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The Life and Legend of Saint Patrick

March 16, 2019

The story of Saint Patrick, one of the most beloved of all saints, is a strange mixture of history and legend. Patrick was born into a wealthy family in England about 385 A.D. His father was a deacon from a Roman family of high social standing. His mother was a close relative of Martin of Tours. Patrick’s grandfather was a priest in the Catholic Church.

As a youth, Patrick had little interest in Christianity or in education. Neither was forced upon him, but later in life deficits in these areas would become a source of embarrassment for him. In the early 440s, he wrote in his Confessions, “I blush and fear exceedingly to reveal my lack of education.”

When Patrick was sixteen years old, Irish pirates captured him, selling him into slavery in Ireland. Patrick worked as a shepherd for his master, a Druid high priest in the religion of the ancient Celts.

In time Patrick came to view his enslavement as a test of his faith. During his six years of captivity, he became devoted to Christianity through constant prayer. He explained in his Confessions that the Lord had mercy on his youth and ignorance and gave him the opportunity to be forgiven of his sins and to be converted to Christianity.

At the age of twenty-two, Patrick had a dream, encouraging him to escape from Ireland. In that dream, the voice of God promised that he would find the way back to his homeland in England. Patrick began this journey by walking across Ireland to the coast where he convinced sailors to let him board their ship. After three days of sailing, he and the crew abandoned the ship in France and wandered, lost, for twenty-eight days—covering 200 miles in the process. At last, Patrick was reunited with his family in England.

Patrick recounts another vision he had a few years after returning home:

I saw a man coming, as it were from Ireland. His name was Victoricus, and he carried many letters, and he gave me one of them. I read the heading: “The Voice of the Irish.” As I began the letter, I imagined in that moment that I heard the voice of those very people who were near the wood of Foclut, which is beside the western sea—and they cried out, as with one voice: “We appeal to you, holy servant boy, to come and walk among us.”

Interpreting this vision as a call from God, Patrick became determined to free the Irish from paganism by converting them to Christianity.  He never lost sight of that vision.

As a free man, Patrick traveled to Auxerre, France, where he studied, entering the priesthood under the guidance of the missionary St. Germain. In 431, Pope Celestine consecrated Patrick as Bishop of the Irish and dispatched him to Ireland to spread the gospel.

There Patrick met with hostile resistance.  Legally, he was without protection.  He wrote that he was, on one occasion, beaten, robbed of all he had, and put in chains.  Patrick wondered if, perhaps, execution awaited him.

Regardless of that reception, it is said that Patrick converted the entire country of Ireland in less than thirty years. Through his preaching, he convinced Druid priests and peasants alike that they would become “the people of the Lord and the children of God” by accepting Christianity.

Interestingly, Ireland had very few Christian martyrs. The willingness of the Irish people to accept Christianity was due in large part to Patrick’s familiarity with their culture and the Celtic religion. The genius of Patrick’s approach was to mesh the symbols of Christianity with those of their ancient religion. The Celtic cross, for example, combines the most recognizable sign of the passion of Christ with the circle of life central to the fertility religion of the Celts.

According to legend, Patrick used the three-leafed shamrock to teach the Irish the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Its green color and the number three were already considered sacred in ancient Celtic religion. Prominent in ancient Ireland was the belief in the Triple Goddesses named Brigid, Ériu, and Morrigan.

The Gaelic word seamrog means little clover. Most botanists affirm that white clover is the original, authentic shamrock. In the Upstate of South Carolina, white clover grows wild in many lawns. This same white clover plant is the plant that Patrick used to illustrate the concept of three persons in one God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  For this reason, shamrocks are a central symbol for St Patrick’s Day.

According to legend, Patrick is also credited with banishing all snakes from the Emerald Isle into the North Atlantic Ocean. The tale holds that during a forty-day fast, he was taking a stroll on a hilltop near the sea when he encountered the snakes. The forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness where he was tempted by Satan come to mind.

All biological and archaeological evidence suggests, however, that Ireland never had snakes after the ice age. Author Betty Rhodes has suggested that the snakes Patrick banished actually referred to the serpent symbolism of the Druids. Druid priests often wore tattoos of snakes on their arms.

In time Patrick brought Christian structures to Ireland by electing Church officials, creating councils, founding monasteries, and organizing the country into dioceses.

Though he was never formally canonized by a Roman Pope, Patrick is on the List of Saints and has been declared a Saint in Heaven by many Catholic churches. Saint Patrick is also venerated in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Patrick founded his first church in a barn at Saul, which was donated to him by a local chieftain.  Many believe that Patrick died at Saul but was buried alongside St. Brigid and St. Columba at Down Cathedral in Downpatrick, County Down. Nearby on the crest of a hill is a statue of him with bronze panels showing scenes from his life.

