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April 13, 2019

A few weeks before Easter Clare and I were going over our calendars together.

I mentioned the Holy Week services scheduled for the church where I now work. For Christians, the days of Holy Week commemorate the events of that pivotal week in the life of Jesus. On Palm Sunday the children enter the Sanctuary waving palm fronds as the congregation sings a joyful hymn. On Maundy Thursday evening we share communion remembering the last Passover meal Jesus observed with his disciples. On Good Friday, the day of the crucifixion of Jesus, we gather for a devotional time in the Sanctuary. Easter Sunday is the most important day of the Christian year as we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus.

Ever conscious of appropriate attire and accessories, Clare said, “I need to sort out my cross necklaces.”

She has several. One she received from her parents when as a child she was confirmed in the Methodist Church. She has a Jerusalem cross that I purchased for her when we traveled in the Holy Land. She also has a small reddish-brown cross on a simple ribbon given to her by family friends when she was a child. It is a fairy cross.

Not long after the birth of our first grandchild, Clare and I were at the Folk Art Center on the Blue Ridge Parkway near Asheville, North Carolina. Clare found a simple fairy cross on a gold chain. We bought the cross for our new granddaughter.

No one really knows how the mysterious fairy crosses came to be.  Even scientists cannot agree on their origin.  One theory estimates that the cross-shaped rocks are as much as 500 million years old and were formed when a meteorite broke apart upon entering the earth’s atmosphere.  Another theory suggests that the reddish-brown crystals came from deep within the earth and were gradually forced to the surface by seismic activity over thousands of years.

As fascinating as these scientific theories are, I find the legend of the fairy crosses much more interesting.

One version told by the first European settlers in the Appalachian Mountains is that at the time of Christ’s crucifixion, the angels shed tears. Their tears crystallized and fell to earth in the form of crosses.  They were called faith crosses.

Another variation is that the tiny crosses were formed by the tears of the Cherokee Indians who wept over the loss of their homeland when they were forcibly evacuated on the infamous Trail of Tears.

The Native Americans had a much older legend about the crosses that was popular long before their removal to Oklahoma. This oldest myth concerns an ancient race of mountain fairies known by the Cherokees as the little people.   It is said that long ago the fairies were dancing around a stream of water celebrating the arrival of spring in the Appalachian Mountains.  An elfin messenger brought sad news from the Land of the Dawn reporting the crucifixion of Christ.  Gladness was turned to sorrow, and the fairies wept.  As they cried, their tears fell to the ground, forming the little crosses of stone.

So, with the joy gone from their hearts, they wandered away into the forest. But around the spot where they had been dancing and singing, where they had wept, the ground was covered with little crosses.

What happened to the little people? No one knows for sure. The elders of the tribe said that after that day, the little people were never seen again. But they say on spring nights when the moon is full, you can hear them whispering along the river. When there is a gentle spring breeze the sighing of the little people can be heard in the forest.

Found embedded in rocks that have been subjected to great heat and pressure, fairy stones are staurolite, a combination of silica, iron, and aluminum. Together, these minerals sometimes crystallize and appear in the stones as a cross-like structure.

The word staurolite derives from the Greek stauros which means cross. The crystalline forms are most commonly shaped like St. Andrew’s and Roman crosses.

Fairy crosses are found only a few places in the southeastern United States. The town of Blue Ridge in Fannin County, Georgia, is often called the southern gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains. The tiny crosses have been found nearby. Staurolite is the official state mineral of Georgia.

The Cherokee County Historical Museum in Murphy, North Carolina, features a large display of fairy crosses. Many of the small stone crosses have been found in nearby Brasstown, North Carolina.

Near the town of Stuart in Patrick County, Virginia, Fairy Stone State Park is a short drive from the Blue Ridge Parkway. Known as the home of the fairy stones, the park is the most popular location to search for the tiny crosses. The fairy cross Clare received as a child came from this area of southern Virginia.

Fairy crosses are thought to bring good luck.  Because their average size is about an inch, they are easy to wear as jewelry.  Traditionally, mountain folk believed that the cross protected the wearer against witchcraft, diseases, and accidents. The Cherokees associated the stones with the four elements—earth, air, fire, and water.  When worn or carried the crosses were thought to restore the balance of life.

Legend has it that upon their first meeting, Pocahontas gave Captain John Smith a fairy cross as a token of friendship.  Other famous people known to have owned these cross-shaped rocks were Thomas Edison, Charles Lindbergh, and Teddy Roosevelt.

Fairy crosses have found their way into rare collections of gems.  Some have been polished and ground to beautiful symmetry and mounted in gold.

The staurolite crystals shaped like crosses are supposed to have powers of protection against harm. They are said to have miraculous power to insure health and wealth.

