Thursday, January 28, 2010

A Sad Day in History

Twenty-four years ago, today, on a cold and sunny day at Cape Canaveral, FL. a tragic accident happened to the Space Shuttle Program's infant history, the Challenger exploded shortly after lift off. What made this particular launch unique was that it supposed to carry the first civilian into space, Christa McAuliffe, a social studies teacher from New Hampshire. She had won a contest and spent months training for this mission and became an instant celebrity across America. Finally, her dream ended seventy-three seconds as millions across the nation, her family at Cape Canaveral, and students at her high school watched in horror as the shuttle exploded that some say was equivalent to a hydrogen bomb exploding.

It took months to determine the cause of the explosion. President Ronald Reagan appointed a special commission, headed by former secretary of state Williams Rogers, along with former astronaut Neil Armstrong and former test pilot, Chuck Yeager. The final investigation determined that the explosion was caused by the failure of an "O-Ring" seal in one of the two rocket boosters because of the unusually cold temperatures. Space Shuttle flights were halted until NASA redesigned many of the safety mechanisms and in September of 1988, the Space Shuttle Discovery launched successfully for the first time since the tragedy.

So, let us take the time to remember those seven astronauts who lost their lives twenty-four years ago today and most recently the disaster of the Space Shuttle Columbia on Feb. 1, 2003. There are two videos about the accident. The first, is the explosion itself and the second one is President Ronald Reagan's live address to the nation to mourn the lost of the crew members and decided to cancel that evening's State of the Union Speech.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

The Massachusetts Senate Race: A New Rise in Conservatism?

A little known Democratic Senator from IL, Barack Obama, shocked the nation by defeating long time Senator from AZ., John McCain, in the election of 2008. Everybody believed that conservatism was all but dead and it would take a generation to see the rise of conservatism again. Even Historian Sean Wilentz believed that conservatism, in the tradition of Ronald Reagan, was over. Obama took the oath of office on January 20, 2009. One year later, conservatism once again may not be dead but on the rise just like it did during the late 1960s and
1970s that led to it's climax of propelling Ronald Reagan in the White House for two terms.

In 1964, Lyndon B. Johnson,who succeeded the late President John F. Kennedy, won a decisive victory over Sen. Barry Goldwater (AZ-R) and "portrayed as a permanent liberal consensus in the United States" as Historian Rick Perlstein argued. Public sentiment began to fear that Johnson was moving too quickly to push his liberal agenda (particularly the Great Society Program) through Congress. The mid-term elections of 1966 proved that the electorate became dissatisfied with the rapid spread of liberalism that many liberal members of Congress were voted out of office.

Conservatism continued to rise while the liberals of the Democratic Party became divided, especially during the 1968 presidential election. With Robert F. Kennedy's assassination, the Democrats were in trouble since the two Democratic candidates were divided on the issue of the Vietnam War. The two candidates, Hubert Humphrey, Johnson's Vice President, was not exactly an anti-war candidate and many feared that he would continue the war whereas Eugene McCarthy was the Party's anti-war candidate. At the 1968 convention, the Democratic Party nominated Humphrey while the conservatives strongly united around Richard M. Nixon. Nixon played off the fractured Democratic Party and won a decisive victory in the 1968 Presidential Election over Humphrey. However, Nixon's presidency was tainted by the Watergate Scandal that propelled Jimmy Carter, the Democratic Georgia Governor, to win the presidency in 1976 over President Gerald Ford. Finally, Carter's presidency proved a disaster and with a strong national conservative grass-roots base that started in the late 1960s came to their climax in 1980 when California Governor Ronald Reagean ascended to the White House.