The year of Patrick’s death is uncertain. Many scholars ascribe a date of 493, making Patrick 107 years old when he died. This improbability has led Thomas O’Rahilly to suggest a two-Patrick theory, the idea that two different people by the same name carried out the ministry ascribed to Patrick. The more the merrier!

Saint Patrick’s Day is observed on March 17, the date of his death.  In the dioceses of Ireland, it is a holy day of obligation; outside of Ireland, it can be a celebration of Irish heritage.

March 17 usually falls during the season of Lent. For more than 1,000 years, the Irish have observed St. Patrick’s Day as a religious holiday. Traditionally on St. Patrick’s Day, Irish families would attend church in the morning and celebrate later. On Saint Patty’s Day, many folks enjoy a meal of corned beef, cabbage, and Irish potatoes. Others imbibe green beer and Irish whiskey until they see leprechauns. All of these customs celebrate the feast day of a Celtic Christian saint.

Tracing my family tree led me to the McNeil clan which originated in Celtic Ireland.  My kinfolk migrated to Scotland and then returned to Northern Ireland. This transplanting was known as the plantation of Ulster. It took place between 1609 and 1690 when these same Celtic families were resettled in Northern Ireland, the land of the O’Neills.  My American ancestors were Scots-Irish.

The notion that Saint Patrick initiated the custom of pinching folks who fail to wear green on March 17, the day he died, is far-fetched.

Still, on Saint Patrick’s Day, I plan to wear green, just to be sure.



March 13, 2019

I teach in the religion department at the University of South Carolina Upstate. As students filed into my Comparative Religion class last week, I asked if their favorite college basketball teams would receive a bid to the Big Dance, the National Collegiate Athletic Association basketball tournament. One student said, with obvious excitement, that he hoped Georgetown University would be invited.

“The Georgetown Hoyas?” I asked.

“Yes, sir. That’s my team!” he replied.

I asked, “What is a Hoya?”

“I’m not sure. Maybe a bulldog of some kind?”

He was completely stumped. I assured him the question would not be on the next religion test. The truth is that I didn’t know what a Hoya was either.

Dozens of schools have rather common mascots. As a graduate of Furman University, I thought that the Purple Paladins was a unique mascot name. Then, I learned that a Paladin is a knight renowned for heroism and chivalry. So, I suppose a knight by any other name is still a knight and that is not a unique mascot name. For example, the United States Military Academy at West Point cheers for the Black Knights. Rutgers University touts the Scarlet Knights. At least two other universities, Central Florida and Fairleigh Dickinson also have a knight as their mascot.

Several mascots are tied in representing four universities each – Owls, Bison, Rams, Aggies, and Bobcats. The Spartans represent five schools including Michigan State University, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and our own University of South Carolina Upstate.

Many schools prefer predatory animals as their mascots. Among birds of prey Hawks with five and Eagles with fifteen lead the way. There are nine universities with Bears as their mascots and four with Wolf Pack or Wolfpack.

By far, the most popular group of Mascots are the big cats. Lions and Cougars represent five institutions each. Eight athletic programs use the nickname Panthers and another nine call their teams Wildcats. Tigers lead all of the big cats with thirteen universities, including three in the Southeastern Conference, Auburn, Louisiana State, and Missouri. Clemson is the only Atlantic Coast Conference team with Tiger as their mascot.

If Clemson tangles with Auburn or if Louisiana State University has a game against the University of Missouri, there is no doubt that the Tigers will win. All four schools have the same nickname for their orange and black mascots.

In the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament, there will, no doubt, be two or more teams that answer to the nickname Wildcats – Arizona, Villanova, and Kentucky. We could see the Wildcats go to battle against their own cousins in the final game come the first Monday in April.

In fact, in college basketball, big cats abound. In addition to the Wildcat teams, the Lafayette Leopards and the Cincinnati Bearcats may join the fray.

Then there are the Baylor Bears and the Bruins from Belmont and UCLA respectively, not to mention the Wolfpack from North Carolina State and the Wisconsin Badgers. In this three-week tournament, the fur is sure to fly!

Then there are those unusual mascots. Most sports fans are familiar with The University of Arkansas Razorbacks and the Ohio State Buckeyes.  But what is a Hoya anyway?

The University of California at Irvine Anteaters made it into the Big Dance several years ago, but some of the more unusual names will not be represented in the NCAA tournament.

Why did the University of California at Santa Barbara select an Argentine cowboy, the Gaucho, for a mascot? How could Wake Forest, a school with Baptist roots, become the Demon Deacons?

The Iowa State University became the Cyclones in 1895. After the ISU football team trounced Northwestern, a reporter wrote, “Northwestern might as well have tried to play football with an Iowa cyclone as with the Iowa team it met yesterday.”

