Author Archives: JQB

Douglas C. Neckers on Thanksgiving, Then and Now

My friend Dr. Douglas C. Neckers, Ph.D., was an organic chemist.  He was a Professor of Chemistry and founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University.  We met about twenty years ago through the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, New York, where we both came to serve on the board and Doug served for a number of years, powerfully and effectively, as board chair.

Doug was dazzlingly smart, intellectually voracious, and a constant teacher and communicator, including in writing.  In his last years, he published many op-ed pieces and wrote on a blog he named “Science in 3D” — 3D printing was one of the fields in which he made a significant mark.  The blog site is here.

A year ago, Doug, then a new widower after sixty years of a very happy marriage, wrote this essay about Thanksgiving.  He wrote it too close to the 2021 Thanksgiving holiday to get it published in a newspaper.  And for some reason he did not post it on his blog.  Instead, he emailed it to me and I’m also sure to other friends — he liked, as he put it, the “excuse to send it individually”.

It is a beautiful essay.  It’s about appreciating what we have, beginning with our loved ones, and about experiencing the sadnesses of people departing.

It turns out that this was Doug’s reflection on his final Thanksgiving.  He died three days ago, on November 22, 2022, of cardiac arrest after battling COVID, which he acquired on a trip to Europe this summer.

Dr. Doug Neckers was a family man, scientist, author, teacher, mentor, and dear friend.  He leaves legions of us as his survivors, so sad and so grateful.

*****

Thanksgiving, Then and Now

By Douglas C. Neckers

The British news magazine The Economist summed things up neatly when it was first published in 1843.  Mankind, it said, was facing “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.”

You might read that and say, “The more things change, the more things stay the same.  I come from a small town in the southwestern corner off New York which also produced the publisher, Horace Greeley, a man who shaped much of the course of modern journalism, including comprehensive coverage of an issue and emphasis on entertainment.  He is best known for crusading for women’s rights and against slavery in his newspaper, the New York Tribune in 1841.

That, and saying “Go west, young man, go west.”  Well, even though he died long before I was born. I took that advice, and now live in Ohio.

And, now that Thanksgiving 2021 is upon us, I realize more and more how thankful I am for those who saw the value of communication nearly two centuries ago, before radio and television, not to mention the internet.

Thanksgiving has changed too.  In fact, I’m incredulous over how much has changed over the course of my lifetime when it comes to celebrating this uniquely American holiday.  When I was a boy in the 1940s and 50s, Thanksgiving was a day to celebrate my paternal grandmother’s family, the sons and daughters of two immigrant families that came to western New York in the mid-19th century.

They came to escape starvation via a grueling eight-week ocean trip from Rotterdam to New York, then up the Hudson to Albany, the Erie Canal to Buffalo.

Then, they boarded a Great Lakes steamer as far as they dared take it on Lake Erie, and over land to the very western corner of New York State: Chautauqua County.  No doubt about it: my ancestors were brave.

By the time I reached boyhood in the late 1940’s, most of our Civil War veterans had passed away, including my paternal great-grandfather.  But many of the adults I grew up with knew about war, all right.  There were World War I vets who knew about and had experienced toxic chlorine and mustard gas attacks in the trenches, though they never talked about them.  There were World War II vets freshly back from some of the same battlefields their fathers had fought on in Europe, as well as many new ones there and in the South Pacific.

Those veterans were the young heroes of my day — bright, optimistic and ready for what the rest of their lives would bring them.

There were farmers in my orbit too, many of whom went deer hunting — some together, others alone, on the Thanksgiving mornings of my childhood.

These were hard-working, strong men who were able to spend hours in barns milking cows and servicing their stalls, and then go hunting, come back, sit and eat, and rest for the one day a year when they let themselves do that.

Venison was still a staple in winter in Chautauqua County then, and most every farm family had its share of deer meat.  But on Thanksgiving, the women cooked turkey with all the fixings and lots of various fruit pies for dessert.  This was, after all, an area where Concord grapes, peaches and apples literally fell off trees and vines in August and September.

But the lives of my ancestors hadn’t always been so abundant.  Little did I, as a small boy in the 1940s, know how hard it had been and how hard it sometimes still was for my families and, especially, for their ancestors.  These heroes survived the hard winters in an area where winters were really hard.  They heated small and not-so-small houses with wood stoves, walked outside on cold mornings to the outhouses near the barnyard of every farm, and eked out a subsistence living from rocky, hilly soil, land better suited to a ski resort than for growing wheat or corn.

