November 18th, 2013

Cecil Countians Invited to Remember Kennedy Visit

kennedy at dedicationIn the photograph, his back to the camera, President John F. Kennedy faces a sea of smiling faces and reaches for dozens of outstretched hands. It’s a big day as officials from Maryland and Delaware, along with the youthful president, straddle the Mason-Dixon Line on Nov. 14, 1963.

The occasion isn’t a campaign stop, but the ribbon-cutting for a road we take for granted today: Interstate 95. Even with traffic we can get to Baltimore or Philadelphia in about an hour. Until that day almost exactly 50 years ago, travelers had to trundle along Route 40 or even Route 1.

According to newspaper accounts, the highway was considered expensive to build, costing 41 cents per inch to construct in Delaware alone.

There would be another cost. Opening I-95 would change the fate of Cecil County’s small towns significantly, of course, because there was no longer a need for the Route 40 eateries and motels once frequented by long-distance travelers on their way to New York or Florida.

While most seemed ready to celebrate the opening, there were a few protesters. They were not disgruntled business owners along Route 40 but African-Americans waving signs that read, “Highways are interstate. Help us make public accommodations inter-racial.”

NJ front pagePresident Kennedy, along with Maryland Gov. J. Millard Tawes and Delaware Gov. Elbert N. Carvel, cut the ribbon, officially opening the major East Coast highway. At midnight sharp, cars and trucks entered the highway, the first of millions upon millions that would use the highway in the decades to follow.

First through the turnpike toll in Delaware was a man nicknamed “Mr. First.” Omero C. Catan of Teaneck, N.J., had been “first” at 516 similar events. His celebrity was enough to warrant a sidebar in the Wilmington News Journal.

While the opening of the new highway was a big event, the crowds had really come out to catch a glimpse of President Kennedy. You can see the excitement in their faces as they swarm around Kennedy. Among those snapping photos was Jim Cheeseman of the Cecil Whig. “Cheese” as he was known locally had a long career as a newspaper photographer. Today, the photographs he donated to the Historical Society of Cecil

County create an incredible record of news events around Cecil County from the 1960s to 1980s.

One of the photographs Cheese took that day would become iconic. It captures the moment that Kennedy cuts the ribbon, flanked by the other governors. It’s one of the more famous photos taken in Cecil County, and often reprinted. I have a framed copy in my office; I just wish I’d gotten Cheese to sign it.

I remember longtime Whig editor Don Herring telling me how Cheese, upon returning to the newsroom, expressed his surprise at the lack of security surrounding Kennedy. Just about anybody could walk right up to the president. In hindsight, those words would turn out to be almost prophetic.

On Nov. 22, while Kennedy’s visit was still the talk of the town locally, came shocking and tragic news from Dallas. A rifleman had shot and killed the president, who was 46 years old.

The news left local people stunned and frightened. Stores and offices shut down. People cried as they gathered around their black and white televisions to hang on Walter Cronkite’s every word. As it turned out, two other famous men died that day of less violent causes—the writers Aldous Huxley (“Brave New World”) and C.S. Lewis (“The Chronicles of Narnia”). Their deaths received a passing mention, if any that day.

And what a whirlwind time it was for news. On Nov. 24, the president’s apparent assassin Lee Harvey Oswald was shot and killed. Closer to home, in December, lightning would strike a jet plane in the skies above Elkton, ending the lives of more than 80 people.

Cecil Countians who lived through those times aren’t likely to forget them. On Monday, Nov. 25, they are invited to visit the Chesapeake City Branch Library at 6:30 p.m. for a program called “Remembering Kennedy: Fifty Years After Camelot.” There will be a brief introduction as we share some images of Kennedy and his visit to Cecil County. But more importantly, we’ll be opening the floor for folks to share their own memories of what it was like to experience those twin days of excitement and sorrow—Kennedy’s visit here and then the assassination—that took place 50 years ago this month.

What do you or your family members remember from that time?

October 10th, 2013

Interview with Author John Florio

Writer John Florio is the author of “Sugar Pop Moon,” a novel set during the Prohibition era that features a mixed-race albino named Jersey Leo. His adventures take him from the speakeasies of Brooklyn to Philadelphia—which should be of interest to those Philly transplants in our area. The author will be reading from his novel and talking about writing in general on Saturday, Oct. 19 from 2-3 p.m. at the Chesapeake City Branch Library. In preparation for his visit, we asked the author a few questions for the library blog.
John Florio headshot 2013
Why did you choose to make your main character, Jersey Leo, an albino?
The Jersey Leo stories are really about all biases, not just albinism. Had Jersey been a different minority or scarred in some other way, the basic conflicts could have been the same. But there’s a strong, unaddressed bias against those with albinism and it seemed to me that this would be an interesting way to address it.

What interested you about the Prohibition era?
I’ve always been interested in 20th-century American culture, and find those years particularly interesting—not just the bootlegging, but the fashion, the music, the celebrities. Plus, I grew up on Humphrey Bogart movies and hard-boiled detective stories, so I felt at home with the material. I often tell people that I wrote “Sugar Pop Moon” in black-and-white—that is, I pictured many scenes in black-and-white as I was writing them.

What are some of your favorite books and movies set during the time period?SPM cover 96dpi
I really enjoyed Dennis Lehane’s “Live by Night”; and I just began Kevin Baker’s “Big Crowd,” which is excellent. Movies include the Bogart canon, along with Cagney, Garfield, and Howard Hawks (director). Off the top of my head, I’ll throw out “The Postman Always Rings Twice,” “Angels with Dirty Faces,” and “Public Enemy.”

There’s a lot of boxing history and lore in “Sugar Pop Moon.” Tell us a little about that.
I’m fascinated by 20th-century American pop culture, and boxing’s heavyweight champions were a large part of it. I just released a non-fiction book, “One Punch from the Promised Land,” about Leon and Michael Spinks, heavyweight champs back in the ’70s and ’80s. You could put that book on the same shelf as “Sugar Pop Moon.”  Not because both include boxing, but because, to me, boxing and noir go hand in hand. In fact, many 20th-century noir writers have been captivated by the world of boxing—not the sport itself, necessarily, but the stories that surround it. The first name that comes to mind is Budd Schulberg, but there are so many others.

Will this be your first trip to Maryland? Have you ever eaten a crab?
I have friends who live in Baltimore, so I’m not a total stranger to the area. When I got married, the gang took my wife and me to a place that served crabs. I think it may have been called Costa’s, although I’m not sure. What I do remember is a hammer, a pile of shells, Old Bay, and a cold beer. Tremendous.

Join us Saturday, October 19 at 2pm at the Chesapeake City Branch to hear more from John Florio about his book and his writing process.  Call 410-996-1134 to sign up or click here.

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