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December 20, 2012

Home for the Holidays

(Talk of the Town photo provided) Below, Susie, at center with son Roy Sexton celebrate the approach of Christmas in downtown Columbia City. 

By Susie Duncan Sexton

Huge pink rollers in hair, barefoot, wiping my hands on a tired t-shirt, I responded to the door-bell.  Son Roy stood shivering in the brisk November afternoon breeze with his duffel bag in one gloved hand and his laptop snuggled close to his chest.  Within 20 minutes, both of us seated around the tidied up kitchen table near an electrical outlet, we set up a tiny makeshift studio for another "skyping" operation -- not the first time!  Earphones now attached to my hastily coiffured head, I smoothed my rumpled V-necked sweater newly purchased for this occasion.  Noteworthy German-born Thomas Janak, holistic healer/animal activist now living near Birmingham in the U.K., commenced his crisply intelligent interviewing of Roy's mom.  Within a few hours, our fun friend Keith Kleespie joined our family to listen to the results, as if we'd gathered around an old-timey radio to listen to FDR's Fireside Chats!
 
Day two of our Thanksgiving get-together:  Picture the Sextons, on that mandatory day of gratitude, traipsing about Thorncreek Township petting goats, feeding left-overs to kittens, observing chickens strutting about the premises, and all of us conversing with Bob Wight's terrific kids --Zach, Sam, and Erin -- and his San Francisco based brother who works in Silicon Valley and their pop who divides his time between Vermont and Florida!  Off to The Guest House in Ft. Wayne for dessert prior to a rather grudging viewing of "The Life of Pi"… 3-D version no less!  Our immediate review?  An annoyingly indecipherable film!  Beautiful, yet puzzling and odd.  "Lincoln" and "Skyfall" behind us now…"Pi" had beckoned as our third choice, and we felt we had wasted our money until the next day when, upon collective review, its powerful message leaped into our psyches not unlike fierce Bengal Tiger "Richard Parker" pouncing almost literally onto our laps!
 
On Friday, November 23rd at 2:00 p.m., a most meaningful Thanksgiving experience began to take shape.  Seated in a Columbia City United Methodist church pew, between Pam Thompson and Don Sexton, I focused upon larger-than-life, happy slides projected onto the chancel wall.  My very special C.C.J.H.S. United States/World history teacher Mr. Bob Berry, who died on October 18, 2012, smiled at us, a twinkle in his eyes.  Captions such as "Let my work speak for me" and "I just called to say 'I love you!' " brought that very special gentleman to life, his presence felt by each of us in attendance.  Meeting Bob for the first time 50 years ago when I was 16, I recalled my delight in the late eighties and nineties that our son Roy also would receive instruction from this lively, kind, fair-minded, authentic, and intuitive scholar whom our town must always count as one of our superior educators.
 
First, perpetually friendly, retired social studies educator Jim Thompson eulogized Robert Lee Berry with accounts of shared academic experiences -- throughout many years as a colleague -- and antics outside the classroom setting as well.  What apt images the speaker created!  "Each individual in my department will behave as a professional at all times, and the gentlemen are expected to wear ties," boomed Jim quoting chairman Bob while pointing to his own red tie from his momentary station at the pulpit. 
 
Next, Roy Sexton struck a serious chord with his vivid description of his esteemed professor:  "Mr. Berry celebrated our talents, believing us while believing IN us, treated us as adults, and never undercut us.  He changed my life and prepared me for college and two graduate degrees.  No one was as challenging, but I also realized that as hard as I was working, he was working harder in dogged preparation.  And he taught me the most important thing -- be loyal, stand up for what is right, and have the back of those you respect and admire."  A quotation from the Shakespeare play "As You Like It", concerning how the past sweetens the present, seemed to conclude Roy's presentation.   However, Roy had recently met with his teacher one last time when Mr. Berry accompanied Don and myself to Michigan to enjoy Roy's portrayal of Curly in the musical comedy "Oklahoma".  An unexpected, crystal-clear, acappella rendition of "Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin' ", dedicated to the supportive spirit of Robert L. Berry, unleashed a few tears.
 
Beautiful Liz Berry Schatzlein, former WANE-TV news anchor, followed with her poignant recollection of a high point in her father's life -- and hers as well.  As a young child, she watched breathlessly as her daddy participated in a basketball game with his C.C.J.H.S. faculty teammates versus a squad of WOWO hoopsters.  Achingly close to the final buzzer, Mr. B. attempted one of his signature long shots while it seemed "the entire town boo-ed his effort from bleacher seats only to turn on a dime and cheer loudly when the ball sank almost magically…nothing but net!"  All of us in attendance at his remarkable and uplifting memorial service joyously sang in chorus our "Eagle Fight Song"!
 
