Paying tribute to volunteers
Last Monday, our nation came together in celebration of the annual Memorial Day Holiday.
The day is an occasion for U.S. citizens and residents to remember our debt to our nation and to the people who have sacrificed years of their lives, if not their health and their very lives so that we can enjoy the freedoms and comforts which our way of life provides us. It is easy, in the hustle and bustle of our daily lives to put that gratitude out of our minds, and that makes it especially important that the nation dedicate a special day to bringing our gratitude to the front and center of our thinking.
This week, I’d like to give a short history of the Memorial Day holiday and then, since this is an arts column, discuss and thank the thousands of volunteers whose sacrifices can never compare to the sacrifice of our veterans, but who do make it possible for our arts to serve their crucial role in society. When a Stalin or a Hitler comes to power, one of the first things he usually does is to seek out and silence the writers, composers, painters, sculptors and other artists who seek to inspire the public to look at issues from more than one point of view, to weigh their lower instincts, resist scapegoating and race hatred which are so often the fuel of tyranny.
So, this week, let’s especially thank our veterans and remember our volunteers, and every voter who votes with his head and not with his knee-jerk emotions. We could not have our lives as we know them without them.
It is a common saying that a success has many fathers while a failure is an orphan.
A Memorial Day holiday is a successful idea, and many people and places are credited with its creation.
Memorial Day has been held on a wide variety of dates although they have nearly always been in the spring, late enough that flowers and trees could be planted both on veterans’ graves and those of departed friends and relatives, as well as in other places of honor without worry of a late snow storm coming along and killing the tribute.
There was a tradition, dating back well before the U.S. Civil War, of families taking a picnic lunch to the cemeteries where their relatives were buried and having what was commonly called ”a dinner on the ground,” in which they remembered and recalled the lives and the doings of their departed loved ones. This is often credited with being the inspiration for Memorial Day as we know it.
For much of history, unless battles were fought very near to the soldiers’ homes, it was necessary to bury the dead close to where they died. The likelihood of the families of Napoleon’s soldiers, for example, to journey to the outskirts of Moscow to visit their departeds’ graves was virtually impossible. The U.S. Civil War was fought here in our own country and nearly everyone killed on both sides was buried relatively near to home.
Because of the invention of the railroads and other rather modern possibilities, by the mid-19th Century even those whose sons and husbands were buried several states away from their homes could be visited. It has long been a tradition to decorate graves with flowers and other living or artificial plants as well as with small flags. Memorial Day holidays were originally called ”Decoration Day” because of the decoration of the graves.
In 1861, residents of Warrenton, Va., decorated the graves of Civil War combatants who had been buried near their town and since 1906, the town has proclaimed itself the original sight of Memorial Day.
In 1862, the city of Savannah, Ga., expended public funds to place flags and flowers on the graves of fallen soldiers although only Confederate soldiers were so honored.
In 1863 at Gettysburg, Pa., the cemeteries holding the remains of both Union and Confederate fallen were established and President Abraham Lincoln made a most memorable, short speech to mark their establishment. Since the dedication was held in November, following the July battle, the ”Remembrance Day” held annually at those cemeteries is one of the few such holidays not to take place in the spring.
In 1864, the ladies of Boalsburg, Pa., decorated known graves of war dead and the town has billed itself as the birthplace of Memorial Day ever since.
Since more than 600,000 soldiers died in the Civil War and they were all buried within the United States, there were plenty of graves to decorate. A number of cases has been documented in which freed slaves throughout the South held services and ceremonies at the burial places of Union soldiers, since the Southern communities tended to honor only the Confederate dead.
In 1966, Congress passed a resolution declaring that Memorial Day began in Waterloo, N.Y., a small community in the Finger Lakes near Seneca Falls. It was said to be the idea of one Henry Welles, a druggist who lived there. President Lyndon Johnson followed with an executive proclamation that same year affirming Waterloo as the origin of the holiday. A Memorial Day Museum has since been built in Waterloo.
Michigan was the first government to make Decoration Day an official holiday in 1871, settling on the date of May 30, and over the next 20 years all the Northern states had followed suit. Between the Civil War and the end of World War II, more and more people and organizations were coming to prefer the name Memorial Day for the holiday. In 1967, Congress made the name change official.
Pretty much from the Civil War until World War II, Memorial Day was considered the official beginning of summer. Fashion followers ruled that wearing summer attire such as white shoes, straw hats and similar summer-associated gear was only acceptable after Memorial Day and before Labor Day, which falls in early September. In some areas people were excluded from restaurants and other public places, and there were even legal punishments for ”inappropriate attire” such as carrying a white purse in late September.
In 1968, Memorial Day was one of four national holidays which were moved from their original dates to a nearby Monday, by a law called ”The Uniform Monday Holiday Act.” Publicly, it was proclaimed that this made it possible for people to use the three-day holidays which were created to journey to their homes, to decorate the graves of relatives and similar purposes for the other holidays. Discreetly, it was whispered around that the three-day holidays meant that people took vacations, staying in motels, eating in restaurants and purchasing gasoline and the like which gave the economy a boost.
In 1978, largely through pressure from veterans’ organizations, Veterans Day was changed back, from the fourth Monday in October to its original Nov. 11 date, which marks the exact date on which hostilities on World War I ceased. Many people believe that the Monday celebration of Memorial Day encourages the public to think of the day as a day off work or as a vacation day, rather than as a day to honor the fallen. Pressure has been brought to move it back to May 30. Senator Daniel Inouye of Hawaii introduced such a resolution each year until his death in 2012.
