomas asked to join Frank and me musically when he was thirteen, and the prelude at the beginning of this service was written by Frank and played by Frank and Thomas. My daughter Angela has been working for months now on the flute part to one of Frank’s compositions, and Sunday before last we began planning for Frank and my son William to start recording piano/vocal duets. And while it’s sad that these musical collaborations have now ended, we’ll continue to complete the songs we’ve been working on, together with our friend Rich, so we can one day share them with you.

I’d like to wrap things up by sharing one of Frank’s favorite jokes, a joke about a man who died and went to Heaven. After going through the admission process an angel was summoned to give him a tour. Everyone there had their own home and occasionally the angel would point to a modest bungalow and say that it was the home of a deceased pope.

The new arrival thought these homes were nice but couldn’t help but notice there was a mansion on a hill behind them. Finally he asked the angel who lived in the mansion. The angel replied that it was Duke Ellington’s home. The man was perplexed; why, he asked, would Duke Ellington have such a grand home when the popes had such modest ones? “Oh,” the angel replied, “Heaven is swarming with popes but Duke Ellington is the only piano player we’ve got!”

I, for one, believe Heaven now has two…

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2013 Decoration Day Speech

This speech was given as part of the 2013 Boone County Historical Society’s Decoration Day event…

I’m wondering if there might be any members of the Republican Party in this audience. I know they’re pretty rare around here, but I suppose there could be someone…

I’m sure you know, then, that the Republican Party was born out of the Kansas/Nebraska Act of 1854. This act is one of the most important in our nation’s early history because not only did it lead to the creation of the anti-slavery Republican Party, it also split the Democratic Party into Northern and Southern factions, opening the way for our featured speaker today to eventually become president.

While there were never any invasions, battles or skirmishes between the Union and Confederacy on Nebraska soil, the Civil War looms large in Nebraska’s past. Our very creation laid the foundation for the war, and though still a territory rather than a state when the Civil War was fought, this war did much to shape Nebraska.

The political battles between the North and the South date back to the time of America’s founding when it was decided that slavery would be allowed in the South.

As our nation grew Southern politicians struggled to keep an equal number of free and slave states so they could maintain a balance of power in Congress and preserve slavery for both economic and cultural reasons. Their efforts faced opposition for anti-slavery Northerners and the conflict first came to a head in 1820 when the Missouri Compromise was reached, admitting Maine into the union as a free state and Missouri as a slave state.

But as America grew this balance was threatened. In 1854 the Kansas/Nebraska Act created the territories of Kansas and Nebraska (the Nebraska territory originally extended all the way to Canada). Though primarily done for purposes of building a transcontinental railroad, this act also allowed settlers in these territories to decide for themselves whether slavery would be permitted or not.

Has anyone ever heard of the Kansas Jayhawks? Jayhawks, though now a university mascot, were originally anti-slavery settlers in Kansas. They met violent opposition from pro-slavery factions from Missiouri, and this conflict began the bloody careers of outlaws like the Jesse James and the Younger Brothers.

Nebraska was fortunate not to experience such conflict. The 1860 census counted 28,841 white settlers – most living near the Missouri River – and only 15 black slaves. Most of these settlers were from free states and in 1861 the territorial Legislature officially banned slavery.

Just 4 days after the Civil War began with the shelling of Fort Sumter, two companies of the 2nd Infantry as well as troops stationed at Fort Kearney marched east to join the war.

In addition to this, in the summer of 1861 the First Nebraska Volunteer Infantry was formed in Omaha with future governor John Milton Thayer as their leader. This regiment was formed at the request of the federal government with the understanding that some companies would remain in Nebraska to replace the regular troops who had already been withdrawn. However, this promise was not honored and the entire regiment was sent east in August to fight under general Ulysses S. Grant in Tennessee.

The First Nebraska reached Fort Donelson in western Tennessee in February of 1862, and on their second day there helped repulse a desperate Confederate attempt to break through the Union lines, giving the Union its first major victory of the war.

After this battle they were praised by their division commander, General Lew Wallace, a man more famous for writing a book that lead to a movie I suspect many of you may remember – General Wallace wrote the epic novel Ben Hur.

General Wallace said of the First Nebraska and their resolve in the face of the Confederate attack, “They met the storm, no man flinching, and their fire was terrible. To say they did well is not enough. Their conduct was splendid. They alone repelled the charge.”

Only weeks later the First Nebraska fought in the largest battle of the war so far, the battle of Shiloh in southern Tennessee.

Over time at least six Nebraska divisions were formed, including the famous Pawnee Scouts from nearby Genoa.

In all 3,000 of the 9,000 eligible men in Nebraska fought in the war. They were joined by many of their wives who served as nurses and even some freed slaves who served as cooks. 239 Nebraska soldiers lost their lives during the war mostly from accidents and disease. Fewer than 50 actually died in battle.

Not every Nebraskan opposed slavery and some even fought for the Confederacy. Many Nebraska Democrats felt the war should restore the union, but not free the slaves. Perhaps the most well-known was J. Sterling Morton of Nebraska City, now recognized as the founder of Arbor Day. Although not a slaveholder, Morton decried the Emancipation Proclamation and criticized other policies of Abraham Lincoln.

Men who publicly supported the Southern cause were in some instances arrested and held until taking the Union Oath of Allegiance. Two agitators in Nebraska City were even killed, one by being shot and the other by being thrown beneath the ice of the frozen Missouri River.

Seward County actually changed its name because of the Civil War.   It had originally been named Greene County after a popular Army general. However, when it became known that General Greene had joined the Confederacy, Greene County was renamed for Abraham Lincoln’s Secretary of State, William H. Seward.

Though there were no battles between the North and the South in Nebraska, the war did come to our state indirectly as a result of so many soldiers being absent. Troops had been stationed at Fort Kearney since 1847 to protect travelers on the Oregon Trail from Indians and the Indians from both travelers and each other. When these troops were withdrawn, settlers were left unprotected, and the Sioux, Cheyenne and Arapaho tribes seized this opportunity to try to drive settlers out.

A Nebraska historical roadside sign located south of here on Highway 14 near Nelson gives this brief account of the Indian War of 1864:

“Beginning on August 7, 1864, the Indians made concerted attacks on stage stations and ranches along the Oregon Trail, hitting nearly every settlement for 400 miles, from Julesburg to Big Sandy. Travel ceased for two months.

“The most severe attacks were along the upper Little Blue River where about 100 people were killed. Several died at Oak Grove but others escaped and Pawnee Ranch was successfully defended. At “the Narrows” the Eubanks families were attacked and seven killed. Mrs. Eubanks, two children and Miss Laura Roper were taken prisoner and held captive for months. Teamsters were killed, wagon trains burned and ranches were smashed or burned. Settlers fled east to Beatrice and Marysville for protection.

“Troops and local militia companies attacked and drove back the Indians in the battle of the Little Blue on August 17, 1864. Major raids ceased after this but skirmishes continued through the fall.”