Within one year that Obama took office, it seems that Republican conservatism began to take hold in three important elections. In 2009, Robert F. McDonnell, the Republican candidate, ended eight years of Democratic control in the Virgina Gubernatorial Race while Christopher J. Christie, the Republican Gubernatorial candidate ended twelve years of Democratic control in New Jersey, seen by many as a large liberal State. Finally, within the last week, the unthinkable happened; the State of Massachusetts, for the first time in about thirty years elected Scott Brown, a Republican State Senator, in a special Senate Race to replace the late Edward M. Kennedy. If the trend continues the way it has been from the past year, then this can be considered the new rise of the conservative movement, organized by grass roots organizations such as the Tea Parties and peoples' fierce discontent with the current Government as evidence by the countless town hall meetings that took place within the year. It's still too early to asses if this new rise of conservatism is very similar as the one happened during the late 1960s and 1970s. Time will tell if the phrase "history tends to repeat itself" becomes true or not.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Civil Rights Icon Remembered

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as we honor his legacy in the Civil Rights Movement. There will be many celebrations throughout the country remembering Dr. King as the Last Best Hope for racial equality. In a sense, he can be called the second Lincoln championing for civil rights for all people regardless of their race, just like President Abraham Lincoln did during the Civil War Era. There are countless and countless of books about Dr. King and rightly so. One book I would recommend would be Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. by Stephen B. Oates. It is a classic biography of King and the winner of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Book Award and the Christopher Award.

Finally, here is a link to the famous "I Have a Dream Speech" Please take the time to listen to it and reflect how it changed the world for the better.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Western History Comes Alive

This Day in History we read about how President Theodore Roosevelt, the conservationist president, declared the Grand Canyon a national monument. The first sighting of the canyon by Europeans took place in 1540 and by the end of the 19th century thousands of people, including Roosevelt himself, visited the canyon. Seeing how it was a natural wonder, the President decided to make the canyon a national monument on January 11, 1908 and outlawed commercial development in that area.
Recently, new documentaries and books have been published about the history of the West and the conservation movement. First, award winning film-maker, Ken Burns released his latest documentary called The National Parks: America's Best Idea and portray a message that "the nation's most magnificent and sacred places should be preserved, not for royalty or the rich, but for everyone" and how our national parks have an important place in American History. Finally, Historian Douglas Brinkley has published a rich biography of President Theodore Roosevelt, not so much on his life but how he was a crusade to preserve the natural West by creating several national parks that Americans still enjoy today. The book, The Wilderness Warrior: Theodore Roosevelt and the Crusade for America, Brinkley argued how TR's conservation agenda (between 1901 and 1908) could perhaps be "the greatest U.S. presidential initiative between the Civil War and World War I."
So, if you would like to start learning about the history of the West and the conservation movement, the two best starting points to turn to are the documentary by Ken Burns and also Douglas Brinkley's mammoth book about President Roosevelt and his crusade to preserve the West.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

This Day in History

In order to keep the blog fresh, I decided to bookmark the History Channel's website and provide a link to articles in the section "This Day in History" and do some additional research myself. Today, this day in history we read about how Columbus mistakes manatees for mermaids. Mermaids are mystical creatures in the ocean dating back to ancient Greece. The closest thing that we have to mermaids are huge mammals called manatees, that are from the elephant family. They once were large in numbers but now they are consider endangered species.

Monday, January 4, 2010

Historic Day for the Archdiocese of Milwaukee

Today, the Milwaukee Archdiocese made history as Jerome Listecki became the 11th Archbishop ever since it's inception in 1844. In Sunday's Crossroads of the Journal Sentinel, Milwaukee Historian John Gurda wrote on the historical significance of today's installation. Back in the 1900s, there was a war of words between the Milwaukee German and Polish Catholics. The Polish Catholics blasted the German dominance of the Milwaukee's Church hierarchy to the point where they turned to two devout Catholics who were members of the Polish community, the Kruszka Brothers (Michael and Wenceslaus) that physically traveled to Rome to lobby the Pope in appointing a Polish archbishop. However, the current Archbishop Messmer wrote in 1905, "The longer I think it over, the more it seems to me a dangerous experiment at this stage to give the Polish people a bishop, for the very reason that we will be considered the bishop for all of the Poles of the US" (quote from John Gurda's JS article "Listecki installation a victory in a forgotten war, Jan. 3, 2010) and not for the rest of the Catholics. In 1913, the Vatican, in responding to mounting pressure, appointed Milwaukee's first Polish Auxiliary Bishop, Edward Kozlowski , and on the day of his installation, more than 50,000 Polish Catholics greeted him.

