by Bernard McCormick Wednesday, August 16, 2017 No Comment(s)

 

The business pages recently have carried stories about what appears to be the slow expiration of Sears. Some reports describe the demise of the once iconic retailer as almost a death in the family. For our family, that is close to home. Both parents worked for what was then called Sears, Roebuck & Co. in Philadelphia. In fact, that’s where they met.

Richard Sears, who sold watches in his spare time working at a desk job in a railroad station, founded Sears in the late 1800s in the Midwest. He soon sold everything else, and much of it far from his Chicago base. In Philadelphia, Sears once had a huge presence. It had an enormous building off Roosevelt Boulevard, which is U.S. Highway 1 in that city. It looked more like an aircraft factory than an office building and had a 14-story clock tower. It was built as an outlet store and plant when Sears was in its heyday with a mail order business that foreshadowed today’s Amazon operation.

The building (above) opened in 1920, and dad and mother went to work there soon after. They were among the first of thousands employed at that site for 70 years. Dad apparently worked in plumbing and heating from his earliest days with the company. Today you would add air conditioning to that field. Mother, just out of high school, was with an advertising unit. One of her tasks was translating letters from French. And she could barely read French. Our parents’ closest friendships were made there, and numerous of our boyhood friends had relatives in the Sears family. It was a great place to work, very progressive for its time. It had a profit sharing program, which enabled many employees of that era to retire with small fortunes in Sears stock.

The Depression, so hard on many families, was barely felt by our family. Dad, who never finished high school, moved up the Sears management ladder and in the 1930s was transferred to Port Newark, New Jersey, where Sears had one of its production facilities for its Modern Homes division. It had started in the prefabricated housing business at the turn of the century and sold 70,000 houses in many designs, some of them pretty fancy. They were built in two plants (the one in Port Newark took up 40 acres) and shipped the raw material for houses by rail around the country, where local carpenters put them together. More than a few were constructed by their owners. Those houses today are prized. People actually search the country to see them. Dad’s background with Sears suggests he handled the plumbing aspect of the home building operation. Buyers could pick their kitchen and bathroom designs; it all came with the package.

Dad started when the Modern Homes unit was strong in the late 1920s. He commuted to North Jersey from Philadelphia for several years, then married and moved our family to North Caldwell, New Jersey. It was just in time to see the Depression catch up with the housing market. Home building slowed and Sears decided to shut down its modular home unit. Dad managed to stay with Sears, but in 1939 it entailed a move to Elmira, New York, where he managed that store’s plumbing and heating department. I gather he did well. I recall mother took us outside to see if we could catch a glimpse of his airplane flying overhead to Washington, D.C. where he received some kind of company award.

Elmira was a pleasant little town, famous as one of Mark Twain's haunts, but mother missed her big family in Philadelphia. We lived near the Chemung River, which had a habit of flooding. Two exciting things happened in the three years we lived there. At age 4 a horse nearly rolled over on me because I was so small the beast did not know anyone was on him. That ended my equestrian lessons in a hurry. The other event was war. The country was still in shock from Pearl Harbor at the beginning of 1942 when dad managed to engineer a transfer back to the big facility on Roosevelt Boulevard—and almost immediately got fired.

As he told the story, Sears calculated that the war would kill its retail business, and decided to cut back on middle management. As it turned out, so many men entered the service that workers were in short supply. Thousands of women filled their jobs.

Dad said the man tasked with firing people was a fellow he had known years before.

“I didn’t like him and never took pains to conceal it,” dad said later in life. “It cost me my job.” He was 46 years old with three young kids and a new mortgage, and after 21 years with Sears, he was on the street. Unfortunately, he had not taken advantage of Sears’ attractive profit sharing program, so he had little backup. A recent article quoted a manager at a Sears store in Georgia who lost his job when his store closed: “But after working there all of those years and then losing my job, it hurts. I’ve taken a big emotional hit from this.”