Because of this Indian problem troops from Iowa were sent to regarrison Fort Kearney. Some were even sent to a lonely location along the South Loup, a post that soon became known as “Fort Banishment” because troops with drinking problems were stationed there. Fort Kearney also became home to a group of former Confederate soldiers who had changed sides, earning them the name “Galvinized Yankees.”

Nebraska played an important role in other ways during the Civil War. Before the Civil War Texas had been America’s major supplier of beef. However, when Texas joined the Confederacy Nebraska took its place. After the war cattle in Texas were nearly worthless because the herds had multiplied dramatically while their owners were fighting in the war. The solution was to drive them north to Nebraska so they could be shipped east by rail, giving rise to the much-romanticized era of the cowboy.

In 1862 President Lincoln had enacted the Homestead Act giving free land to settlers who stayed on a claim for a number of years. After the war, Union veterans could deduct their years of service from the homestead obligation, which attracted so many to Nebraska it became known as “the soldiers’ state.”

Though few know it, Nebraska’s first attempt at gaining statehood in 1866 was rejected because Nebraska’s constitution limited voting to white men only. Congress declared that they – rather than the individual states – would henceforth control suffrage and other civil rights – a direct outcome of the Civil War.

Not everyone in Nebraska’s Legislature agreed with this, however. Sarpy County Democrat George N. Crawford offered an amendment that declared “And be it further enacted that the governor of this territory be authorized to procure a coffin in which to enclose the remains of the sovereign rights of the people of the territory.”

Today, more than 150 years since the Civil War began, the debate about the sovereign right of states to grant or restrict civil rights still rages. And while reasonable people can disagree about the limits of state and federal power, it is important to remember the words of Historian Drew Gilpin Faust, who recently said,

“We are the beneficiaries of what those who fought in the Civil War did, and it behooves us to try to carry on their commitment, their belief in this nation – a nation which Lincoln described as the “last, best hope of earth.” We need to dedicate ourselves to the propositions that were at the heart of what those men did and died for, such as liberty and the equality of humankind. Those things are no less important today.”

Nebraska, though not yet a state, was none-the-less an important part of the Civil War. Because of the Homestead Act – which Lincoln enacted in part to help prevent slavery from spreading – Nebraska became a Mecca for Union veterans, veterans who shaped our identity and safeguarded the values of freedom and human dignity that we all cherish today.

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2012 Decoration Day Speech

This speech was given as part of the 2012 Boone County Historical Society’s Decoration Day event…

Despite having been born a hundred years after the Civil War began, the War Between the States was a part of my childhood.  And this is simply because it had been a big part of the lives of my grandparents.  Among the first and second generations to have been born in Boone County, the world my grandparents grew up in had been shaped by family members, friends, and neighbors who had served in the Civil War.  And they passed stories of these people on to me.

Civil War artifacts were commonplace in my grandparents’ home.  Both of my grandfather Russ’s grandfathers had fought in the Civil War, and a saber, scabbard worn completely through from years of marching, hung over the family fireplace.  Beside it was a medal awarded by the State ofConnecticutto William Addison Hosford for his service in the war.  His army belt, complete with brass buckle, is tucked in a drawer someplace, as is a little black matchbox that my grandfather’s other grandfather kept with him – though the matches were long-gone — during his time in the infamous Confederate prison at Andersonville.

A Civil War veteran had even lived across the street when my father was a boy.  I once asked my father about this man and he said his name had been Mr. Keester and that he was very old.  My father said he never knew Mr. Keester’s first name because he was treated with such deference and respect that everyone always called him “Mr. Keester.”

Mr. Keester was perhaps the last of the 160-some Civil War veterans in the 1890 Boone County census.  And while his age no doubt contributed to the respect he was given, it was more than that.  Mr. Keester was the living embodiment of the spirit that built this county, a spirit forged in the crucible of war.

Many pioneers, of course, weren’t civil war veterans, but many of the first settlers here were.  This was in part because the Homestead Act allowed union veterans to claim up to 160 acres of land and deduct the number of years they’d served in the military from the 5 years required to “prove up” on a claim.  But this wasn’t the only reason – many veterans found they didn’t really fit in back at home after the experience of the war, and thus set out to build new lives in the West.

One can only wonder if their experiences in the war helped prepare them for the hardships of pioneer life.  My great-great-grandfather Sissen somehow survived the starvation, disease and beatings that claimed nearly 13,000 other lives at Andersonville, but he never completely recovered physically or mentally from the experience.  Yet he settled on the tall grass prairie of Minnesota and despite losing his wife in childbirth, raised his children as neighbors to Laura Ingles and her family.  Any of you who’ve read the Little House on the Prairie books knows something of the hardships these families faced.

My grandfather’s other grandfather, William Addison Hosford, was the youngest of 9 children and enlisted with his older brothers when the war began.  In 1863 he was badly wounded and carried shrapnel in his back for the rest of his life.  Despite this debilitating injury, he re-enlisted after nine months of convalescence and marched with the Union army through Virginia, where his brother, Benjamin Franklin Hosford – or “Frank” as he was called, was the first Union officer killed in the battle of Cedar Creek.

In 1872 William Hosford brought his young family from Washington D.C. to Nebraska, where they settled along the banks of a small creek a few miles north of St. Edward.  The Hosfords traveled here with the Voorhees brothers and their families.  William had served with the Voorhees brothers in the war, and they formed a life-long bond as a result.

But life in early Boone County wasn’t easy.  I can still remember my grandfather and his brother Raymond telling stories they’d grown up hearing, stories about those challenging early times.  The families who settled in what became known as Voorhees Valley lived in sod houses and also built sod barns.  And while the windows in the houses were fitted with panes of glass, the barn windows weren’t.  On time, at the onslaught of a blizzard, the Hosfords stuffed hay into the barn windows to keep the snow and cold out.  It was three days before the storm died down enough to get back to the barn.  There they found that the horses had eaten the hay from the windows and frozen to death as a result.  This was a terrible loss – not only were the horses their only means of transportation, they were essential to farming.

And it wasn’t just blizzards that threatened their fragile hold on this land.  On a night something like last night, a heavy rain caused a flash flood on the Voorhees creek that ran by the family’s sod house.  Great-great-grandmother Hosford’s mother was living with them, and was so ill that the only way to save her from the floodwaters was to carry her on her bed, out into the storm, to higher ground.

My great-great-grandmother, Alice Rebecca Hosford, hadn’t been raised to be a pioneer woman – she was petite and refined, having attended a girls “finishing school” in our nation’s capital.  Yet one time when William was away and a prairie fire threatened their homestead, she hitched up the walking plow and plowed a firebreak around their buildings.  She was so exhausted by this, though, that she spent the next five days in bed – and no one ever forgot!

The Hosfords’ also suffered a tragedy during those early years.  Their oldest son, named for William’s brother who had died at Cedar Creek, accidentally shot himself with William’s Civil War revolver and later died from his wound.  He is probably one of the earliest burials in the St. Edward cemetery, and his tombstone bears the poignant inscription “Our Frankie”.