When the University of California at Santa Cruz decided to get into the NCAA  in 1980, it announced that the school’s mascot would be the sea lion. But students at UC Santa Cruz had adopted the colorful banana slugs that populated the redwoods on campus as an unofficial mascot. Students rallied and won. Sammy the Banana Slug has become one of the most recognizable college mascots ever.

University of Arkansas, Monticello, President Frank Horsfall, noted in 1925 “the only gosh-darned thing that ever licked the South was the boll weevil.” The well-known pest became the school’s mascot.

Scottsdale Community College needed a new mascot in the 1970s. At the time, the student government was upset with the administration for steering funding toward athletics instead of academics. The administration picked three unorthodox mascots and let the students vote. The choices were the Artichokes, the Rutabagas, or the Scoundrels. Former college president Art DeCabooter says that Artie the Fighting Artichoke won because he’s got a heart.

Other strange mascot names include the Fighting Squirrels of Mary Baldwin College in Virginia, the Fighting Okra of Delta State in Mississippi, the University of Akron (Ohio) Zippers, the Columbia College Claim Jumpers, the Pittsburg State Gorillas, the University of Delaware Fighting Blue Hens, the Blue Hose of Presbyterian College, the Kangaroos of Austin College in Sherman, Texas, the Purple Cows of Williams College, and the Long Beach Dirtbags.

Among the most incongruent were the Fighting Christians from Elon and the Fighting Quakers of Earlham.  After some controversy, both schools changed their mascot names.

The Stormy Petrel, an extinct seafaring bird, is the mascot of Oglethorpe University, a landlocked Georgia school. They made a rare appearance in the NCAA tournament. The ESPN announcer called them the Salty Pretzels.

Georgetown Hoyas display a bulldog, but their nickname is unrelated. The origin of Hoya dates back more than a century when Georgetown’s teams were known as the Stonewalls. A student, using Greek and Latin terms, dubbed the baseball team Hoia Saxa, which translates as “what rocks!” The name stuck, spawning Georgetown’s popular “Hoya Saxa” cheer. Eventually, the school adopted Hoyas for all athletic teams.

After Purdue’s football team smashed Wabash College, 44-0, in its 1891 season opener, a Crawfordsville, Indiana, newspaper ran the headline “Slaughter of Innocents: Wabash Snowed Completely Under by the Burly Boiler Makers from Purdue.” The reference was intended as an insult. Instead, it became a source of pride. Purdue teams are the Boilermakers.

A Terrapin is a carnivorous turtle native to the state of Maryland. It is better known as a snapping turtle. In 1932, Maryland football coach H.C. Byrd recommended the Diamondback Terrapin as a mascot. Byrd had apparently had a run-in with a snapping turtle.

Wake Forest was originally known as the Old Gold and Black.  In 1922, after a victory over the rival Duke Blue Devils, a local sports editor referred to the football team as the Demon Deacons. The new name quickly caught on with fans.

Originally known as the Road Runners, The University of California at Santa Barbara adopted its present nickname in 1936. Inspired by Douglas Fairbanks’ performance in the 1927 film “The Gaucho,” female students pushed to change the mascot to the Gauchos.

The canines of the world are representatives of numerous schools with five Huskies and a whopping fourteen schools that cheer on their Bulldogs, the most popular mascot of all. Smokey, the University of Tennessee bloodhound, and the feisty Terriers of Wofford College will be in the field of sixty-eight teams. For the Terriers to make it to the Big Dance really is a Cinderella story. As an alumnus of Furman University, I contend that being devoted to any Southern Conference team gives one the freedom to be a fan of every other Southern Conference team. Two of our sons are Wofford graduates, so I am an enthusiastic supporter of Wofford.

Granted Wofford is a longshot to advance very far into the tournament. Yet there is hope.

A woman had a knack for winning the NCAA pool in her office. Her strategy was simple. She decided, based on the mascots, the teams she thought would advance to the next round. For example, if the Florida Gators played the Oregon Ducks, she reasoned that a duck was no match for an alligator. Easy!

Using that approach, a terrier would have a fighting chance against a small bird like a cardinal, a blue jay, or even a duck.

We’ll see! Go Terriers!


March 2, 2019

In spite of all the rainy days we have had, the college baseball season is underway. Major League Baseball’s spring training has begun. As a new season approaches for the Boys of Summer, I have fond memories of a trip I took with my grandfather in 1960.

When I was in the tenth grade at Spartanburg High School, Pappy, then seventy years old, drove his green 1955 Oldsmobile into the parking lot at the school.  He blew the car horn repeatedly until Dr. Spencer Rice, the principal, came out to see what all the fuss was about. Of course, Dr. Rice knew my grandfather.

“Mr. Neely, is anything wrong?”

“Nothing wrong.  Send that boy out here.”

“Which boy?” asked Dr. Rice.

“My grandson, Kirk.”