That statement could have come from dad. Photos of him from the 1930s show a jaunty, almost cocky looking guy in a derby hat. But after losing his job, pictures show a more subdued, resigned man. He managed to get work with a big insurance company and stayed with them until he retired. He knew the value of life insurance; he just didn’t enjoy selling it. When I was 19 he suggested I get a little policy, but then called in one of the young men in his office to write it up.

Our family never took it out on Sears. Over the years we bought appliances from our local store and what little hardware we needed. And their post-Christmas sales were a good way to pick up toy trains at a big discount. Sears did a major catalog business. Even the houses they built could be ordered by mail. But our only experience with it was memorable, and not in a good way.

Our first year in Florida we ordered Christmas presents for the kids through the catalog. My wife had thoughtfully chosen a bunch of stuff, and it was all supposed to arrive a few days before Christmas. For reasons still unknown, it did not. Christmas Eve found us in Smith’s Drugs, which used to be in Fort Lauderdale’s Gateway Shopping Center, trying to get something, anything, for three small kids. Smith’s was a surprisingly well-stocked store, and within an hour we had all sorts of items, from toys to stocking stuffers. The kids never knew the difference. But maybe we should have sensed it was the beginning of the end for Sears.

Over the next decades, Sears remained the obvious first choice for many things. We got tools on a regular basis and a variety of household items, but one by one things you used to find began to disappear, along with other customers. The last major purchase was a refrigerator, but that was at least 15 years ago. We still used their auto store for tires and repairs, but had no need for much else. There were no trains on sale after Christmas.

It is ironic that a company, which invented the mail order business, is among the many retailers being undercut by the modern application of the same idea. It is further ironic that a company that started selling watches still has at least one local customer that likes its inexpensive wristwatch bands. We buy one every couple of years. That probably won’t keep Sears afloat.

 

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by Bernard McCormick Thursday, June 29, 2017 No Comment(s)

We have commented previously on the effort to change three street names in Hollywood from those of prominent Confederate generals. It’s a problematic idea and reflects a general misunderstanding of the complexities of the Civil War. That bloody conflict was rooted in the birth of the country—an ongoing debate over the supremacy of a federal government over individual states.

Slavery was the economic cause of the war. Without it, there would have been no friction worthy of 600,000 deaths. But there was also a political cause, for which most men fought, and this is what those opposed to Confederate monuments don’t seem to get. The Southern states did not think Northern states should tell them what to do. And with few exceptions, soldiers went to war for their neighborhoods.

Historians regard one of the generals, Robert E. Lee, as a great American. Like almost every prominent officer and enlisted man, he fought for his state. His gracious acceptance of defeat and subsequent reunification of the states helped ease the bitterness of the loss among Southerners.

Few historians would deny that had they been alive during the Civil War, such honored men as Patrick Henry and Thomas Jefferson would have been on the Southern side. Probably even George Washington. Proud Virginians all.

The other disputed streets are named after John Bell Hood and Nathan Bedford Forrest, both prominent Southern military leaders. Hood was a very brave and aggressive soldier who gave half his body (an arm and most of a leg) to Confederate service. Unlike the others, he was not a gifted general, but he also had more than his share of bad luck.

Forrest was a brilliant commander. Historian Shelby Foote wrote that he and Abraham Lincoln were the two geniuses produced by the war. The knock on him is that he was a pre-war slave dealer, and helped start the Ku Klux Klan, as a political movement to combat the excesses of the Reconstruction Era. What is often ignored is that he also turned against the Klan just a few years later when it became too violent. He helped shut it down. Still, he is the one man whose legacy is understandably tarnished.

Anyway, the war to rename the streets goes on. The consensus seems to be that, even among those who think the whole thing is rather silly, if it gives offense to people, let the changes occur. But it is getting to be an economic battle. Residents of the three streets are complaining about all the work they will need to do to change their addresses on driver’s licenses and other documents. It is possible their mail will be misdelivered for the rest of their lives. Hollywood officials estimate the cost of the name changes at more than $22,000.

A few weeks ago, the Sun-Sentinel quoted one such resident who did not want to go to the trouble of changing personal documents:

“What bothers me is that people who don’t live on the street and don’t even live in Hollywood are getting involved. What do they care? It’s not going to impact them at all.”

