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February 6, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to The Palmetto Council, Boy Scouts of America, 420 South Church Street Extension, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 585-4391.

As I penned these words, I listened to a Norfolk Southern freight train rumbling along the tracks that run behind our home. I am told that, including the shifters, eighteen trains each day travel the steel rails adjacent to our property. For me, these passing trains bring back memories of a trip I took when I was sixteen years old.

In July 1960, duffel bag in hand, I ascended the steps of a railroad car to embark on an adventure that changed my life. I traveled with a troop of Scouts and leaders from Spartanburg, Cherokee, and Union counties. Our troop, along with a second troop from York, Lancaster, and Chester counties, made up the contingent representing the Palmetto Council. The locomotive whistle signaled the beginning of our long journey to the site of the Fifth National Scout Jamboree in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

We rode in a day car on the Carolina Special up the Saluda Grade through Asheville to Cincinnati, where we joined another train.  Once we reached Chicago our day car joined a train called the Jamboree Special. Picnic tables were lined down the center of the cattle cars that serve as our dining hall. We were herded into those cars and fed box lunches, preparing us to eat our own cooking once we arrived at the Jamboree.

From July 22 until July 29, 1960, a city of tents was pitched on 1,000 acres of ranch land eight miles north of Colorado Springs. Our spacious campsite was at the base of Pike’s Peak which towers more than twice the height of Mount Mitchell in North Carolina. Representing twenty-six countries, 56,377 Boy Scouts officially registered for the event. More than 200,000 visitors came to Jamboree City, making it the fourth-largest town in Colorado for those two weeks.

Twenty-eight hundred tons of food transported in ninety-seven boxcars supplied the hungry Scouts. We consumed 21,000 loaves of bread and 2,183 gallons of milk every day. Each night, on 16,380 open charcoal fires, Scouts, organized into patrols, cooked their own supper at the same time.

The Boy Scout movement was founded in England in 1907 by Lord Robert Baden-Powell. The founder’s son, Robert Baden-Powell II, attended the 1960 Jamboree as an honored guest.  He recognized the jubilee year, the fiftieth anniversary, of the Boy Scouts of America chartered in 1910 by the United States Congress.  

As we hiked across the grassland to the opening show, the Blue Angels, the United States Navy’s flight demonstration squadron, performed amazing aeronautical stunts in the sky above us. The twists and turns of those synchronized jets soaring against the backdrop of the Rocky Mountains took out breath away. That night the popular teenage Lennon Sisters treated us with a concert. They were followed by the largest fireworks display I had ever seen.

During the Jamboree I witnessed my first rodeo. I knew then that bull riding and saddle bronco riding were not for me. I would rather work at the lumberyard back home.

Several celebrities visited the Jamboree during the week.  James Arness was a hero to many boys. He played the part of Marshall Matt Dillon in the television show, Gunsmoke. He was a big hit among the scouts.      

President Dwight David Eisenhower, who arrived on the final day, traveled with his motorcade through the entire camp. Wearing a white suit and a yellow Jamboree neckerchief, he stood in the back of a new Lincoln Continental convertible.  At one point in the parade the car stopped, allowing the President to walk over to the Scouts lining the road and shake hands. An Eagle Scout, I had been elected Senior Patrol Leader of my Jamboree troop, so I was assigned to the front row. When I shook Ike’s hand, I looked into his eyes and said only, “Mr. President.” It was my first and only time to speak to a President.

At the closing show, the western cowboy singing group, The Sons of the Pioneers, entertained us.  Later, the humorist Herb Shriner invited any Scout who had a harmonica to play with him. He, along with 300 or so Scouts, played “Home Sweet Home.”

The Jamboree closed that night with a candle lighting ceremony. More than fifty thousand of us repeated the Scout Oath together, dedicating ourselves to do our duty to God and our country. Thousands of Scouts, raising their right hand in Scout’s honor and holding thousands of lighted candles, pledged to make the world a better place.

On that last evening, I walked to the top of a grassy hill overlooking the Jamboree campsite. I had previously attended numerous Scouting events, but that vantage point allowed me to envision the enormous impact Scouting could make in this world.

On our return trip back to South Carolina, our troop traveled a southern route through New Mexico. I had slept well in my tent on the Colorado grassland. That night back on the Southern day coach, however, I was uncomfortable. The next morning, Saturday, I was congested with a summer cold. The dramatic drop in elevation as we traveled overnight had forced fluid into my left ear. By the time the train pulled into Dallas, Texas, I had developed a throbbing earache.

