Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Tree of Life Minister Bids Good bye to Congregation

Note—One of the things that I do is provide volunteer public relations services to my church, the Tree of Life Congregation in McHenry, Illinois along with other worthy local non-profits and activist groups.  Although this blog now has a readership far beyond the bucolic confines of Chicago’s far Northwest boonies, I still post many of the releases to my blog which has a small, but loyal local following.  Those folks in Timbuktu, Katmandu, and other far flung locals who monitor this space for its quirky historical features, cheesy poetry, or occasional political harangues may be mystified by the once-in-a-while plugs for our Coffee House, some fund raiser, or a social justice action.  So be it.  I keep doing it because I love my church, its people, and what it stands for and I even have a sense of evangelical mission about it, although Unitarian Universalists generally shun that as unseemly and rude.  And I enjoy it…usually.
But once in a while a press release is hard to write, believe it or not.  Take the one below.  It was emotionally draining because the topic made me sad.  I was and am a fan of the Rev. Sean Parker Dennison, although I recognize he is not perfect.  No minister is.  We have had frank conversations in which I appealed for certain changes.  That’s how healthy relationships work. 
I was heartbroken that this give-and-take in some way broke down in our community.   Don’t ask me how.  I was not privy to the details.  I am sure there was some blame to go around.  But it is what it is.   Now both the Congregation and Rev. Sean need to heal and move forward.
Someday I may opine on certain UUA ministerial policies and guidelines that seem to me to cut off normal human relations and leave ministers isolated with no good personal support they can call upon to sustain them through the dark nights of the soul and routine challenges of herding UU cats.   These policies and guidelines are in place to supposedly encourage even handed objectivity, discourage favoritism and clique building, and as a fire wall against any perception of romantic or sexual impropriety.  I understand that.  But like many well-meaning regulations, they have become strait jackets and are inhumane.  End of brief rant.
For now, Blessing upon us all…

Rev. Sean Parker Dennison.

Tree of Life Minister Bids Good bye to Congregation

The Rev. Sean Parker Dennison has announced his resignation as minister of the Tree of Life Unitarian Universalist Congregation, 5603 Bull Valley Road in McHenry.  His last sermon, Heading Toward Hope and Healing will be delivered this Sunday, October 2 at 10:45 worship.  He will be honored by a reception by the Congregation following the service.
Dennison was called to the congregation in 2012 shortly after it moved from its longtime Woodstock church building.  His ministry has been noted for sensitive, high quality preaching, expanded inclusion of performing arts in worship, compassionate inclusiveness and an urgent sense of justice, for denominational leadership, and for mentoring ministry students.
In a letter to the congregation earlier this month Dennison wrote, “The decision to resign has taken considerable thought and consultation with the Board, the Mid-America Regional staff, and many mentors and colleagues.  These conversations have convinced me that it is best for me and the congregation that I resign.”
In her letter to the Board President Barbara Fleming wrote, “Though this development will inevitably cause changes within our congregation, we are confident that we can weather this storm together.”
Going forward the Worship Arts Committee will plan and present lay led services with the assistance of Religious Education Director Sam Jones and Music Director Forrest Ransburg.  The pulpit will also be open to guest ministers.  Over the next months an interim minister will be selected to guide the congregation through the search process for a new called minister, a process that can take a year or more.
Also leaving the congregation will be the two intern ministers, Michelle Lattanzio and Misha Sanders, students at Meadville-Lombard Theological School in Chicago.  They were beginning their second year with the congregation but must have ministerial supervision.  They will finish their internships at other near-by congregations.
For information about upcoming services and other Tree of Life plans and programs, contact the office at 815 322-2464, e-mail  , or visit .

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Country Music’s First Hit and the Most Famous Train Wreck

The wreck of the Fast Mail not only inspired the song, but this dramatic painting by regionalist master Thomas Hart Benton.