Dr. Rice paged me.  “Please send Kirk Neely to the office.”

That’s the announcement every tenth grader dreads.  I walked slowly to the principal’s office wondering what I had done wrong.

Dr. Rice explained, “Kirk, your grandfather is here.” I was both relieved and worried. I went outside.  Dr. Rice followed.

Pappy had moved over into the passenger’s seat. “Get in here, boy, and drive me.” I got behind the wheel.

“Mr. Neely, are you taking Kirk out of school?” Dr. Rice asked.

“No, I’m not taking him out of school. He needs his education.”

“When can we expect him back?”

“In about a week.”

“Do you have an excuse?”

“No! No excuse. We’re going fishing!”

Pappy turned to me, “Take Highway 56 south toward Augusta.”

In the rearview mirror, I could see that Dr. Rice was stunned. Pappy stunned a lot of people. My mother told me later that she thought that being with Pappy for a week was an educational experience, more valuable than a week of school. She was right.

We did not talk much. We drove to Daytona Beach, Florida, and we fished for a week.

Because he had already suffered two heart attacks and a stroke, Pappy didn’t drive well. In fact, he had relearned to drive using his right foot on the brake pedal and his walking cane on the accelerator. Needless to say, his driving was erratic. When other drivers saw him coming they gave him a wide berth.

I earned my South Carolina motor vehicle license when I was fourteen. After that, I became Pappy’s designated driver.

Pappy’s doctor had told him that he could fish only every other day and rest on the days in between.  Pappy chartered a boat for fishing. On the off days, we drove all over Florida, going to spring training camps for major league baseball teams, probably not exactly the rest days Pappy’s doctor had in mind.

Pappy especially wanted to visit Art Fowler, a native of Converse, South Carolina, and a regular customer at the lumberyard. At that time, Art was pitching for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Their training camp was in Vero Beach, Florida.

We were able to find Holman Stadium near historic Dodgertown. Art, then nearly thirty-eight years old and nearing the end of his career as a player, greeted us. After a brief conversation, Pappy and I headed back to Daytona Beach.

Pappy was a true baseball fan. Because he grew up in middle Tennessee, his favorite team was the St. Louis Cardinals. He had never seen a major league game except on a black-and-white television. Pappy talked about the old-time baseball players. His favorites were Cardinal players like Rogers Hornsby, Dizzy and Paul Dean, Red Schoendienst, Grover Alexander, and Walter Allston.  At the time of our trip, Allston was the manager of the Dodgers. There were other players as well. The Georgia peach, Ty Cobb, who had the sharpest spikes in Major League Baseball, was on Pappy’s list. So, too, were the great Yankee players like Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig.

One player on Pappy’s list that surprised me was a shortstop known as The Flying Dutchman. Honus Wagner played in the National League from 1897 to 1917. Though he was noticeably bowlegged, he possessed superior speed on the base paths.  Wagner played in what is referred to as the dead ball era. It was a time when the baseball was somewhat soft and squishy. It would not travel as far as it does today in the live ball era. Wagner was an outstanding hitter. Perhaps his fielding, especially at shortstop, was the reason Ty Cobb called Honus Wagner, “the greatest star ever to take the diamond.”

In 1936, the Baseball Hall of Fame inducted Wagner as one of the first five members, alongside Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth.

Honus was one of nine children born to German immigrants in Pennsylvania. He dropped out of school when he was twelve to help his father and brothers in the coal mines. In their free time, he and his brothers played sandlot baseball. Four of them would go on to be professionals.

Honus trained to be a barber before becoming successful in baseball. Even after he was a baseball player, he would sometimes give haircuts to his teammates in the clubhouse.

Wagner began his career with the Louisville Colonels in 1897. Legend has it that Ed Barrow, who had watched him throw rocks across a creek, signed him to his first contract.

Honus was a solid hitter from the very beginning of his major league career, hitting .338 in 61 games in his rookie year. By his second season, Wagner was already one of the best hitters in the National League. After the 1899 season, the NL was reduced from twelve to eight teams. Owner Barney Dreyfuss took many of his top players with him to Pittsburgh. Wagner would play the remainder of his career for his hometown Pittsburgh Pirates, 21 seasons in all.

In 1900, Wagner won his first batting championship with a .381 mark and also led the league in doubles (45), triples (22), and slugging (.573). Wagner played several different positions to keep his potent bat and speed in the lineup. He would eventually play every position except catcher, even making two appearances as a pitcher. But as a shortstop, he played his best.

Babe Ruth said, “At shortstop, there is only one candidate for the greatest player of all time, Honus Wagner. He was just head and shoulders above anyone else in that position. Honus could outplay any other shortstop. He was the greatest right-handed hitter of all time.”

His career totals include a .327 lifetime batting average, 640 doubles, 722 stolen bases, and a career total of 3,415 hits.