Our troop was scheduled for a tour of Dallas. It included a meeting with Miss Texas at the Dr. Pepper bottling company.  Instead, I opted to try to find a physician to treat my painful earache. I agreed to meet the troop back at the railroad station at the designated time.

I found a physician’s office building several blocks from the train station. I walked the hallways, searching for help. Because it was the weekend, the offices were closed, but finally, I heard a typewriter on the fourth floor. A few moments after I knocked on the locked door, a physician appeared.

Surprised to see a Scout in uniform, he asked, “Can I help you?”

I explained that I had attended the National Jamboree, that we were traveling by train back home to South Carolina, and that I had a terrible earache.

“Come in and let’s take a look,” he said.

As he examined me, he laughed, “I do not usually do this kind of medicine. I’m an Ob/Gyn. It’s been a long time since I looked in a patient’s ear.”

The doctor confirmed that my ear was indeed infected and offered to give me a shot of penicillin.

After explaining that I had very little money but that I would send a payment to him when I returned to Spartanburg, he asked, “Scout’s honor?”

I raised my hand in the Scout sign and pledged, “Yes, sir. Scout’s honor.”

I learned that the doctor himself was an Eagle Scout.

Back at the train station, I met my troop for our trip to New Orleans. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that I missed out on a free Dr. Pepper while I was getting a shot.

We boarded the Southern Crescent for the ride home to the Hub City.

The Boy Scouts of America is celebrating a birthday this week, on February 8. It’s a good time to remember the important difference Scouting can make. In 1960, more than 5,000,000 boys were Scouts in America; today, more than 30,000,000 Americans have been members of the Scout movement.

In recent years, scouting has suffered from many revelations of sexual abuse. The organization’s problems have paled in comparison to the human pain caused by these abuses for young people and adults alike. The Boy Scouts of America is diligently trying to make amends.  

In May of 2020, the Boy Scouts of America issued one of many statements on this problem.

“First and foremost, we care deeply about all victims of child abuse and sincerely apologize to anyone who was harmed during their time in Scouting,” the statement read. “We are outraged that there have been times when individuals took advantage of our program to abuse innocent children.”

The organization has put in place strong youth protection policies. These efforts do not excuse past atrocities. They do indicate a genuine desire to reestablish the moral values of scouting.

Scouting continues to make a significant difference in the lives of America’s youth and in the future of our country. I am proud to have been a part of the organization for sixty-four years. I am grateful that our children and grandchildren have experienced character development, leadership skills, and scouting outdoor adventures.

By the way, the Dallas doctor that I saw so many years ago did send a bill to our home in Spartanburg. A Star Scout himself, my dad sent a check to him. Dad also knew the meaning of Scout’s honor.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at


January 30, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to The Bethlehem Center, which is dedicated to strengthening families, 397 Highland Avenue, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29306, (864) 582-7158.

When I was a boy, my mother decided that I should take piano lessons. My teacher was Mrs. Ruff. She lived in the big house across highway 56 from Cooperative School. I was a student in that school. Mr. E. P. Todd was my principal. Now that school has moved to Old Canaan Road and is named for Mr. Todd.

Mrs. Ruff’s home was the historic Foster’s Tavern.  Anthony Foster began construction of the building in 1801. The house took seven years to complete. The old home is made of hand-thrown bricks. It features chimneys at each end of a gable roof and beautiful hand-carved woodwork, including bowed mantels and stair scrollwork, windowpanes of blown glass, soapstone hearths, and cattle-hair plaster. It is the oldest brick home in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The portico with its semicircular fanlight above the door was added in 1845 and the porches about 1915.

Foster’s Tavern was a regular stop for John C. Calhoun, Vice President (1825 -1832)  and United States Senator (1832-1850).  Located along a well-traveled stagecoach route between Columbia and Fort Hill, South Carolina, Calhoun stayed so frequently that he had his own bedroom on the second floor. Bishop Francis Asbury, founder of the Methodist Church in South Carolina, recorded in his diary in 1810 that he also found lodging here.

The imposing home held more fascination for me than Mrs. Ruff’s upright studio piano. Mrs. Ruff was obsessed with scales. Week after week, I struggled to hammer out the boring notes of scales. I did learn to play “Happy Birthday” and “Home on the Range,” but that was pretty much on my own.