There were locusts, too.  Clouds of locusts darkened the sun and devoured everything in their path, including the handles of shovels and hoes.  Everyone lost everything – it was so bad that the Boone County Commissioners had to waive property taxes and the army roamed this area looking for starving homesteaders to give food to.

So why did anyone stay?  Some historians say it was because they were too poor to leave.  And for some this was probably the case.  And while it wasn’t just Civil War veterans who did stay, many of the leaders who emerged in those early years were veterans who somehow, in addition to dealing with the trials and challenges of their own lives, found the time and energy to transform the prairie into not just farms, but into towns and cities.

Drawing again from the stories handed down in my own family, William Hosford was “drafted” in the mid 1870s as the Boone County school superintendent.  He had declined to run for this office, but was written in by the people who knew him.  And so he took on this task and worked hard to establish what would eventually become the more than 90 rural school districts Boone County once boasted.  Old records indicate he put a great deal of energy into finding books and slates for all the students in the county, and he held seminars each year to train the young girls who taught in the schools.

He also served as a delegate to state political conventions, as mayor of Albion and even as the Clerk of the District Court, where he took pride in assisting newer immigrants in gaining not only their homesteads but their American citizenship.  If they couldn’t pay their filing fees, for example, he would pay, sometimes accepting items in return, and we still have a beautiful meerschaum pipe bearing the date 1810 that he was given by a settler from Switzerland.

Besides his political duties, he was very active in area communities.  He is said to have built the first frame house in St. Edward, he helped start Albion’s mill, and he even edited a local newspaper devoted to international human rights issues, including abuses by the Russian Czar that would, in time, bring about the Russian Revolution.

I’m not telling you all this because William Hosford was exceptional and unique – he wasn’t.  He was just one of many, many veterans who had been willing to risk injury and death to keep our nation together and free the slaves.  And like so many veterans before and since, these veterans were as willing to serve in times of peace as they had been in times of war.

Thus these veterans didn’t just build homesteads, they built communities.  They brought government, education, commerce and culture to the frontier.  Among the items that the Hosfords brought in their covered wagon were musical instruments and they would for many years to come host “musicales” on Sunday afternoons.

The war had taught these veterans to overcome hardship.  Like veterans of other wars, these soldiers had used their ingenuity to overcome obstacles even when there was no one ordering them to do so.  One such veteran was “Old man Stout,” as my grandfather Russ called him.  Having no family of his own he lived with Russ’s family on the west edge of Albion.  When it was decided that their house needed to be enlarged, even though he was no longer a young man, Mr. Stout chopped down several cottonwood trees and sawed them into planks all by himself.  He then proceeded to build a new room.  His only expenses were nails, window glass and the hinges and knob for the door.  Talk about the pioneering spirit!

I hope these anecdotes, which are a part of this county’s history, can help us understand why veterans like my father’s childhood neighbor, Mr. Keester, were held in such high regard, and why Memorial Day, or Decoration Day as it used to be called, was such an important holiday.  I’ve heard my grandparents Russ and Etta talk many times about how Civil War veterans like “Cap” – short for “captain” Ferris and “Cap” Willott would give presentations to school children on Decoration Day.  Poor Cap Willott had bad eyesight and had to turn his back to the students in order to have better light to read his speech.  Yet so commanding was his presence that the students listened just as closely as if he’d been facing them.

The school girls would all dress in white and after the speeches lead a procession to Rose Hill cemetery, carrying fresh flowers that they would lay on veterans’ graves, a tradition that is still with us as today’s veterans and youth volunteers decorate these very same graves with small American flags.

The world has changed a lot since my grandparents were in school, and even more since their grandparents fought to keep our country united.  But that doesn’t mean these times aren’t still important today.  The spirit embodied by the Civil War veterans who settled in Boone County was the spirit of enterprise, the spirit of perseverance, and the spirit of civic-mindedness.  To them life wasn’t just about themselves; it was about building schools and churches, mills and businesses, roads and bridges, libraries and a courthouse.  They were what I would call “active Americans” because they understood that every American has a responsibility to this nation and the ideals it stands for; and they saw it as an honor to be able to participate in the great and on-going experiment that always has been — and always will be — the United States of America.

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Norman Smith’s Eulogy

I gave these remarks at the request of the family at Norman Smith’s funeral on Dec. 24th, 2011…

Though I felt honored when I was asked to capture the spirit of Norm in words for this gathering, I also felt overwhelmed.  How could I capture the spirit of a man like Norm?  But once I thought about it, I realized that it wasn’t a very difficult job.  It wasn’t like I was being asked to “spin” anything so that in retrospect, Norm would appear a better man than he really was.  Heck, this is an easy job – were it not for holding back tears — Norm’s life speaks for itself; there isn’t much I can add.  And I assuredly don’t need to – when told of Norm’s passing, Ted Thieman remarked that he and his wife Ramona will “be talking about the joy of knowing Norm Smith for the rest of their lives.”  And I’ll wager that everyone here today will be doing the same.

I have only given two other eulogies, and both were done without preparation.  Given the opportunity to plan my remarks in advance for today, I could not help but recall perhaps the most famous of all eulogies, that given by Mark Anthony upon the death of Caesar in Shakespeare’s famous play, a eulogy that begins, “Friends, Romans, countrymen…”

It would, of course, be pretentious to compare Norm with Caesar, Norm did not reshape the face of the world.  But he did help save it – he, like so many others, answered the call to liberate our world from tyranny and oppression seven decades ago.  Norm did not bring civilization to the lands of Gaul, but he did much to spread the light of learning to everyone whose life he touched.   After all, a man or woman’s life should not be seen as falling short when measured against the life of a Caesar – just like the great people of history, we all have our arena of influence, and Norm did no less in his than any of them did in theirs.

To describe Norm is to enumerate traits we all desire — knowledge, wisdom, compassion and most of all, an ever-youthful spirit.  It was Norm’s spirit that helped him navigate the personal challenges of his life, including polio and the war.  It was a spirit that led him to voluntarily take on other challenges, the challenges of helping young people learn, the challenges of helping the places he called home prosper and grow.  Norm’s spirit was a wonderful blessing and his memory is a wonderful legacy.  But it is also a call to action – a call to keep our hearts open, to do what we can, where we are, with what we have, in order to make the lives of those around us better.

It is no secret that death is unpleasant – I will not pretend that Norm’s final days were easy for him, or for those near him.  I’m ashamed to admit it, but Lori and I were tardy in coming to his side at the end; we didn’t want to believe it was the end.  But tardy though we were, we were blessed to stand by his side, holding his hands as a waning sun cast its fading rays upon Norm one last time.  He could only speak with great effort, so we did not try to converse.  But as the sun set, ushering in that last, long, star-encrusted night before Winter — the last long night of Norm’s life — Norm spoke to us with his countenance, turning his head to Lori and then to me, smiling the most beautiful smile as he did so.

And while I am only guessing why he smiled, it reminded me of the sentiment expressed in Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem, Requiem:

Under the wide and starry sky

Dig me a grave and let me lie;

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

Though our hearts are left empty by Norm’s passing, I cannot find it within me to speak of sadness today.  Instead I wish to celebrate the life of a man who could truthfully say “Glad did I live.”  For nothing better captures the spirit of Norm, the spirit I was asked to remember here, than those words.  Glad did he live, and to Lori and me it seemed gladly did he embrace what lies beyond – I only hope that when my last day comes, I have lived well enough to do the same.

