Remembering Wilma Mankiller, Chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma

Wilma Mankiller, the first woman to be elected chief of a major American Indian tribe,  who led the Cherokee Nation from 1985 to 1995,  died of pancreatic cancer on the sixth of April at her home near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, at the age of sixty-four.

I have the fondest memories of visiting with her in August 1991, on assignment for PARADE magazine, and reprint my article here as a tribute to a wonderful person whose presence among us is now so greatly missed:


“MY LIFE MAY BE UNUSUAL, BUT not to the Indian world,” says Chief Wilma Mankiller, 45, whose name goes back to that of a Cherokee warnor. “My ability to survive personal crises is really a mark of the character of my people. Individually and collectively, we react with a tenacity that allows us again and again to bounce back from adversity.”

The first woman to become principal chief of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, she speaks softly but with an undercurrent of urgency and commitment. From the Cherokee capital of Tahlequah in northeast Oklahoma’s “green country,” where she was born, Wilma Mankiller
guides the second-largest Indian nation in the U.S. (only the Navajo Nation is larger), with a population of more than 120,000, an annual budget of $54 million and more than 800 employees spread across 7000 square miles.

“It’s like running a big corporation and a little country at the same time,” she says with a laugh.

Today, wearing an orange blouse and purple skirt in her office at the tribal headquarters, the chief gives no sign of having had a bout with myasthenia gravis after a car accident in 1979; and while her face is puffy from medication following a kidney transplant last year, she radiates health and energy.

Chief Mankiller’s rapid rise to Cherokee power – and her accomplishments in economic development, health care and tribal self-governance – already are legendary in the Native American commu nity. She has helped develop new projects from waterlines to nutrition programs, from rural health clinics to a $9 million vocational training center.

Mankiller freely admits, meanwhile, that her people face a continuing crisis in housing, that too many Cherokee youngsters still drop out of high school, that unemployment remains about 15 per cent and that decades of low self-esteem cannot be reversed overnight.

Wilma Mankiller

“Although we’ve been affected by a lot of historical factors,” she insists, “nobody’s going to pull us out but ourselves.” In 1975, nearly all Cherokee income came from the federal government, but today more than 50 percent of the tribe’s revenues are from its own enterprises, such as an electronics plant.

While leading her tribe to greater self-reliance, Mankiller draws inner strength from the values passed down to her through generations. In many ways, her own life uncannily reflects the historic struggle of the Cherokee Nation itself.

One of eleven children, Mankiller spent her earliest years on “allotted” Oklahoma land amid woodsy hills without electricity or running water. Her full-blood Cherokee father, who married a Dutch-Irish woman, was directly related to the tribal members who had been forcibly removed from their original homeland in the southeastern Appalachian states.

That exodus in the winter of 1838-39 turned to tragedy as some 18,000 Cherokees, suffering from hunger and disease, trudged westward and left about 4000 dead on “the trail where they cried,” later called the Trail of Tears.

The Trail of Tears

“We knew about it from family stories,” Mankiller says, recalling how one of her aunts had a cooking utensil from ancestors on the trail. “Later we learned how our people had left behind their homes and farms, their political and social systems, everything they had known, and how the survivors had come here in disarray — but how, despite all that, they
had begun almost immediately to rebuild.”

When Mankiller was 12, in 1957, her family was again relocated — in this case, by a federal program designed to “urbanize” rural Indians. Sent from the Oklahoma countryside to a poverty-stricken, high-crime neighborhood in San Francisco, they were jammed into “a very rugged” housing project.  Like their ancestors, they were forced to start over.

“My father refused to believe that he had to leave behind his tribal culture to make it in the larger society,” Mankiller recalls, “so he retained a strong sense of identity.  Our family arguments were never personal but about some social or political idea. That stimulating atmosphere, of reading and debating, set the framework for me.”

During the l960s, Wilma Mankiller got married and had two children. She also studied sociology at San Francisco State University. In 1969, when members of the American Indian Movement took over the former prison at Alcatraz to protest the U.S. government’s treatment of Native Americans, she experienced an awakening that, she says, ultimately
changed the course of her life.

“I’d never heard anyone actually tell the world that we needed somebody to pay attention to our treaty rights,” she explains. “That our people had given up an entire continent, and many lives, in return for basic services like health care and education, but nobody was honoring those agreements. For the first time, people were saying things I felt but
hadn’t known how to articulate. It was very liberating.”

So, in the 1970s, Wilma Mankiller began doing volunteer work among Native Americans in the Bay Area. Learning about tribal governance and its history compelled her to take a fresh look at the Cherokee experience; and what she saw, in terms of broken promises and despair, made her deeply angry.

After the Trail of Tears in 1839, rebuilding by the tribe in Oklahoma proceeded with the creation of a government, courts, newspapers and schools. But this “golden era” ended with the Civil War, followed by the western land rush by settlers who devoured Cherokee holdings. In 1907, Washington gave all remaining Indian territory to the state of Oklahoma
and abolished the Cherokees’ right to self-government. “We fell into a long decline,” Mankiller says, “until, by the 1960s, we had come to feel there was something wrong with being an Indian.”

Not until 1975 did U.S. legislation grant the Cherokees self-determination. As rebuilding began yet again, Mankiller’s own transformation was progressing as well. In 1977, after being divorced, she returned with her children to Oklahoma.

A Woman with a Big Heart

Working in community development, Mankiller saw that the tribe’s need for adequate housing, employment, educa tion and health care was staggering. She helped to procure grants and initiate services; but, she says, she was still angry and bitter over conditions — not yet the calm, introspective woman capable of leading the Cherokee Nation.

Then, in the fall of 1979. an oncoming car collided with her Station wagon. She regained consciousness in the hospital, with her face crushed, ribs broken and legs shattered.

Months of recovery included a series of operations and plastic surgery on her face. Then she developed myasthenia gravis, which sent her nerves out of control.  Surgery on her thymus was followed by steroid therapy. Yet, in December 1980 — just over a year after the accident — she went back to work.

