Monday, November 16, 2015

The Rest of Tom Osborne's "Currens Story"

Legendary former Nebraska football coach Tom Osborne has long promoted the importance of mentoring. In 1991 he and his wife Nancy launched the TeamMates Mentoring Program, aiming to inspire youth to reach their potential by matching them up with an adult mentor.

Part of Osborne's motivation is personal. As he has often explained, his grandfather, Thomas C. Osborne, grew up on a farm in western Nebraska in the late 1880s/1890s. Thomas's home life was somewhat dysfunctional because his father was an alcoholic. But a traveling preacher named Currens took an interest in Thomas. Currens encouraged him to go to college -- something that was exceedingly rare in the nineteenth century -- and to become a preacher. Thomas did just that, enrolling at Hastings College, captaining the football team, and eventually earning his Presbyterian ordination. "I'm quite certain that if it wasn't for this guy named Currens who was a mentor to my grandfather," Tom Osborne explains, "that my father wouldn't have had the life he had, [and] I would not have had the life I've had."

But who was this "Currens" character in the first place? I have not seen Osborne or anyone else provide many details beyond his last name and occupation. So I decided to see if I could piece together some details about the man who, by Osborne's account at least, unknowingly altered the history of Nebraska football more than a century ago.

From History of Western Nebraska
and its People
I suppose we can start with his name: James B. Currens. Currens was born in Kentucky around 1842. A nineteen-year-old living in a border state when the Civil War broke out, it is unclear if Currens fought for the North or South (or at all) during that conflict. But we do know that he married a woman from Kentucky named Susan, and that he settled in Mattoon, Illinois, sometime after the war. We also know that in 1877 he moved to Chicago to enroll in the Presbyterian Theological Seminary of the Northwest (renamed McCormick Theological Seminary in the 1880s). After receiving his D.D. from the school in 1879, Currens headed west for the plains, leaving Susan behind with friends in Illinois while he tried to establish himself in the new town of Parker (population: 113), in southeast Dakota Territory.

Currens spent his first summer in Parker building an eighteen-by-twenty-foot house, made of boards and paper. He also tried to establish connections with "widely-scattered Christians" in the area, but the work was hard and discouraging. "Covetousness, Sabbath-breaking, and intemperance are here before us, and meet us on every hand, undisguised, bold, and defiant," he wrote. The settlers were so busy building their homes and tending to their farms that Currens found it nearly impossible to "induce them to stop and think of religion." But Currens soldiered on, laboring in sparsely populated McCook and Turner counties for the next six years. One settler from the time recalled that Currens pastored seven churches and routinely preached in three different towns every Sunday. By 1883 Currens was reuinited with Susan, and the two earned reputations as local champions of the temperance cause.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Flannery O'Connor's Favorite Protestant Theologian

I did a double take when I saw this passage:

"She never missed Dr. Frank Crane, an advice columnist....Appearing on the same page as the comics in the Atlanta Constitution, he was a prophet of positive thinking, regularly reporting success stories of people who smile and compliment others. O'connor jokingly called him her 'favorite Protestant theologian.'"

The passage comes from Jonathan Rogers's 2012 book, The Terrible Speed of Mercy: A Spiritual Biography of Flannery O'Connor (Thomas Nelson). It probably didn't startle others the same way it startled me. But as a wannabe historian, this passage had the potential to make my research relevant. Here was Flannery O'Connor, a darling of the thoughtful Christian crowd, apparently an avid reader of Frank Crane, the subject of my new Nebraska History article. 

Almost everything seemed to fit. Frank Crane was indeed an apostle of positive thinking and also a syndicated newspaper columnist. Norman Thomas, writing in The Nation in 1924, aptly described Crane's style as something "a Pollyanna might have written after a short course in William James's pragmatism and a shorter and somewhat critical course in Tolstoi's non-violent ethics."

