Last week was a very emotional time for me. I watched the first three episodes of Ken Burns’s document “Country Music.” John Ralston and Cokie Roberts died. I was captured by long-ago thoughts and events. I was forced to think about who I was then, the person I am today and why I changed.
When I was 6 years old in 1935, Dad bought a radio and a wind charger with money he earned on one of President Roosevelt’s make-work projects. When the wind blew, we could light the living room with a 40 watt bulb or listen to the radio, but not both. We could get two reliable 50,000 watt radio stations: XEG, Nueva Laredo, Mexico, or WSM, Nashville, TN.
The Mexico station was operated by a Dr. Brinkly. It played country music and promised cures for most every incurable disease. My parents seldom listened to it but chose instead to listen to WSM. Every Saturday night our house filled with neighbors and kin folk sitting in the wavering light of a kerosene lamp listening to Grandpa Jones, Minnie Pearl and others on the Grand Ol’ Opry.
By the time I got to high school, clear channel stations in San Antonio and Ft. Worth provided reliable news, market reports and weather forecasts during the daylight ours. But at night WSM was our station. Most of the time during my military years was spent at Army bases in driving distance of Nashville. During my undergraduate college years, I worked at a Texas radio station that split its time between playing Spanish and country music.
In graduate school I didn’t have time for music. My wife, Jenny, kept the air filled with classical music as foreign to me as Shakespeare and other high tone stuff city girls seemed to like. We moved to Logan, Utah, a town in a valley filled with people whose beliefs and lifestyles were more foreign than anything I had ever encountered. In order to understand our neighbors, we went through lessons from missionaries and ward teachers. The lessons didn’t take. Since there was no Methodist church in Logan, we threw in with Presbyterians.
In 1960 we bought a house in a new subdivision just east of the USU campus. The neighbor across the street from us was John Ralston, the new USU football coach. He was a dedicated advocate for football players I monitored as a member of USU’s academic standard’s committee. Coach Ralston knew each team member as a person, not just a football player.
John thought USU could never be a major football school without African American players. The year I came to USU, the university had a half dozen or so black foreign graduate students in water and natural resource programs. There were only two black Americans at USU. Neither was an athlete. Aggie athletic programs were lily white.
In 1960 John recruited several black football prospects. He also brought track star Charles Belcher and basketball players Tyler Willbon and Cornell Green to Logan. Not only were John’s recruits outstanding athletes, they were young men who would bring honor to USU. Charles was a track star; he also was elected a USU student officer. After graduation he became a beloved minister who served in riot-torn Los Angeles in the 1990s.
Cornell was an All American basketball player at USU. He was recruited as a professional basketball player, but he chose to play football instead. He was a star defensive back for the Dallas Cowboys for 13 years.
John Ralston was the winningest coach in USU football history. In four years here he compiled a 31-11-1 record and won two Skyline championships. But his greatest accomplishment was being one of the pioneers in making USU an American university — not a Utah college.
I never really knew Cokie Roberts. She interviewed me long ago after I made a speech in Washington. I received emails from her occasionally, but they were not just for me. I knew her through words she used to pass her thoughts to anyone who wanted to read, or listen, to them. Her hundreds of commentaries on National Public Radio made me think, and look again, at many issues.
Neither she nor John were my close friends. I have seen neither in decades. But to have both die in a single week is a shocking reminder that there are not many people still around who have lived through the Great Depression, the War, the Bomb, landing on the moon, and things called telephones that can access most everything written on Earth.
The first three episodes of Ken Burn’s “Country Music” program brought back memories of how radios administered a narcotic called music to people suffering during the Great Depression. We had that radio because Daddy had a job. He had a job because Franklin Roosevelt used his power as president to invest the people’s money in projects that improved people’s lives.
There are not many Americans still living that remember the results of Roosevelt’s actions. Or Americans winning WWII and then spending our money to rebuild the Europe we conquered. Those of us who lived through our government helping ourselves survive depression and freeing others from dictators are well past the average age of death. But the model is there if we use it.