In a profound way, however, Wilma Mankiller was a different person. “It was a life-changing experience,” she says. To sustain herself through recovery, she explains, she drew upon precepts that the Cherokee elders had taught her:

“Have a good mind. No matter what situation you’re in, find something good about it, rather than the negative things. And in dealing with other human beings, find the good in them as well.”

“We are all interdependent. Do things for others — tribe, family, community — rather than just for yourself.”

“Look forward. Turn what has been done into a better path. If you’re a leader, think about the impact of your decisions on seven generations into the future.”

The same woman who had been im mobilized became a bundle of energy relentlessly focused on getting things done. After she helped obtain a grant enabling rural Cherokees to build their own 26- mile waterline, male leaders took notice. By 1983, she was being asked to run for election as deputy chief. Two years after that victory, when Chief Ross Swimmer was named head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, Mankiller became the principal chief.

Then, in the 1987 election, she ran for a full four-year term, becoming the first woman elected as Cherokee chief.

“Wilma is a breath of fresh air in In dian leadership,” says Peterson Zah, 58, president of the Navajo Nation and a friend. “She is a visionary who is very aggressive about achieving the goals she has in mind for her people. She truly cares about others.”

As chief, Mankiller works 14-hour days filled with meetings in Tahlequah and frequent twin-engine flights to the state capital in Oklahoma City; and she is often in Washington, D.C., lobbying Congress. Her second husband, Charlie Soap, a full-blood Cherokee, keeps up a similar pace developing community programs. “We can’t wait until the end of the day,” Mankiller says, “to tell each other what went on.”

They had long talks before Wilma de cided to run for a second full term in June. Her recent kidney transplant was successful (the donor was her oldest brother, Donald Mankiller), but she has yearned to do more “hands on” work in rural communities; and there have been enticing offers to teach.

“Committing to another four years was a big decision,” she says. “Basically it came down to the fact that there are so many programs in place that have been started but aren’t yet finished.”

On June 15 — with 83 percent of the vote — Wilma Mankiller was re-elected for four years, beginning Aug. 14.

As she starts her second term, Mankiller sees clearly the depth of problems of her own people, but her vision also includes a national agenda for all Native Americans,whose emerging leadership has heartened her.

One afternoon recently, Mankiller joined other tnbal chiefs in Okiahoma City in a meeting with the governor’s staff about a plan to tax Indian-owned stores.  During a long discussion, Chief Mankiller kept silent; but when she finally spoke up, it was in a way typical of her strong yet quiet leadership.  “I suggest you look at existing tribal contributions to the state,” she said in a soft voice, “and decide not to impose any new taxes on us. This is an opportunity for the state to begin a new day, an era of peace and friendship, with the tribes. Deciding against a tax would send a clear signal to the Indian population with long-term, positive impact.”

Although the decision was left hanging and has yet to be resolved, in a single stroke Mankiller had elevated the meeting’s theme. Then she was off to board a small airplane back to Tahlequah.

Flying over the lush green country side where her people have lived for a century and a half, she could see the Cherokee Nation spread beneath her.

“We can look back over the 500 years since Columbus stumbled onto this continent and see utter devastation among our people,” she says. “But as we approach the 21st century, we are very hopeful. Despite everything, we survive in 1991 as a culturally distinct group. Our tribal institutions are strong. And I think we can be confident that, 500 years from now, someone like Wilma Mankilier will say that our languages and ceremonies from time immemorial still survive.”

As her plane descended, some children paused briefly to glance upward before returning to their lives and to the “new day” that Wilma Mankiller was trying to create for them.

The chief was home.

Jim Craig – A Look Back at the Real Deal

Jim Craig - PARADE - By Hank Whittemore - Sept 21, 1980

One Young Man Americans Would Like to See Win New Glory

Thirty years ago I interviewed Jim Craig in Boston some months after he had led the U.S. hockey team that beat the supposedly unbeatable Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.  In those days Craig was a national hero; today he’s a national legend.  And he’s been up there in Vancouver rooting with the rest of us for Team USA.

Re-reading my article, I marvel at the wisdom Jim Craig possessed even then.  He’s the real deal!  Here’s the full text of what I wrote:

September 21, 1980
By Hank Whittemore

No one who saw it will ever forget. When the U.S. Olympic hockey team did the impossible in Lake Placid and skated off with the gold medal, it was a victory America needed.

Jim Craig as Goalie for the USA

A handful of youngsters were the nation’s gladiators-on-ice, briefly reducing the entire- world political situation to the resounding chants of U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”

In the midst of it all, goalie Jim Craig stood apart from his exuberant teammates, searching the stands and asking aloud, “Where’s my father?” As he counted the rows of seats in a vain search for his dad, the millions watching had sudden lumps in their throats, tears in their eyes. By instinctively reaching out for his family, this one young man had tapped the deepest impulses in America’s heart.

[NOTE: Jim has a great personal website]

Now Jim Craig is a professional hockey player, entering his first season with the Boston Bruins, but no matter what happens he will always be more than that. Wherever he goes (and he’s been “going” constantly since last winter), he is a national hero and a symbol of the best the country has to offer. Always, there is applause; and nobody knows the meaning of it better than he does:

“People are expressing their happiness about themselves. Through me, they see the country and clap for themselves. I’m a vehicle, that’s all I am, and it’s great.  I just want to be used in a positive way.”

The Winners - 1980 Olympics

Craig is not the matinee-idol type like Bruce Jenner to name another Olympic champion who stirred the nation’s emotions. Rather, he is the product of the sprawling, Irish-Catholic neighborhoods of Boston. He has the unshaven, unpretentious, rugged look of the working class, and there is a feeling that he would be far more at home in a local tavern than signing contracts for commercials up in the plush offices of his agent.

From a blue-collar section of North Easton, Mass., Craig is full of restless energy and strength. This past summer he could be spotted easily as he rode through Boston in his jeep, hopping out on Federal Street wearing a T-shirt, a bathing suit and a pair of old sneakers without socks.