I could try to list all the good things Norm did in his life, from his decades of work in special education to his seminal role in the establishment of the Olson Nature Preserve.  But there are so many things that I’m sure I’d miss something.  So instead I would like to share some remembrances of Norm provided by his nephews and nieces:

Jill has already paid tribute to Norm on her Facebook page, describing him as “a member of the 101st Airborne in the Second World War, a concentration camp liberator, a Holocaust educator, an Alaskan adventurer, an inventor, a special education teacher and the quintessential uncle- loving and wise – never one to dandle us on his knee or spoil us with trinkets, but possessing a deep consideration and esteem that, when bestowed upon us was like manna from heaven.

”Norm,” Jill observed, “had his priorities straight – his politics and values were shaped by seeing firsthand the extent of human cruelty at a young age so he had no patience for waste, entitlement, military aggression, or the misuse of power.”

Pat spoke eloquently of how no matter what the situation was, Norm would have a story to tell, and how lucky Pat had been to accompany Norm on a trip to Alaska, saying “it was truly the trip of a lifetime.”  But even more than this, Pat said he will never forget Norm’s “unending patience while teaching us how to accomplish things,” adding “he was a terrific teacher who touched many, many lives.”  Pat also recalled how “even when Norm’s physical health was failing he could always come up with a wise crack to lighten the mood.”

Both Joe and Cam told me how, as Cam put it, “Norm taught me many practical things like replacing window panes, making cement and using a chainsaw (hopefully not all at the same time).  Cam said that he’s “used Norm as an example many times when teaching kids about different leadership styles.”

Cam noted that Norm’s ‘will to overcome handicaps has been an inspiration to him.’

But most of all Cam remembered the love and affection Norm often showed, recalling that Norm had told him once that people need the human touch. Cam concluded by noting that “Norm touched many of us in many ways.”

Everyone spoke of Norm’s love of puns and how they would try to out-pun him.  And they had especially fond memories of a fabled “handkerchief mouse” that I’m sorry I never got to see.

Nancy said her memories include how Norm would “so often use a situation as a teaching and learning opportunity.”  She remembered “trips with Norm and making beef and potatoes in tin foil wrap over a campfire.”

One of Nancy’s favorite memories was of “pulling Barbie Dolls and Barbie clothes out of the space between the slanted roof and the floor in Norm’s office closet,” saying she and “Uncle Norm” were “both having fun!”

Nancy told me her kids remember the handkerchief mouse too, and how Norm would pretend to have a hollow head and make a popping sound with his mouth as he knocked on his bald head.

But not all the memories were from childhood –Nancy said she particularly cherishes an evening she spent with Norm some months ago so Donna could visit the farm.  That evening Norm told Nancy the story of how he and Donna met; she said he’d described it as if it were yesterday.  He admitted it was truly love at first sight and that their love had remained so strong. Nancy remarked that Norm and Donna’s relationship was amazing; when they said ‘for better, for worse, in sickness and in health,’ they meant it, and that’s how they lived up to the moment of Norm’s very last breath.”  As Nancy put it, “What an inspiration!”

Creeds differ as to whether it is faith or deeds that mark the life of a good person.  Wars have even been fought over this, but I feel safe in saying that Norm’s deeds uplifted the lives of many, and that it was his faith in what this world CAN be – for it can and should be so much better than it is – that inspired his deeds.

But it was more than ideals that filled Norm’s life with purpose – as the stories I’ve just related demonstrate, it was his love for those around him, especially his ever-caring Donna.  In searching for words to convey this, I turned to poet Ted Kooser for help.  After I explained the love Norm and Donna had for one another, Ted recommended a poem by John Hall Wheelock, and though it is meant for everyone, it is meant especially for Donna [please note that this poem, entitled Dear Men and Women, was changed slightly for the occasion]

In the quiet before cockcrow when the cricket’s

Mandolin falters, when the light of the past

Falling from the high stars yet haunts the earth

And the east quickens, I think of those I love,

Dear men and women no longer with us.

And not in grief or regret merely but rather

With a love that is almost joy I think of them,

Of whom I am part, as they of me, and through whom

I am made more wholly one with the pain and the glory,

The heartbreak at the heart of things.

I have learned it from them at last, who am now grown old

A happy person, that the nature of things is tragic

And meaningful beyond words, that to have lived

Even if once only, once and no more,

Will have been, oh, how truly worth it.

The years go by: March flows into April,

The sycamore’s delicate tracery puts on

Its tender green; April is August soon;

Autumn, and the raving of insect choirs,

The thud of apples in moonlit orchards;

Till winter brings the slant, windy light again

To the endless Prairie’s of ocean of grass

And age deepens, oh, much is taken, but one

Dearer than all remains, and life is sweet

Still, to the now enlightened spirit.

There they dwell, those ineffable presences,

Safe beyond time, rescued from death and change.

Though all else be taken, their memory shall not be taken,

Immortal, unaging, unaltered, faithful yet

To that lost dream world they now inhabit.

Truly, to me they may come no more,

But I to them in reverie and remembrance

Still may return, in me they still live on;

In me they shall have their being, till we together

Darken in the great tomorrow.

Dear eyes of delight, dear gentle heart, forehead

Furrowed with age, dear hands of love and care,

Lying awake at dawn, I remember them,

With a love that is almost joy I remember them:

Lost, yet all mine, all mine, forever.

Please rest in peace, Norman Smith – you, if anyone, have earned the right to do so…

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Feather & Dance Speech

I prepared these remarks for a Native American event held in Meadow Grove, NE in 2011…

Not that you’d know by looking, but I have a little Native American blood. My great-great grandfather married an Iroquois woman but 160 years later her blood runs pretty thin in my generation’s veins.

But there’s enough that as a child I was occasionally teased. Other kids would raise one hand and intone “How” the way we all saw Indians speak on TV and in movies. That’s about all the English Native Americans knew or needed – when you’re just on the screen as someone for the hero to defeat, there’s little room for eloquence.

Wild ideas about Cowboys and Indians filled much of my childhood imaginings. Despite what the other kids thought of me, I saw myself growing up to be a cowboy – never an Indian. After all, the cowboys always won…

They say history is written by the victor but if the history taught by old Westerns is any indication, history itself was the loser when the conquest of the people who had lived here since the last ice age was dramatized for the silver screen. But it was a long time before I figured this out.

The only reason I did was because of our pasture. In our family since 1883, it is to this day littered with stone tools and broken pottery. So growing up I couldn’t help but know that Indians had lived there – I could see it for myself. And hear about it. I grew up listening to my grandmother’s older sisters tell of how Indians still came to the pasture when they were little. These Indians, who no one seemed to know or care much about, fished, trapped and gathered honey from a hollow tree. They would also very politely ask my family for eggs and milk, and my family always gave what it could.

