November 27, 2015

Sometimes Forgotten, Forever Appreciated

They don’t normally march in parades; they don’t normally have banquets and ceremonies in their honor; and they don’t normally receive much publicity for their service.
      And while much has been made of showing appreciation for the service and sacrifices of the American military servicemen and women—since after the Vietnam War, anyway—little has been done to show appreciation for the Americans who stayed behind during World War II and produced the goods and material the troops needed to function on the front.
      I’m quite pleased to see attention given to the service of military veterans. They’re deserving. The (Champaign-Urbana) News-Gazette published a large list of area events for Veterans Day. Services and parades are also held on the Fourth of July and Memorial Day.
      News-Gazette reporter Paul Wood has been featuring a weekly front-page story of an interview with a military veteran for some time. All this is refreshing to see in a country that is now protected by an all-volunteer military—much different that it was during World War II.
      Back then about 16 million Americans served to preserve our freedom and way of life. Some 405,000 of them died during the war in both combat and noncombat-related deaths. More than 570,000 suffered non-fatal wounds they lived with until the end of their lives or still live with. 
But those men and women were backed by soldiers on the home front—production soldiers, if you will—who worked in the nation’s factories, mills, mines, oil fields, farms and other areas to supply the military with necessary support to carry on the war.
      Jim Kelly, an Urbana Marine veteran who spent 36 days on Iwo Jima during that battle where 6,821 men were killed and nearly 19,000 wounded, often mentions those who supported the war effort at home during those times.
      “When somebody thanks me for my service,” Kelly says, “I say, ‘Yes, but don’t forget the civilians who stayed behind and provided the supplies we needed.’”
      Kelly’s wife, Leila, worked in an airplane factory in Torrance, Calif. And there are hundreds of thousands of others who worked to make the war effort a successful one. My father was drafted in 1944, went to Chicago for his physical, passed it, but was given 30 days to return home and somehow wrap up his business for the duration of the war.
My father with one of his hauling trucks in the 1940s.
      In his late 20s, he and my mother lived on a small farm, raised a few hogs, fed some cattle, milked a couple of cows and raised some chickens and had five trucks hauling farmers’ livestock to the stockyards in Indianapolis, their corn, beans and wheat to the elevator and spread fertilizer on their fields.
      Before the 30 days were up, a local farmer who served on the Selective Service draft board started a petition indicating that my father was needed at home to serve the community. And so he stayed. The men he had driving four of his trucks were young men who hadn’t yet gone to the military or older men who weren’t taken into the service.
      Growing up on the farm later, I sometimes complained about the long days in the field during planting or harvest seasons. My father had no sympathy.
      “Back during the war,” he said, “there were times I didn’t pull my shoes off from Sunday morning until Thursday evening. I’d take a load of stock to Indianapolis four nights and sometimes stop in Brazil on the way back and get a load of coal for somebody, scoop it off and then pick up another load of stock to take back to Indianapolis.”
      He wasn’t the only one working like that. They were scattered all across the United States. Many were injured or killed on the job. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that more than 75,000 Americans died or became permanently or totally disabled in industry during the war. Another 378,000 industrial workers were reported to have suffered permanent or partial disabilities doing the work to support the war effort.
      After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, historians report that it took nearly 18 months for the United States to build its military-industrial base to muster the necessary support. And it wasn’t until sometime in 1943 that combat-related deaths exceeded industrial deaths on the home front.
      So factory workers, farmers, miners and others deserve the same words of gratitude and appreciation as those who served directly in the military. The next time you see one of them, you might say a word of thanks for their service. They’re deserving, too.