After only a few weeks, I was confronted with a decision. I attended my weekly lesson with a jammed thumb and finger on my right hand. Mrs. Ruff examined my black and blue hand and asked, “What did you do?”

“I snagged a line drive with my bare hand,” I explained.

“You did what?”

“I caught a baseball with my right hand.”

She looked at me as if I were speaking a foreign language. “Kirk, you cannot play baseball and the piano.”

“How about football and basketball?”

“If you are going to play the piano, you need to protect your hands.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said.

That was my last piano lesson.

As I recall, each of our children took piano lessons. Sooner or later, they all played “Arabesque,” a tune that became so monotonous that I called it the recital piece from hell.

Betsy took lessons longer than any of our sons, and she practiced.  She still sits down at the keys to unwind after a stressful day, and she plays for her family.

Now, Clare and I have grandchildren who are playing the piano. We’ll see how that works out.

On the radio last week, I heard a familiar song. As often happens, when I get a tune in my head, it lingers throughout the day.  This piece was written and recorded by Billy Joel. The song, “Piano Man,” brought to mind a story I remembered from sixteen years earlier.

On April 7, 2005, the police picked up an unidentified man as he wandered the streets of Kent, in England. Dressed in a suit and tie, he was soaking wet. He was unresponsive to their questions, remaining silent. The police took him to Medway Maritime Hospital.

He was presented a pen and paper by the hospital staff, hoping he would write his name. Instead, he drew a detailed sketch of a grand piano. When they took him to a piano, he played music of various types, ranging from Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s classical music to pop tunes by The Beatles. He played for four hours.

He was admitted to the psychiatric unit and dubbed the Piano Man by the hospital staff.

The name given to the troubled man came from lyrics of the song by Billy Joel.

Sing us a song, you’re the piano man.
Sing us a song tonight.
Well, we’re all in the mood for a melody,
And you’ve got us feeling alright.

The name, Piano Man, might also apply to Heinrich, born in February 1797, in the Black Forest area of Germany.  Most of the men in his family were woodcutters.  When the French invaded Germany, Heinrich’s father and older brothers went to war while his mother fled to the mountains with the younger children.  When the father and brothers returned after a cold winter, they found that the mother and younger children had died.  Only young Heinrich had survived.

Heinrich worked with his father and brothers as a woodcutter.  One day in the forest, they were caught in a violent thunderstorm.  The small shelter where they found refuge was struck by lightning and destroyed by fire. Heinrich’s father and brothers died.  At the age of fifteen, he was the lone survivor in his family.

Heinrich learned the art of making stringed musical instruments.  After becoming the organist of the village church, he developed an interest in making pianos. As a wedding gift, he gave his bride, Juliane, the first piano he made with his own hands.  

When his fledgling piano business failed, he immigrated to America with his wife and seven children.  He and his sons found work in various piano factories in New York City and started their own business in 1853.  Ten years later, Heinrich Steinweg changed his name legally to Henry Steinway. 

To this day, Steinway pianos are made almost entirely by hand.  Making a Steinway piano is a little like giving birth to a baby.  Each piano takes nine months to craft. No two are the same. More than 400 workers follow Henry Steinway’s meticulous piano-making technique, carefully assembling more than 12,000 parts.  Every key and each hammer are repeatedly checked and balanced. Eighteen layers of hard maple wood are laminated together to fashion the curved rim. 

The Steinway Company holds numerous patents for piano design, including a one-piece, cast-iron piano plate and over-stringing technique, which refers to arranging the strings inside the case in a crisscrossed pattern allowing for longer strings, greater tension, and therefore greater volume.  Before a Steinway piano is shipped, it is tuned nine times. 

Henry Steinway, the great-grandson of the founder, says Steinway defines itself as the world’s finest piano maker and as a patron of the arts. Years ago, the company invited pianists to come in and try the pianos. Piano makers listened to the musicians’ comments and made improvements to the instruments.

The company realized the mutual benefits of sponsoring artists. From the early days, Steinway has encouraged musicians to use the Steinway piano, and thereby developed cultural institutions like the New York Philharmonic.

The Steinway Company has brought some of the world’s great pianists to America.  Vladimir Horowitz, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Arthur Rubinstein, and Jan Paderewski are among the most famous.  Steinway artists include Van Cliburn and Billy Joel.    The Steinway Company wants their pianos to be played.  Any visitor to Steinway Hall in New York City may sit down to play. 