It wasn’t until years later that I realized how odd it was that Native Americans were visiting our pasture well into the 1890s. All of the tribes in this area were on reservations long before then – some hundreds of miles away in Oklahoma. The Pawnee were relocated around 1874, the Ponca in 1877. I wanted to know who “our” Indians had been, and it was frustrating that it took decades to finally discover they were members of the Omaha tribe.

It was my curiosity about who had lived literally in my own back yard, those who had left stone flakings and tools, shallow pits where earthlodges that has brought me here today. I’m anything but an expert in anthropology or archaeology. I’m just a person who has long wanted to know who lived here before the Whites and has gone to the trouble to try to find out.

It hasn’t been easy. It’s hard to know anyone. Given how little was left of Native American culture when we Whites finally started writing it down, learning who the Native Americans were is an on-going process for me.

My pasture seems to attract people. I know from talking to archaeologists that people have been coming there, living there for probably 1,000 years if not much longer. And people still come today. Among them is a minister who told me once she likes to come out to our pasture after funerals. She likes to sit and reflect on the life of the person she just ushered out of this world, reflect upon the incalculable loss of knowledge and experience that accompanies each passing.

As hard as it is to know others, as much knowledge as is lost with each passing, and with as little as is actually recorded about the people who occupied this land before us, it has at times seemed impossible to know who the local Native Americans were.

But in my attempts to read every book, visit every museum, talk to every expert I could, I soon came across one of the most important Native American quotes of all time. It was spoken by the famous Ponca Chief Standing Bear when he was on trial to determine if he and other Native Americans were “people” in the eyes of the law and thus entitled to the same rights enjoyed by all other people.

After years of suffering and hardship, Standing Bear found himself on trial for attempting to bury his son in their ancestral home near present-day Niobrara. After much testimony, Standing Bear finally stood, holding his hand out for a long time until everyone became quiet. He then said to his judge through interpreter Susette LaFlesche, “That hand is not the color of yours, but if I prick it, the blood will flow, and I shall feel pain. The blood is of the same color as yours. God made me, and I am a man.”

And that is how I have come to understand the Native Americans who lived here before us – as men and women. Men and women who just like all of us had good days and bad, laughed and cried, and most of all loved.

I have wondered, though, if the Native Americans who lived in what is now our pasture didn’t have much love for their spouses – why else would there be so many pottery sherds? Wives must have been throwing pots at their husbands day-in and day-out.

And maybe they did. But in studying the Pawnee who traditionally lived in my area I learned that marriage often involved either an older husband and a younger wife, or an older wife – a cougar – and a younger man. This was because they understood marriage – especially for young people – wasn’t – and still isn’t – easy. The older partner would have already lost a spouse and could teach the younger how marriage worked.

By encouraging mature widowed people to take a younger mate, the Pawnee believed they were giving the couple the best chance at a stable marriage. Divorce was even easier then than it is now. Women owned everything except her husband’s clothing and weapons. To divorce him, all she had to do was place his things outside their lodge. And by the time the older partner died, the younger one was ready to teach a new generation.

Not all marriages, of course, involved people of different generations. Many young people then married for love just like we do today.

The Pawnee valued family probably more than we do. But their families were different from ours. Descent was figured through the mother’s line – after all, one could never be sure who a child’s father really was — but you always knew the mother. It was a husband’s responsibility then to feed and protect his wife and children and very often her family as well. In historic times a man was expected to bring home about one deer a day to supplement his wife’s family’s diet. This could be difficult, and maybe that’s why hungry wives got mad and threw pots.

Childrearing is childrearing and never very easy. But because the Pawnee focused on the mother’s line of descent rather than the father’s, it was the maternal uncles who had responsibility for fulfilling the role of “father” to a child. The biological father focused his attention on his sisters’ children much more than on his own. In fact his wife would generally refuse to sleep with him while a child was young – raising a child was difficult and the surest form of birth control was abstinence. Very often a wife would not allow her husband to return to her bed until her child was about four years old. The child would then be cared for by the maternal grandparents.

Husbands were not expected to turn to their wives even for emotional support – they would instead go to their sister when they needed some TLC.

The Native Americans who lived in our pasture had the same needs as we do today. But they had to fulfill them differently. And not just emotionally – the difference between the material culture of the Indians and of us today could not be more clear. They had to survive in a harsh and unforgiving environment, one that just last winter tested our mettle. And we have heated homes and SUVs to help us deal with the weather.

The Native Americans of course didn’t. They had to make everything themselves, housing, clothing, tools, from clay, stone, bone and wood. And in my area both stone and wood were hard to come by.

The Beaver Creek runs through our pasture and has eroded away at a high bank for centuries, revealing much in the process. Slowly but surely the process of erosion reveals both the archaeological and the geological history of our area, and illustrates the link between the two.

Every once and a while erosion reveals a Native American food storage pit or trash pit. Lacking Tupperware, the Native Americans dug cache pits to store food in. This wasn’t easy – the Native Americans had to use the shoulder blade of a deer to dig with, and in the thick sod of the unbroken prairie, this was a daunting task. So when a cache pit was emptied of it’s food stores it would then serve as a trash pit.

The creek recently devoured the remains of a small earthlodge, and is about to destroy a second. Nothing more than shallow depressions on the surface, the caving bank can tell much about Native American housing.

Called ‘earthlodges’ the typical home in our area was a domed earthen structure, dug several feet down into the earth for warmth and protection and covered over with a mud and grass roof supported by tree limbs. Depending upon it’s size, and earthlodge could hold as many as 40 people. The occupants slept around the edges and kept a fire burning in the center for cooking, heat and illumination.

I’ve read that Native Americans didn’t like earthlodges much and spent as much time outdoors as possible. Not only were they dark and smoky, they tended to fill up with bedbugs. But in bad weather people did stay indoors. Rather than watch TV or surf the Internet, the Indians who had lived in our pasture most likely told stories and performed magic.

Pawnee magic shows were an annual event each October, and great preparation went into them. A huge feathered serpent was created from a willow framework, so large a person could crawl through it. A moon woman would be created from mud. Night after night people would gather to witness feats of “legerdemain” as White guests called it.

The few White people to witness these events – termed “operas” because of the singing, dancing and ceremony involved, were hard pressed to explain what they saw. While always careful to emphasize that it was all some form of clever trickery, the existing accounts seem to betray a certain doubt to whether or not the things they saw were real.

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Speech For Donna Anderson

I wrote this speech at the request of 3rd District Congressional candidate Donna Anderson.  Mrs. Anderson made some revisions and gave her speech on KLKN TV in Lincoln shortly before the 2004 general election...

Recently, a 13-year-old boy came to visit me from a neighboring town.  As he rode in the car, he wrote this poem about the countryside he was passing through.

A sea of greenish plants,

With waves that dance in the wind;

A mixture of beauty and joy —

Happiness is cast upon the one who beholds.

[by my oldest son, William]

Hello, my name is Donna Anderson and I am running in November for the opportunity to represent this land of “beauty and joy” — Nebraska’s Third District — in Congress.