There seems to be something about a train wreck that inspires a song.  Just about everybody knows Casey Jones.  Just two years after the disaster that inspired that tune, the Southern Railroad express known as the Fast Mail came barreling down a steep grade at a high rate of speed and overshot a tight radius turn right before a trestle sending the engine and train to a spectacular fiery crash at the bottom of a steep ravine.
Within 24 hours a witness/rescuer at the scene had penned a ballad set to the melody of a popular fiddle tune, The Ship That Never Returned, the same tune used latter for Charley on the MTA.  Just who that person was later became a matter of great controversy and an epic lawsuit.
The Fast Mail, designated as No. 97, ran on contract with the Post Office for service from Washington, DC to New Orleans via Atlanta.  That made it one of the highest volume mail trains in the South.  To encourage on time performance the contract included penalties for each minute the train arrived behind schedule at several stops along the route, including Spencer, North Carolina.  Railroad officials regularly pressured train crews to make up lost time to avoid the penalties.  As a result engineers often operated trains well above designated speeds.
The need for speed had contributed to a fatal accident in April of 1903 when the engine smashed into a boulder on the tracks near Lexington, North Carolina derailing the train and killing the engineer and Fireman.
On September 27 that same year a brand new Baldwin ten wheel 6-5-0 engine, #1102 which had been delivered just a week earlier was hooked up to No. 97.  For some reason, the train was already running behind schedule when it left Washington.  It rolled into Monroe, Virginia, a division point where train crews were changed, a full hour late.  The new engineer, 33 year old Joseph A. Broady, known to his friends and crew as Steve Broady, was handed orders to make up the time before the next Post Office penalty point at Spencer.  He was told to skip one regular junction stop entirely.  Although not explicitly ordered to go over the average 35 miles per hour limit between Monroe and Spencer, his bosses knew that he would have to exceed that.
Besides Broady the crew included Fireman A.C. Clapp, and apprentice Fireman John Hodge, Conductor John Blair, and Flagman James Robert Moody.  Also on board were Express Messenger W. R. Pinckney and 11 mail clerks.  Safe Locker Wentworth Armistead boarded the train at Lynchburg, Virginia making a total of 18 men on board.
The Mail Clerks, express messenger and Armistead were all in the Post Office car attached directly behind the tender and ahead of the freight cars.
The scheduled running time for the 166 miles from Monroe to Spencer was four hours, fifteen minutes, an average speed of approximately 39 mph.  To make up the one hour delay, Broady would have to run at an average 51 mph over track known for its steep grades and tight curves.  Witnesses thought he was running at least 55 mph on the downgrade headed into the 45-foot high Stillhouse Trestle.  Broady applied his brakes but could not reduce his speed enough to make the sharp curve leading to the bridge.  

The Baldwin engine and ruins of the burnt out train at the bottom of the ravine next to the trestle surrounded by gawkers, including a large knot of women just to the right of the engine.

The engine sailed off the track smashing to the bottom of the gorge next to the trestle.  Fire quickly spread and burned out of control completely consuming all of the wooden cars and almost all of the mail.  A crate of live canaries broke open in the crash and the birds escaped before the fire consumed the car.  Many lingered in the area and became an odd reminder of the crash.
Eleven men died in the crash, including all of the train crew.  The two Firemen were burned beyond recognition and it was impossible to determine which body was whose.  Most of the 7 survivors were injured but survived because they jumped from or were thrown from the wreck.  The distraught express messenger went home and immediately resigned.  Some of the surviving mail clerks did return to service, though none again on the Fast Mail.
Engine #1102 was salvaged, repaired, and put back in service.  It ran for 32 more years before the Southern scraped it in 1935.
The railroad, of course, placed all of the blame on the engineer, and even issued a report exaggerating his speed.  They never acknowledged any culpability for issuing the orders that made speeding inevitable.
The Fast Mail continued to run until 1907 when service was canceled in a re-alignment of mail contracts.
Among the many local residents who flocked to the scene of the accident to assist in rescue efforts was Fred Jackson Lewey who worked at a cotton mill near the base of the trestle and who was the cousin of Fireman Clapp.  He said he sat down and wrote lyrics the day after the wreck.  His friend Charles Noell contributed to the words and suggested the tune.  The Wreck of the Old 97 was widely played in the area and became a standard at barn dances across the South in the next 20 years.
The first recording was made for Victor by the nearly blind primitive fiddle player G.B. Grayson and his partner Henry Whitter who played guitar, harmonica, and sang.  Whitter also altered the lyrics.
Not long after that in 1924 Vernon Dalhart that sold more than seven million copies and his version became the bestselling non-holiday recording of the first 70 years of the industry.  It is the record that is usually cited for the birth of successful commercial country music.
Success like that often brings people out of the woodwork claiming a piece of the pie.  In David G. George, 1927 a former brakeman, railroad telegrapher, and week-end musician claimed that he was on the scene for the rescue efforts and penned the original lyrics himself.  He sued Victor and won a judgment for past royalties from Victor $65,295.  The company appealed three times, losing each time until the case got to the Supreme Court, which overturned the judgment.
Today experts are divided between the conflicting claims but most side with Lewey and Noell.
The song has become a staple of country music, bluegrass, and the folk revival.  It has been covered scores, maybe hundreds of time by artists as diverse as  Jimmie Rodgers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger,  Flatt and Scruggs, Charlie Louvin, The Seekers,  Carolyn Hester, Hank Snow, Box Car Willie, Johnny Cash, Patrick Sky, and Nine Pound Hammer.