A Fundamentally Good Man

Some disparaging remarks that Meryl Streep made about Walt Disney in 2014, spouting the typical load of nonsense that is brought up periodically without any context to back it up, have been making the rounds on the Internet again. If there is one person whose life I’ve researched and studied, it’s Walt Disney. I’ve spent the last two years listening to audio books and history-based podcasts during my commute and watching documentaries about him in my spare time. I know all the rumors, and I know they are unsupported by Walt’s actual actions.

 

Walt Disney was a product of the early 20th century, and his life is best viewed in that context. But even when you do that, you see that Walt himself was really rather progressive in many ways.

 

The “gender bigotry” claim often rests on a letter that Walt penned in 1938, in which he says “women do not do creative work [at the Studios].”  I will counter that letter with this quote by him: “If a woman can do the work as well, she is worth as much as a man. The girl artists have the right to expect the same chances for advancement as men, and I honestly believe they may eventually contribute something to this business that men never would or could.”

 

History shows that Walt hired many women who did much more than the “ink and paint” department alluded to in the memo on which people hang the sexist tag. Here’s a brief list of some of the women he hired who played key roles in some of the most beloved animated films ever made and in creating Disneyland.

  • Bianca Majolie — story department (quite a prestigious area to work, by the way);
  • Sylvia Moberly-Holland — story department;
  • Retta Scott — animator (Bambi, Fantasia, Dumbo, etc.);
  • Mary Blair — animator and one of the most influential artists in Disney history (Three Caballeros, Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and the entire “It’s a Small World” attraction);
  • Retta Davidson — animator (Fox and the Hound, The Great Mouse Detective);
  • Harriet Burns — Imagineer (she helped create Disneyland and many of the rides you love).

There are many more, but you get the point.

 

 

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Mary Blair and Walt Disney with a model of “It’s a Small World,” an attraction she conceptualized and designed.

 

 

As far as anti-Semitism, people love to bring that up, citing his association with the Motion Picture Alliance, which had the goal of keep Communism and Fascism out of Hollywood. Indeed, there were some in the ranks of the MPA who were anti-Semitic, just as there will always be haters in any cause.

 

Again, it’s better to judge Walt by his actions. Hollywood historian Neal Gabler wrote, “Of the Jews who worked [with Disney], it was hard to find any who thought Walt was an anti-Semite,” writes Gabler. “Joe Grant, who had been an artist, the head of the model department, and the storyman responsible for Dumbo… declared emphatically that Walt was not an anti-Semite. ‘Some of the most influential people at the studio were Jewish,’ Grant noted. He was probably remembering production manager Harry Tytle; animator and Imagineer Marc Davis; composers Richard and Robert Sherman; and head of merchandising Kay Kamen, who once quipped that Disney’s New York office had more Jews than the Book of Leviticus. Maurice Rapf agreed that Walt was not anti-Semitic; he was just a “very conservative guy.”

 

 

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Walt with Marc Davis, who was Jewish, not that it mattered to Walt one way or another.

 

 

As Floyd Norman, Disney’s first black animator, noted in his blog in 2014 after Streep made her remarks: “There was Joe Grant, Dave Detiege, Lou Appet and Ed Solomon. There was Mel Levin, Robert and Richard Sherman, and the list goes on and on. Can you guess where I’m going with this? Why were so many talented Jewish writers, song writers and artists employed at the Disney Studio? Did Walt simply not know? Yeah, he probably had no idea. I can also guess he had no idea why the young black man was in his story meetings. And, how did the famous ‘Hollywood racist’ failed to notice Victor Haboush, Tyrus Wong, Dick Ung, Iwao Takamoto, Willie Ito, Ray Aragon and Ron Dias?”

 

Walt Disney carefully built a brand that, during his lifetime, became associated with him, well the image that people had of him. This is likely due to the fact that, as a TV pioneer, he found himself in front of the camera (not a role he particularly liked), introducing his weekly TV show, sharing his vision for amusement parks, and hosting live specials. However, Walt Disney would have been the first to tell someone that he was no saint, citing that he drank, smoked, and swore. He knew the TV image was just that, an image, but it was an image upon which his brand was built.

 

He was human, like the rest of us. But he also was a fundamentally good man. Yes, he was, at times, culturally insensitive in some his creative work (especially in the 1930s), but such insensitivity does not immediately translate to racism. If you’ve ever told a joke based on any stereotype (gender, race, creed, etc.) or laughed at a joke based on the same, does that make you a sexist, racist or anti-Semite? Perhaps by today’s definition, some would say yes. But I prefer to look at what was said by those he knew him, those who worked for him, and those who have told his story, and those folks say that the aspersions cast by Meryl Streep and others misguided individuals simply have no merit.