The Honus Wagner American Tobacco card is the most famous baseball card ever produced. Known as the Holy Grail and the Mona Lisa among collectors, it is by far the most valuable piece of cardboard in existence. In September of 2007, a private collector paid $2.8 million for a card with the likeness of the famous Pirate’s shortstop printed on it.

Very few of these cards are believed to be in existence. One theory for the card’s scarcity is that Wagner requested the production of this card be halted since it was being sold to market tobacco products. At the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, one of the cards is on display. A plaque states that while Wagner was a smoker, he did not want children to buy tobacco products to get his card.

Though the steroid era has tainted the sport, baseball still has a place in the hearts of the American people. One of the reasons is our collective memory of players like Honus Wagner. No wonder Pappy had him on his list of great players.

Former President, Dwight D. Eisenhower, told a story. “When I was a boy growing up in Kansas, a friend and I went fishing. As we sat there in the warmth of a summer afternoon, we talked about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I told him I wanted to be a Major League Baseball player, a genuine professional like Honus Wagner. My friend said that he’d like to be President of the United States. Neither of us got our wish.”


February 23, 2019

Our oldest grandchild, now a college sophomore, posted a question on Facebook last week. What are your three favorite birds?

Being the bird lover that I am, I thought long and hard about this question. The mockingbird, the state bird of Tennessee, was my grandfather’s favorite. My mother loved the northern cardinal. I have a grandchild named for the Carolina wren. The bright goldfinch and the squawking bluejay are favorites. The diminutive ruby-throated hummingbird and the majestic golden eagle are on the list.

I am always fascinated by the flight of a red-tail hawk or an osprey. I pause to listen to the call of a wood thrush or a whippoorwill though I usually am unable to see them. All winter I have enjoyed watching a downy woodpecker at our suet feeder. There are so many favorites, but, without a doubt, at the top of my list is the eastern bluebird.

Herman Whitaker is a good friend who lives in Inman, South Carolina. Herman and I got to know each other through our mutual love of bluebirds. I often refer to him as the Bluebird King of the Upstate. He has built, painted, mounted, and placed more bluebird boxes than anyone since Frank Nantz, a good friend who is now deceased.

One February, always a busy month for the Southern gardener, Herman gave me three new bluebird boxes, painted, mounted, and ready to place in my yard. I did so that very day. In less than an hour, I saw a bright bluebird investigating one of the houses. Within a week a pair of new neighbors had moved in. They begun building a nest and were preparing to raise their fledglings. What joy! Read more…


February 16, 2019

On most Saturday mornings, I listen to National Public Radio. I enjoy the programming, beginning with “Only a Game.” For several years, Clare and I both took great delight in “Car Talk.”  “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” is another of our favorites.

Scott Simon closes his “Saturday Morning Edition” with a regular feature, “Simon Says.” This week I recalled one of Simon’s commentaries from 2011. The date was the Saturday before, or maybe after, Presidents’ Day. He entitled his comments, “George Washington: Strong Man, But No Strongman.” I want to share again with you his reflections on one of the most important decisions made by our first president.

Scott Simon said, “The business of building a democracy will probably be less sensational, tweeted, and televised. …This time of year especially, Americans might remember some of the ways in which we made a democracy.

“The American Revolution triumphed with General George Washington’s victory at Yorktown in 1781. Throughout history, a lot of conquering heroes — Caesar, Bonaparte, Castro, and Mugabe — have used great victories to seize power.

“But George Washington went home to Mount Vernon and farmed.

“He was drafted to return to preside over the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The Founders had sharp differences over how to balance the rights of states in a strong federal government that could stand against British, French, and Spanish imperial ambitions. But they all trusted Washington as the most balanced of men.

“As historian Joseph Ellis wrote, ‘Franklin was wiser than Washington, Hamilton was more brilliant, Jefferson was more intellectually sophisticated, Adams was more engaging … Madison was more politically astute, but Washington was still the greatest. And they would all agree to that.’

“The Electoral College unanimously elected George Washington the first president of the United States. He ran for a second term, reluctantly, in 1792. And then, in 1796, Washington did something astonishing and unprecedented for a powerful, popular leader: he stepped down. He declined to run for a third term and returned to farming. [The Constitution did not limit the number of terms a President could serve until after the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt which ended with his death in 1945.]

“There were people who believed that only a strong, longtime authoritarian ruler could keep a country stable in a risky world governed by emperors, kings, and czars. They felt the United States deserved no less.

“But Washington remembered that he had asked his men to fight for a republic. And when he stepped down, he put his young country’s future into the hands of every man with a vote. [Women were given the right to vote with the passage of the 19th Amendment on 26 August 1920.]

“We’ve seen many countries rise up and hold free elections, only long enough for a charismatic, autocratic ruler to win them and hold on to power.