Frank Crane in American Magazine (1922)
There was just one problem: Crane died in 1928. And O'connor was reading "Dr. Frank Crane" in the 1950s. It was at least possible that Frank Crane's columns were being reprinted decades after his death, but it seemed unlikely. So I decided to investigate. I went to the sources cited by Rogers, all of which came from The Habit of Being, an edited collection of O'connor's letters. As the letters showed, O'connor definitely peppered her letters with references to Crane. "Ashley was telling me that you are an admirer of Dr. Frank Crane, my favorite Protestant theologian (salvation by the compliment club)," she wrote to Robie Macauley in 1955. "He is really a combination minister and masseur, don't you think? I like to hear him tell Alma A. that she can keep her husband by losing 75 pounds and just the other day he told a girl who was terrified of toads how not to let this ruin her life -- know the truth & the truth shall make you free."

In another letter to Macauley, she cracked more jokes about Crane: "I'll write Dr. Crane and ask him what is the significance of the short story. He tackles any subject." Elsewhere, she described Crane as an "odd mixture of fundamentalism (against the grape), psychology, business administration and Dale Carnegie. The originator of the Compliment Club."

Monday, August 3, 2015

Summer Book List: The Rise of the National Basketball Association

If you're looking for a book on the history of the NBA that features tables with titles like "Fixed-Effects Regression Equation for NBA Gate Receipts, 1950– 51," then this is your book and David George Surdam (a professor of economics at the University of Northern Iowa) is your author.

To be fair, Surdam's tables, all thirty-three of them, are placed in Appendix B. The main text of the book follows the typical chronological pattern of most descriptive histories. Within that text, though, Surdam offers a unique angle to the NBA's early history that (like the charts on fixed-effects regression equations) could only come from an economics professor. Forget Bill Russell, the owners are the heroes in The Rise of the National Basketball Association. Men like Walter Brown, Fred Zollner, Les Harrison, Eddie Gottlieb, Ned Irish, Ben Kerner, and Maurice Podoloff, should "justly feel proud of their efforts," Surdam writes, because they held the NBA together with "determination" and "a willingness to absorb losses."

To get at the owners' perspective and to explain the choices they made -- from integration, to television contracts, to gate receipt sharing, to league rules, to expansion and franchise relocation -- Surdam relies on a mix of secondary literature, New York Times and other national print media, archival research at the Naismith Hall of Fame, and a 1957 Congressional antitrust hearing on "Organized Professional Team Sports." Numerous NBA owners testified at that hearing, providing documentation on league finances and operating procedures that help Surdam analyze the economic underbelly of the league in a new way.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Frank Crane, From the Pulpit to the Press

A couple years ago on a Tuesday afternoon I drove to First United Methodist Church in Omaha, Nebraska. There I met Diane and Donna, the church's two archivists. They work on a volunteer basis, coming in once a week to organize and preserve pieces of the church's past.

When I arrived Diane and Donna led me down concrete stairs to the church basement, into a small storage room that served as the church's archive. They knew that I was interested in 1890s Omaha, and they mentioned that they had the perfect source for me: a weekly church newsletter that was distributed for most of the 1890s. After scanning the archive shelves, Donna pulled down two dusty old volumes titled "The Guidon."

I did not expect to find much excitement in a weekly church newsletter. Event announcements, membership lists, sermon summaries: in and of themselves these items did not pique my interest. But I knew that studying the routine activities of Omaha's leading 1890s Protestant church would be valuable. I was also interested in finding themes related to the social gospel. As I flipped through the two bound volumes and took pictures of the pages, I looked for signal words like "Washington Gladden" and "fatherhood of God."

To my surprise The Guidon's contents frequently exhibited a flair for the creative (or at least the unexpected). Instead of mindlessly snapping pictures for future use, I found myself pausing and reading, constantly drawn into the personality exhibited in the text. To take but one example: in order to convince church members to accept a new system of church finances, the editor wrote a parody of the wildly popular 1894 free-silver tract Coin's Financial School. In the original, a man named Professor Coin taught bankers and businessmen the benefits of bimetallism. In the parody, a man named Gould Coin taught First Methodist board members the benefits of a monthly subscription-based church giving system.