September 20, 2015

Reflection on a life too soon gone

As I write this morning (Sept. 19, 2015), 50 years ago right now I was in the delivery area of the Charleston (Ill.) Memorial Hospital waiting for our son to be born. James Byron Elliott arrived a little after noon and gave the family—mother, grandparents, sisters, the whole Elliott Clan and me—a sense of happiness and pride in him and for all he accomplished in the next 48 years. Sadly, he died of a heart attack on Dec. 5, 2013, at his home in the Oakland, Calif., Hills. The call from a deputy in the Oakland coroner's office at 3:23 a.m. the next morning was the saddest and most heartbreaking moment I can remember. Life stopped awhile for me at that moment and hasn’t been quite the same since.
Jim and I when I was in California for his wedding.
       But Jim always faced things head-on with confidence and perseverance. I had to do the same. Many instances during his life come to mind, but the one that always sticks in my mind was the eight-hour operation where his overbite was corrected by breaking his jaws and moving them forward, then taking bone chips from his hip to lower the upper jaw. In recovery, he looked like he'd been beaten severely about his head and had his jaws wired shut for six weeks while they healed. He got tired of the liquid diet, but I heard few complaints. He always did what he had to do, when he had to do it.
       I wasn't always with him while he was growing up, but he came to live with me in Champaign right after he graduated from Hinsdale South High School and enrolled at the University of Illinois, where he got a degree in physics and astronomy. He immediately found a job in a fast-food restaurant and then worked on a paint crew each summer, running the crew the last two summers and working his way through college. From Illinois, Jim went to Purdue, where he earned his Ph.D. in nuclear physics and went to the University of California-Berkeley for his postdoc work. Jim and I drove from Urbana to California when he moved out the last time. We got to spend several days on the road together and then at his apartment before I flew home. It was a delightful time together, and gave us both a sense of satisfaction that he was doing what he wanted to do and was on his way to the career path he always wanted. Frank Sinatra's song, "My Way," always comes to mind when I think of the way Jim charted his life.
       Somewhere along the line, Jim met the love of his life, Linda Haymes, a psychologist who works with autistic children and teaches, was hired for a position at Lawrence Livermore Laboratory as a nuclear physicist and had two lovely daughters, Mia and Noe. It was during that part of his life that it ended abruptly when all was going so well. He never smoked or drank and ran many marathons—he asked me to run one with him in Chicago several years ago. Which I did. We lined up together at the Daley Plaza and started off together. After about 100 yards together, he said, "See you later, Dad." I laughed and said, "But I thought we were running together." He was already gone by then, so I didn't hear his reply and never saw him again until I reached the finish line hours later. He had waited for me at the finish line, shaking in the spitting snow and blowing wind. That's the way he was.
      I could go on for hours, but I'll stop. This has been a catharsis of sorts as I reflect on a life too soon gone. He still had much to offer as a father, a son, a brother, a scientist and a human being. I leave you with a quote from a memorial card my wife prepared after his death:

"Even though I was a tiny speck
in an infinite cosmos,
a blip on the timeline of eternity,
I was not without purpose."
— R.J. Anderson