Ironically, that’s similar to the attitude Southerners had toward the North during the Civil War. 

Because we do not live on the aforementioned streets, we accept this neighbor’s kind invitation to butt into this conversation with a modest proposal. Instead of spending $22,000 to rename the streets, how about spending almost nothing to rename the people they are named after? Simply put in the record, as we are doing right now, that Lee Street is named for Spike Lee. We don’t know everything about that distinguished fellow, but we are confident that he or his ancestors were not officers in the Confederate Army. 

Forrest Street could be retro-named after that universal American hero—Forrest Gump. Although Mr. Gump was from Alabama, his gentle and loving nature reflects the national desire to bring people together again, so helpful in these divided times.

He was also a bit on the simple-minded side, a secondary tribute to the folks pushing for the name changes.

As for Hood Street, there are options. It could be named after Robin Hood, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor, which should be a popular sentiment in that part of Hollywood. To broaden the tribute, why not name it generically, after all the hoods in the world. That is an umbrella expression, which has changed over the years. In Philadelphia in the 1950s, it was applied to young men of culturally inadequate backgrounds and was sometimes applicable to women as well. In basic terms, it meant the opposite of preppy. There are probably a few representatives of that genre living in Hollywood right now.

Having just saved the city of Hollywood $22,000 in cash and untold amounts in aggravation, we ask nothing in return except to have a street named after a Gen. McCormick. Alas, there were no Gen. McCormicks in the Civil War. We would settle for mother’s name; there was a Union general, and a pretty good one, named Sweeney. A Cork man; we would have preferred he be from Donegal. Either way, he should provoke no ire. Now, just find that lucky street.

 

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by Bernard McCormick Saturday, June 24, 2017 No Comment(s)

 

You can see it now. Motorist I, in heavy downtown traffic, is late for a meeting with the boss. Motorist I sees the unprintable streetcar blocking his lane of traffic half a block away. He veers sharply to the left, hoping Motorist II in that lane will let him in. But Motorist II is one of those angry types who does not ever let anybody get in front him. To do so would be an affront to his manhood. He accelerates and hits Motorist I, who is now truly late to see the boss.

Motorist II is out of the car, screaming at Motorist I. Motorist I senses a foreign accent in Motorist II and calls him an unprintable racial slur. Motorist II understands enough English to be offended and makes a threatening gesture, and Motorist I, citing Florida’s “stand-your-ground law” reaches into his car for his Glock. Too late. Motorist II crouches and gets his .25 caliber Beretta out of his ankle holster and shoots Motorist I in the groin before the latter can even aim.

Staggering back in pain, Motorist I fires. He misses Motorist II but the bullet hits a pregnant woman coming out of a building across the street. Motorist II, getting over his road rage when he realizes the incident might lead to his deportation, runs to his car and tries to flee. But he can’t move in traffic because the streetcar coming the other way has everybody blocked. Panicking, he takes off on foot.

Suddenly thinking like a lawyer, he throws his gun away, aiming for a trash basket across the street. Under the stress of the situation, he forgets to bend his knees as on the foul line in his native Montenegro and hits the aerial of a car. As the weapon falls to the street, the impact causes it to fire, and the bullet goes up in the air and strikes a traffic helicopter rushing to report the scene. Unfortunately, it hits the chopper pilot, who loses control. The chopper plunges down and strikes the streetcar that started all the trouble. There is a fiery explosion. Fortunately, the trolley car is as usual almost empty, and only four people die. Unfortunately, none are attorneys.

OK, that series of events is not likely. Such things only happen in television ads. But it is not unthinkable that a streetcar blocking traffic could lead to some inappropriate decisions by motorists stuck behind it. And that would be the least of the problems associated with the proposed WAVE Streetcar in downtown Fort Lauderdale.

The real problem is that the proposed streetcar is a very expensive idea designed to help the rapidly worsening Fort Lauderdale traffic situation, but it more likely will just make things worse. Public opinion has been building against the idea, and Fort Lauderdale Commissioners are increasingly conflicted. Mayor Jack Seiler has pointed out the problems. Let’s hope his colleagues listen and wave off the WAVE.