“We all know that democracy can be messy, corrupt, and disappointing. But every few years an event like a revolution or a civil war reminds us why people are willing to struggle and die for the freedoms afforded by a democratic republic.

“George Washington could have been a king. He decided to be a citizen. No crowds massed. No bands played. There is no statue or plaque to mark the spot. But it was as momentous a decision as any president — any ruler — has ever made.”

In 2019 there are poignant examples of leaders who seize power, sometimes even under the guise of democracy. Two especially come to mind for me. Both Vladimir Putin of Russia and Bashar al-Assad of Syria are well-known world leaders, and both have been in power for many years.

Putin is the current President of the Russian Federation. He was Prime Minister from 1999-2000. He was first elected President in 2000 and served until 2008. Because of term limits, he became Prime Minister again from 2008 to 2012. Then Mr. Putin was elected President again in 2012. He is also Chairman of the United Russia Party, the ruling party.

Bashar al-Assad is the current President of Syria, holding the office since 2000. He is also commander in chief of the Syrian Armed Forces, General Secretary of the ruling Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party, and Regional Secretary of the party’s branch in Syria. He is a son of Hafez al-Assad, who was President of Syria from 1971 to 2000.

These two men have not done what George Washington did. Once in power, they kept it, even over the objections of many of the people they were elected to represent.

In our American democracy, we expect our outgoing president to step down just as the new president takes office. Even following contentious elections, Americans have witnessed a relatively smooth transition of governmental power. Yes, there have been large protests, much as there were when both Richard Nixon and George W. Bush were inaugurated. But all in all, the orderly, peaceful transfer of power has been the rule rather than the exception.

There have been times in our country when presidential transitions did not go quite so well. In 1800, John Adams left Washington in a snit before Thomas Jefferson took the oath of office.

Following the Watergate scandal and facing conviction on Articles of Impeachment by the Congress, Richard Nixon decided to resign as President of the United States at noon, August 9, 1974. Vice President Gerald Ford would become president. The formal Nixon-Ford transition began when Nixon informed Ford of his decision to resign at 11 A.M. on August 8, only a few hours before he told the nation. Ford had just 25 hours to prepare to assume office, making the Nixon-Ford transition the shortest of any that did not involve the death of the President.

On March 4, 1933, Franklin Delano Roosevelt became the 32nd President of the United States. Herbert Hoover was quoted as saying of the President-elect that he was “very badly informed and of comparatively little vision.” The two were photographed together in spite of the fact that Hoover had vowed to never have his picture made with his successor.

Professor Edward Ayers writes, “No transition from one living president to another was as dangerous as that between James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln in 1861.” After Lincoln’s election and before his inauguration, seven Southern states seceded from the United States and formed a new government, the Confederate States of America. As Lincoln prepared to take office, eight other slave states debated whether they would join the Confederacy. Ayers concludes, “The greatest crisis in the nation’s history grew out of a distended transition between a lame duck President who refused to act and an inexperienced President facing unprecedented challenges.”

According to H. W. Brands, the presidential transition that took place in 1829 was like no other in American history. Andrew Jackson’s inauguration was a hostile takeover of the government. Jackson had been denied victory in 1824 in what Jackson called a corrupt bargain between John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay. The 1828 election was bitter and dirty. Jackson verbally attacked Adams as a fraud and an aristocrat. The Adams side called Jackson an emperor and his wife, Rachel, a slut. Rachel died under the strain, magnifying Jackson’s anger at his opponents.

Jackson won handily, and his supporters surged to Washington. To the residents of the capital, these ruffians were little more than a horde of barbarians. At Jackson’s inauguration, they swarmed the White House with muddy boots, spoiling the carpets, breaking the furniture, and smashing the china. Jackson fled the celebration to avoid personal injury.

So, these transitions have not always gone smoothly. Still, our first president, George Washington, set an example for all who follow him in holding the office that is considered by many to be the most powerful position in the world.

In 1796, Washington did something astonishing and unprecedented for a strong, popular leader. He stepped down. He declined to run for a third term. He returned to farming.

George Washington became a private citizen. It was a great decision!

Thank you, President Washington.


February 2, 2019

I stopped by the Skillet restaurant recently. I was seated at the counter having a cup of coffee when I struck up a conversation with a fellow I have known for years. As he finished his breakfast, we talked about his father and my dad. His dad grew the very best homegrown tomatoes I ever put in my mouth. On a soggy tomato sandwich made with bread, Duke’s mayonnaise, seasoned with salt and pepper, those tomatoes were out of this world. He recalled a childhood memory of a calendar on the wall with the phases of the moon indicated. Then he remembered reading the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

“My father always planted by the signs.”

I called to mind David Tanner, who also planted by the signs as indicated in the Almanac.

