Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mary Ward Brown: Keeper of the Flame

Mary Ward Brown – known locally as “Mary T.” (Thomas is her middle name, after her father) – is recognized as one of Alabama’s finest writers of fiction. In fact, at age 92, she is probably the state’s most distinguished working writer today. Her latest work was published this year!

Mary Ward Brown. (Credit: Jerry Siegel)

Born (1917)and raised in Hamburg, Alabama, near Marion in Perry County, Mary Ward Brown did not taste success as a modern fiction writer until she was in her sixties. By any standard, she is a major writer of fiction, her works having garnered some of the top national and state literary awards: the PEN/Hemingway Award, Harper Lee Award, Lillian Smith Book Award, Hillsdale Award for Fiction, and two Alabama Author Awards, among others.

Mary T. (Credit: Mississippi Public Broadcasting/Alabama Arts Council)

With the exception of a short sojourn in Auburn, Alabama, Mary T. has lived on her parents’ farm in Hamburg all of her life. She graduated from Perry County High School in Marion, where she edited the school newspaper, and from Judson College (1938), where she again edited the school newspaper, and where she studied English and Journalism. In 1939, she married Charles Kirtley Brown and moved to Auburn, Alabama, where her husband worked in public relations at Auburn University. Their son, Kirtley Ward Brown, MMI H'61, a prominent Marion/Perry County lawyer and law instructor here at MMI, was born in Auburn in 1942. When Mary’s father died some years later, the Browns moved back to Hamburg to manage the large family farm. Mary T. still lives and writes there today.

Although she had a few short stories published in the 1950s, Mary T. stopped writing to concentrate on her family and running the farm. Following her husband’s death in 1970 from lung cancer, she began writing again, publishing in various national magazines.

In 1986, Tongues of Flame (E. P. Dutton), a collection of short stories, was published to wide literary and public acclaim.

In the mid-1980s, one of her short stories, “The Cure,” was included in an anthology of American and Russian writers. Traveling with this project, Mary T. toured the Soviet Union.

A second collection of stories was published in 2002. It Wasn’t All Dancing and other Stories was published by the University of Alabama Press some twenty-three years after her initial literary success. Her third work, Fanning the Spark: A Memoir, was published by Alabama in 2009.

Mary T.’s third book , Fanning the Spark: A Memoir (Alabama, 2009).
(Credit: The University of Alabama Press)

Mary Ward Brown’s literary themes and interests are usually set in the South during the 1950s to the early 1970s. They reflect the impact of societal changes on ordinary individuals including the persistence of racism and the unique role of religion in the South.

Mary T. signing her book. (Credit: Alabama Libraries)

A point of reference: All of the Brown Family have worked at MMI. Kirtley, MMI H'61, of course, teaches law at the Institute. His late father, Charles Kirtley Brown, worked with student publications including The Skirmisher, the cadet newspaper. Mary T. worked with John Moore (Ms. Woody’s husband) in the guidance and counseling office. Kirtley Brown’s wife, Susannah, also worked in the MMI Library with Ms. Woody. Finally, Mary T.'s nephew, Sheldon "Buzzie" Fitts, is a former MMI instructor.

In March, 2010, The Lyceum Council at MMI will host a celebration of the works of Mary Ward Brown with the presentation of the play, Ashes of Roses, in the MMI Chapel. Working in concert with the Marion Chamber of Commerce, Perry County Historical and Preservation Society, and other local organizations, a significant Arts Event highlighting Literature, Theater, Art and Music will be presented.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Stylin' With The White Knights

In the fall of 1950, William “Bill” Walker, a veteran of the U. S. Army, enrolled at Marion Military Institute. During the occupation of Berlin, Germany, after World War II, Walker had served in the “Berlin Honor Guard,” a crack U. S. Army drill team under General Lucius D. Clay’s command. With Berlin partitioned by the Allied countries of the United Kingdom, France, and the United States (West Berlin), and the Soviets in East Berlin, “The Berlin Honor Guard” had to be the “best of the best,” the “elite” among all the international military units present. The unit worked diligently every day toward achieving that goal.

When Bill Walker arrived at MMI and was assigned to Old South Barracks (now Lovelace Hall), he told his cadet company commander and platoon leader – Cadets Steve Finch and Gene Hyche - about his drill team experience in Germany. He also offered to assist with the company’s drill. Following protracted discussions, the idea gelled with these three cadets to organize and develop a similar crack precision drill team at MMI, one that would also strive to be the “best of the best” among the nation’s military colleges and schools.

After circulating the idea throughout the Corps of Cadets for interest, Cadets Finch and Hyche approached the Commandant, COL Paul B. Robinson (later, MMI president) with their plan. Robinson told them that Finch was going to be the Cadet Battalion Commander, thus, he would not have time to participate in the drill team. Finally, after refining their plan, COL Robinson approved it.

When tryouts were held, some 50-60 cadets were expected to participate. However, nearly a third of the Corps showed up, each cadet vying to prove that he was the best. During tryouts, they drilled 3-5 days a week, 2-4 hours a day for more than two weeks. When the smoke finally cleared, more than 40 cadets were selected for the first unit which took the name, “The White Knights.” Cadets Gene Hyche and Bill Walker became the co-founders in 1950, with Hyche serving as the first White Knights Commander. The White Knights were intent on stylin,’ as Cadet Hyche called it.