This is not a bias against streetcars. We actually like them. Growing up in Philadelphia, we lived on a cobblestoned avenue that had two streetcar lines. They rattled in our dreams. Even as the original concept of sharing lanes with other traffic has been long abandoned around the country, streetcars still survive with the right concept. Where they are useful are new systems that provide dedicated lanes in congested downtown settings, combined with newly constructed tracks reaching out to suburban locations and high-traffic destinations such as airports.

Denver is an excellent example. Its electric vehicles have exclusive lanes (shown above). They move around faster than cars in the downtown, and then connect to existing railroads, or new rights of way, to serve communities outside the city. The airport connection makes six stops on the 25-mile route. It takes 37 minutes.

Fort Lauderdale’s application would make sense if the streetcars had dedicated lanes. But they won’t. Even the planned expansion to places such as the Davie education complex would share the road with cars and trucks. And it isn’t as if Fort Lauderdale has no alternative to reducing downtown traffic. More effective, infinitely cheaper and available without delay, would be the Chattanooga, Tennessee model. For decades a downtown shuttle has used small electric buses to solve the same problem as Fort Lauderdale faces. They are free in theory, although people can, and usually do, make a 25-cent contribution at a box at the main terminal at the railway station.

They produce no exhaust in a city with a serious air pollution problem, do not hold up traffic and are fun to ride. That idea is hardly new. Atlantic City has had its famous jitneys for a century. Like Chattanooga, they run so often that riders can almost always see one coming down the street. They also pass each other if they have no riders getting off. It is a popular and efficient system.

Fort Lauderdale’s problem seems to be a reluctance to back off after much time and planning has gone into the system. And apparently developers are pushing for it because it will ease parking requirements for their new (and traffic generating) high-rises, which only these developers seem to want.

Happily, Fort Lauderdale taxpayers seem to be getting the message—slowly. One hopes those in charge will do the same. Pray they have the good sense to WAVE it off.

 

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by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, June 20, 2017 No Comment(s)

If it is still running, and it probably will be, we plan to take the Auto Train later in the summer for maybe the 30th time. We don’t know the exact count, but we started using it in the early 1970s when it was launched as a private company. Amtrak did not take over until 1983. Since the 1990s, somebody in the family has ridden it every year; some years we took several trips, up and back. And not always in the summer. We took at least one round trip up for the Christmas holidays.

We obviously like the idea, and we have written about it a number of times, wondering why the concept has remained limited to just one route from central Florida to northern Virginia, close to Washington. It seems like an idea that would work on most of Amtrak’s long-distance routes.

In fact, the original Auto-Train Corporation did attempt to run a second train, after it began to make money on the initial route. It ran from its station in Sanford, northeast of Orlando, to Louisville, Kentucky. The concept seemed sound, but its engines proved too heavy for the poorly maintained track on the old Louisville and Nashville Railroad. It had derailments, followed by lawsuits. The railroad had warned of the danger of the heavy engines. The poorly executed expansion put the original company out of business in 1981, and several years later Amtrak took over. The train has been a success. It was profitable for years, and may still be. If not, it doesn’t lose much money, at least not by Amtrak’s standards.

We revisit the subject in response to the new proposed Trump budget that would cancel many of Amtrak’s trains, including Auto Train and the two regular long-distance trains that serve Florida from the northeast. We propose, as we have before, that instead of eliminating those unprofitable, but still useful long-distance trains, Amtrak combine them with auto trains. This is not an original thought. The original private Auto-Train Corporation planned to do it years ago, combining its Midwest auto train with “The Floridian,” a regular train from Chicago to Miami. Veteran rail observers may recall seeing that train, pulled by distinctive brown and orange Illinois Central diesels, on what are now the CSX tracks along Interstate 95.