Clare has had her fairy cross since she was a child. The fairy cross is like other cross-shaped jewelry. It is a reminder of an old rugged cross, the one at a place called Golgotha, the place of the skull.

Most of the world’s religions have as their central symbol an object of beauty – the lotus flower, the crescent moon, the Star of David. The Christian Church has as its emblem an instrument of execution.  I cannot imagine giving Clare a miniature electric chair to wear around her neck. And yet, I have given her a cross. Odd, if you think about it.

For Christians, the cross itself is a beautiful emblem, an outward sign of an inward grace. Be it a brass cross on an altar between two candlesticks, or a cross perched high on a steeple, be it a silver or gold pendant worn on a chain, or a fairy cross on a ribbon, it is far more than a good luck charm. During these weeks following Easter, the cross is a reminder of divine love.

That is exactly the point of the legend of the fairy cross.



April 5, 2019

Clare and I were enjoying a second cup of coffee and reading shared newspapers, the Spartanburg Herald-Journal and the New York Times when we both noticed a large bird on the suet feeder just outside our parlor window.

“There’s a red-headed woodpecker,” she said.

“Looks like a flicker,” I replied.

When the bird departed it perched upright on the trunk of a nearby sassafras tree. Then Clare and I both noticed that the sassafras just beyond the feeder was beginning to display chartreuse buds.

Later that same afternoon, I was sitting outside when I heard a disturbance coming from the Confederate jasmine growing on the arbor. The ruckus came from a smallish grey hawk attempting to snag a purple finch for lunch. He paused on a nearby branch before sailing away to better pickings.

With the help of the Cornell University Ornithology Web site, I was able to identify both birds.  The one on the feeder was a red-bellied woodpecker. The bird on the arbor was a Cooper’s hawk.

In our backyard, a weeping cherry tree given to us by my brother and sister-in-law has been in full bloom. Bill and Wanda gave us the sapling tree after the death of our son Erik. Now standing more than twenty feet tall, the hanging branches were covered with the delicate pink blossoms of early spring. A slight breeze moves the slender limbs in a gentle sway, scattering a few of the petals on the green lawn below.

The redbuds are bursting into their pinkish-purple glory. Dogwood flowers are opening. Our side yard features the largest of our redbuds and the oldest of our dogwoods. The trees moved with us from our previous home in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, to Spartanburg, South Carolina, back in 1980. I moved them because they were young trees that I thought would transplant well. They have established deep roots in this place just as our family has. Read more…


March 31, 2019

On the first day of April last year, descriptions of a new batch of practical jokes made the rounds on Facebook. They ranged from pictures of funny faces drawn with indelible markers on every item in the refrigerator to a report of a mustard-filled chocolate bunny. Yuck!

At Cambridge University a sign was posted on a door informing those trying to enter that their identification cards would no longer work in the card-swipe device. The note said that instead the system had been changed to a voice-activated system. Those wishing to enter need only speak their name into the card-swipe device. Throughout the day students and faculty shouted desperately trying to make the door open. It was all to no avail. Finally, the frustrated people were greeted with shouts of “April Fool!”

When I was growing up, April Fools’ Day was much anticipated. One memorable escapade was placing a beautifully wrapped box, albeit empty, by the side of the road as if it had been carelessly lost. When a passerby stopped to rescue the package, kids in hiding jumped out to shout, “April Fool!”

In our family Clare usually pulls the first joke of the day, almost always involving food, a tradition that goes back to her grandmother, Mother Dee. Among Clare’s classic heirloom pranks are freshly baked apple cinnamon muffins, each containing several cotton balls. Tasty!

During the Middle Ages, a celebration called the Feast of Fools occurred between the Vernal Equinox and April 1. Pious priests and simple townsfolk wore masks, sang silly songs, and performed outrageous skits.  Members of the clergy painted their faces like clowns.  Mocking their superiors, they dressed in the robes of a bishop or a cardinal.  People in the community elected a lord of misrule to mock the king.  Often the person elected was a young boy.

In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo writes an account of the Feast of Fools in which Quasimodo serves as the King of Fools.

Sometimes the parody became profane. The ceremonies mocked the performance of the highest offices of the church, while other persons, dressed in different kinds of masks and disguises, engaged in songs and dances and practiced all manner of revelry within the church building.

An altar boy was selected to play the role of the Pope.  Even worship was an occasion for joking, poking fun at people who led the Mass.  No custom and no convention were immune to ridicule.  Anybody in authority might be lampooned.  The celebration ended on April 1, which was New Year’s Day at that time.

In 1582, Pope Gregory XIII ordered a new calendar.