Nevertheless, no matter how tough it got, we knew it had been worse in the past for our ancestors, and everyone was thankful for what they had.

Fast forward a few decades to the many years when I was a university professor.  In other words, like so many of my generation, I was one of the group of able young people who had chosen to leave the fields and farms of my hometown to pursue a different career — in my case, teaching and research.

To succeed, I had to develop my own research initiatives.  On the farm, that might have meant experimenting with ways to get higher crop yields.  In my labs, that meant inventions and discoveries that could lead to new businesses.

And this I did.  I managed to discover the basic science that turned analog photography into digital, and from there, the basics for what became stereolithography and 3D printing, I pushed the envelope of what was possible in various areas, some of which form some of the basis of what different industries in my field use today.  I helped bring America some brilliant scientific advances and saw many new businesses rise from the ground long after the farms in western New York sadly could no longer support even the simplest living styles.

But I still loved Thanksgiving, because it was the one day every year when no one did anything but stay home, be thankful, eat well and know that they were blessed by the bounty and goodness of a great country.

By now, of course, those many farmers from my childhood have long passed from the earth, leaving just memories.  Things began to change, too, with the dads and mothers whose company we enjoyed for so many Thanksgivings.

Nature is, if not ruthless, unyielding.  Parents became ill and our family, like many, was placed in a position of being caregivers.  Holidays now could be spent caring for Mom or Dad or at least going to home to a very different place.

We were still thankful, even if turkey sometimes wasn’t on the table, for we were together.  Then, one day, we weren’t.

Our parents’ entire generation was fading away.  Last year, it started to become our turn, specifically, my turn.  This year, it is my turn to go to Thanksgiving alone.  My wife Suzanne and I spent decades years together, until she passed away this June, a day before our 61st wedding anniversary.

On our first thanksgiving in Lawrence, Kansas my uncle and aunt drove in from Southern Illinois to spend it with us.  I know Suzanne got lots of tips from my aunt, while I enjoyed my uncle’s company, even though he was then a distinguished professor of chemistry and I a mere graduate student.

Things come full circle.  Now, I feel almost like an 18-year-old leaving home for the first time; I’m back in the swirling waters not so much of loneliness but emotional insecurity.  The family members I gathered with in those farmhouses of Western New York to celebrate how better off we were than in the old country, are completely gone.  There’s no one to celebrate with save my children and me.

Still, am I thankful?  You bet.  But I am sad, too.  Don’t tell anyone, but I have never really liked pumpkin pie, but for just one more of those Thanksgiving days of yore, I’d cheerfully have a piece … maybe even two.

 

On Reproductive Rights, Justice Jackson, & Skinner— at Georgetown & on C-SPAN

On June 1, the 80th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Skinner v. Oklahoma, I participated in a panel at Georgetown University Law Center on “The Unknown History of Reproductive Rights & Eugenics: From Skinner to Roe.”

In Skinner, the Supreme Court unanimously declared unconstitutional an Oklahoma law that provided for the sterilization of some thrice-convicted “habitual criminals.”  Jack Skinner, a state prison inmate, won a decision that protected his reproductive capability and autonomy.  The decision became an important starting point for constitutional law doctrines that protect individuals from government regulations and penalties in the areas of contraception, abortion, private intimacy, and other fundamental rights.

The panel is available on C-SPAN.  My lecture, about Justice Robert H. Jackson’s concurring opinion in the case, other aspects of his judicial work, and his work as U.S. chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, begins at time counter reading 21:20.

https://www.c-span.org/video/?520685-1/history-reproductive-rights

Russia Once Prosecuted War Crimes in Ukraine

“Remember the Nuremberg Indictment”

I published last week in the New York Law Journal an essay with that title.  It’s available here:

https://www.law.com/newyorklawjournal/2022/03/29/remember-the-nuremberg-indictment/

It recounts that in 1945’s historic indictment of Nazi war criminals, and in the Nuremberg trial that followed, Russia (the USSR) prosecuted Nazis for committing international crimes in Ukraine — the same crimes that Russia is committing there today.