The first step would be to return to the Midwest, using the existing Sanford facility to run an auto train not just to Louisville, but closer to the big Chicago market. In addition to carrying people and their cars, it would also carry carless passengers. To keep it fast (Auto Train often runs ahead of schedule) the stops would be only at major markets. Current Amtrak trains serve many small towns, but this idea would stop at only busier destinations. En route to a terminal south of Chicago, (Lafayette, Indiana seems about right) you could stop at Jacksonville, Macon, Atlanta, Chattanooga, Nashville, Louisville and Indianapolis. At 10 minutes per stop, that might add an hour or two to the trip. But so what, people on a train are not in a big hurry.

Initially, the train need not be daily. Again, train riders are not in a hurry. As traffic grows, the schedule could increase. A super terminal not too far south of Chicago could then serve as the starting point for most of Amtrak’s current long-distance trains. Five established Amtrak routes leave the Chicago area for the south and west coast. All those routes are longer than the current Auto Train (855 miles). The California Zephyr, from Chicago to near San Francisco, covers more than 2,000 miles, much of it through the spectacular Rockies and the Sierra Nevada mountains. Its 30 plus station stops could be cut in half, but include the population centers of Omaha, Lincoln, Denver, Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, Reno and Sacramento, along with a few of the more scenic vacation spots along the way. The trip currently takes a little more than two days. A few extra hours would hardly affect ridership.

On those long routes there would be the opportunity to add facilities to load and unload vehicles at least once. It is surprising how fast Amtrak crews (shown above) can do that right now. It would not appreciably delay the train and greatly add to its usefulness.

Ultimately we could see the idea working on the shorter eastern routes, using the Lorton, Virginia Auto Train terminal as a starting point for cross country auto trains along existing Amtrak routes to New Orleans and Chicago.

Would these hybrid trains make money? Probably not, but they surely would lose a lot less than they do now and likely cease the clamor to destroy a valuable national asset.

 

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by Bernard McCormick Thursday, June 15, 2017 No Comment(s)

This was a time when Larry King was still king of cable. We were doing a piece on the former Floridian for the Sun-Sentinel’s Sunday magazine. He had finished his TV show at the CNN headquarters in Washington and gone across the Potomac to Arlington, where he did a late night radio show. It was often about sports. During a commercial break he asked where we had gone to school. We told him, “La Salle.”

“I can see Tom Gola now in the Garden,” King blurted. “La Salle wore sleeves on their uniforms. What a ball player!”

Larry King was right on both counts. We mention him today for historical perspective on one of the great events in the history of modern sports. The Cleveland Cavaliers wore jerseys with sleeves in their NBA championship series with Golden State. The Cavs lost the series, but history will little note nor long remember that. What scholars centuries from now will record is that it marked the first time in anyone’s memory that a prominent basketball team dressed up to the occasion. LeBron James and his teammates brought back sleeves to basketball.

We predict that in the near future sleeves will make a comeback, taking us back to the glory days of the 1950s when Larry King was a teenager watching Tom Gola in Madison Square Garden. La Salle not only played better than almost any college team for several years; they also had everybody outdressed. With the sleeves, they won the National Invitational Tournament in 1952, when that was bigger than the NCAA Tournament. They won the NCAA in 1954, and were runner-up to San Francisco the next year. That loss wasn’t their uniforms' fault. They had San Francisco outdressed, but the Dons happened to have Bill Russell and K.C. Jones in the same lineup. Two future great pros. La Salle had only one. Sports Illustrated described La Salle as “four students and a basketball player.”

Outside of Philadelphia, where he was prominent as a coach and in politics (he was city controller) after his playing career, Tom Gola’s name may have faded. But he still holds the NCAA rebounding record more than 60 years after he played. He was just a tad under 6 feet 6 inches, although he seemed taller, and was reported as high as 6 feet 8 inches by those of us who exaggerate for a living. But he was that rare player who helped his team as much on defense as offense. They didn’t keep records of steals and pilfered passes in that era, but Gola was a master at that. He had great reflexes—both hand and foot speed. He was the Philadelphia high school 440 champion. It seemed on the basketball court that he moved faster running backward than other players did in forward motion. Those gifts made him a great rebounder. He just got to the ball faster.