Over 1,000 Americans have died in Iraq, many from Nebraska, to defend our nation, our system of government and our fundamental right to vote; the right to control our own destiny.  Those who have died, and are dying today, have done so, so that the rest of us can safely and peacefully decide our own future.  Yet many feel that their vote doesn’t count, and don’t even bother anymore.  How sad.  The greatness of America is built upon our people, upon our dreams, our rights.  America, more than any other nation in the world, is governed by its people.  Never before have so many held such power.  It is more than a right, it’s an honor, and in many ways, an obligation to every man and woman who has risked their lives to defend this country.

Never before have the choices facing America been more dramatic — Americans are divided on issues ranging from social mores to economic philosophy, from foreign policy to how best to defend our shores.  Never before has there been a greater need for everyone to vote their conscience.  You, my friends and neighbors, the American people, are the ones who decide these issues; this November, please, for the sake of all those who have given their lives to make this possible and for the sake of everyone’s future, please vote, and please vote responsibly.

To vote responsibly, one must understand the issues we all face.  Here in Nebraska’s Third District, we face a number of serious challenges, challenges that threaten our way of life.  Five of the poorest counties in America are in Nebraska’s Third District.  Nebraska has lost thousands of family farms, and in our smaller communities the businesses and schools are fighting for survival as a result.  Government statistics show that more and more individuals and families have sunk into poverty for the third year in a row.  Fewer and fewer can afford health insurance.  More and more jobs are being lost overseas while many of the remaining don’t pay a living wage.  Add to this five years of ongoing drought and the financial catastrophe it has brought to much of western Nebraska, and it becomes clear that now, more than ever before, we need effective representation in Washington.

Congress should be doing more to address the needs of the average American.  But for this to happen, the average Americans need a strong voice in congress.  It’s time for Nebraskans to be represented by one of their own.  Someone who understands the needs and concerns of the people, someone who will work to find long term solutions.   I have lived in Nebraska all of my life.  I am a wife, a mother and a grandmother who is dedicated to preserving the “good life” for our children.  The number one export of rural Nebraska is our children.  By improving our rural economy, we can reverse this trend.  I will work to expand educational opportunities and to find ways for our young people to return to our communities.  I will work for improved access to health care for all our citizens.  I will work to protect our existing jobs and to create new ones.  Most of all, I will work for you, the residents of the Third District.  Democrat, Republican, Independent — we all face the same challenges — it’s time to put the Third District first and reach across party lines to work together.

The Third District deserves dedicated and responsible leadership from within its own ranks; someone who understands the day-to-day struggles of life in outstate Nebraska.

I’m Donna Anderson, an average American and candidate for the Third District seat in the House of Representatives.  I’m asking all the residents to honor America and vote on November second.  The future of this country rests in your hands.  And when you do go in to vote, please consider that I am dedicated to restoring the quality of life in this district.  I am willing to face anyone, no matter how popular or famous to fight for the values and dreams of this land, a land our ancestors sacrificed so much to build.  By voting for me, voting for one of your own, you are voting to place the Third District, this land of beauty and joy, first, voting to preserve the Good Life for generations to come.

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The Art Of Teaching Music

I gave this speech for the Albion History & Art Club based on my experiences giving music lessons…

Donna Smith asked me to come tonight and discuss the art of teaching music.  Are there any music teachers in the audience?  You may not agree with anything I say, and that’s fine — that’s one of the things that differentiates art from science.  I don’t know if you’ve ever thought about it, but a science is cut and dried, while an art is ultimately an expression of individualism, and therefore no two artistic techniques will ever be exactly the same.  I believe all teaching is an art, and that no two teachers will do things quite the same way in any subject or situation.

But there is science to teaching — the more successful techniques of imparting knowledge have been studied and analyzed, and are now taught in our colleges and universities.  Music is no exception — there is much science to music; cut-and-dried essentials that need to be learned.  From such basics as time signature and key, to much more advanced theory, virtually all aspects of music have been systematized, and made that much easier to teach as a result.

But while the mathematician can reduce most aspects of musical form to numbers and equations, numbers and equations can never convey the emotional experience of music.  And just as music can be taught as a science, with rules and definitions set in stone, this scientific approach cannot ultimately teach anyone how to make music that produces an emotional response in the listener.  Yet isn’t this really what music is all about — communicating our feelings?  This, of course, is where the art of teaching music comes in, an art that not all teachers are equally proficient at — it is easier, after all, to teach the mechanics of music and hope the emotional aspects fall into place on their own.

Much of the serious music of the 20th century was composed from a primarily technical standpoint — arcane rules about the use of intervals according to patterns, for example, gave us the so-called 12-tone system.  And while there is much grist for the analyst in such music, it has rarely moved the soul of the listener.  To teach only the mechanics of music — both in regard to the structure and in regard to proper playing technique — produces extraordinary technicians, but doesn’t necessarily produce extraordinary musicians.

What is the difference between a technician and a musician?  A technician can play all the notes flawlessly, but imprints little personal emotion on the piece.  A technician reproduces the composer’s intentions as closely as possible, and there is a place for this.  A musician, on the other hand, may or may not be a flawless technician, but will in any event impart his or her personality through the music, giving it a much more unique and living quality, a quality that can resonate on a deeper level with the listener.  The performance may not be exactly what the composer intended, but if it connects with the audience, what more could the composer ask?

For it is this resonance between performer and audience, more than anything else, that defines music.  Music is a means of communication through sound.  It is part of the spectrum of aural communications, a spectrum that includes both poetry and prose.  We use sound all the time to express ourselves, and both the baby’s cry and the Beethoven symphony are examples of this.

Many linguists and neurologists have come to believe that the human brain is predisposed by its physical layout to develop both language and music.  And this may extend beyond humans — great controversy surrounds the theory that the brains of apes are also hard-wired to at least understand speech — if they are, then we humans are less unique than we care to believe.  The success that has come from attempts to teach gorillas and chimpanzees to communicate with humans using sign language certainly shows they have an aptitude for communication, if lacking the physiology for speech.  It was recently announced that dogs can understand upwards of 200 human words, and several years ago researchers were astounded to learn that parrots can not only mimic human speech but speak intelligently if given the proper training.

It should come as no surprise, though, that communication through the creation of sounds is an intrinsic part of our nature, since it is obviously an intrinsic part of all Nature.  One need only listen on a spring morning to the singing of birds, or along a stream on a warm evening to the chatter of muskrats, to understand how fundamental sound is to life.

A few years ago, I watched a documentary on television in which the film crew traveled to the headwaters of the Amazon river in Peru, searching for members of a tribe which is so isolated they have had no known contacts with whites — only rumors of its existence from other Native tribes led them to seek it out.  At the last moment, after having journeyed for weeks, the Peruvian government rescinded its permission for the film crew to contact the tribespeople.  So there they were, in the middle of a stream, deep in the jungle, and constrained by edict from going ashore.  As luck would have it, however, a member of this tribe, a woman, came to the river bank and beheld them.  She had never seen a white person before, let alone a video camera.  She gazed in wonder, and then began to sing.  She sang boldly, unabashedly, at these peculiar people.  And they were so very puzzled: why, when confronted with something so new and alien, would she start to sing?  It was to them as if a UFO were to land and we sent Pavarotti to welcome it with an ad-libbed aria.