 

Every biography and documentary seems to get to a similar point, one that I will end with. Walt cared more about whether you could do your job well than your gender, race or creed. To quote Floyd Norman, “Walt made me an animator, which (is a job) I wouldn’t have been able to get at any other studio. Then he promoted me to a story man… which in terms of status at the Walt Disney Studios was very prestigious. Walt treated me just the way he treated everybody else, that none of us knew anything and that he was going to make us do the best we could possibly do, more than we thought we could ever do.”

 

His standard was excellence. If you could meet that standard, regardless of your gender, race, or religion, you’d likely have a place on his team for a long time. That’s about as close to color-blind, gender-blind, creed-blind as you can get.

A Gen Xer on #HarryPotter20

I feel like I should say something on #HarryPotter20 about the Harry Potter series because, as so many of you know, I love these books so much (and the films, too, despite their omissions and flaws).
I was a bit late to the Harry Potter party, not reading the first book until 2001, right before the first movie came out. All the magazines and news stories promoting the movie made me curious. I remember reading the first book aloud to my husband as we vacationed in North Carolina. We were immediately captivated by the story and the characters, but mostly by the imagination of it all. Rowling transported me to an environment that I loved–a school in Britain–wove in the metaphor of magic to make it different and interesting, and tied it all together with a compelling story and a thorough, immersive vision of a world that beckoned me into it. And inside I stepped, and I’ve never left.
Admittedly, my fascination only has grown in the intervening years. Though they are categorized as young adult books, the themes speak just as strongly, perhaps more so, to our grown-up selves. Friendship, courage, bravery, love, relationships, integrity, choices, fear, loneliness, pain, loss, good, evil, death, dreams, loyalty, family … whose life is NOT about those things? Sure, it all takes place in a magical world, as do “The Chronicles of Narnia” and “The Lord of the Rings” series, but it’s not about the magic and never was.
In 2008, I was in a car accident and ended up with, among other things, a scar across my forehead. I jokingly told friends that Voldemort attacked me in my muggle car, but that, like Harry, I lived to fight another day. Even though I wear bangs to hide it, having a scar like that in a Harry Potter world is certainly better than the alternative. And sometimes it’s come in handy, like fort the two times we’ve hosted “Halloween at Hogwarts” parties.
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The author at her “Halloween at Hogwarts” party in 2011.
The creation of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter by Universal Studios (which, along with Disney, I refer to as my “happy places”) allowed me to do what I always wanted to do after reading the books: inhabit the world of Harry Potter (albeit the movie version of the world). And maybe that’s why Chris and I return so often. It’s just great fun, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
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The author at Universal’s Wizarding World in 2014.
I know I have people in my life who think my fascination with all things Harry is strange and who don’t understand why a grown woman approaching 50 would act like a child of 10 over “some silly kids’ books.” Maybe that feeling of wonder and awe that Rowling’s words and worlds evoke is exactly why so many adults have latched on to this story, right alongside the generation that grew up with the books. How those books make us feel is the real magic of Harry Potter.
I raise my wand today (or wands, I have several) to J.K. Rowling, who literally changed the world through her words, something all good writers want to do but very few accomplish. Her vision is unparalleled, and I, for one, am grateful that she dreamed up the story of the boy who lived. For he does indeed live in our hearts, in our collective imagination, and in our dreams. I believe he always will.

Where does that song take you?

I’m driving to work, listening to music, and suddenly, I experience myself as the child I was, in the backseat of my parent’s car.  I see my mom and dad in the front seat, I hear their music on the radio, and I find myself wondering about them as a couple in love, instead of as parents. The song playing was sung by a singer who had provided the soundtrack to their adult lives; while torturous to my young self, it was meaningful to them. Did hearing it lead to a knowing glance or a slight smile that only they understood? What passed between them as they alternately tuned out and listened to their talkative children? Did they think back to when there were only two in their car, during their courtship and 10 childless years? Where did that song take them?

One singer, one song did this to me as I drove to work a couple weeks ago. It made me wonder for a few moments, about the private world my parents shared during “family time.”  How did I get to this point of realization?  It’s a long story.

