Saturday, September 29, 2012

Two Excellent Storytellers

I'm visiting home for the weekend, and had waiting for me two books by two men I've admired for a long, long time and who turned out to be wonderful storytellers.

The first book is called Forerunners Courageous: Stories of Frontier Florida, written by LeRoy Collins, subject of my last post, and published in 1971.  In the book I mentioned in that post, Martin A. Dyckman's Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins, Dyckman quotes a poem called "Growing Up," which Collins wrote.  It treats of his youth in Tallahassee, a small Southern town, and how the things he saw around him affected him.  In that poem, we see the seed of the governor and the man he became.  It's a wonderful poem, and I had to read the entire thing, which is why I bought Forerunners Courageous.

I would have to say that Forerunners Courageous is to LeRoy Collins what Profiles in Courage was to John F. Kennedy.  Each book gave a glimpse into the man, into what each valued, the common denominator of which was courage.

Collins's genteel, gentle sense of humor comes through as well, in the parts that are originally his.  Much of the book consists in his retelling of old Florida tales such as the duel between Leigh Read and Augustus Alston, a tragic story of the consequences of taking the law into one's own hands.  But there is a great deal of himself, in his own words and thoughts, in the chapter titled "Reflections of a Part-Time Beachcomber."  That title refers to his summer home on the Gulf of Mexico which, during his governorship, provided a refuge from the towering problems he had to deal with, a place to think and reflect.  The chapter includes the poem, "Growing Up," and prose musings as well.  The last part of the book is devoted to the life and family of one of Florida's territorial governors, Richard Keith Call.  Collins's wife Mary was a Call, a direct descendant of the territorial governor.  The chapter weaves its story within a framework that centers upon The Grove, a mansion in Tallahassee, next door to the present governor's mansion, and which was the seat of the Call family.  In fact, when Collins became governor, the governor's mansion was in such terrible condition that Collins and his family lived at The Grove, which Mary had inherited.  The old governor's mansion was eventually torn down, and a new one built on the same lot.

Reading this book, and having read Dyckman's biography, I am glad that I have admired LeRoy Collins, and glad that I did have that chance on one balmy day in Tallahassee to meet him and talk with him for a brief time.  I like thinking men, and I like LeRoy Collins.

I also like handsome men, and to my eyes one of the handsomest of the 20th century was Robert Stack (though LeRoy Collins was no slouch in that department, either!).  Robert Stack is most famous for being the host of Unsolved Mysteries and also for his role in the 1959-1963 series The Untouchables, in which he portrayed fictional exploits of a very real historical character, Prohibition agent Eliot Ness.    Stack is the author of the autobiography Straight Shooting (1980), a title which refers not only to his direct style of speaking but also to his career as a champion skeet shooter.  He held many records during his lifetime, and taught famous actors such as Clark Gable, how to shoot.

Robert Stack likewise reveals his sense of humor in these pages -- a sense of humor a good deal more earthy and bawdy than that of LeRoy Collins!  That sense of humor is more often than not directed at himself, as he tells stories of Hollywood during the heyday of the studio system.  Robert Stack grew up in Hollywood, second son of a wealthy, socially-prominent family of old Californians.  Many of the lights in the Hollywood firmament were family friends, including Carole Lombard, the beautiful actress who died tragically in an airplane crash.  She was 13-year-old Robert's first crush.

Alex Haley once wrote, "An old person dying is like a library burning."  Robert Stack grew up in Hollywood, knew many of the famous and not-so-famous, and when he left this life early in this century, he took with him massive volumes of Hollywood lore.  Some of that is preserved in these pages.  He was not an elitist, from what he tells us.  He hung around with mechanics and stablemen and other "common" people, and seems to have gotten along with all of them.  (In that, he reminds me of my husband, who can carry on great conversations with millionaires or mechanics, and have a great time doing it.)

Robert Stack's wife, Rosemarie Bowe, an actress and model, has a chapter in the book as well, and it is as funny and engaging as her husband's chapters are.  Her sense of humor about herself shows that they were a good match for each other.  She was a gorgeous lady, and a very lucky one, from where I'm sitting!  (Though I have my own good luck, too.)

I love books that can make me laugh out loud, or say, "Oh, my gosh!" or even bring a tear.  These two books are lively and full of the love of life, poignant in places, and revealing of two very human and humane men.  They are highly recommended.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Floridian of His Century

One of the books assigned for the class Florida Politics Since World War II is Martin A. Dyckman's Floridian of His Century: The Courage of Governor LeRoy Collins.

Collins was elected in 1954 in a special election to fill out the term of Governor Dan McCarty, who died in office of a heart attack.  Collins defeated the "Pork Chop Gang" member Charley Johns, who, as president of the state senate, had become acting governor upon McCarty's death.  The "Pork Chop Gang" was a small clique of North Florida rural senators and representatives who held power out of all proportion to their numbers due to a crying need for reapportionment which had gone unheeded for decades.  A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1967 finally resulted in proper apportionment, which eliminated the power of the "Pork Chop Gang" and provided for more equitable and reasonable representation in Florida.

Collins, born and raised in Tallahassee, was raised in the racist, segregationist tradition of the South.  However, he was blessed with a mind and a conscience, and with the ability to examine his beliefs and values, and to change when change was needed.  And it was needed.

Collins won re-election to a full term in 1956, and through his evolving stand on civil rights, calling discrimination an offense to "moral, simple justice," became probably the greatest governor Florida has yet had.  He wanted to be the one to institute the reapportionment mentioned above, but was thwarted by the "Pork Chop Gang."  He also wanted a constitutional revision to update the existing constitution, which dated from 1885, and which was inadequate to the needs of a rapidly-growing Florida.  He did not succeed in either one.  Reapportionment took a federal Supreme Court decision, as mentioned above, and the constitution was not replaced until 1968.

After his term as governor was up, there being term limits in those days which limited a governor to one term, he went on to serve in other ways.  He was able to have that full term after the first two years in which he filled out McCarty's term because of a ruling by the Florida Supreme Court that a governor was entitled to a full term.

I met LeRoy Collins one day in Tallahassee, in 1969, when I was an undergraduate at Florida State University.  Three roommates and I, who had been together in another residence, rented an apartment in an old house which had been broken up into apartments.  Our landlady was LeRoy Collins's mother. She was a genteel, gentle lady with impeccable manners to all.  One day, one of my roommates came up the stairs, having been out, and told us that LeRoy Collins was downstairs.  We all tromped down the stairs with, "Oh, Governor Collins.  It's such an honor to meet you."  He smiled broadly, appearing flattered to be the object of attention from such a gaggle of enthusiastic young women.  He shook hands all around, and talked with us for a while, then we tromped back upstairs to leave him with his mother.  We were on a cloud, having met one of Florida's living heroes.

Anyone wanting to read an engaging biography of an engaging man who was in the right place at the right time at an important juncture in this state's and this nation's history could not do better than to read this book.  More radical people could criticize Collins for not having pushed harder, but he was wise in knowing that pushing too hard could have caused more violence than Florida did experience.  His moral leadership made a difference in a number of ways, not least of which was to inspire my generation in Florida much as John F. Kennedy inspired us across the nation.  The stand that LeRoy Collins did make was bold at the time and in the place in which he made it.

He deserves his place in Florida's history.