It didn’t seem odd to me, however — here was a human being living as close to nature as a human can.  Perhaps because I too am a musician, the meaning of her song seemed clear — she was doing what came naturally to her, she was expressing her own unique self to others through sound.  And it was a joyous sound, a sound made by a person who despite being bereft of all the advances of modern society, was so confident in the face of the unknown, so confident of who she was herself, that she welcomed the unknown with a spontaneous and heart-felt song.  That her observers didn’t understand this speaks volumes about how little we know of our own hearts in this modern world.  For she was doing the same thing the birds do — spontaneously expressing the vital character of the moment through song.

My youngest son, Thomas, who just started school this fall, sings all the time, and has for as long as I can remember.  He makes up songs on the spur of the moment, songs about what he’s doing and what he’s feeling.  I don’t think he’s even aware that he’s doing it — it seems so natural for him.  His life is an opera, and he expresses it and interprets it unselfconsciously.  I hope he always does….

It has been suggested that the first form of human speech was in fact song — the primitive woman in Peru and my little boy both express themselves with sound on a fundamental level, in a manner that is both universally human and ultimately unique.  The Gaelic language is a good example of the connection between song and speech — it is one of the most melodious spoken languages in the world.  I enjoy listening to Spanish being spoken, even though I don’t understand it; it has a cadence and a rhythm that are almost musical.

Music, song, poetry, prose are all intimately interconnected, and are all our legitimate birthright.  They offer us a variety of means of expression, and we are the richer for it.  Prose is very good at communicating specific, focused information, and our world could not exist without it.  Poetry can communicate more than prose, however.  Not as specifically, but by its ability to suggest other things to the listener, to say many things at the same time, it allows the listener to participate in the process, to add his or her own interpretations to the surface meaning.  Our world has moved progressively away from an appreciation of verse, of poetry, in favor of the more explicit communicative powers of prose.  But in many places, since time immemorial, folklore and religion have been passed from generation to generation through the use of poetry.  The cultural legacy of a people is too rich and complex to ever be satisfactorily passed on through analytical prose — it needs to be encapsulated instead in the multiple meanings of verse, and thereby resonate with the listener in a personal way, something prose can’t do nearly as well.

And of course, there is very little difference between poetry and song — most good songs rhyme, and singing allows for even greater emotional expression than speaking in verse.  Singing is an expansion of tone-of-voice (or perhaps, tone-of-voice is a diminution of song).  Words convey even greater feeling when sung.  Instrumental music is expressive in ways that start with song and move beyond what words are capable of expressing — there are moods and emotions, feelings and thoughts that could never be worded as expressively as when they are played on a musical instrument.

Music, whether sung or played, offers possibilities for communication and interaction that eclipse the power of the spoken word.  When people come together to sing or play music, they each have a unique part to perform, a role to fill, a role that contrasts and complements what everyone else is doing.  The members of a band or an orchestra play many parts simultaneously, parts that intermesh to create something rich and complex, and capable of expressing intense emotions on a non-verbal level.  The harmony and synchronization of a musical ensemble is one of the best examples of humans working together without losing their individual identity.

The visual arts, painting, sculpture, architecture also depend upon the harmonious relationships of their individual elements, but these are static mediums — once harmony is obtained, the work is finished.  Music, as a performance art, is fluid and flowing, changing all the time, just as life does.  It is an interactive dance of sound, and capable of conveying any and every emotion.

Ideally, music shouldn’t even need to be taught — we should come by it naturally, like the woman in Peru.  Technique, yes, just as in language, needs to be taught.  We are shown throughout our school years how to say things correctly, in a way that other people will understand.  We are taught the rules and conventions of our language, and few ever master all the nuances of any language.  But we are not taught what to say — that should not be taught — the entire purpose of communication is to share information, information that might not be known otherwise.  It allows the wisdom and knowledge of one person to guide and enrich another.

It is implicit in communication that learning is to take place — whether to learn something about teaching music, or learning how another person feels, that is why we communicate.  And while it’s vital to know certain things, and advantageous to know much of what others know, our ultimate responsibility as communicators is to contribute something unique, something no one else can, to the ongoing discussion that occupies much of life.  Just as the Peruvian Native sang, we speak, sing and play instruments to contribute something of our unique selves to the world around us, enriching us all in the process.

The art of teaching music, as opposed to the science of teaching music, lies in opening the hearts of one’s students so that they can add their voice to the unscored symphony of life.  The art of teaching music is the art of helping other people find what’s unique within themselves, and helping them give voice to it.  Dr. Albert Schweitzer, himself a musician, once said that the art of healing was to find a way to activate the internal doctor which resides within each individual patient, that part of each person that is capable of healing our wounds and diseases.  I would suggest that the art of teaching music is much the same — the teacher must somehow connect to, and encourage, the inner musician within each of us.  Our brains come pre-wired for it; it is up to the teacher to engage and develop it.

I am a jazz musician, and as such, capable of improvising guitar, bass, and flutes parts in a variety of situations.  I have been asked by listeners after jam sessions with other musicians, how we do it, how we can each be making up everything we play on different instruments and yet all stay together and interact.  To people familiar only with the science of music, people who think of musicians only as people who can reproduce notes written on paper, this ability to improvise complex music without having it written down seems baffling.  But it is no more unusual than people getting together for an unscripted conversation, much like you ladies do at various points during your meetings.  You have an agenda for the meeting, but your personal interactions with one another are spontaneous and improvised — you aren’t reading your lines as you converse, like actors in a play.  You do it naturally, without reflection.  You have, after all, been doing it all of your lives.

We are so good at speaking that we don’t think about it.  One of the things that separates children from adults is the more limited ability of children to converse — when we speak to children, we limit our topics and vocabulary because they aren’t as proficient as we are, don’t know as much about our conventions, haven’t the wealth of experience to draw upon.  Part of growing up is learning to converse, and it comes with time and encouragement.

A spoken conversation is little different from a musical jam session; both are means of communicating with sound.  If you were as accustomed to expressing yourself with a musical instrument as you are to expressing yourself with your voice, if you had been doing it every day since you were born as you have been with various forms of speech, you could participate in jam sessions, even with strangers, as easily as you converse.  At its roots, music is little different from speech, and the ways in which we learn one apply very much to the other.

We learn to converse, to express ourselves with our voice, by listening to others, and attempting to do it ourselves.  The need to do this exists from the first moment of our lives — a baby has only its cry to communicate its needs to its mother.  We are active participants in our lives, through our use of sound, from the beginning.  I am occasionally asked how to teach improvisation — it is much the same as teaching a person to converse; a person learns by listening and participating, and by having something to say.  A person must have the fundamental techniques of language already in hand to be able to converse, but they learn to do so by trial and error as much as anything, to use these elements and techniques to say what they want to say.  It is the same with music.  I tell all of my beginning students that the purpose of music lessons is to teach their hands how to do what their hearts want, how to enable them to express the feelings they want to share.