August 12, 2015

Out of sight, out of mind doesn’t work for today’s prisoners

When I worked as a counselor at Menard Prison in the 1970s, Illinois had some 10,000 men and women incarcerated. Today it is reported that nearly 50,000 of our citizens are locked away in Illinois jails and prisons.
And according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the rest of the states are apparently keeping up with the pace. With today’s United States penal population reported to be more than 2.2 million adults, it is by far the largest in the world. Not quite one-quarter of the world’s prisoners are held in American prisons. Those figures are five to ten times higher than the rates in Western European countries and other democracies.
Another 5 million are on probation or parole. And that isn’t all. We have more than 70,000 young people in juvenile detention centers—sort of like prep schools for the Big Houses where the real education begins.
But with the recent attention being paid to the failing prison system and the huge budgetary costs to maintain them, some people are beginning to take a longer look at the practice of throwing people in the prisons and getting them off the street and out of sight with little concern for the consequences for the people imprisoned, their families and communities, and for society at large.
One person who is concerned about the ramifications of this situation is Dr. Rebecca Ginsburg, director of the University of Illinois Education Justice Program, whose mission is “to build a model college-in-prison program that demonstrates the positive impacts of higher education upon educated people, their families, the communities from which they come, the host institution, and society as a whole.”
“I’m honored to serve as the director of the University of Illinois’ Education Justice Project,” she said, “an initiative that provides higher education within a medium-high Illinois state prison.”
As you might expect, most of a countries’ prison population comes from the portion of the nation’s population that is least educated and most disadvantaged. Most of those incarcerated are under 40 years of age, are disproportionately minority, and many have drug and alcohol addictions. A large number also have mental or physical illness and have neither work preparation nor experience.  
With “longstanding interests in social justice” and a faculty position at the University, Ginsburg is optimistic about the effect of the Education Justice Project that has three sites of work: “Education programs to men incarcerated at Danville Correctional Center; host outreach activities for friends and family members of the incarcerated in Chicago; and sponsor events on the Urbana-Champaign campus and community to promote critical understanding of incarcerations and support those impacted by it.”
After hearing Ginsburg speak about the Education Justice Project at a recent Urbana Rotary lunch, I attended “The Ripple Effect” meeting, a part of the program for “reaching inside the prisons with purpose and love, “ where young people and other community members “share a meal and write cards and letters to individuals in jails and prisons.”
In addition to adults with family members in prison and other participants, there were a number of kids there to write to their fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts and cousins. It was refreshing to see everybody working to communicate with prisoners and let them know they aren’t forgotten. That seems as important as the educational aspect.
“I'm so happy to be a part of this wonderful group of people,” Annette Taylor said. “ I have family members and friends incarcerated right now. My brother just got released in January after doing 10 years in IDOC. And I'm married to a man that was incarcerated for 20 years.”
During those times she said she did a lot of writing and knows how much it meant for her to stay in touch.
“Most of the time I was the only one sending them mail,” she said. “And a lot of time I was their only communication from the outside world.
I wish Ripple Effect had been around then, but I'm so happy it's here now. It's a place where we can all meet, share our stories and most of all, not be embarrassed about our loved ones. I would love to see more people come out because I know that there's a lot of families affected by having incarcerated loved ones.”
The next meeting of The Ripple Effect is Aug. 17 from 5:30-7 p.m. at the Bethel AME Church at 401 E. Park St., Champaign. Whether you have a family member incarcerated or just want to be a part of a worthwhile project designed to provide some “purpose and love” for men in prison, you’re welcome. As the poet John Donne wrote many years ago,No man is an island/Entire of itself/Every man is a piece of the continent/A part of the main. …”

February 11, 2015

Some Ancestry 101 from National Geographic Traveler and what I do

I've dabbled in genealogy for years but never really took it seriously, but it's interesting, fun and worthwhile, historically and to see where your family came through the years. For my part, I've been to the Borders area of Scotland where the Elliot(t)s hung out for 250-300 years in and around Hermitage Castle—as we marched down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh to the castle during the International Clan Gathering in 2009, our name on the colors some of the clan were carrying, some men in a second floor flat hollered out "Here comes the Lawless Elliots"—probably true from what I've heard about the Border reivers, which the Elliots and other clans were called; I've been to Cumberland County, Kentucky, around Amandaville, Crocus Creek and Burkesville, where Samuel brought his brood in 1802-3 (and our part of the clan left for Vermillion Country, Illinois, in the early 1830s before heading down to Clark County), visited the courthouse and library there for records, talked to many people in the area and visited the Elliott-Baker Cemetery and saw the old Elliott School; I've been to Troy, Texas, where Robert Elliott, Samuel's son who served in the Confederate Army and left Kentucky after the war is buried with his family in the Old Troy Cemetery and ran around the country with a young couple I met and looked for the graves (see here).
I've checked the records my mother had on her family, the Ramseys from Ireland and the Newberrys from the Isle of Wight,, which you have to get a subscription to use, and the Clan Elliot USA genealogy web sites, which you have to be a member to use. I've talked with the Clan Elliot USA genealogist and web master who are very helpful. My daughters, Jessica and Becky, have checked records and been a great deal of help in finding people and information. Becky found that Samuel had served in the Revolutionary War in the 10th Virginia Regiment, which is what he received a land grant for in Kentucky. Jessica traced the family tree back to Scotland, and through several generations. Alex Elliott, an African-American retired Air Force noncom whose daughter is married to an acquaintance of mine, took me all over Lawson's Bottoms near the Elliott farm where he grew up—Samuel had 12 slaves when he died. One of them was named Shadrack. Alex's father was named Shadrack, so was his grandfather.
Interesting stuff. Reading a recent National Geographic Traveler about an Irish-American finding his family in County Kerry piqued my interest in genealogy again. So in my spare time, I'm back at it. The National Geographic Traveler piece had a little sidebar as a place to start. The piece, "Ancestry 101, We are family," said, "To start your Irish family history, the first thing you need to know is what part of the island your ancestors came from. If you already know, start rummaging through the 1901 and 1911 census records, free at Otherwise, try Interactive maps show the precise locations of households of every surname recorded between 1847 and 1864. For Kerry church records, look up
I'm sure each country would have church records in other counties and in Scotland and England. And I know Robert Elliott, Samuel's father, came to the Eastern Shores of Delaware or Maryland from Northern Ireland in 1840. Many of the clans, the Elliots, Grahams, Russells in my family and that of my children's mothers and others were broken up and sent to Northern Ireland from Scotland at the time of the Pacification of 1603. The clans are well documented genealogically as well as are the other family surnames. Most of my ancestors have come most recently from the British Isles, although my wife has European ancestors—her grandparents were first-generation Americans whose parents came from Norway, Germany, Italy and Czechoslovakia. And there are some Native American ancestors in my family. DNA test are available to see where we have roots. I've taken the DNA and am connected to the Elliots in the Borders area of Scotland and plan to take a more comprehensive one.