The success of La Salle’s uniforms led a number of other teams to adopt that classy look in ensuing seasons. It wasn’t unusual to see a prominent team wearing sleeves in the latter ’50s and early 1960s. La Salle wore them for about 15 seasons. For a time Philadelphia rival St. Joseph's took up that look and did pretty well with it. Of course they had a great coach in Jack Ramsay. Why either team gave them up can only be explained by whoever let Notre Dame football dress like the GEICO gecko for a few novelty games in recent years.

One of the teams that adopted sleeves—in fact, a few years before La Salle—and kept them for decades, was Evansville. They got a lot of publicity out of their uniforms and wore them into the 1970s when their excuse for de-sleeving was that players complained they added weight. Their coach said they also hurt recruiting with some players who did not like them. The weight angle seems a little silly, considering at the same time basketball pants went from short-short to near wedding dress lengths.

If there is a drawback to sleeves, it is illustrated by the Cavaliers' recent presentation. Their uniforms were too tight fitting. It showed the muscular studs to good advantage, but LeBron James actually said he felt restricted. He only had 41 points and 13 rebounds in the final game. Back in La Salle’s day, the uniforms were a little less confining, and players not only were not turned off by the look, but also were delighted to look so pretty when they played in Penn’s Palestra.

It should be noted that as with everything else in modern sports, there is a mercantile component to this story. It has been reported that a uniform manufacturer is behind this throwback movement. It supplied not only the Cavaliers, but also some college teams in the NCAA Tournament with sleeved jerseys. The motive is obvious. We can expect to see all sorts of college, high school and even younger-age teams adopting the look of the pros they aspire to be. And there are always the fans who commit a large part of their gross income to acquiring every piece of apparel worn by their favorite teams. The jingle of the cash register can be heard around the world, or would be if we still had cash registers. 

The sleeves, like everything else in modern sports, are controversial. Some fans think they look awful. But some fans have awful taste. Welcome back sleeves to basketball. Now if only they’d start bouncing the ball again.

 

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by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, June 13, 2017 No Comment(s)

The weight of a compliment is directly proportional to the weight of the person giving it. Thus one of the most valued comments in our 56 years in the magazine business came from the late Dr. Abraham Fischler. We bumped into him at a luncheon a few years back. It was probably for Nova Southeastern University.

“You are one of the few guys in your business I respect,” he said. We had known the man casually from almost his first years at Nova in the early 1970s, but that accolade came as a very pleasant surprise. And we were pretty sure what motivated it. It wasn’t the long 1973 piece we wrote for Gold Coast magazine, in which Dr. Fischler was already being credited with saving the young university from bankruptcy. More likely he recalled columns we wrote for the Hollywood Sun-Tattler in the late 1980s.  By then Nova had a growing law school, had pioneered the off-campus degree program, which was widely imitated, and had begun developing medical programs, and other curricula that filled a community need. A school that had been viewed as an educational joke was turning into a real university.

But Dr. Fischler was upset that some of the new programs were being duplicated just across the road from Nova’s growing campus, at the satellite campus of Florida Atlantic University. As one who had been the key player in achieving the rare feat of making a new private university succeed in the 20th century, he naturally did not welcome such intimate competition from a state- supported institution.

We quoted him as saying there was no “educational” need for such state programs, at least not in South Florida, but there was an obvious “political” motive. Local legislators wanted to show the voters that they were doing something in Tallahassee. The Sun-Tattler, which expired in 1989, was little read outside of Hollywood. But it was an excellent little paper, and it was one of the few voices calling public attention to Nova’s legitimate complaint, and we gather our stuff had some influence. At least it mattered to Abe Fischler, who remembered it more than 20 years later.

Dr. Fischler died in April at 89, and to understand the importance of his luncheon compliment, one needs an appreciation of what Dr. Fischler achieved in his 50 years in South Florida. Among the dozens of people who contributed much to our economic and cultural development over the years, it is hard to think of anyone who took a more unlikely path to building something of such lasting value to the area.