Study *Actual* Nazi “Medical Tyranny”

Numerous schools, like the one where I teach, require teachers and students to wear masks to prevent COVID transmission.  Well done—it’s a minimal hassle, it’s based in scientific knowledge, and it works.

But not all know or accept this.  Some people oppose school mask mandates.  Some of them are, I’ve read, protesting, sometimes very disruptively, at their local school board meetings.

And here it comes (the Nazi reference):  In New Hampshire, a founder of a group that opposes any COVID-related restriction recently cited Nazi war crimes as an example of what he called the dangers of “medical tyranny.”

I assume that this man was referring to the U.S. prosecution in Nuremberg following World War II of Nazi doctors.

Their crimes were horrific acts of bodily torture and killing.

It is absurd to draw any analogy between that conduct and the policies and the gentle measures that officials are employing today to protect us from COVID.

To learn about Nazi medical crimes, as prosecuted at the Nuremberg “Doctors Trial,” read here:

https://www.ushmm.org/information/exhibitions/online-exhibitions/special-focus/doctors-trial

 

Terrifically Truthful Tom Seaver

On a New York Mets game radio broadcast some years ago, the announcers hosted a big guest for an on-air visit:  Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, one of the best pitchers in modern baseball history, and the best pitcher and greatest player in Mets history.

They had a good, wide-ranging conversation.  I don’t remember particulars, but it was interesting because Seaver was very smart and, well, he was Seaver.

Then one of the announcers snuck in a commercial plug for the Mets local minor league team, the Class A short-season league Brooklyn Cyclones.  He said something like, “Come down to Coney Island tomorrow to see the Brooklyn Cyclones, The Mets of Tomorrow.”

Then they went back to Seaver.  And he had to set the record straight.

Well actually, Seaver said, none of the Brooklyn Cyclones is going to make it to the Mets.  They’re good kids and they love the game, but in baseball today the real major league prospects start in AA or AAA ball, or they get moved there before they turn 20.  The Cyclones are older than that.  They’re guys who are going to finish their playing days in the minors.  They’re in short-season A League because they’re not prospects.  It’s tough, but that’s just the way it is—at some point every player doesn’t have enough talent to keep playing, or to play at a higher level.

Whoa.  At least a few seconds of dead air followed that dissertation.

I remember hoping that no Brooklyn Cyclone, and even more that none of their parents or other loved ones, was listening.

The interview resumed, but they wrapped it up pretty quickly—after that one, they had to get “Tom Terrific” out of the booth.

Too terrifically truthful.  And honestly just great.

National Security on the Night Shift, June 17, 1972

Forty-eight years ago this evening, Watergate Office Building security guard Frank Wills changed American history for the better by doing his job well.

Here’s the log that he and then the next officer, on the day shift, kept.  It shows Wills’s discovery that two doors on Basement level 2 had been wedged open, and that a door on B3 and another door were unlocked.  It also shows that Wills called the District of Columbia police, who investigated and confirmed that a door had been taped open.

Here is my rough transcription of the handwritten log—Mr. Wills was not a perfect speller, but his log entries were solid, generally recording what he did and found on that momentous night shift:

[Handwritten entries by Watergate Security Officer Frank Wills:]

6–17–72

Wills on duty 12:00

Left                 Return             B2 Level Stuffed With

12:05               12:20 AM        Paper Both Doars

also one Doan on

B3 level was open

The other was stuff

with paper and the

Doar annex outside

Off office bldg. was

open

12:30 AM        1:00 AM          Cut all lights out

In hall

1:47 AM          1:55 AM          Call police found

tape In Doare Call

Police two make

A inspection on the

Inspection Police 25

Sir Sgt Jackson made

out RePort

5:22 AM          6:20 AM          Secured all B1-B2-B3

Levels

6:25 AM          6:30 AM          unlock trash doar.

6:30 AM          7:05 AM          Levels B1 B2 B3 Secured

7:30 AM          Levels B1 B2 B3 Secured

[Handwritten entries by a second person:]

8:00 AM                                  Made reliev + men informed

about the Break in   Check floors + return

Back to Desk – 8 55 (AM)

[Resumed handwritten entries by Officer Wills:]

8:00                 9:00                 officer came back

Two invesgiate Return

Two lobby.  Wills off Duty

Two invesgiating officers

Carl Schaffler, Sgt. Paul

Leeper.

The D.C. police investigated inside the Watergate building, found five burglars in the offices of the Democratic National Committee, and arrested them.