At 23, he retains his love for family, friendship and basic values, but by now he also admits that he is “smarter” and “not so naive” and “a little more cynical” about the world. The Great American Media machine has created one of its overnight celebrities and woe to him if he falters.

PARADE - "FAME - Can Jim Craig Survive It?" (Answer 30 Years Later: You Betcha)

So it is no wonder that Jimmy Craig, a carefree spirit if there ever was one, has developed a tension ulcer. It is no wonder that he still wants to be with his father, three brothers, four sisters and Huey, the dog.  It is no wonder that he is so thrilled to be playing for the Bruins this season, in his own back yard. The applause of strangers must be balanced by the familiarity of home and strength of his roots. Otherwise, the pressure of it all would flatten him faster than a speeding hockey puck.

“The biggest thing I know,” he says, “is that they want to make a hero, but they also want to knock you off that pedestal as quickly as they put you up there. And that’s why I don’t consider myself a hero or anything like that. The Olympics was the highest moment of my life and no matter what I do, I’ll never be able to touch it.  So now I just take one day at a time and do what I think is right. See, I know everything that goes on in my own head, and as long as I can live with myself, I know I’m doing okay.”

The new Jim Craig might be likened to a kitten venturing out into full cathood. On the one hand he is totally relaxed and loose, just being himself; and on the other, he is poised, always on the alert for danger. Very much like the goalie that he is, he crouches, ever- watchful, waiting for the action as it speeds inevitably his way.

“I’m going to survive.” he says. “I’m a survivor. I’m going to do a good job at whatever I do, because I feel obligated to myself. My biggest goal now is being a professional hockey player and doing well for the Bruins. I’ll be a big disappointment to myself if I don’t play well this season.

“Fortunately I simplify everything as much as possible. I don’t put any more pressure on me than I have to. If I walked around trying to act a certain way all the time, I’d be a basket case. You can fool everyone in the world, but not yourself.”

Jim Craig

After Lake Placid, Craig was catapulted into a whirlwind: lunch at the White House, appearances on television, parades, speeches, airplane crowds and more crowds. In Chicago, he walked into his hotel room and found a nude woman lying in his bed.

“Please leave,” he told her, having no need for such favors, and besides, the cat had reared up its back: “You never know, it could have been a setup.”

Craig also joined the Atlanta Flames hockey team and tried to help save their franchise. Under tremendous stress he played four games, winning one, losing one and tying two.  Despite his numerous promotional appearances for the Flames, and a burst of new life at the box office, the team was sold to Calgary and Craig wound up with his tension ulcer. In June, he was traded to the Bruins and went home.

“It couldn’t be better,” he says with a look of wonder in his watery blue eyes. “You know that phrase, ‘You were made to be there’?  Well, I’m made to be here.” As if life were a storybook, he will be playing with the team he rooted for as a boy; and his boyhood idol, Gerry Cheevers, retired as goaltender and became the Bruin coach.

“Unbelievable.” Craig says with a smile.

Until the summer, Craig still lived in the house in Easton, where he had grown up as the sixth of Donald and Margaret Craig’s eight children. Now he has his own apartment in Boston, not far away; but the roots of his Irish- Catholic background are still his main source of nourishment.

“I love my family,” he says, and it still amazes him that people enjoy hearing him express that simple, strong emotion, as if it were unusual.

“My father never made more than about $13,000 a year when I was growing up, but I consider myself fortunate. Dad was a food director at Dean Junior College up in Franklin for 28 years. He was like a father to those kids, too. He worked seven days a week and really enjoyed it.

“The amazing part, though, was that he’d come home after a long day and always have time for us. He wouldn’t grouch and say, ‘Leave me alone.’ Never. Instead, he’d go out and hit balls to us and so forth,

“I feel very lucky that   I got to thank my old man before it was too late. These days there are so many kids who want to give their old man a big hug and a kiss, but they can’t.  Fathers think that if they send ’em to the best prep schools or give ‘em the car or money, they’ve done a good job. ‘So why doesn’t my son love me?’ they ask.

“Why not?  Because that’s not what the kid is looking for. And if he doesn’t get it, he’ll miss it when he’s older. In my opinion, if a kid doesn’t have a relationship with his father before he’s 16, he won’t have one later on. The giving and taking has to start before that age or it never will. By then, there are too many gaps to fill.”

Craig’s mother, who died of bone cancer in 1977, was an even greater influence on him. “It was as if she was a big bear and we were all her cubs.” He recalls. “She was a great, great lady, and all I have is fond memories. My parents played typical roles – Dad going out to work, Mom taking care of us kids and giving the discipline. When she died, my father had to switch roles suddenly and do a little bit of everything.”

When Jim Craig was real small, he would go down to the frozen ponds on a narrow section filled with trees, and while the older boys played hockey, he would skate on a narrow section filled with trees. “It was like an obstacle course,” he says. “There was just enough ice around the trees to skate in-between.”

From then on, the obstacle courses grew tougher, but Craig seemed to glide through them all with hard work, strength, instinct and grand success.  He played goalie in high school and his team racked up 53 wins, three losses and a tie. In his sophomore year at Boston University, the Flames drafted him, meaning that they would “own” his services after college.

Meanwhile, he led the 1978 B.U. team that won the National Collegiate title.  After graduation, he postponed the professional career and went off to Moscow with the U. S. 1979 national team for the World Games.

“I hated Moscow,” he says. “It was just awful. You get off the plane and they have guys with machine guns putting you on a bus. They had KGB agents following us everywhere we went. A very scary experience. On the ride home, we sang ‘God Bless America.’”

Then came the Olympic triumph at Lake Placid, followed by the whirlwind, the Flames and the call back to Boston. Craig signed a contract with Coca Cola (he received $35,000 for doing a one-shot TV commercial), committing himself to make 10 appearances around the country. Under the guidance of his agent, Bob Murray, he has accepted dozens of invitations to appear at charity events, and to give speeches, in nearly every state.