COL Ellis Marsh of the ROTC Department assigned Sgt. Ralph Glendening, a veteran of the 82nd Airborne Division and of the Normandy Invasion airborne assault, to oversee the White Knights. Army Sgt. Tom Hamilton, a Canadian and a former British Commando in World War II, was assigned to assist Glendening. Later, CPT Ben Marshall, an Infantry officer who had been a fighter pilot in World War II, was appointed advisor.

The first White Knights unit from the 1951 Orange and Black, MMI’s yearbook. (Credit: MMI Archives)

Uniforms for the White Knights included white helmets, white ascots, white gloves, and white leggings. The standard M-1 rifle, assigned to the Corps, was the first rifle used. However, when COL James T. Mufee II, MMI’s president, was approached for $1,000 to outfit the unit, he denied the request because Murfee doubted the longevity of the White Knights past more than a couple of years or so. Gradually, however, he warmed to the unit and became a proud supporter.

Cover photograph from the “Alabama Sunday Magazine” of The Montgomery Advertiser-Journal, Sunday, May 31, 1970.

The first performance of the White Knights took place at a football game in Bessemer, Alabama, but their first real test came when they performed at an Air Show at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery - right after the performance of the crack Air Force Drill Team from Washington, D. C.! Having added taps to their boots, the White Knights performed a stunning silent drill which, by all accounts, “smoked” the Air Force Drill Team, a fact even acknowledged by their advisor! The White Knights were stylin’ now!

A White Knights parade performance in Montgomery, Alabama (no date). (Credit: MMI Archives)

Over the years, the White Knights established an enviable state and national reputation as a precision drill team of the first order. Among their numerous appearances representing Marion Military Institute and the State of Alabama, the White Knights performed at the Indianapolis 500, the Sugar Bowl, and in the United States Air Force Academy Drill Competition. They also make frequent instate appearances at the annual Veterans Day Parade in Birmingham, and at the Mardi Gras in Mobile.

Performing in front of The Chapel at MMI (no date). (Credit: MMI Archives)

The White Knights celebrated their 50th Anniversary at MMI on Alumni Day, April 24, 1999. By then, some 900 cadets had participated in the White Knights saga. By Proclamation of the then MMI Board of Trustees, “each White Knight, past and present, is hereby designated ALUMNUS OF THE YEAR, 1999.”

The 60th Anniversary of the White Knights is coming up, and a fund-raising campaign to assist the unit is currently underway.

Monday, October 5, 2009

It's Only a Paper Moon, Addie Pray!

The Wednesday, September 9th edition of The Marion Times-Standard ran this image and caption of a gentleman from Surrey, England, who was visiting briefly in Marion and the area. Enthralled by the 1973 Hollywood movie, Paper Moon, directed by Peter Bogdanovich, and starring the father-daughter team of Ryan and Tatum O’Neil, Madeline Kahn, and Randy Quaid, this Englishman was traveling the country visiting sites depicted in the movie, including Marion!

From The Marion Times-Standard, Wednesday, September 9, 2009.

Now, like many of you, I saw Paper Moon (filmed in black and white) when it first came out and I loved it. But, the movie was set on the Great Plains of Kansas and western Missouri, not in Alabama!

DVD cover for Paper Moon, originally released by Paramount Pictures in 1973.

Turns out, the movie was adapted from the novel Addie Pray by Joe David Brown of Birmingham, Alabama. The novel is initially set in Alabama, but expands – via the main character’s travels – into Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Louisiana. Alabama towns reportedly mentioned in this area include Selma, Hamburg, Marion, Brent, and Centreville. Supposedly, a scam scene at a Marion bank is included.

Addie Pray was first published in 1971, was adapted for the movie Paper Moon in 1973, and was reprinted in 2002 as Paper Moon: A Novel.
Narrated by 11 year-old con-artist Addie Pray, an orphan, who travels with scam/confidence man “Long Boy” Moses (he is one of three possible fathers of Addie), the pair strike out across the Deep South during the Depression-era 1930s trying their “luck” in every town, nook and cranny.

”Long Boy” Moses and Addie Pray (Ryan and Tatum O’Neil). (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

Tatum O’Neil (actually, only 9 years-old when she played the part of Addie Pray) won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 1974, and she remains the youngest person ever to win a competitive Academy Award. Her father, veteran actor Ryan O’Neil, played the part of “Long Boy” Moses. Miss Trixie Delight was played by Madeline Kahn, and Randy Quaid played Leroy.

Ten years-old in 1974, Tatum O’Neil remains the youngest person to win a competitive Academy Award. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Madeline Kahn as Miss Trixie Delight. (Credit: Paramount Pictures)

The author, Joe David Brown, who died in 1976, was born in Birmingam, Alabama. He worked initially for The Birmingam Post, later the New York Daily News, and finally for Time and Life magazines, being stationed in New Delhi, Paris, London, and Moscow. Two of his other books, Stars in My Crown (1947) and Kings Go Forth (1956), were also made into movies.

During World War II, Brown served in the Army Air Corps, and as a member of the 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team, was one of the first Americans to parachute into Normandy, France, on D-Day, June 6, 1944. He received a battlefield commission to second lieutenant, and was awarded the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, and the French Croix de Guerre with palm.

Author Joe David Brown in uniform. (Credit: 517th Parachute Regimental Combat Team website)

So, the next time we watch Paper Moon, a classic movie, we’ll know the story behind the story. And, like the song says, “It’s Only a Paper Moon.”