Intrigued, I resolved to find out more about Frank Crane, the editor of The Guidon and the pastor of First Methodist from 1892 until 1896. I began my search, as most do these days, with google. And very quickly, thanks to the plethora of digitized newspaper and magazines from the pre-1922 years, I discovered that the Frank Crane who edited The Guidon in such an interesting way was the same "Dr. Frank Crane" who became perhaps the most widely read syndicated newspaper columnist in the early twentieth century and an icon of middlebrow American consumer culture.

From LIFE magazine in 1920.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Comparing the Religious Affiliation of Omaha's Elites with Omaha's Population, 1910

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were a golden age for amateur (often self-published) histories of American cities. Usually written by longtime middle- and upper-class residents, the histories are especially useful in showing the disconnect between the image of the city that "elite" citizens wanted to project and the reality of the city as experienced by the masses.

Often, these amateur histories would include a biographical directory of prominent citizens. Arthur Wakeley's Omaha: The Gate City (1917) was one such book. I decided to use it to compare the religious affiliation of the citizens that Wakeley included with the religious affiliation of Omaha as a whole. This methodology is admittedly crude, and Wakeley is certainly not the definitive arbiter of who is and is not an "elite." This is definitely skewed towards men, as well, since women were usually mentioned only as wives (or widows) of important men. 

But, the comparison below does provide at least a suggestive glimpse into the differences in religious affiliation between those who moved about in Omaha's high society (as defined by Wakeley) and those who did not, and it shows the outsized influence that Protestants had in Omaha compared to their actual membership numbers. As you'll see below, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Methodists claim a much higher percentage of Omaha's elite than they do the masses. Catholics, on the other hand, have a much lower percentage, as do the unaffiliated/unidentified. 

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Summer Book List: Henry George (and George Norris) and the Crisis of Inequality

Note: this is the second book in my "Summer Book List" series. In the first installment I discussed Murry Nelson's The National Basketball League: A History.

May 2, 1930 was an active day in the U.S. Senate. With unemployment already well past three million people, the economic downturn that would become known as the Great Depression occupied the minds of many senators.

On that particular day, though, the main issue at hand was the confirmation of President Hoover's nomination for the Supreme Court, John J. Parker. A longtime resident of North Carolina, Parker's nomination was part of Hoover's plan to attract southern Democrats into the Republican fold. But the nomination of Parker, a lily-white Republican with a history of racist statements and actions, sparked opposition from the NAACP. Labor leaders were not happy with Parker, either, criticizing his use of injunctions against strikes and his support for yellow dog contracts.

What authority could be invoked in these debates and discussions over a growing economic crisis and a controversial Supreme Court justice? For Senators Gerald Nye and George Norris, that authority came in the voice of a nineteenth-century reformer named Henry George. Early in the day's proceedings, Nye inserted into the Congressional Record George's late-nineteenth-century words on inequality, condensed into more palpable form by George's son-in-law Will Atkinson:

Later in the day, during a two-hour speech explaining why he opposed Parker's nomination, Senator Norris turned to George as well, quoting "one of the most beautiful things I have ever read on the preciousness of human liberty." The lengthy quotation from George's Progress and Poverty spanned three paragraphs, ending with George's plea: "In our time, as in times before, creep on the insidious forces that, producing inequality, destroy liberty....Unless its foundations be laid in justice, the social structure cannot stand." For Norris, Judge Parker's history of judicial activism against labor meant that he would only exacerbate the problem of economic equality made conspicuous in the wake of the 1929 Crash. Ultimately, Norris's view (alongside the NAACP and others), won the day. Parker's nomination failed by one vote.