Email me at with your genealogical experiences and suggestions.

January 9, 2015

Col Gerald “Gerry” Russell — 1917-2014

Gerry Russell was one of those men you’d follow wherever he led. And hundreds of Marines did follow him from the time he entered the Marine Corps in 1940 from Boston College (where he’d starred on the track team and was the first alternate on the 1940 U.S. Olympic Team in the 800 meters) through the jungles of Guadalcanal, the black sands of Iwo Jima, wounded in both campaigns, the lowlands and mountainous terrain of Korea, where he was again wounded, and at other duty stations around the world.
On Iwo Jima, he was first executive officer with the 2nd Battalion, 27th Marines, then battalion commander after Maj John Antonelli was wounded and sent back to a hospital on Guam. During the Korean War, Gerry commanded another battalion and served as adviser for a South Korean brigade. Throughout the rest of the 1950s and up until he retired in 1968, he held positions of leadership at Quantico, Va., Camp Lejuene, N.C., and the European Command in Paris. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, Gerry served as Commander of the U.S. Ground Level Defense Forces at Guantanamo Bay.
He retired on Friday and went to work on Monday at Penn State University, where he spent nearly 20 years before retiring again in 1987. During those years, Gerry served as assistant to the provost, assistant to the president, assistant secretary for the Penn State Board of Trustees, assistant to the dean of health and physical education, and as assistant and associate dean. After retirement, he volunteered and continued working Penn State track meets and sponsored or created a foundation to hold special athletic meets for children with disabilities.
I first met the colonel in 2005 with other Iwo Jima veterans when I made the first trip with Military Historical Tours to Iwo Jima for the 60th anniversary of the battle. There I walked along Green Beach with John Britton, where he’d landed with the 28th Marines. He had been graduated from the high school and the university where I’d taught in Urbana-Champaign, Ill. I met Jack Lucas, the youngest Medal of Honor recipient ever for what he did six days after his 17th birthday. And that’s where I met John Butler, current Fifth Marine Division Association  president and his brother Clint, both Marine veterans whose father, LtCol John Butler, First Battalion, 27th Marines commander, was killed in action on Iwo Jima when they were kids. The list goes on–there were three planes of Iwo Jima veterans and others to attend the ceremony on Iwo Jima.
Walking among these Iwo Jima veterans was sobering, thinking about what they had endured on this island to help secure our way of life.
After the trip to Iwo Jima and Guam, I went back to Honolulu for a post-tour with a much smaller group. Gerry was in that group. Jack Lucas was there, too; Dale Quillen, a Nashville attorney who had been a dog handler in the Third Marine Division on Iwo Jima was there; Frank Wright, a Navy Cross recipient with the 28th Regiment, and his wife were there with others of us who were spending a few extra days to visit and pay tribute to the battle sites and memorials from the Japanese attack on Dec. 7, 1941, and the sacrifices of those who defended the island.
We visited the sunken USS Arizona, a trickle of oil still floating to the water’s surface from below where the remains of sailors and Marines were entombed and sealed in the bowels of the ship after the attack. We visited the USS Missouri across the way, on which the Japanese had formally surrendered in Toyko Bay and World War II came to an end. And we stood in formation for a ceremony of remembrance at the Punch Bowl Cemetery. At the Marine Corps War Memorial at the entrance of Marine Corps Air Station Kaneohe Bay, the colonel spoke at the ceremony, recounting the battle for Iwo Jima and remembering the sacrifices of those who never came home.After five days around the island, we all headed home. Before we went to the airport, he told me he was soon going to be in Chicago for four days being interviewed by the Pritzker Military Library and invited me to Chicago for dinner one night. So I drove up to have dinner with him and talked about his interviews (see here.) It’s a fascinating record of his service and that of the U.S. Marine Corps.
As we talked more Marine Corps legend and lore, I asked him if he would write a blurb for my soon-to-be-published novella, Iwo Blasted Again (, and handed him a copy of the manuscript.
He said he would and said, “You seem to like the Marine Corps pretty well. Why didn’t you stay in?”
“They wouldn’t let me have long hair and a beard,” I said, half-seriously.
“You like that?” Gerry asked and laughed lightly.
For the blurb, he graciously wrote that I “had produced a unique portrayal of two vital aspects of what many combat veterans experience in their lifetime. He presents a vivid, very accurate, graphically true depiction of the horrors the individual encounters and endures in battle. For the remainder of their lives, most veterans extend great effort to blot out the memories of their gruesome war experiences. To some degree, they succeed. But, inevitably, it seems that in their later years, the long-dormant, suppressed memories return with surprising, haunting clarity.”
His perspective of the years following combat rings true for many veterans.
I saw the colonel several other times at Combat Veterans of Iwo Jima (later the Iwo Jima Association of America) symposia and banquets, stopped by to see him once in College Station, Pa., and talked with him on the phone now and then. He was a wealth of information, kind, considerate and always carried himself with the dignity and respect befitting a man of his stature.
When he was about recovered from a broken pelvis last year and was taking calls, I heard from somebody looking for the oldest living Iwo Jima veteran. So I called Gerry to see how things were going and to ask him if he might know who that would be. It was the last day of April, right before his May 1 birthday.
He laughed when I asked him and said, “I don’t know. I’ll be 97 tomorrow. If I live until tomorrow, I may be the oldest.”
When he died on Feb. 24, 2014, he may not have been the oldest, but he was a good man, an outstanding Marine and one of the two last living battalion commanders from the battle for Iwo Jima. The other one, Maj Sheldon Scales from the 26th Marines, died a couple of months later. Gerry was laid to rest in Arlington Cemetery on July 16 with full military honors.
“It was a magnificent send-off,” his daughter Maureen said.
No doubt it was—Col Gerald Russell was a Marine, through-and-through, and a man of honor who led by example, one we would all do well to emulate.