Buoyed by this exceptional moment in time spent reminiscing about one of Columbia City's finest citizens ever, several of us chatted for a while longer in the foyer. Keith Kleespie, whom Liz lovingly introduced as her "manager" -- during her reign as Miss Northeast Indiana -- to her son Derek, and Roy and I drove to Northside Grill, ordered some delicious sandwiches, then stumbled upon Santa's first ever "starry starry" nighttime  arrival into Columbia City!  Across Van Buren Street we rushed to the tiny red "Kris Kringle" house on the courthouse lawn, to scratch reindeer behind their ears, to wave at St. Nick himself,  to enjoy laughing with witty Tony Winebrenner and his talented wife Jill, and to recall with Jayne Mullendore Oliver the golfing escapades of a couple of special fellows we both knew quite well, named  Stanley "Mully" Mullendore and Roy "Governor" Duncan, our dads!
 
Holiday break time concluded, our son backed his car from our driveway onto Line Street to head for his own home, immediately after participating in an interview for Deb Lowrance's Whitley County series of oral history recollections.  Don and I turned to re-enter our house.  A final Thanksgiving  memory in the making awaited us.  Friend Laura Gater requested assistance to retrieve her ragdoll cat who had leapt from Laura's rolled down window in the Lake City Bank parking lot!  Armed with flashlights and  Nine Lives canned cat food, chivalrous pet enthusiast Don drove to aid in searching for "Tuki" -- over hill, dale and the harsh concrete pavement of busy highways.  Two hours later, the wayward feline surfaced, huddled and cuddled under the van's back seat…never having escaped her vehicle after all?
 
Yuletide season now upon us, stay tuned for an account of "Home for the Holidays--Part Two", no doubt about it!  From Mr. Berry's memorial service pamphlet -- entitled "Each Life Has A Story":  "Today's little moments become tomorrow's precious memories."
 
Epitaph: "The best teachers teach from the heart."
 
Read more of Susie’s writings and order her book at www.susieduncansexton.com – happy holidays, everyone!


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Deja vu all over again: Lincoln

By Roy Sexton 

Whether or not Steven Spielberg intended his latest film Lincoln to serve as a finely crafted allegory for our contentiously political times, it very much is one. The movie succeeds on multiple levels, not only allegorical but also as instructively engaging historical psychodrama and crackerjack cinematic entertainment.
 
Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular American president is warm yet flinty and infinitely watchable in yet another amazingly chameleonic performance in his long and storied career. He manages to evade the trap of most historical biopics – he is neither overly reverential nor artistically self-indulgent. And he is most assuredly not some wax figure in Disneyland’s “Hall of Presidents.”

Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln is a fully realized, at times lovable, always affecting flesh-and-blood creation. I challenge anyone to read about Lincoln after watching this movie and NOT hear Day-Lewis’ voice in your head or visualize the mischievous, twinkly fire in his eyes.
 
The film is set against the backdrop of the Civil War (no shock there) and focuses on the political machinations required to have the 13th Amendment pass the House of Representatives, where it has been stuck for the better part of a year. Lincoln realizes that, if the Civil War ends before the Amendment’s passage, he might not ever amend the Constitution to prevent slavery forevermore.
 
Needless to say, Beltway (was it called the “Beltway” in those days?) backstabbing and hijinks ensue, and anyone who has lived in America in the past twelve years will reflect  “the more things change…the more they stay the same.” Neither Spielberg nor screenwriter Tony Kushner proselytize (though there is speechifyin’-a-plenty) but the ugliness of watching entitled white dudes debating the finer points of social issues for which they have no real skin in the game is like deja vu all over again.
 
The supporting cast is a who’s who of America’s finest players, from always delightful David Strathairn to a gonzo-fun James Spader who seems to be channeling Robert Downey, Jr., at his most drug-addled. Lee Pace of ABC’s short-lived Pushing Daisies is fun as a posturing, preening Congressman opposed to the Amendment, and Jackie Earle Haley continues his run of great late-career performances as the peace-seeking Confederate Veep, literally left cooling his heals on a riverboat as Lincoln pushes the Amendment through.
 
Sally Field as Mary Todd-Lincoln is adequate, and I’m not sure if her part was a bit underwritten or if I have just seen her return to the same actorly well a few too many times. Kushner seems to be channeling a postmodern perspective on the Lincolns’ marriage/family through every bit of Field’s dialogue, and she does yeoman’s work making it sound natural but at times it still seems stilted.
 
The film also suffers from about four endings too many. We know what happens to Lincoln in the weeks and months following the Amendment’s passage, and, trying to cram all of that detail into what is more-or-less an extended diorama-like montage at the film’s conclusion detracts. And, of course, Spielberg can’t help but include his trademark fairy tale mythologizing here and there – it is ok, but the film is so strong otherwise that I could have done without those vintage touches.
 
But the best moments of the film come at the hands to two old pros who don’t share a minute of screen time: Tommy Lee Jones as Abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and Jared Harris as Ulysses S. Grant. Both bring gravitas and pixie dust to their roles, more than holding their own with Day-Lewis. Their characters leap from the pages of history books and very quickly feel like people you have known personally for years. Absolutely remarkable work here.

Roy Sexton, a Whitley County native, is the son of Don and Susie Duncan Sexton.


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