Archive | November, 2013

St. Augustine, Thanksgiving here first En Español

22 Nov

St. Augustine Lighthouse

Thanksgiving is coming.  A holiday enjoyed by nearly everyone in the country and perhaps my favorite secular holiday.  And yes, unlike in other places, Thanksgiving in the U.S. is secular although everyone of every faith celebrates in their own way.  A truly diverse holiday.

The first Thanksgiving celebrated in 1621 in Plymouth Plantation is usually what we think of when we think of the origins of the holiday, but is that true?  How Northern European centric are we being with that celebration?

A few weeks back I was in Gainesville, Florida, for a meeting and had the opportunity to go to St. Augustine with an archaeologist as a guide — at least for part of the day.  St. Augustine, founded by the Spanish crown in 1565 as a military installation, is still the oldest European-based settlement in the U.S.  When the Spanish landed, they immediately fortified an area, offloaded their ships and had a mass of thanksgiving and a feast.  The first Thanksgiving.  Probably, but not important really.  The settlement site was attacked, burned down a number of times and rebuilt, and while it moved from Spanish to English to Spanish to English hands, there were always people in the area.

What is important is that nearly everyone outside of Florida who is not an American history teacher of some kind thinks of the Plymouth colony, or Jamestown settlement.  The first European child born in what would become the U.S. was not Virginia Dare, but Martín de Argūelles, born in 1566.  St. Augustine was also an unusual place in that while it had slaves, they weren’t all from Africa and there were many African freemen as well.  Why? Because if you pledged allegiance to the Spanish crown and converted to Catholicism you could be a resident and protected.  Slavery, as ugly as it is, was of a different sort.  A Spanish slave could buy his or her freedom and many did.


Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, St. Augustine, FL

Some of the early 17th century town still exists and has been conserved.  The 17th century fort, the oldest in the continental U.S., still stands on the water’s edge facing the bay.  The chapel, living areas and the “necessary” are still there.

These men and women, whether Spanish soldiers, their wives, native Americans from the Saturiwa or Africans undoubtedly spoke Spanish as their common language.  They attended church together, and while excluding other faiths, they embraced other differences.

It is only because England won the wars against Spain and France and Florida was a prize passed back and forth that St. Augustine is not what we look to at Thanksgiving.  I suppose it is a case of to the victors go not only the spoils but the place in history.

Archaeologically, we know a lot about the St. Augustine settlement and its original location in what is now Fountain of Youth Park.  A new exhibit, “First Colony: Our Spanish Origins,” curated by Kathleen Deagan of the University of Florida at the Florida Museum of Natural History, opened last week and we had a preview at Old Colony House in St. Augustine, where the exhibit will remain until 2016.  Eventually, this exhibit will travel across the country, bringing the Spanish origins of many of our citizens to light.


Remembering Professor Daniel Walden

21 Nov

Earlier this month, Penn State University lost a true legend. Daniel Walden, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature, died Friday, November 8, 2013 at Mount Nittany Medical Center at age 91, after a brief illness. 2319566Arriving on campus in 1966 — the same year Joe Paterno became Penn State’s head football coach—Walden was a faculty member at Penn State until 1988. Whether he ever really retired is a matter of some debate though. Writer Cynthia Ozick paid tribute to Walden at the time in an article fittingly titled “Remarks on Dan Walden’s Retirement (Even Though He Is Tireless and Didn’t Retire and Never Will!)”

Walden remained a familiar and beloved presence on campus, as he continued to teach one course each semester, alternating between the departments of English and Comparative Literature. He was able to teach for two weeks  this semester (a course on ethnicity and literature)  before his ailing health prevented him from continuing.

When someone has lived a long and productive life, it is impossible to summarize them. The task takes many years and many people, many conversations and recollections, all adding up to a rich kaleidoscopic perspective. The abundance of articles on, interviews with and tributes to Dan Walden are a testament to the multifaceted life he lived.

Some pieces touch on his Philadelphia childhood and family; some on his Army experiences and his pre-academia career as a Broadway singer (including a 1949 role in the chorus of Annie Get Your Gun with Mary Martin) while others focus on his degrees from the City College of New York, Columbia University and New York University. Almost always mentioned prominently are his pioneering works such as On Being Black: African American Literature from Douglass to the Present (1970), with Charles Davis, and On Being Jewish: Jewish American Literature from Cahan to Bellow (1974.)


Earl Merritt (left), director of multicultural equity programs, College of the Liberal Arts, and the late Daniel Walden, professor emeritus of American Studies, English, and Comparative Literature.

No article on Walden’s career would be complete without noting that he founded the journal Studies in American Jewish Literature in 1975 and served continuously as its editor from then into 2011. SAJL was published by Purdue University but as of 2012 will be published by Penn State University Press.


In 1984 Walden published “The World of Chaim Potok,” a whole issue of SAJL. The following year, he published Twentieth Century American Jewish Fiction Writers (Greenwood Press), DLB 28. Conversations with Chaim Potok came out in 2002 (University Press of Mississippi).