Wishing to encourage her young son’s interest in the piano, a mother took her boy to a Paderewski concert at Steinway Hall.  After they were seated, the mother spotted a friend in the audience and walked down the aisle to greet her. Seizing the opportunity to explore the concert hall, the young boy left his seat and made his way through a stage door. 

The house lights dimmed. The concert was about to begin. The mother returned to her seat and discovered that her child was missing. The stage curtains parted. Spotlights focused on the impressive Steinway Grand Piano. 

Horrified, the mother saw her son sitting at the keyboard, innocently picking out “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” 

At that moment, Paderewski made his sweeping entrance. Quickly moving to the piano, he whispered in the boy’s ear, “Don’t quit. Keep playing.” 

Then leaning over, the master pianist reached down with his left hand and began filling in a bass part to the boy’s simple tune. Soon his right arm reached around to the other side of the child as he added a running treble counterpoint.  Together, the old master and the young boy transformed an awkward situation into a creative experience. The audience was mesmerized.

It is an important message of hope, a word of encouragement for every person in a difficult circumstance. 

“Don’t quit. Keep at it.”

I stopped playing the piano. I occasionally sit down on the bench next to a grandchild and play the bass part of “Heart and Soul.” That is a real joy.

Foster’s Tavern is now the residence of good friends. Just as when I was a boy, there are persistent rumors of ghostly sounds in the old house, albeit those of friendly spooks.

I wonder if those faint echoes may be the distant notes of an old piano where a young kid struggles to play scales. I didn’t stick with the piano, and it didn’t help my athletic endeavors one bit.

The message of the master is one of encouragement and hope, especially for these COVID times.

“Don’t quit. Keep at it.” You are not alone.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor.

He can be reached at


January 23, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Speaking Down Barriers, PO Box 7133, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29304, 803-526-7496.

In Hamlet, the tragic play written by William Shakespeare, a line spoken by Hamlet sticks in my mind.  When Hamlet learns that his father has been murdered by Claudius, his father’s brother and Hamlet’s uncle, the young Prince of Denmark observes, “The times are out of joint.”

 Wednesday, January 6, 2021, was the day of Epiphany in the Christian year, a holy day that commemorates the wise men’s arrival in Bethlehem. It became a day of infamy in America’s history as unwise people marched from the White House to attack and desecrate the Capitol of the United States.

Many of us watched in disbelief as our fellow citizens stormed the Capitol Building to protest Joe Biden’s election as president. It became a violent insurrection. Five people died. It was reported that President Donald Trump had spurred on the assault. Around the world, people in other nations were bitterly disappointed in America, often thought of as a steady beacon of democracy. Many of our own citizens were embarrassed and ashamed.

On Wednesday, January 20, 2021, with his hand on a family Bible, Joe Biden took the oath of office as President of the United States.  In his speech, he outlined four areas of immediate concern for his administration:

  1. The pandemic that has in this country alone exceeded 400,000 deaths
  2. The economic crisis for many Americans and businesses
  3. The health of our planet and the threat of global climate change
  4. Systemic racism and racial injustice.

Any one of these challenges would be difficult. Yet these are only four of the problems that confront our nation.

The times are out of joint!

That phrase is best understood in the world of orthopedic medicine. In Hamlet’s Denmark, life was confused and in disarray. Just as a dislocated shoulder needs to be put back into place, so did some semblance of order and stability need to be brought back to Denmark.  This is what we face in our nation in 2021.

Last Monday night, I participated in a panel discussion sponsored by the City of Spartanburg to honor the memory of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The event gave me renewed hope for our country and an opportunity to reflect again on my journey regarding the issue of racial justice, just one of the issues detailed by President Biden.

Major Hugh Neely, my great, great grandfather, was a portly man with red hair and a long, thick beard.  When I was a child, I thought he had been an officer in the Civil War. I fancied him as a hero of the Confederacy.  However, I learned from his octogenarian grandchildren that Major was his given name, not an earned military rank.

During the Civil War, Major Hugh Neely taught school in Christiana, Tennessee, and served as postmaster in Fosterville, Tennessee.  He lived in a log cabin on the Shelbyville Pike.  He tried to join the Confederate Army on two occasions. He was initially denied enlistment because he was a schoolteacher.  

As the war wore on, he tried again to enlist.  This time he was not accepted as a soldier because he could not see.  He was so cross-eyed he couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn with a rifle.