“We also turn down a lot of things,” Craig says.  “Everybody wants a piece of me, but I want to do only quality things. I feel a moral obligation to certain friends and charities, but I’m going slow.  I try to spend three days a week with my family and keep my feet on the ground.

“I date girls here and there, but I don’t want to be tied down yet. I just want to go out and have fun, with no strings attached. No commitments.  Just friends.”

Once again, it is the instinct of the cat who is suddenly out in the world, feeling his way along and trying to learn while not getting trapped. In his quest to be an award-winning .pro hockey player, Craig has vowed to re main unmarried for at least five more years.

In this new, high-pressured world he has entered, Craig is still speeding through the obstacle course: “People tell me, ‘Oh, Jimmy, you gotta be careful. They’re all using you.’ Hey, I’m just being me. And if anybody’s using me, well, I’m using them too. What I’m trying to do is just learn from people.

“I’m not an intellectual, but I have lots of common sense, I can get fooled once, but I won’t make the same mistake again. If somebody is my friend, he’s my friend.  If he’s not, he’s not.  And I’ll tell him right up front.

“But do you know how lucky I am? To be able to travel and meet so many people? Their character comes out without them even knowing it. You can see the character in a person, or the lack of it, right away.  And when I meet a guy with experience. I’ll sit there and just listen.”

That is Craig’s way of educating himself, not through books but from life itself. Long before he was sharing platforms with governors and movie stars, he was studying people in all walks of life. He did so when he moved furniture, landscaped gardens and painted houses. He learned from the well-to-do when he caddied at Thorny Lea Golf Club (where he now has a free membership), and from dock workers when he packed groceries in Fernandes Supermarket.

Over the summer, however, Jim Craig went to California by himself, with no one. For nine days, he stayed in a house without a telephone. Slowly, gradually, he began “getting mentally ready” for the Bruins.

From now on, Boston will claim him as its own; but a sure bet is that America will not forget him and the other boys of winter for a long, long time.

Wikipedia has some information with links, too.

Sean Griffin of Seattle – The Actor’s Actor!

When the rave reviews appeared earlier this year for Conor McPherson’s The Seafarer at Seattle Repertory Theater, I was not surprised to read that among the actors on stage “the real show-stealer, stumbling about, spitting out curses in his charming brogue,” was my old friend Sean Griffin, whom I had met for the first time during our college days at the University of Notre Dame.

Sean Griffin (left) in "The Seafarer" at Seattle Rep - Feb/March 2009

To put it simply, he is one of the best actors of his generation.  The man is an actor’s actor, a guy who loves to work, and he’s continued to work for nearly four decades. Sean has appeared on Broadway and on the most prestigious regional stages across the country, in countless roles, and he’s played dozens of parts on film and television, not to mention commercials and voice-overs.

Back in the 1980’s I had the good fortune to be able to write an article about Sean that appeared in PARADE magazine; and I’d like to share it with you here:

By Hank Whittemore
PARADE – June 7, 1987

“I was born in Limerick, Ireland, where we spoke only Gaelic in school. In 1956, when I was thirteen, my family took the boat over to the United States. Then we took the train out to Indiana and rented a small house in South Bend. My father became a night watchman in a ball-bearing factory.

“It was difficult being in a new country. The only Irish kid in school, and I still had a heavy brogue. I was picked on because I was different, an outsider. Had to learn to defend myself.

“I worked my way through high school. Cleaned floors, washed blackboards, sold soft drinks at lunchtime. Studied hard, got good grades. Won a four-year business scholarship to the University of Notre Dame, there in South Bend.

“My picture got in the paper.  A story about the night watchman’s son getting a great scholarship, which was the only way he could go to college. At the high school, some of the guys came after me. They were angry at ‘this foreigner come taking stuff that should be ours.’  Pinned me to the ground with a baseball bat across my neck.”

Sean Griffin and I met in 1961 at Notre Dame, where we were acting in plays at the University Theater.  His brogue still limited his range of roles.  He played, I recall, the court jester in Hamlet and a crewman in Billy Budd.  He was not regarded as a leading man.

Yet I could sense, even then, a curious blend of fire and poetry in his soul. I did not know then that he was still struggling to break free of the stereotype as a “foreigner” and to find his own identity.

The way Sean expressed his real feelings was by appearing in front of an audience, disguised as someone else. Only then, playing a role in a world of illusion, would he begin to expose the stormy emotions inside him.

“One of the things I love about theater,” he once told me, “is coming out onto the empty stage after a show.  It’s a strange, lonely feeling.  But a good one.

“Acting has to be a very lonely profession.  You can be onstage with live other people, but you’re still alone in some way.  It’s as if you’re stripped naked.  It’s frightening, but at the same time you get this feeling of exhilaration.”

Sean and! became friends.  One time I asked if he wanted to be a professional actor.  Sean laughed.  “Are you crazy?” he replied.  “Do you know what kind of life that would be?”

Nearly twenty years later, I was walking by a Broadway theater in New York City one night, when a large photograph of the cast caught my attention. There, among the other actors, was the familiar face of Sean Griffin.  My God, I thought, has Sean been an actor all these years?  He’s on Broadway!

The stage door opened and Sean and I stood facing each other for the first time in two decades.

Sean Griffin

He was basically unchanged, although his brogue was gone. I was startled to learn that he had appeared on Broadway three other times. And that he had acted in popular TV shows such as Starsky and Hutch, Barnaby Jones, Columbo and a string of daytime soap operas.

“From the beginning,” he said,  “I knew it wasn’t going to be easy.  I just kept working and learning.  Just tried to get better at what I was doing.”

As Sean spoke, he revealed how tough it had been to survive as an actor. He had waited on tables, made the rounds of casting agents and auditions, faced rejection over and over. And yet, because of his past, the idea of quitting never occurred to him.