The science of music is of course vital to this, just as the science of language is vital to spoken communication.  But both speech and music must transcend the mechanics of technique to successfully communicate anything unique.  Speech and music have importance only for self-expression and communication, to express and share both the universal, that which joins us together, and the unique, that which makes us individuals.  Sound without meaning is noise, and that implies that for a sound to be speech or music, it must register as such upon its listener.  One could speak passionately and at great length in a language no one listening understood, and not communicate anything aurally other than tone-of-voice.  The science of music is vital — without it, the sounds produced on a musical instrument would be as meaningless as listening to an unknown language.

But the science of music is in itself empty of meaning; it is but a means to an end.  I have computers in my studio that are capable of creating music scientifically.  And much of the music we hear on the radio, in movies and television shows, is made by machine.  To people who don’t really listen, as most people don’t, that’s fine — it fills sonic space, sometimes drowns out our thoughts, nothing more.  Our musical conservatories tend to turn out people who play like machines — not all, of course, but some.  They are machine-like in their precision, but say nothing unique, nothing from their heart.  This represents a teaching failure; while the mechanics of music have been taught to perfection, a musician has not been created, and this person is as illiterate in the language of the heart as a person who’s had no musical training at all.

The art of teaching music is the art of opening the heart, and generating lasting enthusiasm for participating in life.  I seem to spend almost as much time talking to my students, asking them to tell me about their lives, as I do playing songs with them.  They need to find their own voice, and as children in a stranger’s home, this can be hard enough to do speaking, let alone playing a musical instrument.  I teach them the notes and the rhythms, and point out the patterns that occur in music, but I also encourage them to talk, to express themselves.  They have to learn to express themselves in a manner I understand.  They have to become comfortable, trust themselves, know that so long as they are sincere, I will listen; know that as long as they respect me, I will respect them.  And this is what all students need — the ability to form mutually respectful relationships with others.  That’s the best way for learning to occur.  Too often students feel “dumb”, — the teacher knows so much more than they do.  They have to get past this and understand that even though they have much to learn, that doesn’t diminish them.  A willingness to learn, a receptivity to knowledge, an ability to open one’s self to it, are vital to any educational process.  If a student has this, then all of life is a teacher.  But it is an attitude towards learning that must be cultivated.

The art of teaching music is the art of instilling both skill and confidence — the skill to play an instrument correctly and the confidence to use that instrument as an extension of one’s self, to speak up and contribute to life, using whatever medium one chooses.  Children begin life not being self-conscious, but as they grow, they worry more and more about what other people think, and often become afraid to express themselves.  They are afraid they’ll make mistakes, appear foolish; they stop believing in themselves and try to be like everyone else.  The art of teaching music is a process of encouragement, of instilling a stronger sense of self, a self that is multifaceted and unique, and worth being listened to.  The rudiments of music are there within us all, as are the rudiments of speech, hard-wired into our brains, awaiting someone to strike a chord or turn a phrase and set them resonating within us.  It is the responsibility of the teacher to do this: the art of teaching music is just that — an art.  The goal is clear; enable another person to express him or herself musically.  But since each student is unique, the exact way to do this is always a mystery, a mystery that can only be solved by looking within both one’s self and one’s student, and finding ways to relate to one another as individuals, beyond just the roles of teacher and student.  The art of teaching music is the art of teaching another person who he or she is inside, and doing all one can to help him or her bring that out.

Imagine for a moment what this world would be like if schools placed as much importance on music as they do on language.  Not everyone has the talent to be a musician, but everyone has the ability to enjoy music.  I’ve released 13 CDs of jazz, classical and original music in the past two years.  I sell them many places, including art and craft fairs.  It is disheartening how many people come and listen to this music, and say that they’ve never heard anything like it before in their lives.  Today people seem to know very little about music, have no clue that there is far more music in this world than what they hear on the radio.  A major program in our educational system today is called “No Child Left Behind”.  It is not only unfortunate but culturally significant that when it comes to the arts, too many children are being left behind.

It is important to realize that just as we are all students, learning something new each day, and we are also all teachers, teaching new things every day, more often than not without even knowing it.  From the first time we hold an infant and communicate using a mixture of speech and song, to the times we comfort a restless or crying child by singing softly, we are teaching music. Teaching is in all of us; not necessarily the ability to teach the technical aspects of things like music, but most certainly, the ability to teach the emotional aspects.  As teachers, we can not afford to lose our own voice to the world around us.  The very future of music depends on each and every one of us….

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My Grandmother, Etta Hosford’s Eulogy

Many years ago the Sunday after Easter was known as “Mothering Sunday”; it was very like our Mothers’ Day.  And Sunday was one day we always made sure we visited Etta.  But on this particular “Mothering Sunday” I decided to mow the lawn instead; by the time I had finished it was too late to see Etta.  “Oh well,” I thought, it won’t hurt to miss one Sunday.  I can go over some evening.”  But each evening had its own obstacles.  “Tomorrow,” I’d think.  And then Thursday morning I awoke to find her hospitalized, not expected to live.

I stayed with her in the hospital the first night, listening for her labored breathing to falter.  But that night it didn’t; it remained strong and steady.  It was familiar to me from years ago when we would be watching Johnny Carson together and she’d nod off.  Hearing it reassured me in more ways than one.  Strange how even then, only hours from death, I still took comfort from her.

I didn’t grieve for Etta; I grieved for myself.  She was ready to go; she had led a long and full life.  But I had enjoyed our visits, felt privileged to still be sharing pleasant moments with her.  I always felt better afterwards.  I thought about all she’d done for me through my life – all the care and love she’d given me.  I felt an emptiness within me, one I knew would never be filled.  But just then my little girl, who was sitting next to me, gently pulled my arm to her.  She laid her head upon it and went to sleep.

I sat quietly and realized Etta had been a great source of love, and that that love was still alive, flowing from me to Angela without my ever thinking about it.  I understood that love is love’ individuals are just channels for love to flow through.  We each give love a unique expression, but love is never ours to possess, only ours to direct.  And I realized further that it is love that gives us our very lives, and, because of this, when we love another and when we are loved, we partake of the divine.

It has been said that although God created the world, God is not of the world; God and man are “wholly other.”  Yet when Etta looked at me one last time and mouthed “I love you” and again when my daughter chose my arm for her pillow, I knew this belief was wrong.  In spite of all the pain and suffering that filled it, this world was created out of, and is sustained, by love.  As long as there is any love left in this world, God is here also.

So it is that in this time of mourning my mind returns to something from the sacred traditions of the Navaho people, something that I only now have come to truly appreciate:

“In the house of long life, there I wander,

In the house of happiness, there I wander,

Beauty before me, with it I wander.

Beauty behind me, with it I wander.

Beauty below me, with it I wander.

Beauty above me, with it I wander.

Beauty all around me, with it I wander.

In old age traveling, with it I wander.

On the beautiful trail I am, with it I wander.”


For beauty is love and love is God.

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