David Tanner worked for my Uncle Asbury, a building contractor. David did all kinds of jobs for my uncle, from screeding poured concrete to laying brick. David was not a skilled carpenter but he helped other carpenters frame many a house. He was always cheerful, usually singing, and he was a diligent worker.

One of the things I remembered about him that seemed unusual was that David always kept a saltshaker with him in the summertime. Occasionally, he removed his old stained hat and sprinkled a little salt in his hair. He said the application of salt kept him from passing out.

I do not know whether that works or not.  David never passed out, and I saw him sprinkle a good bit of salt in his hair.

When Clare and I returned to Spartanburg in 1980, we moved into the home that my grandmother and grandfather built in 1937 after the Great Depression.  Soon afterward, I met the man who would become my personal philosopher.

David lived on the King Line behind the old stockyard, located not far from our home. Though crippled with arthritis, he would walk from his home past our house on his way to the lumberyard.  There he purchased his daily Coca-Cola.

David could barely walk. His feet were so gnarled that they hurt constantly.  His gait was more like a shuffle. In those days, in order to get to the lumberyard, he had to pass a mini-mart.  I asked him why he didn’t just go there to buy the Coke.  He said, “At the mini-mart, it costs thirty-five cents.  At the lumberyard, it costs a quarter. No need wasting money.”

Though every step was painful, David walked twice as far just to save a dime.

Often David would stop at our house, sit in a rocking chair on the front porch to enjoy his Coca-Cola, and then shuffle on to his home.  Many mornings I would take a mug of coffee and join David on the porch. Those were the times when I received my philosophy lesson.

In his starched and pressed khaki pants, David was always as neat as a pin.  One February morning, his knees were covered with mud.

I asked, “David, what in the world have you been doing this early in the morning?”

“Yesterday, I put in my English peas.”

David grew some of the best vegetables in some of the reddest clay in Spartanburg County. As I said, he planted according to the astrological signs.

“But, David, why are your pants so muddy?”

“Got up early. Dug up all the seeds.”


“My daughter was readin’ the Old  Almanac. She told me I put in my peas on the wrong sign. So, I dug ’em all up this mornin’ before daylight.”

“Did you find them all?”

“Found all but four.”

He pulled a paper bag from his pocket. Inside were the muddy seeds. He had planted three rows of English peas the day before.

“When is the right time to plant English peas?”


“Will one day make a difference?”

“Yes, suh. My daddy always planted by the signs, and he always made a crop. I do the same.”

David was quite a gardener. He and I were standing in my garden late one summer day. My wife brought each of us a cup of ice water.  At the time, Clare was pregnant with our daughter Betsy. As Clare walked toward the garden, obviously an expectant mother, David said to me, “Don’t you let her come in this garden!”

“Why, David?”

“You let a woman with child come in the garden, and every watermelon and cantaloupe will bust wide open.”

Clare had no intention of coming into the garden, pregnant or not.  She handed our ice water over the fence.

David was quite a churchman. He loved going to church. He especially enjoyed singing in the choir.  On Monday mornings, he would give me a report from the Sunday services.

One Monday we were having our early morning porch visit.

“Church was extra good yesterday.”

“What was good about it?”

“We had good singin’.”  David always bragged on the choir.

“How was the preaching?”

“Preachin’ was good.”

“What’d the pastor preach about?”

“Well, he preached about sin.”

“What did he have to say about sin?”

“He’s agin’ it!”

“What kind of sin did he talk about, David?”

“He talked about gamblin’.  He talked about drinkin’.  He talked about smokin’.”

“David, did he say that smokin’ is a sin?”

“Yes, suh.”

David dipped snuff.  He almost always had tobacco tucked in his lower lip.

“David, did the preacher say anything about dippin’ snuff?”

“No suh.  He didn’t say a thing about dippin’.”

“David, is it a sin to dip snuff?”

“No, suh.”

“It’s a sin to smoke, but not a sin to dip snuff?”

“That’s right.”

“Why’s that?  How can smokin’ be a sin, but dippin’ snuff is not a sin?”

He thought for a moment before he said, “It’s a sin to burn up anything that tastes that good!”

David’s church built a new sanctuary. He invited me to come to the dedication. My dad and I went together to the Sunday afternoon service, all three hours of it.

David sang in the choir. Several preachers held forth.  The building was thoroughly dedicated.

After the service, David showed us around the church he took so much pride in.  He explained that the church didn’t have stained glass windows. I will never forget the way that he expressed it.

“We don’t have none of them windows with people on ’em that the light shines through.”

What a phrase!  “People that the light shines through.”

When you know people like David Tanner, you don’t need stained glass windows.  David was the kind of person that the light shines through.


January 26, 2019

One cool day in the early fall several years ago, Clare discovered a dead groundhog. The animal was lying near our mailbox next to the four-lane road in front of our home. Though I am not a crime scene investigator, the immediate cause of death was apparently a close encounter with a motorized vehicle of some sort. My best guess is that he was dealt a blow by a truck hauling petroleum products.