“I was married for seven years,” he told me, “but all the ups and downs took their toll on my family life.  Rehearsing, traveling, often gone for months. Marriage is difficult enough, but when you’re separated so much…”

A few years ago, Sean decided to return to regional theaters, where he has appeared in one play after another. “The important thing for me is to be working,” he explained one night.  “Eighty-five per cent of the actors in New York and Hollywood are unemployed.  The top people make millions but, on average, an actor’s yearly income is $4000.  Maybe less.”

Sean has steadily earned his living by living steadily out of a suitcase, making at best about $14,000 a year.  In 1985, he toured with Cyrano de Bergerac to 47 towns and cities.  That fall, Sean performed in South Bend, where his parents still live.  I flew out there and joined him.

We visited the Notre Dame Theater Department, where Sean – their “returning hero”- told the students:  “If you don’t have the drive, forget it. You need a bit of healthy insanity. If you don’t have that, do something else.”

I joined Sean at his parents’ house for a family meal.  Amid the good-natured irreverence and laughter, I began to realize that here was the real secret inside Sean.  Here was his wellspring of love and warmth and support.

Cyrano is about an uncomely man who is mocked and scorned. But inside, this is no ordinary man. He has, within him, that “bit of healthy insanity” and, by the end of the play, he also embodies the highest ideals of love, courage, integrity and the magnificent possibilities of the human spirit.

Sean played LeBret, the only man who understands Cyrano.  At one point, he was left alone onstage, standing midway up a giant staircase.  His gaze swept the South Bend audience until he seemed to be staring directly at his father and mother, sending them a silent message:

“I’ve gone a long way, to come back on my own terms. Thank you for understanding. I’m home up here. This is who I am.”


Sean Griffin (Photo by Wendy Hickok)

Sean lives in Seattle (where he’s also a recognized artist as a painter!) with his wonderful wife Bernadine (Bernie) C. Griffin, who is currently Director of Theater Advancement and Development at the historic 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle (and, so I hear, soon to be the new Managing Director).

Here’s from of another rave review of Sean in The Seafarer:

“You could feel it. Sometimes the audience just want a play to end so they can get out of there.  Last night the audience wanted the play to end for an entirely different reason.  They wanted to applaud the hell out of Sean G Griffin.  The rest of the cast were pretty good too but Griffin as irascible old codger, Richard Harkin, dominated the stage from start to finish … Prost Amerika has reviewed many shows at the Rep but can honestly say that Griffin’s portrayal of Richard Harkin was the most dominating single performance we have seen here.”

Keep up the great work, Sean!

(Photo by Wendy Hickok)

The Heroes Among Us – And the Meaning of Courage – On the Anniversary of Pearl Harbor

The upcoming anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 reminded me of an essay I wrote for PARADE in final month of 1979, as the decade of the Seventies was ending and we were still trying to recover from Vietnam. The essay was based on my attendance at a gathering of recipients of the Medal of Honor and it revolved around the meaning of courage.  I think its message holds just as true today, as we look back on a shocking, tragic event of American history that occurred sixty-eight years ago, when our country was suddenly catapulted into World War Two:

An Essay by Hank Whittemore – PARADE – January 1980

Have Americans lost their courage? That question is often heard these days, along with the cynical observation that we’ve grown too soft to produce heroes.

Last November, I decided to attend the Congressional Medal of Honor Society’s biennial reunion in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  Perhaps a good place to learn about courage would be among those who had demonstrated it in battle.

First I consulted the government’s list of the 3306 recipients of the Medal since it was first awarded during the Civil War. Under each name a citation tells what the man did to deserve his honor. You can open any page and find a story to match your worst nightmare. It is impossible to read these accounts of courage and not be overwhelmed.

Many of the Medals had been given posthumously. One soldier had “saved the lives of his men at the sacrifice of his life by throwing himself directly on the mine as it exploded.” That’s a typical description, not the exception. For those who remained alive, personal survival was an afterthought, an accident of fate.

“The Medal of Honor is the highest military award for bravery that can be given to any individual in the United States,” I read. “The deed of the person must be proved by incontestable evidence of at least two eyewitnesses; it must be so outstanding that it clearly distinguishes his gallantry from lesser forms of bravery; it must involve the risk of his life, and it must be the type of deed which, if he had not done it, would not subject him to any justified criticism.”

There are 275 Medal-holders still living among us: 10 from World War I, 144 from World War 11,38 from Korea and 83 from Vietnam. Of these, about 160 would be on hand at the Tulsa reunion.

At the meeting place in a downtown hotel, the “national media” were conspicuously absent.  There were no hordes of reporters, no TV crews shoving their way into the reception hall.  The local press was there, but most of the country would never learn that the event was taking place. Those who had exhibited the highest form of military courage while serving America were reaching out to each other in virtual anonymity.

Attack on Pearl Harbor - Dec 7, 1941

Many of the men had brought their wives. They were dressed informally, with sports jackets and ties, and each man wore his Medal draped from its ribbon around his neck. They had name tags on their lapels. At first glance, you might have mistaken the group for a collection of ordinary businessmen. They greeted each other with handshakes, smiles, occasional embraces.

And soon you could feel that there was much more in the room, a more powerful emotion beneath the surface. Wandering around as a stranger, I saw two men who had each lost an arm.  I saw a man who had lost one of his legs. Others were limping.  Several had scars from burns.  Nearly all, I learned, were carrying wounds of one kind or another.

At some point it struck me. The world may forget these men and what they have done, but as long as any are still alive, they will not forget each other – because they know what courage is; because each man knows that the others understand what he went through; because of a common bond, transcending generations and races and all other differences; because they share a secret that is almost impossible for them to express to anyone else.

If I could learn that secret, I thought, maybe then I would have answers for those who worry about our courage. And so I joined the Medal-holders as they took bus tours, attended banquets, listened to speeches. I spoke to dozens of them, in small groups and individually – trying to learn the secret.

Each man openly admitted that he had been afraid. His courage had required an awareness of danger, not blindness to what was at stake. His act was not rash, but deliberate.  What counted was how he had controlled or handled his fear. He had “respected the situation” and then risen to it.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall - Washington, D.C.