Charles IX of France adopted the Gregorian calendar immediately.  New Year’s Day was moved to January 1.  Word of the change traveled slowly. Some folks were only informed of the modification several years later. Others were set in their ways and refused to acknowledge the change. Their obstinacy reminds me a little of the way some folks in Kentucky reacted when Daylight Saving Time was first introduced. They just flat-out refused to participate.

In 1582 some insisted on celebrating the Feast of Fools and the beginning of the New Year on the first day of April. In France, those who continued to do so were labeled fools by the general public and were subject to ridicule and practical jokes. Some were sent on fools’ errands or sent invitations to nonexistent parties. The targets of these pranks became known as a poisson d’avril or April fish because a young fish is easily caught. One common practice was to pin a paper fish on the back of the gullible person as a joke.

The custom of prank-playing on the first day of April continued, eventually crossing the English Channel to Britain and Scotland. No one was exempt from the teasing. The tradition also spread throughout Western Europe in the eighteenth century. The English and the French introduced April Fools’ Day to the American colonies.

April Fools’ Day has taken on an international flavor with each country celebrating the holiday in its own way.

Pranks range from simple teasing to more involved schemes. Setting a roommate’s alarm clock back an hour was a common gag in my college days. Elaborate practical jokes played on friends or relatives may last the entire day. I will always remember the student who siphoned several tanks of gasoline out of an absentminded professor’s Volkswagen on April Fools’ Day.

Whatever the prank, the trickster ends the foolishness by declaring to the victim, “April Fool!”

Occasionally, the news media gets into the spirit of the day. The Internet Web site lists one hundred of the best pranks.

In 1957, the British Broadcasting Corporation announced that thanks to a very mild winter and the elimination of the spaghetti weevil, Swiss farmers were enjoying a bumper spaghetti crop. A film of Swiss peasants pulling strands of spaghetti down from trees accompanied the report. Many viewers called the BBC wanting to know how they could grow their own spaghetti tree.

The April 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated published a story by George Plimpton. He reported that the New York Mets had signed Sidd Finch, a new rookie pitcher. Finch could reportedly throw a baseball 168 miles per hour with pinpoint accuracy. Surprisingly, Sidd Finch had never even played in a baseball game. Instead, he had mastered the art of pitching in a Tibetan monastery.

Gullible Mets fans celebrated their amazing luck!

In 1962 only one television channel existed in Sweden, broadcasting in black and white. On April 1 the station’s technical expert, Kjell Stensson, appeared on the news to announce that, thanks to new technology, viewers could convert their existing sets to color merely by pulling a nylon stocking over their TV screen. Stensson proceeded to demonstrate the process. Thousands of people tried the technique. Some claimed that it worked.

To commemorate the hoax, color TV broadcasts began in Sweden on April 1, 1970.

In 1996 the Taco Bell Corporation announced that it had purchased the Liberty Bell and renamed it the Taco Liberty Bell. The National Historic Park in Philadelphia reported that hundreds of outraged citizens called to express their anger.

Later in the day when asked about the sale of the Liberty Bell, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry responded that the Lincoln Memorial had also been sold. It would now be known as the Ford Lincoln Mercury Memorial.

Ordinarily, we think of April Fools’ Day as an opportunity for tomfoolery.

I was ordained to the ministry on April Fools’ Day 1970.  Some have thought that nothing could have been more appropriate. I must admit that at the time I did not consider the long-term implications of celebrating this significant event in my life on a day for pranks.  In subsequent years, I have found this convergence of dates to be the reason for great hilarity among my colleagues and congregants.

The Apostle Paul wrote, “We are fools for Christ” (I Corinthians 4:10).

I reckon so.


March 24, 2019

On a cool Saturday morning last week I ate breakfast on our back porch with two of our granddaughters. The sun was shining brightly.  Our weeping cherry tree was in full bloom, branches draped like a sheer pink curtain. The yellow jasmine was just beginning to show color. A brilliant red cardinal chirped at the feeder having a breakfast of black sunflower seeds. A mother wren was busy constructing her nest in the eave of our barn, pausing briefly now and then to sing her clear-throated melody.

In the distance, I heard a pair of blue jays squawking, a sure sign that something was threatening their nest. I looked around for Stormy, the feline that usually patrols our garden. She was taking a catnap in the shade.

The Carolina wren and the cardinal fell silent. I searched the sky above for an alien bird of prey. I saw nothing in flight.  But, I spied a red-tailed hawk in an oak tree high above the ruckus.  I pointed out the large bird to the girls. Just as they looked up, suddenly, the flash of white chevrons on gray wings took aim at the hawk. The fearless mockingbird made several hostile passes as the intruder took flight, winging its way across our back fence, over the railroad track, to another tree far, far away.