The plump fellow was flat on his back, his small feet tucked into his body.

Using a shovel, I scooped the groundhog from the pavement and carried him to a large field next to the railroad tracks behind our house. The next day, I noticed several crows and two buzzards circling his carcass.

Reflecting on this drama, I wondered why our calendars include a special day, February 2, commemorating the groundhog. Why not have special days named for other critters subject to becoming road kill victims? Don’t possums and skunks also deserve days named for them? What about deer whose casualty rate is certainly on the increase? What about cur dogs and feral cats that come to a no-good end on a paved strip of asphalt? Why has the groundhog been the only creature afforded this honor?

On February 2nd the Christian holiday of Candlemas is observed. In the Roman Catholic tradition, the day marks the end of the Christmas and Epiphany season. It was on this day that Christmas decorations were to be removed. Consider these four lines from “Ceremony upon Candlemas Eve,” by Robert Herrick (1591–1674):

Down with the rosemary, and so

Down with the bays and mistletoe;

Down with the holly, ivy, all,

Wherewith ye dress’d the Christmas Hall:

The name Candlemas refers to a priest’s practice of blessing beeswax candles for use in churches and homes during the coming year.

February 2nd is the midpoint of winter, falling halfway between the winter solstice and the vernal equinox. If on Candlemas, the weather was cloudy and overcast, it was believed that warmer weather was ahead. If, however, the sky was bright and sunny on that day, cold weather could be expected for another six weeks. Hence the rhyme:

If Candlemas Day is bright and clear,

There’ll be two winters in the year.

Therefore, if a hibernating animal emerging from his den casts a shadow, winter would last another six weeks. If no shadow was seen, according to legend, spring would come early.

The question remains, why the groundhog? Surely other furry animals cast shadows. Why should the groundhog be singled out for a special day?  Maybe this is rodent discrimination.  What about gophers, or squirrels, or rats?

Each year on February 2nd, the population of Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, swells from 6,000 or so to well over 10,000.  Visitors travel to the small town sixty-five miles northeast of Pittsburgh, not for the blessing of candles, but for the celebration of Groundhog Day.

Maybe the groundhog was chosen because these animals enter a true hibernation period. Maybe it is because they have such a wide range of habitation – from Alabama to Alaska. Maybe it was chosen because they are so plentiful, reproducing in numbers similar to rabbits and rats. Indeed, farmers in some areas consider these marmots to be varmints.

Maybe the groundhog received this designation because, when frightened, he holds absolutely still, hesitates, and then scurries into his burrow. This might explain the legend that the groundhog sees his shadow, becomes afraid, and returns quickly to his den.

The groundhog (Marmota monax) is known by several names.  The name woodchuck, which comes from an Algonquian name for the animal, wuchak, has been made popular by a well-known tongue twister:

How much wood would a woodchuck chuck,

If a woodchuck would chuck wood?

A woodchuck would chuck all the wood

That a woodchuck would chuck,

If a woodchuck would chuck wood.

Another name for the groundhog is whistle pig. Outside their burrow these furry animals are alert. When driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway, I have often seen several of these critters standing erect on their hind feet, motionless, watching for danger. If alarmed, they give a high-pitched whistle to warn the rest of the colony.

Of course, the one Clare found by our mailbox was also motionless. He apparently didn’t hear the warning.

Groundhogs usually live two to three years. Common predators include wolves, coyotes, foxes, bobcats, bears, hawks, and owls. Big trucks are also a hazard.

Country folks sometimes eat groundhog for supper. Stews with plenty of onions, garlic, and hot peppers seem to be the preferred recipes.

The groundhog has found his niche. Doc Watson and Pete Seeger have memorialized him in folksongs. Bill Murray and Gaffney’s own Andie MacDowell starred in “Groundhog Day,” a 1993 comedy film directed by Harold Ramis.

On February 2nd, businessmen, wearing top hats and tuxedoes, will coax Punxsutawney Phil, the most celebrated of all groundhogs, from his stump. Phil will whisper his prediction to a Punxsutawney Groundhog Club Inner Circle representative, and the translator will reveal the forecast to the national news media. Approximately 90% of the time, Phil sees his shadow. Phil’s ancestors started making predictions in 1887. Residents contend that their groundhog has never been wrong.

Meanwhile, in Lilburn, Georgia, Phil’s southern cousin, General Beauregard Lee, will also emerge to see his shadow, or not. He will then give his prediction for the states below the Mason-Dixon Line.

What about the groundhog that died near our mailbox? Did he see his shadow?  I don’t know. I do know though that he did not see the eighteen-wheel truck that hit him.

On this Groundhog Day, may he rest in peace.