 

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I grew up in a simpler time. For much of my middle-class childhood, all the TV you could watch was brought to you on three network channels, and then a couple others that aired only TV reruns, old black and white movies, and regional sports events. Our musical options were fewer as well. At home, your parents likely had a stereo cabinet often the size of a small credenza, that had, at the very least, a turntable but usually also had a deck to play 8-tracks, which were all the rage in the 60s and 70s and the absolute worst music format ever created. If you didn’t have a stereo doubling as furniture, you surely had a more simple record player that may also have had a radio.

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This may have been the exact model of stereo cabinet we had in our living room.

Small tangent here: every December, to make room for the Christmas tree, my father and my brother (or my mother or me once I was a little older) would have to drag the 2 foot deep by 4 foot long by 3 feet high stereo cabinet from the living down our narrow hallway and then find room for it in the corner of my parents’ already crowded bedroom.  There it would stay for the holidays and often a couple months into the new year because no one wanted to strongarm it back to its place in the living room. Finally, one year, probably in the 80s, we never moved it back so it remained in the bedroom. After my father died in 1997, my mother moved out of my childhood home and insisted on moving the stereo to her new house. However, there was no room for it in the living room of her new place, so it was laboriously moved upstairs into the unfinished room above the garage, where it stayed, rejected and forlorn until she decided to finish that room about 8 or 9 years ago. And at that point, my brother (he had to have had help, I’m sure) removed and disposed of it.

Cars of the era had an AM/FM radio and if they were newer and nicer, an 8-track tape player. There was no such thing as portable music, not until Sony developed the battery-operated Walkman in the 70s. If you were a child of the 70s, you spent your childhood sliding seatbelt free in the back seat of your parents’ car, listening to whatever music they enjoyed. There was no musical cocoon in which you could wrap yourself.

This brings me to the point of this post. My parents were older than most my friends’ parents. Married in 1950, they didn’t have children until 1960, when they were 30 and 31 respectively, not because they wanted to wait, bur rather because it simply didn’t happen. My two brothers were born 18 months apart in May 1960 and October 1961. I came along 7 years later in November 1968. Being in elementary school with parents over 45 was not the norm back then.

My parents’ musical tastes would today be called vocal standards or the “Great American Songbook.” My mother’s favorite was Perry Como, followed by a long line of vocalists like Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, Nat King Cole, John Gary, and Ed Ames. My dad loved Doris Day and enjoyed Big Band and Sinatra more than my mother, but he listened to all those my mom listened to as well. The 70 was also the era of bandleaders with lush orchestral arrangements sometimes joined by a group of singers (think Ray Conniff and Percy Faith). Lucky for my parents, there was a radio station tailored exactly to their needs. WGAY (drawing on the original definition of gay as “carefree and happy”) was the DC’s “beautiful music” station. It played a mix of easy listening, vocal standards, and instrumentals. It was my parents’ radio station of choice at home and in the car. My brothers dubbed it “old fogey” music, and at times, I followed suit. Regardless of its merit as music, we were simply too young to recognize it as anything other than uncool.

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For decades, WGAY, DC’s first 50,000 watt stereo station,  was headquartered at the World Building in Silver Spring, MD.

At least in my case, if not my brother’s, there must have been some musical “imprinting” going on, because when I became an adult, I wanted to listen to some of those great vocalists of the mid-20th century. Like my father, I liked Frank Sinatra more than some of the mellower singers, but I came to appreciate crooners of all kinds. These were singers whose diction and phrasing were so impeccable you didn’t need to go online to decipher the words. These were singers who often covered the same songs but whose arrangers made the songs fit their styles so it never sounded redundant. These were singers whose careers spanned four and five decades because they were that good. And some of these singers, like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett (one of the last great crooners still with us), are once again cool as younger generations discover them.

So it likely was a combination of nostalgia and genuine interest that led me to copy all of my mother’s CDs when I visited last Christmas. I copied blindly without any censoring, figuring I could easily delete singers and songs later if I couldn’t stand them. In January, I began methodically building a collection of music on a 32GB USB to listen to in my car. The first folder of music on the device is “Anita’s favorites,” comprised of my top 12 or 15 singers. The second is “Vocalists and the American Songbook,” and that is where much of my mother’s music ended up. In addition to my collection of Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Nat King Cole, I added her collection, which featured  Andy Williams, Robert Goulet, John Gary, and her beloved Perry Como, among others.