When order was restored, the cardinal returned to the feeder. The wren continued her domestic duties. And, the mockingbird found a perch high in a wild cherry tree. The birds blended their songs into a Saturday morning backyard concert.

The scientific name for the mockingbird is Mimus polyglottos, which comes from the Greek mimu, to mimic, and ployglottos, for many-tongued. The mockingbird’s song is a medley of the calls of other birds. The mockingbird imitates short units of sound, which it repeats several times before moving on to a new song.

Species with repetitive songs, such as the Carolina wren or the cardinal, are easily copied by the mockingbird. A mockingbird usually has 30 to 40 songs in its repertoire. These include other bird songs, insect or amphibian sounds, and even the noise of a squeaky gate or a car alarm.

A lady in our acquaintance takes her newspaper and a cup of freshly brewed coffee to her back porch every morning. “I always have my cell phone with me,” she explained. “I never know when one of my children might call.”

Early one sunny day as she enjoyed her coffee, she heard the familiar ringtone of her cell phone. She took the phone from her pocket. “I thought that the call had been lost. Then I heard the sound again,” she said. “It wasn’t my phone at all! It was a mockingbird ringing from high up in a sweet gum tree. That bird had heard my ringtone so often that he memorized it!”

The mockingbird is not only a good mimic, but it is also a loud, vocal bird. Unmated males often sing through the night, especially when the moon is full. These bachelors are singing to woo any available female.

I enjoy sitting in my backyard at night. It is my favorite time to meditate.  Eighteen-wheel petroleum trucks groan by on the four-lane in front of our home. Long freight trains rumble along the railroad tracks in back. Dogs bark in the distance. An occasional siren pierces the night, prompting the dogs to howl. I breathe a prayer for whatever family is involved in the emergency.

When these sounds fade away, I am treated to the symphony of nature. Bullfrogs in the pond and tree frogs in the woods are joined in a chorus by crickets and cicadas. In the spring, whippoorwills sing from the meadow behind our property.  Last week, beneath a bright moon, a mockingbird sang for hours perched in the top of a pecan tree.

The mockingbird is closely identified with the South, where it is a year-round resident.  It is the state bird of Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and Texas. My grandfather, a Tennessee native, told me it was his favorite bird. From him, I learned to identify the Mockingbird by the distinctive white chevron markings on the wings and the long tail that constantly moves up and down.

Mockingbirds have an adaptable diet. They eat insects in summer but switch to a menu of berries and seeds in winter.

Mockingbird males establish a nesting territory in early February. They tend to be monogamous.  Both mates are involved in the nest building. The male does most of the work while the female perches nearby to watch for predators. The nest is built four to ten feet above the ground. The mother bird lays and incubates three to five eggs. Once the fledglings hatch, both the male and female feed them.

Mockingbirds aggressively defend their nest. I have frequently seen a pair harass a black crow until the encroacher left the territory.  They have been known to peck bald spots on the rear end of a cat and inflict a wound on a dog that required stitches from a vet. Mockingbirds will even target humans, as my dear wife can attest. Clare walked through a gate into our backyard. Unbeknownst to her, she was too close to a nest. A Mockingbird, diving like a kamikaze, struck her on the shoulder.

2010 marked the fiftieth anniversary of To Kill a Mockingbird, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Harper Lee. In the story, Atticus Finch gives his children air rifles for Christmas, warning, “It’s a sin to kill a Mockingbird.”  A neighbor, Miss Maudie, explains to the children, “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy. They don’t eat up people’s gardens, don’t nest in corncribs, they don’t do one thing but sing their hearts out for us.”

Many know the song “Listen to the Mockingbird,” written by Alice Hawthorne in 1855. My favorite rendition is an instrumental guitar arrangement by Chet Atkins entitled “Hot Mockingbird.” In his recording, Chet makes his Gretsch Country Gentleman guitar sing like the gray and white bird.

Most parents have sung the “Mockingbird Lullaby” to their children. Carly Simon and James Taylor recorded a version that was a popular success in 1974. One of the joys of being a grandfather is singing to our grandchildren. They provide the only audience that will listen to my warbles without complaining.

Recently, Clare and I were babysitting for one of our young granddaughters. After she had supper and a bath, and clean pajamas, I took her upstairs to bed. We followed the usual routine, a sip of water, a favorite book, a little rocking chair time, a prayer, and a song.

I started the lullaby.

Hush, little baby, don’t say a word.

Papa’s going to buy you a Mockingbird.

Outside of the bedroom window, from the top of a sassafras tree, we heard the sweet music of a Mockingbird. We listened together for a few minutes. I put our granddaughter in her bed. Without a whimper she closed her eyes and went to sleep, serenaded by the mockingbird’s song.





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.”