Whether you marked the day yesterday or last Monday, I hope you took advantage of some time to remember and to express your gratitude.
I was inspired to write this half of this column by a news release from the 1891 Fredonia Opera House. It announces a special reception and a lasting tribute to two couples of volunteers at that beautiful venue.
I remember when we were first married in the early 1970s, my wife and I occasionally used to go to the theater located within the Fredonia Village Hall to watch movies. The facilities in the building were attractive but old, and in many cases decrepit, and bats flew between the projector and the screen so often that the room was commonly called ”The Bat Cave.”
We were glad to learn in the late 1980s and early 1990s that a committee of volunteers had determined to restore the theater and to create an administration which would schedule events in a variety of styles and natures to attract people of all interests to use and benefit from the theater.
Many people in the community were opposed to such actions. Some insisted that the population of Fredonia was too small, the economies of the village and the adjacent city of Dunkirk were too strapped, and that the three modern theaters in the Rockefeller Arts Center, on the campus of the State University at Fredonia were all the performance venues the community required.
Among the volunteers who took leadership roles in reviving the theater were Jim and Carol Boltz, and Dick and Carmen Gilman. I remember driving up to the theater in its early days to write a feature story about the restoration and being shown around by Jim Boltz, who was the first chairman of the Theater Management Committee which was the organization which began the reconstruction until the formal creation of an Opera House Board of Directors. At the time, volunteers were working in the theater’s dressing rooms which hadn’t been used for decades. What they were doing was shoveling mud and silt off the floor so the rooms could be restored.
Roughly at that time, the restoration of theaters which had once been lively centers for communities in this area was going on in many communities. Jamestown’s Reg Lenna Center for the Arts – then called the Palace Theatre – was one, as were the Ray Evans Seneca Theater in Salamanca, and the Struthers Library Theatre in Warren. Each of these involved thousands of volunteer hours donated by area residents and each of them has since had a varying degree of success, in some degree due to the amount of volunteer support they got and or lack of success in the way in which they dealt with volunteers.
The Fredonia theater has named their two principal dressing rooms, now safely rid of mud, in honor of the two couples. The rooms are now officially called The Jim and Carol Boltz East Dressing Room, and The Dick and Carmen Gilman West Dressing Room? According to the theater’s director, Rick Davis, ”All future artists who perform at the facility and all those patrons who tour the theater will know the names of these four individuals whose unwavering commitment and dedication have made the Opera House what it is today.”
In addition to the hundreds of hours which the four volunteers have given to ushering and organizing fund raising events and a million other such needs, both couples have been generous financial supporters. The Boltzes were important in supporting the conversion of the Opera House to show performances in high definition, including the operas which are regularly broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera House, in New York City. They also have been important funders of the annual ”Bach and Beyond” festivals which have been presented each June by the Opera House since 1995. They not only donate needed cash, but offer hospitality in their home to visiting artists, provide meals around rehearsals, provide transportation and more other things than I can possibly list here.
The Gilmans are musicians themselves and have a particular interest in folk music. As a result, they have both supported and actually performed in the ”Folk in Fredonia” series of concerts, and they have organized and hosted each year’s ”Free-for-All” which kicks off that series. Each of the Gilmans have ushered at literally hundreds of events at the Opera House, and Dick has accepted responsibility for keeping the brass railings and other brass decoration, polished and beautiful.
Dick Gilman followed Jim Boltz as Chairman of the Theater Management Committee and was subsequently elected the first Chairman of the Opera House Board of Directors.
The couple has headed up fund raising efforts which included Dick’s organizing the construction of 14 fan-shaped tables which were auctioned to support the Folk series, and Carmen’s artistic decorating of two of the tables and enlisting artistic friends, including her husband, to decorate more. One of those tables was auctioned for $1,000.
The Critical Eye is honored to celebrate the generosity and the very hard work which have been done by the Boltzes, the Gilmans, and by all the arts volunteers among our readers. Both couples have worked on and sought to advance all types of events at the Opera House. The Boltzes were generous to the operas and the Bach Festival, but they didn’t refuse to usher at popular concerts or at events in other genres which weren’t classical music, and the Gilmans didn’t try to discourage their friends from going to classical events nor did they try to use their positions on the board of directors to limit the theater’s showings to their favorite events.
The opera house has welcomed its volunteers and anyone who has attended events held there have probably heard members of the audience proudly showing their friends the elements of its construction and decoration which they either financed or actually created. I know of arts organizations which have basically thrown their volunteers out onto the street because they have obtained funding to pay professionals to do the work.
I have known of volunteers, almost always with the best of hearts and noblest of intentions, who have entered into positions of authority in arts and cultural organizations, and who have damaged or even destroyed those organizations. This has most often been done by starting policies and/or events but being too busy or distracted or over-confident to do the work needed to first determine whether the changes are positive, then to determine if the changes can be supported financially, and then finally to stay with them until they are actually accomplished and evaluated. When a professional staff is afraid to tell their ”power volunteers” that something isn’t working, that is a certain recipe for failure.
Next time you attend a quality concert, performance, or public function in a beautiful place, give a few moments’ thought to the people who have donated their performance, who typed and printed the programs, who changed the light bulbs, who set up the chairs at rehearsals, and certainly to those who generously gave the money which all such events require. In New York City, which has nearly all professional arts events, one ticket can typically cost $200 and more. That shuts most people out of participating. Three cheers for the volunteers!