Those burglars, in turned out, were working for President Richard M. Nixon—investigations established that his White House, his administration, and his reelection campaign had committed many serious crimes.

On August 8, 1974, President Nixon resigned from office.

A week later, Frank Willis appeared on a television show and told his story.

Thank you, sir, for your example.

Death Notices & Longevity

In this trying time, death notices are tragic but also, sometimes, quite consoling.

An example:  On March 22, 2020, the New York Times published this notice of Dr. Salah Al-Askari’s death.  He lived more than ninety years, a great span.  He was an accomplished physician and researcher whose life and skill benefited many others.

One particular is that in 1967, Dr. Al-Askari performed the first successful transplant of a kidney from a cadaver into a living person, and today, more than fifty years later, that kidney recipient is still living.

That fact makes, no doubt, that person’s day.  And it made mine.

Wisdom about Trusting Stories About Dead Guys

Frank Anderson, a senior Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operative, died last month.  As his obituaries report (here is one in the New York Times and here is one in the Washington Post), he worked on major matters, including the provision of U.S. covert military aid to the mujahadeen fighting the U.S.S.R. in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Mr. Anderson was a source for author Kai Bird’s excellent book The Good Spy: The Life and Death of Robert Ames (2014).  Bob Ames was another very important CIA officer during the 1970s and 1980s, until he was killed in the truck bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon in 1983.

Anderson’s NYT obit includes this quote from Bird about advice he received from Anderson as he (Bird) was researching Ames:  “[E]xercise caution with stories that can only be corroborated by dead guys.  Fabricated stories are almost never made up out of whole cloth, but are made by stitching together generally known facts with bits of uncheckable fantasy.”

I think that’s wise.  I try to remember that as I interview people about now-gone persons and then write about their history.

And of course I hope that it’s wisdom that Anderson actually said to Bird.

Mr. Bird is a serious, skilled researcher and writer, so I trust that it is — that’s just a joke.

Update re The Jackson List

As you might know, I write about Robert H. Jackson (1892-1954), United States Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg chief prosecutor of Nazi war criminals following World War II.  Jackson is one of the most enduringly significant lives of the 20th century.  Among other things, I am a Jackson biographer, discoverer and editor of his acclaimed book That Man on President Franklin D. Roosevelt (which also is a Jackson autobiography), author of many articles on Jackson, a regular lecturer across the U.S. and internationally on Jackson and related topics, and a fellow and board member at the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, New York.

An outgrowth of all that is that I email a few notes each month, on Justice Jackson, the Supreme Court, Nuremberg, and/or related topics, to “The Jackson List.”  It is a one-way, private email list that reaches many thousands of direct subscribers—teachers, students, scholars, lawyers, Judges, and other learners—and, through their forwarding, reposting, blogging, etc., many others around the world.

In the past, I have used this blog site to post items as they are sent to The Jackson List.  But it has migrated to a new platform and better technology.  (Thank you, IT aces!)  So from now on, new Jackson List posts will go by email to The Jackson List and, simultaneously, be posted on its archive site—

https://thejacksonlist.com/

To subscribe to The Jackson List, sign up there, or send me an email.

Thanks very much for your interest, and for spreading the word.

“The Best Man That We Had. Recently.”

Three generations of a super family—the matriarch, age 93, plus her daughters, a son-in-law, and three adult grandchildren—invited me to dinner last night.  It all, including great conversations, was a delight.

One conversation concerned Grandma’s 1950 engagement and wedding.

Grandma’s health now isn’t as strong as it once was.  But she took great, smiling delight last night in being with her loved ones.  She answered direct questions and nodded and smiled when she got hugged (a lot).  Mostly, as the conversations ran around the dinner table, she watched and enjoyed the good food.

So we spoke about the 1950 wedding.  Then our conversation turned to who thinks what about the current Democratic presidential candidates.

Grandma spoke then, quietly but very clearly:  “Who was the best man that we had?  Recently.”

A granddaughter, thinking that Grandma was going back to the previous conversation, sought clarification:  “Do you mean who was the best man at your wedding, Grandma?”

“No, no—” she responded.

One of her daughters knew what she was saying—that she was joining in our talk of politics and presidents.  “Do you mean Barack Obama, Mom?”

“Yes,” she said.  “Yes.”

Yes.