It should be no surprise that Henry George -- one of the earliest and most prominent voices pointing out the danger of inequality in Gilded Age America -- was invoked in 1930, a moment when the problem of economic inequality seemed obvious. So, too, it is only fitting that in 2015, a time when the problem of economic inequality once again holds the nation's attention, we should have a new biography of Henry George.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Summer Book List: Learning about the National Basketball League

Recently I had time for a little pleasure reading, so I picked up Murry Nelson's history of the National Basketball League. For those not familiar, the NBL was one of two leagues (the Basketball Association of America was the other) to merge in 1949 and form the National Basketball Association.

The impetus for the book came back in 1996 when the NBA celebrated its 50th Year Anniversary. Nelson, a leading historian of basketball, cried foul, noting that 1996 was 50 years after the BAA's founding, not the NBA's. As for the NBL -- the other half of the merger that created the NBA -- it had been around since 1937. Choosing 1946 as the beginning of the NBA blatantly ignored both the importance of the NBL and the historical record.

Not surprisingly, Nelson's pleas went unheard. The NBA went ahead with its celebration in 1996 and continues to mark 1946 as the starting point in league history. In light of this, an angry and inspired Nelson set out to recover the NBL's history. In The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949 (McFarland, 2009) he's done just that, providing the definitive account of the league that from 1937 until 1948 was "the undisputed premiere professional basketball league in the United States."

Nelson certainly has a point when arguing for the superiority of the NBL. He estimates in the book that 90 percent of the best professional basketball players in 1947 played in the NBL. It's impossible to know with certainty whether or not that estimate is correct, but we do know that the first six NBA champions were NBL teams, and that in the NBA's first season six of the ten All-NBA players were from the NBL while only one came from the BAA (three rookies also earned All-NBA honors). Of course, in the 1940s some of the nation's top basketball players, including Hank Luisetti, Bob Kurland, and Jesse Renick, found homes and stable employment on company-sponsored AAU teams. And, an even greater asterisk, professional basketball leagues mostly barred blacks from playing (more on that in a second), leaving the top African American players to join famed traveling teams like the Harlem Globetrotters and the New York Rens.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Writing about Nebraska

One of my favorite stops on the internet is Religion & Politics. They're not a rapid-fire content accumulator or aggregator. Instead they post just one article a week. But that one article is almost always something worth reading.  

To someone like me, someone who is intensely interested in notions of place and identity and how those relate to religion, perhaps the coolest thing R&P has going on is their "States Project." Here's how they describe it: 
We gathered writers from around the country to tell us about where they discovered religion and politics in their states. Both part of a union and cultures unto their own, these states reveal stories of people, places and histories of the American experience. 
As of last week, they had covered 23 states. This week, they added their 24th state: Nebraska. And I was fortunate to be the writer they allowed to take on the Cornhusker state. If you haven't yet, you can check out my piece, "Nebraska: A Cornhusker Prays with FCA." I wrote about one way that sports, religion, and the power of place are linked together in Nebraska.

After you read that piece, feel free to catch up on my other Nebraska-related writing from the past couple of years. Among other things, I've written about the fantastic Omaha-based 1960s documentary film, A Time for Burningthe NBA's brief 1970s foray into Nebraska, the religious beliefs of legendary Nebraska Senator George Norris, and brand-new Nebraska Senator Ben Sasse's relationship to the Christian Right. I've also published an article in Nebraska History on Charles W. Savidge, a pioneering turn-of-the-twentieth-century holiness movement pastor in Omaha. And finally, one last plug: in August, I'll be publishing a second piece with Nebraska History. More details to come on that in the near future.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Year in Review: My Favorite Music in 2014

It's time for my annual year-end list of favorite albums. I'm no music critic, so my criteria for which albums make the cut follows the Lemon test: I know what I like when I hear it. Normally I'd write a little blurb for each of these twelve albums, explaining why it's a favorite. Unfortunately, I'll have to set aside that little extra flourish this year due to time constraints.

With that said, onto the list!

Favorite Song: Patriarch
Favorite Song: The Dark (Trinity)