January 5, 2015

New Year, New Tales

With the New Year, I've promised myself that I would learn to participate with Facebook and other social media (including my website So here I go:
It was great having Tim Rice with us via Skype at the Virginia Theatre in Champaign, Illinois, for the screening of From Here To Eternity the Musical. on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7. The audience comments were very positive, and I received several emails about the show, plus all the great comments I heard directly afterwards.
Here's one sample from a former teaching colleague: "It was pretty cool to have Sir Tim Rice talking with the panel and the audience. I look forward to seeing a tweaked version -- Maybe in Chicago." (Either there or Honolulu, I hope.)
Another man, a Marine veteran, emailed: "Without a doubt, the absolute best production I have ever seen and heard. Les Misérables is now second in my soul."
And I was particularly touched by a comment from a man I've known for several years who gave Tim an emotional thank-you for the show, as it brought up thoughts of his father who was in Hawaii in the military during the attack on Pearl Harbor. I had no idea his father had been in the Army in World War II.
In case you want to see and hear the recording of the introduction and Q&A with Tim from the showing of FHTE, I have included them here:


Tim emailed right after the show, "I was delighted by the very positive reactions to the show/film and was very encouraged by the audience comments (and of course those of you, Valerie and Jeff)."
Also, Andy Hall, the tech manager for the event, received an email from Tim I was copied on after Andy sent the YouTube links: "Thanks to your team we have done the show a great favo(u)r in the U.S., and I am more optimistic than ever that we can make it work over there."
So I hope you have the opportunity to see the musical production her somewhere this year. More posting from me to follow this year, as I become more adept with social media.