But along with fear, I noticed, there had been anger. A man had gotten mad as hell at the course of events and said, in effect, “I won’t submit to that! I won’t let it happen!  Maybe this is the way things are supposed to be, but I’m going to change it!” And so, rather than give in to torture, he had slit his wrists. Or jumped on top of a deadly grenade.  Or stood up and fired at the enemy in the face of almost certain death.  And by his action, he had made all the difference.

Underneath the fear and the anger, however, there had been a dedication to others.  This sort of courage – perhaps courage itself – is not selfish.  It regards comrades’ lives as more valuable than one’s own. It means being willing to crawl back into a flaming helicopter to save the pilot, diving down to a submarine to rescue those who are trapped; instead of fleeing for safety, racing out to treat the wounded and helpless and dragging them away from the bullets.

Courage, I found, is not the result of a contest. You don’t “win” the Medal of Honor.  You have a certain amount of training and experience, but then comes an event that calls for spontaneous action. You either respond in a certain way or you don’t.  You cannot predict, ever, what you will do.  Not a single Medal- holder was aware, beforehand, that he really had the “guts” to be a hero.

And that is part of the secret:  These men, holders of the highest award for courage we’ve got, are just like the rest of us. Among them at the reunion were a college professor, a furrier, a police chief, a real estate salesman. They had come from steel mills, farms, assembly lines and executive suites.

The important fact was not their differences from us, but their sameness. As a group, they represent the diversity, and the ordinariness, of the whole nation.  They reflect the actual and potential courage that exists throughout American life.  They are a national treasure, symbolizing our capacity for valor. By taking a good look at them, it is possible to see ourselves.

For each of the Medal-holders there had been no script to follow. Before they acted, they had been just as “normal” as you or I. If a situation calling for courage arises, will we respond as heroes or will we shrink away to save ourselves?

There is no certain answer.  Which, I believe, is also part of the secret.  Heroism is an individual matter that cannot be “seen” in the absence of a test.  You cannot find it by looking at your neighbors or in a mirror. It is something that happens at the moment. Until then, no one has the right to judge who among us does or does not have courage.

These lessons, I believe, apply to courage in all its forms, not just military. For everyone, crises arise throughout life that test courage – in our jobs, in the family, in relationships with friends and with strangers.

What saddened me at the Medal of Honor reunion was the feeling on the part of the recipients that their courage has so little meaning for the rest of us. “The Medal has a different significance these days,” a Vietnam veteran said. “If I had received it during World War II, I’d be treated differently. I came home as a soldier in scorn, so to speak.  Today, most kids don’t even know that the Medal exists, much less what it means.”

Isn’t it time we distinguished between the traumatic Vietnam experience and those who fought in that controversial conflict?  Isn’t it time we re-learned the Medal’s meaning, for ourselves and future generations?  Surely another war isn’t necessary in order to know that we haven’t lost our courage.

The men who gathered in Tulsa have put away their Medals until the next reunion. They go about their lives with that secret they share. They know what courage is – and so should we.

“Julia & Paul” – My Lunch with Julia Child and her husband Paul

Before starting this running Memoir I had put up the following article on Hank Whittemore’s Shakespeare Blog — clearly an inappropriate place for it.  The article, which I wrote for PARADE magazine in 1982, was about my lunch with Julia Child (formerly Julia Carolyn Williams) and her husband Paul Cushing Child at their home in Santa Barbara, CA.

PARADE - Feb 28, 1982

I was sent there by editor Walter Anderson to interview Julia as she was about to become food editor of the magazine; and to my surprise, when I walked in, she called me (with that unmistakable voice) into the kitchen while she made lunch for us.  What a treat!

So I’ve taken the liberty of placing the same article here, where it actually belongs.  I hope you like the piece, which I’ve reproduced below in addition to including an image of it:


Julia Child stands in her kitchen in Santa Barbara, CA, a dish towel hooked around her apron string, vigorously chopping vegetables and grinding herbs as her husband, Paul, looks on fondly. A Sunday-afternoon meal of soup au pistou becomes a celebration of their life together — a love story that would be difficult to make more perfect.

They and their guests move out to the dining room table by a window overlooking the ocean. The Mediterranean vegetable soup is served with hot French bread and white wine. Glasses are held by the stems so that when they are clinked together in a toast, they sound like musical chimes.

“L.e carillon de l’amitié,” Julia exclaims.

“The bells of friendship,” Paul echoes.

There is warmth and camaraderie and exuberance in the air. It comes from Julia’s spontaneous merriment, from Paul’s quiet appreciation, from their shared passion for fine food and for each other. On this day, Paul is moved to express his deep feelings about the famous woman to whom he has been married for 35 years.

“We met in Ceylon during World War II,” he begins, explaining that they both had been sent to the China-Burma-India theater as members of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services. He was a painter making maps for the OSS.  A confirmed bachelor of 41, he had lived in Paris during the expatriate era of the 1920s, learning to love the French language and cuisine.

“I wasn’t going to marry anybody.” Paul says, “but when we met, 1 liked her right away.”

At that time, she was Julia McWilliams, 31, originally from Pasadena, CA. She had joined the OSS hoping to become a spy, winding up instead as a tile clerk. At Smith College, she had majored in history and earned a reputation as a prankster. Now she was an aspiring novelist who had made her living as a public-relations writer. And so far, she had never tasted French food or done any serious cooking.

“She had certain qualities that appealed to me very much,” Paul continues.

“Brains, that’s one. And crazy humor, a lot of it. Guts. Ability. And she was interested in food, as I was.”

“Food didn’t bring us together,” Julia interrupts with a laugh. “I liked you.”

“I loved to look at her. I thought she was beautiful.”

“Eye of the beholder,” Julia quips.

“I liked the way she talks, and—”

“We thought the same way—”

“—and the sound of her voice. I liked that she was tough and worked like mad and never gave upon things. And I was automatically drawn to her outgoingness and sympathy for human beings. I could live in a cave, but she likes people, and I respond to that.”