While these academic achievements are impressive,  they don’t begin to capture the full impact of Dan Walden’s life on the people who knew him. The outpouring of online condolences are filled with remarks such as these:

“Professor Walden, your life was a model for what I hope mine to be: one of curiosity, generosity, and love. Thank you.”

“He achieved so incredibly much but managed to remain one of the most generous and sweet human beings I’ve ever met in my life.”

“He was a good and kind man, and his smile lit up the whole world.”

“He served as an inspiration to us on how to lead a good life.”

“What a life; what a legacy. Many of us who were graduate students in the Department of English in the 1980s considered the Walden residence to be our home. Some of us were international students, thousands of miles away from home and family, and had nowhere to go for Thanksgiving or the winter holidays. My friends and I knew that when money was short (which was most of the time) and we could not return to Europe or to India, we had a seat at the Waldens’ Thanksgiving table.”

Many of these comments pay tribute to Dan’s beloved wife Bea Walden, who passed away exactly two years ago today  and who is remembered with great fondness by so many. The warmth and devotion of their marriage and generosity of their home comes through so many of the remembrances.

Professor Willa Silverman shared with me this poignant and telling recollection of Dan and Bea:

“Dan and Bea Walden were among the first people I met when I came to Penn State in 1988. I contacted Dan when I came to look for a place to live…He took me under his wing, driving me around wherever I needed to go, bringing me to his home for meals (which I remember as being lively, busy, warm, with people bustling in and out). He showed me extraordinary kindness as a new colleague and newcomer to Penn State. As many others know, Dan was an exemplary, generous, supportive colleague, who would always write a note of congratulations and encouragement on any ‘milestone’ (promotion, book published etc.). A pillar of our Jewish community, he always tried to attend milestone events of other members of our congregation. He was instrumental in the developing the Jewish Studies Program at Penn State, contributing his vision, time, energy, human qualities (his commitment to social justice and to the equal treatment of ethnic and religious minorities), and scholarly expertise. That the program is a thriving unit today is in good part a testament to Dan’s commitment to it.”

My own connection with Dan was as a friend of his family. I’ll always treasure the chats we had, and I can only imagine how much those closest to him will miss him. I hope they’ll take solace in knowing that, as associate professor of journalism Russell Frank recently wrote, a university is made truly great by luminaries such as Daniel Walden whose brilliance–not only as a scholar but as someone with true empathy and devotion to his fellow human beings— gives us all cause for “Penn State pride” in that slogan’s truest sense.

I Love Pennsylvania: Notes from the National Association of Science Writers Conference

6 Nov

I am so glad to be back in Pennsylvania.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, the folks at the University of Florida did a great job at hosting the National Association of Science Writers annual conference, which started last week. The University of Florida, which I toured, is doing some impressive research and I enjoyed touring the Florida Innovation Hub.

And the people of Florida are incredibly nice.

But, man, do they have critter problems.

Professor of Wildlife, Frank Mazzotti,

Professor of Wildlife Frank Mazzotti and friend.

One of the highlights of the conference for me was attending “lunch with a scientist.” I picked to have a sandwich with Frank Mazzotti, a University of Florida professor who specializes in alligators, crocodiles and, more recently, Burmese pythons. Why more recently? Well, Burmese pythons are one of the many invasive species that are threatening southern Florida, particularly the Everglades. But there are other invaders, according to Mazzotti, like puff adders and Nile Monitor Lizards.

So, now, Florida is starting to sound a little like Jurassic Park to me. I was shocked that T-Rex hadn’t made a comeback in the Sunshine State.

The researcher said that one of the problems was that these invasive species can threaten native species. For instance, Mazzotti explained a little too matter-of-factly, pythons may kill alligators.

Let me repeat that. The pythons may kill alligators. Now, all of the sudden, I’m not in Jurassic Park, I am in the middle of a Japanese monster movie.

There have also been instances when these invasive snakes have crawled into houses through laundry chutes and up toilets. Luckily, I finished my roast beef sandwich, or I would have most certainly lost my appetite.

People in Florida should feel fortunate that they have researchers like Mazzotti, however. He, among other researchers and animal control officials, are coming up with creative solutions to the problems of invasive species. Since most of these creatures are being brought in as pets and and then released by their owners, the state has introduced a pet amnesty program. You bring in your snake, or lizard, or killer flying vampire turtle, whatever, and the program finds a new home for it. They’re also hiring expert snake-catchers to find and capture some of the species causing the most harm.

Mazzotti, perhaps after years of watching slithering creatures trying to escape, noticed my discomfort at the conversation. Full-body shivers will get you noticed, after all. Once he found out where I was from — the surprisingly monster-free state of Pennsylvania — he asked if I knew what animal was responsible for the most deaths in the United States. I didn’t know, but I naturally assumed it was crawling under the floorboards of some Florida home.

But, I guessed: bears? sharks? texting Kardashians?


The deadliest creature statistically is the white-tailed deer.

I got the last word in though. I replied, “That may be so, but I’ve never heard of a deer crawl up a toilet.”

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