And it was Perry Como singing “It’s Impossible,” his 1970 hit that I heard hundreds of times during my childhood on records at home and when WGAY played it, that transported me to the backseat of my parent’s car. “And tomorrow, should you ask me for the world, somehow I’d get it. I would sell my very soul and not regret it. For to live without your love–it’s just impossible.” Hearing this song as a woman who is the same age my parents were when I was 10, this song about the impossibility of falling out of love with your soulmate, made me see Buck and Gloria Fusco not as middle-aged parents but as middle-aged lovers.

As a child, I thought that we kids in the back seat were all that mattered, that we had a right to complain about the music we were forced to listen to. As an adult, listening that that same music, I see clearly that the front seat is what mattered because if those two lovers in the front had never fallen in love there were be no annoyed child in the back seat.

One song made me remember that these two parents–who loved three children into existence, who made sure those children always felt loved, who buried their first-born son when he was 15 1/2 and who helped the other two cope with that unspeakable loss–these two parents had a life before, outside of, and beyond their lives as parents. And my brother and I are most certainly better for that.

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November 1975: Mom and Dad celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. I’m 7 in this photo, proudly wearing my Winnie the Pooh smock dress from Sears. My brothers, Michael, age 15 (left), and Kenneth, age 14 (right), are behind me. This was the last photo of all five of us because Michael would die a few months later.

For those who are interested in hearing the song behind this post, you can listen here:  It’s Impossible by Perry Como.

“Home” at Work

For all of my career, whenever I’ve started a new job, I have not waited long to set up my workspace. Usually, I’ve done this within my first month. I started a new job in September, and this time I waited, just over four months to be exact. And that was probably about three months too long, but, of course, I didn’t realize that until after I decorated my office.

I didn’t realize until after my office was decorated and organized how much the barrenness in which I had worked for four months had bothered me. It wasn’t until my walls had something to break up the white monotony and the shelves were full of pictures of the people who make up my world that I could settle in and feel comfortable in the space, and to some extent, in my new role. I walk in now, and I’m greeted with the smiling faces of those I love, reminders of travel that changed my life, and awards that recognized my past successes. I walk in now and I am finally “home” at work.

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Note: The rest of this post discusses my office and why it’s decorated the way it is, which may or may not interest you. You’ve been warned. 

For the better part of 20 years, I had the same posters on my office walls, the same decorations, and the same books on the shelves. There was a comfortable familiarity about the items, but I knew that it was time for a change. Initially, I wasn’t sure how I wanted to decorate the L-shaped, windowless office that I inhabit in the Katz Building at Penn State, where I work in alumni relations for Penn State Law and School of International Affairs.

Gradually, as I stared at the blank walls and empty shelves in my new space, I began to have a vision for this office. I decided that it would be personal in a way the others had not. For the first time, I would use my photographs–ones taken on my travels–to decorate my office. Choosing was difficult. While I am a professional photographer of people, I also am an avid travel photographer for my own enjoyment, and I generally take thousands of photos each vacation. I spent several weeks going through pictures from various domestic and international trips and initially came up with a random set of images that were favorites. I envisioned having a grouping of about 8 to 10 of these images on the wall above my desk. When I reviewed the folder of images I’d selected, I realized that having a group of images from many geographically disparate and visually different places was going to lack cohesion and visual unity. So I changed my criteria.

I decided the wall the big enough for 8 images (this is a matter of opinion, for my minimalist boss has declared it “cluttered”) in two sets of four. One set, in black and white, were taken at Mont Saint-Michel, one of the most stunning places I have ever visited and one that took root in my soul. I long to return. The other set of four are scenes of town life in Europe, two from Assisi, Italy and two from Bayeux, France, that, I think, capture well the serenity I felt in those places.

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The wall above my desk, with pictures that feed my soul

 

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A set of images from Mont Saint-Michel, a study in  perfect form and function.
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Top left and bottom right: Bayeux, France; bottom left and top right: Assisi, Italy.

The other choices were easier. The wall next to the door would feature a set of bird photographs that I had taken.

 

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Clockwise from top left: A blue heron skims the water on Lake Glendale near our home; a pair of Canadian geese fly in tandem at Arrowhead State Park near Neola, Iowa; two Canadian geese “lift off” on Lake Glendale; and an egret takes flight in Orlando, Florida.

 

Then “around the corner” on a wall that really is only seen by me is a poster and four lyrics prints from my favorite band, Elbow, a British alternative rock band. Their lyrics are poetry, so I guess this is really my poetry corner.

 

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My Elbow corner, or my poetry corner. Or both.

 

 

 

Finally, I have filled my built-in shelves with pictures of my nearest and dearest. And some books on grammar/editing and alumni relations made the cut, as did a few awards. But for me, this space is really all about the people. I love having them in my office with me.