Though he was unable to shoot straight with a firearm, Major Hugh Neely had the reputation of being a straight shooter in his conversation. He would have signed on as a Confederate soldier, but Major Hugh Neely actually opposed slavery. He is reported to have said, “No person can own another person.”

Others on my family tree had no such conviction.  

Another of my great-grandfathers was Moses Sanders Haynsworth of Darlington, South Carolina. He was a fellow Citadel cadet and the first cousin of Tuck Haynsworth who fired the third cannon against the Union ship the Star of the West in the opening battle of the war at Fort Sumter.  During the war, the Haynsworth plantation, having five hundred slaves, was converted in order to manufacture boots and saddles for Confederate troops.

Born and reared in Spartanburg County, I remember segregated water fountains and restrooms, clearly marked WHITE and COLORED.  As a boy, I gave this blatant expression of inequality little thought. It was just the way of life in the South.  

I attended segregated schools all the way through high school graduation in 1962. There were no other options. That summer, at age seventeen, I had an opportunity to travel to Southern Rhodesia to visit my uncle and aunt, who were serving as missionaries in Africa. In the country now known as Zimbabwe, I saw something that changed my mind about human relationships. I saw apartheid at work. I saw glaring discrimination in plain view.

When I returned to South Carolina, my eyes had been opened. I could then see the inequality in the place that I loved, the place I called home.

I was cautious with this new insight, knowing instinctively that family and friends would disagree with my changing opinions. I was uncomfortable with the Civil Rights Movement spreading across the South, but I had become aware, as never before, that all people are equal in the sight of God.

A young clergyman from Atlanta, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led the movement for racial equality. Vilified by most people I knew, he was branded a troublemaker, a man who had forgotten his place.

Martin Luther King, Jr., inspired a nation to change largely through his riveting speeches. King’s skill with words empowered his nonviolent battle for integration and equal rights.

During my freshman year in college, Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered a sermon entitled “Strength to Love.” Two statements he made in that sermon further molded my attitude about racial equality.  He said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” He went on to say, “Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”     

In April of that same year, King was arrested in Birmingham, Alabama, following a peaceful protest against segregation. While in jail, King learned of statements made by eight white Alabama clergymen on April 12, 1963, which they entitled “A Call for Unity.” The pastors agreed that social injustices were occurring, but they argued that the battle against racial segregation should be fought solely in the courts, not taken into the streets.  

King responded in an open letter written on April 16, 1963.  In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote that civil rights could never be achieved without direct action. As he put it, “This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.'” King’s letter further declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” King also quoted Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall’s words: “Justice too long delayed is justice denied.”  

In the summer of 1963, King delivered his speech entitled “I Have a Dream” to thousands of civil rights marchers at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.  A year later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

The one and only time I saw Martin Luther King, Jr., in person was when he came to Louisville, Kentucky, where I was in seminary. Together he and his younger brother, A. D. Williams King, a pastor in Louisville, led a march for open housing. Several members of the faculty at Southern Seminary participated in the protest. There as an onlooker with a group of other seminary students, I saw Dr. King from a distance.  

The week before Easter in 1968, Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee. He had gone to Memphis to support striking sanitation workers.  

Dr. Charles Bodie, then President of Peabody College in Nashville, Tennessee, was the guest preacher for Holy Week services at Crescent Hill Baptist Church, where Clare and I were members. We attended those services and will never forget how Dr. Bodie, a distinguished African-American preacher in his own right, began his sermon the night of King’s assassination. Quoting Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Dr. Bodie lamented, “The times are out of joint.” He then declared, “The times have always been out of joint! They will always be out of joint! This is the world in which we must live.”

I understood that I had to be a part of the healing. The struggle in which we are all engaged to make this country a more perfect union demands that we be agents of reconciliation, binding up broken hearts and tending to broken lives.

In August 1963, just before my sophomore year at Furman, Martin Luther King, Jr., standing in front of the Lincoln Memorial, acknowledged, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”

In many ways, the times are still out of joint, but Dr. King’s dream is now closer to fulfillment.

In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet was utterly overcome by the unsettled chaos of his own time. He died in despair.

We have a responsibility to live in hope and to make this world a better place.

Let us make Martin Luther King’s prayer our own.

“Use me, God. Show me how to take who I am, who I want to be, and what I can do, and use it for a purpose greater than myself. Amen”

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at