“I wasn’t ready to marry anyone until I met Paul,” says Julia. “He brought out my nesting instincts. He was interested in food and—”

“She’s a wolf, by nature. Always hungry.”

“—and he was sophisticated. I wouldn’t have done nuttin’ without him.”

“It was a kind of human chemistry.” Paul continues. “We met and started a new fizzz going off. When we were sent to China, we told each other: ‘If we can get through this war and survive, we must get married. And then we must do everything together that we possibly can.’”

Julia nods at him across the table. “That’s the nice thing about a good marriage,” she says.

“And we’ve done it.”

A few years after their marriage in 1946, Paul was assigned to the American Embassy in Paris. With her first taste of French food, Julia was hooked. It was an “intoxicating revelation,” which made her plunge with fervor into the art of French cooking. And she has never looked back.

As a coauthor of the two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child helped to create the most thorough teaching books on the subject in English and her television appearances have done much to make French cooking a part of our culture.

Paul, who calls her “Julie” once in a while, says that the public and private “Julies” are the same. “She speaks the truth,” he says. “She’s not showing off. No phoniness. She’s just her self. And this is so when she’s writing or talking. Julie is always Julia.”

“It’s a great deal of fun as a career,” she says, adding that the “profession of gastronomy” should not be disparaged. “I think a country is only really civilized when it can take food as an art form. A meal doesn’t have to be like a painting by Raphael, but it should be a serious and beautiful thing, no matter how simple. And it’s a wonderful time to talk, the way we are now. What nicer way for a family to get together and communicate?  Which is what life is all about, really.”

Paul and Julia Child have been breaking bread together for a long time, and yet their enthusiasm for that communication has never dwindled. After Paul resigned from foreign service in 1961, they settled in Cambridge, MA.  A third home is in the south of France. While his wife has continued to expand her involvement in cooking and teaching, he has produced exquisite works as a painter, sculptor, photographer and cabinetmaker.

“We both need long, quiet, agonizing periods by ourselves,” Julia says, “so it works out very nicely. We always have something to do. So I think we are very fortunate in having interests that coincided. If we’d had children, we wouldn’t have had the life we have. They just never came. By now, we’d be grandparents, and that would be nice, but we’re not unfulfilled.”

Paul gazes at her and smiles. No more words are needed.

By Hank Whittemore

PS – I thoroughly enjoyed the movie Julie & Julia with Meryl Streep (Julia) and Amy Adams (Julie), along with Stanley Tucci as Paul; in fact, after seeing it I dug into my files to find the PARADE article.

World War II – Waiting for My Father to Come Home

The story as it appeared in PARADE in January 1985, with a photo of me with my parents in 1942 and another one, taken by the great photographer Eddie Adams, in 1984

When we observed Veterans Day earlier this week, it occurred to me to find one of my all-time favorite articles that I wrote for PARADE magazine.  This one was published on January 20, 1985, at the start of the 40th anniversary year of the end of that horrible war.  It represents a personal memory behind just one of the millions of local announcements that appeared during the war in local newspapers across the country:

FROM THE DAILY TIMES, MAMARONECK, NY: ENGLAND, July 14, 1944 – Staff Sgt. William c. Whittemore Jr. of the Alden House, Larchmont, has recently arrived in England to serve in the Signal Corps.  Son of Mr. and Mrs. William C. Whittemore of 3 Virginia Place, Larchmont, Staff Sgt. Whittemore entered the service in July of 1943 and trained in Camp Crowder, Mo; State Teachers College, Tex.; and at Camp Edison, Sea Girt, NJ.  Staff Sgt. Whittemore and his wife, the former Suzette Schwiers of New York City, have one son, two-and-a-half years old.

After 40 Years, one small story from our biggest war

I don’t think I can recall one thing about my father before he left us to go to war. I was not yet two years old when he disappeared from our lives, vanishing across the Atlantic Ocean’s turmoil of dark water and gray sky on his way to various European battlefields. I can recall, perhaps, the feeling of his presence in my life, but I don’t know that for sure.

What I do remember – vividly – are images formed as a result of looking at photographs and from being told the same stories over and over. Some of them refer to events that happened well before my birth in November 1941, back during the days when my father was growing up to become the handsome, dashing young man who would sweep my mother off her feet and marry her within six months of their first romantic meeting.

Yes, my images of him in those days are illuminated by the sort of glitter and glow reserved for Hollywood stars, and those old photographs only reinforce my conviction that he was a more-than- average fellow. He appears in them as tall and slim, often wearing white slacks and shoes, smiling with confidence and gazing at the camera as if he knew, right then, that he was creating an indelible effect.

The most striking physical fact about him was his bright red hair – wavy, thick, passionate hair that seemed to be perpetually on fire. On a couple of the black and white photographs, his hair was touched up with red-orange paint, and his eyes were given a watercolor blue.  But these were Ineffectual attempts to capture the true flavor of his arresting appearance – or so I was told, at age three, when I would stare at the photos of my absent father and pretend that he was gazing back into my soul.


He had lived as a little boy on West 150th Street in New York City; later, he moved with his parents out to the suburbs, to the Village of Larchmont in Westchester County, twenty miles north of Manhattan. He met my mother in the summer of 1940, when he was twenty-three and she was twenty-two. She had come up from New York to Larchmont with her parents, who had rented a home for the summer to escape the heat of the city. The house was diagonally across the tree-lined street from where my father lived.

To my mother, the colorful, flowers and green trees of Larchmont were as beautiful and thrilling as the hills and valleys of the countryside. I can only try to imagine the warm summer evenings and sunny weekend days of the courtship that led my mother and father to marry before the year was over.  I think they knew, even on their wedding day in December of 1940, that events beyond their control might soon reach out and pull my father away.

They were married in the city, at the Biltmore Hotel.  They took an apartment in Larchmont (in the Alden House), a short walk from where my father had lived and where his parents remained. I was born eleven months later in New Rochelle Hospital. Just five weeks afterward, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.