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Perspective

For a few days, I’ve been trying to figure out something appropriate for my first blog post. Ideas would run through my mind, I’d consider them, and then I would dismiss them as not good enough for an inaugural entry. Today, circumstances provided me with something that not only sets the tone for what I want to do here but also gave me much needed personal perspective.

I am generally very optimistic, and I take things in stride. I try to see the “big picture” and not get bogged down in the small stuff. This week, that has been a struggle, as I returned to work after a two-week holiday break during which I allowed my night owl tendencies to rule supreme. Of course, I’m paying for it now as I force myself to go to bed earlier than I’d like so that I can wake up much earlier than I’d like. In the evenings, I’ve been packing our Christmas decorations, allotting about an hour each night after work so that I don’t have to spend the coming weekend doing it. Good idea except that it cuts into my few waking hours at home, and even though I stop around 8 or so to relax in the basement, I get wrapped up with photo editing and web stuff and I find myself saying, “Just a few more minutes,” which pushes my bedtime back, and thus the vicious cycle.  And this week, I have been cursed with infernally slow drivers on my return commute, meaning that I’ve gotten home frustrated (but in reality probably not much later than normal; it just felt that way).

This morning was indicative of the week I’ve been having. I snoozed longer than I should have, had a hard time getting my hair to cooperate, realized too late I should have prepped the slow cooker dinner last night and that I had no time to do it this morning (thankfully, my husband volunteered to take care of it), couldn’t find my hat and spent too many minutes looking for it, and barely had time to scarf down a quick breakfast. On the frustration scale, I would have categorized this morning a 10. When I got into my car, I was feeling pretty frayed.

My morning commute is broken into two parts. The first 20 miles are on rural state roads that take me past small towns made up of mostly houses, a bar or VFW, and the occasional funeral home, and through wooded game lands and past a reservoir. As I approach the interstate, I drive through a larger town, by no stretch a city but bigger than the others, and right before I-99, I pass a Sheetz gas station (a staple of Pennsylvania communities, especially those in the Western half of the state since the company is headquartered in Altoona, PA).

As I approached the Sheetz, I saw six state police vehicles entering the parking lot and then fanning out to fuel up. As this was by no means a normal sight, I knew something was going on, and I remembered that a young state trooper had been killed last week in the line of duty. While stopped at the light, I checked my phone and discovered that today the funeral would be held in nearby Altoona, probably about 1o miles from Bellwood, where I was. Clearly, those troopers were heading to the Blair County Convention Center for the funeral. They were going to say farewell to one of their own, even though they may never have met him.

My thoughts turned to Trooper Landon Weaver, who had been on the job little more than a year when he had been shot in the head during what had been, up to that moment, a peaceful encounter with a local man who had violated the terms of a protection-from-abuse order. He was 23 and newly married to his high school sweetheart. He had long wanted to be a police officer and had enlisted with the Pennsylvania State Police on December 14, 2015. And today he would be remembered, eulogized and buried, and these troopers were headed to Altoona to pay their respects to their fallen brother. I was moved to tears.

Once on the interstate, I saw, heading south toward me, many more police vehicles, a mix of state troopers and local police. Near Tyrone, there was a group that were traveling with their emergency lights on as a sign of respect. In all, I probably saw about 25-30 police and emergency vehicles heading to Altoona. This was at 8:00 a.m. The funeral would not start until 11:00 a.m. so I’m certain that later drivers would see even more law enforcement personnel on their way.

In the space of a few moments, my lopsided perspective had been restored. My first world problems of feeling stressed and being rushed and having a long to-do list evaporated when compared to the pain Trooper Weaver’s wife, parents, family, friends, and fellow officers have experienced for the last few days and will continue to endure for a long time. And I wept. I wept for the loss of this brave young man who will never get to experience so many of life’s joys, and for his young wife, a widow in her first year of marriage. I wept as I witnessed the respect of fellow officers on their way to bid farewell to their fallen brother in the symbolic way unique to first responders and the military. I wept because, in that moment driving to work, my tears and my prayers were all I had to offer.

Sometimes, we are able to keep our perspective in check. Sometimes, life and circumstances do it for us. Nothing I’m dealing with this week can compare to what Trooper Weaver’s loved ones are going through. I’m alive. My loved ones are safe and well. I am blessed in so many ways.  And today, I am grateful for the perspective to see that.

RIP, Trooper Landon Weaver. Enlisted 12/14/15-End of watch 12/30/16.