It's not until 96 years after Kozlowski was appointed the first Polish Auxiliary Bishop, the Vatican (particularly Pope Benedict XVI) selected Bishop Jerome Listecki, the first Milwaukee Archbishop of Polish descent. At last, the Polish Catholics of Milwaukee can rejoice in welcoming him as the first Archbishop with Polish roots. Also, everybody should celebrate our new Archbishop of Milwaukee no matter where their heritage originated. May God Bless Archbishop Jerome Listecki in his new assignment.

Fore more on the conflict between the German and Polish Catholics, there are two good books to read, Faith and Fatherland by Anthony Kuzniewski and In the Richness of the Earth: A History of the Archdiocese of Milwaukee 1843-1958 by Marquette University Associate Professor of History and an Archdiocesan priest, Fr. Steven Avella.

Here is the list of the Archbishops of Milwaukee and their years of service

John Martin Henni-1844-1881
Michael Heiss-1881-1890
Frederick Xavier Katzer-1890-1903
Sebastian Gebhard Messmer -1903-1930 (Messmer High School)
Samuel Alphonsus Stritch-1930-1940 (later Cardinal of Chicago, Cardinal Stritch University)
Moses Elias Kiley-1940-1953
Albert Gregory Meyer-1953-1958
William E. Cousins-1959-1977 (Cousins Center, once the HQ for the MKE Archdiocese, now for sale)
Rember G. Weakland-1977-2002
Timothy M. Dolan-2002-2009 (now Archbishop of NY)

I hope that citizens across Southeast Wisconsin can show their tremendous friendship towards Archbishop Listecki and wonder if he his looking forward to Polish Fest this Summer? Thanks for reading!

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Polar Bear Club: A Cold History

Today, thousands or perhaps a few hundred (because of the bitter cold) people will be taking part in Milwaukee's long ritual of The Polar Bear's Club annual New Year's Day tradition of jumping into Lake Michigan. One may ask, "Is Milwaukee the first city in the nation to have started a polar bear club?" The answer is no and in fact the first polar bear club established was The Coney Island Polar Bear Club, founded by Bernarr MacFadden (1868-1955) in 1903.

MacFadden was considered "The Father of Physical Culture" believing that "our bodies are our most glorious possessions, that health-wealth is our greatest asset..that weakness is truly a crime..that every man can be vigorous vital specimen of masculinity; that every woman can be a splendidly strong well poised specimen of femininity." (from The Coney Island Polar Bear Club's website). He believed that swimming in cold water improves people's stamina and also their immune system to fight off diseases. So, from 1903 until the present, club members swam once a week every Sunday from November through April and of course on New Year's Day in the Atlantic Ocean off of Coney Island (once a famous amusement park).

In Milwaukee, the first ever recorded swim (at McKinley Beach) on New Year's Day happened on December 31, 1916 by three men, Gustav Marx, Frank Sutter, and Jim Brazell; the papers called them polar bears, using lower case letters. Not until around the 1920's, The Polar Bear Club of Milwaukee became a formal club with it's first president being Jim Brazell. In the research, it is not sure whether it started at McKinley Beach where the first recorded plunge took place and the year it transferred to Bradford Beach where the swim currently takes place. There is not a lot of historical evidence except pictures from family members who perhaps themselves were part of the club to tell the full history. For much of the twentieth century, it was headed by a Brookfield man named Garth Gaskey and he took his 57th consecutive plunge on January 1, 2009.

As you can see, the polar bear club has a long tradition of swimming in cold water, starting with The Coney Island Polar Bear Club as the oldest one followed by the second oldest, The Milwaukee Polar Bear Club. There are other clubs across the United States, especially along the East Coast, who take the annual New Year's Day plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. Many earlier members believe that swimming in cold water may be good for one's stamina and immune system just like MacFadden argued when he founded the Coney Island Club.

So, it will be interesting to read in the papers the accounts of this year's plunge both at Coney Island and here in Milwaukee, despite the frigid temperatures. If anyone who took the plunge today, please e-mail your experience at or write it in the comments box. For me, it was a lot warmer researching the history of the club in the comfort of my own home than taking part in the swim. Thanks for reading and Happy New Year!
This article from the Journal Sentinel reminded me of one of the chapters in a book I read when I was in graduate school. It's about the Sun City retirement community in AZ. The book was called Magic Lands: Western Cityscapes and American Culture After 1940 by John M. Findlay.