The Alden House in Larchmont, on the Post Road, where we lived during World War II

As I say, I have no recollection of my father from the time I was born until he left us. I am told that it took at least eighteen months before he was drafted into the Army.  My mother and I were to stay in the Larchmont apartment while he was overseas, but first he would have to go into training. When he got to Camp Edison in Sea Girt, New Jersey, my mother and I traveled down there by train and took a room in a boardinghouse near the beach and a few blocks from the camp.

The story I like best from that time is about how my father would sneak out of the barracks area at night and make his way to the boardinghouse to be with my mother (and me) for a few stolen hours before racing back, climbing over the fence and slipping into his tent again in time for sunrise and reveille, hen he’d get up and continue, on virtually no sleep, training for war.

I have one other image from that time on the Jersey shore, just before my father was to be shipped overseas. I see myself in a little red wagon. My mother is pulling me on the boardwalk beside the sand and the ocean. I hear the waves slashing and pounding with an angry, threatening force. I feel the wind hurling itself against my mother as she pulls me, afraid but determined.  Her long, dark hair is blowing wildly from the violence in the air, which continues to build as if it were blowing all the way from Europe. Her face is very pale, and she seems so very alone with her willpower and her faith and her fear.

Coming upon the sight of a large crowd on the beach, we can see from the boardwalk that the object of curiosity is the enormous corpse of a whale. The sight of its ugly gray body terrifies my mother, who quickly turns the wagon around and starts pulling me away from the scene. She pulls with sudden, inexplicable strength, as if to save us both from some mysterious danger.  If such a powerful mammal has lost its fight against unchecked brutality, where is safety for a young woman alone with a child in a world whose madness no one, much less she, can fathom?  I see her pulling me faster and faster and calling the name of her young husband, whose vanishing figure she chases in bewilderment along an endless pier beside an endless, churning sea.

Even though I may not remember these things, I feel them.  And I feel my helplessness in being too weak, too insignificant, to protect her.

Back in Larchmont, we lived in the apartment together. It was during this time that my true memories did, in fact, begin to form. In the earliest one, we are on the high rooftop of our building, which itself is on a hill. I am standing on the tar paper, gazing through an opening in the wall.

“Be careful,” she says.

“Don’t worry, Mom.” I reply. Those are the three words I remember speaking most often, taking it upon myself to calm her down, to give her peace. I was acting brave. And, in the same breath, I was also absorbing her fears, her loneliness and her pain, making them my own and trying to reassure myself.

I could feel her waiting.  Always waiting.

One day we entered our building as usual, my mother picked up the mail and we went up in the elevator. When we were in the apartment, she told me to go and wait for her in the bedroom.  I was on my parents’ bed when she walked in, her eyes red and tears spilling down her face.  A letter was clutched in her hand, at her side. In the letter was a small, brownish close-up photograph of a man’s face – like a passport photo.  My mother knelt down, holding it in front of her, and I listened to her sobbing for a long time.

“He’s a prisoner.” she finally whispered. “They won’t let him tell the truth, but he’s trying to send me a message with this picture. He’s a prisoner of war, and he’s never coming home!”

She knelt and tried to pray, and the double bed beneath me became a floating raft set loose from its moorings, carrying me away. I lay face-down on the sheet with my arms spread wide, my fingers clutching but unable to hold on, as she continued to weep, and I felt the inexorable pull of the tide and the roll of the waves, beyond my control.

After that, I could feel my mother’s tension whenever she checked the mail or if someone called. At last, another letter from overseas.  He seemed okay, but the war continued. What would happen to him, and to us, was unknown.     Over the days, weeks and months, we waited.  We shared an unspoken agreement that our most fundamental activity was passing time, dangling, holding on, as if the beginning of our lives had been postponed.

In my grandparents’ house on Virginia Place in the winter of 1945, there is a large gathering of adults. I am playing off to one side, on the rug near the piano, with a jigsaw puzzle whose pieces show the jagged features of men in battle. The house is stuffy and warm from the radiator, the tobacco smoke, the body heat. From my vantage point on the floor, there is an ebb and flow of milling pants, dresses, legs and shoes accompanied by a loud, continuous babble.

I am concentrating on the puzzle when I feel a blast of invigorating air sweep through the forest of legs.  I hear a clamor of cheering. The congregation moves toward the open front door. There are shrieks of laughter and delight.  I remain on the rug, staring at the chaos.  The throng backs up into the living room and, after more commotion, the congestion breaks apart to reveal, in the glow of an amber light, a handsome man wearing an overcoat and a cap with a visor.  He is standing there with a confident smile, greeting people with hugs.  He takes off his overcoat. He is dressed in a uniform of the U.S. Army.  He removes his cap. In the warm, brown- yellow circle of light, his hair is fiery red.

As he puts his arm around my mother’s waist and gives her a kiss, I look away and shut my eyes; in this self-imposed darkness, it seems that my breath has been taken away. I hear his voice distinctly. He is calling my name.  “Where is he?’ I hear him say, and the conversation ceases abruptly, as if all the sound in the world has been shut off.  In the hush, my eyes are still closed; yet I can feel him staring at me from across the room. I wait – in fear, in resentment, in hope, in a darkness stretching away to the ends of a silent universe.

When I open my eyes, he is taking the last strides in my direction.  He bends down in a squat and gazes directly at me. The red hair is a ring of fire around his face, and I stare into his blazing blue eyes, which are familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. I feel his harsh breath and the scraping of his beard stubble on my cheek as he kisses me with strange, scary roughness.

So here is my first real memory of him, with his strong hands gripping either side of my chest under my arms, slowly lifting me off the ground as the scattered pieces of the war puzzle recede far below on the rug; and I soar, weightless, higher and higher, into the amber sky, gliding without effort above his head, looking down at all the faces and at the face of my mother, who is smiling up at me with glistening eyes, with the expression of a little girl being transformed suddenly into my father’s wife, and some terrible burden of the spirit, some unbearably oppressive weight, softly slides away.