In 1967 Abraham Fischler arrived at what was then called the Nova University of Advanced Technology. It was 300 acres of almost empty fields. He had a doctorate from Columbia and professorships at Harvard and the University of California at Berkley. He was attracted to a concept of a school exploring new ways of teaching science. But the school had blown through the money generously supplied by local families. At one time it had 17 professors and only four students. It still had dedicated supporters, including Hamilton Forman, whose family donated the land in Davie, James Farquhar, William Horvitz, Mary McCahill, Louis Parker, Abe Mailman, Edwin F. Rosenthal and Theresa Castro. But the average South Florida resident barely knew it existed. Some people mixed it up with Nova High School.

The founding president was a charming man, and great fun at a party, but he did not view part of his job as raising money he was freely spending. Nova had been launched with the support of both Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood leading families—two groups that previously had not often worked together. It had launched some promising programs—cancer research and oceanography among them— but it had very few paying customers. When its first students graduated in 1970, some thought it might be the last class. Dr. Fischler was asked to take over the Titanic that same year. He knew so little about business that he called on Hollywood’s Abe Mailman, to show him how to read a balance sheet. Money was so short he had to hold faculty checks. He had to innovate in ways he had never foreseen.

While cutting costs, he also cut a deal with New York Institute of Technology, whose wealthy founder, Dr. Alexander Schure, an education innovator himself, was able to fund the school. One of Fischler’s first moves was launching the law school and an off-campus program offering doctoral degrees for educators. Many, this writer included, considered that a cheap degree. Some of the school’s earliest supporters were turned off, both by the association with NYIT, a school they had never heard of, and by the off-campus programs, which they considered little more than correspondence courses. The idea, however, has since been imitated by major schools. And it saved NSU, which by 1973 was in the black. Cy Young, one of the school’s early trustees, summed up Dr. Fischler at the time:

“He’s a remarkable man. He’s a scholar, he’s a scientist, he’s an expert in education. And it turns out he’s also a damned fine administrator. And that’s very unusual, to find those qualities combined in one man.”

He displayed those versatile qualities until he retired in 1992, by which time the relationship with the New York school had ended, and NSU had 11,000 students and multiple campuses. The once empty field was now a busy and spectacular campus. He had attracted a second generation of benefactors. Their names are on the buildings and other facilities— Huizenga, Goodwin, DeSantis, Moran, Maltz, Case, Miniaci.

Dr. Abraham Fischler also has a building named for him. But his real monument is much larger. It is called Nova Southeastern University.

Peter Thornton, NSU's founding law school dean, posed on the future site of the school in 1983. Most of the now busy campus was still empty fields.

Photography by J. Schoonmaker

 


by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, May 23, 2017 No Comment(s)

As Septembers go, that month in 1970 was pretty hectic. I had officially told my boss at Philadelphia magazine that I was leaving to get involved with a magazine in Florida. I was also helping Philadelphia magazine take over a chamber of commerce magazine in Boston.

Between trips to Florida, I spent several days in Boston to help my boss get started in what was to prove a long but ultimately successful effort to make Boston magazine the excellent publication it is today.

That same month I was also working on a major freelance piece for The New York Times Sunday magazine, an assignment I had taken on before knowing about events in Florida and Boston. I spent nights traveling the bad streets of West Philadelphia with the city’s elite highway patrol, following a weekend in which one police officer had been killed and three others wounded in what seemed like an organized assault on the cops by a group called the Black Panthers. It turned out that wasn’t the case, but that wasn't known until later. In the meantime, The New York Times wanted a piece on the war on cops. It was too good a credit to pass up.

And somehow in that memorable pinball September, there was time to go to New York to do a piece for Philadelphia on Roger Ailes. Ailes, who died last week in Palm Beach, was decades away from becoming one of the most powerful men in American media, but he already had serious visibility in Philadelphia. At a young age he had become a very successful producer of the popular “The Mike Douglas Show,” and had moved with it from Ohio to Philadelphia.

But what put him on the national map was his starring role in Joe McGinniss’ best-selling book, The Selling Of The President 1968. McGinniss had been a hot, young columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer when he quit to get an insider’s look at the presidential campaign of Richard Nixon. It was a gamble to give up an enviable newspaper job to follow the campaign, hoping for a unique book. It was a gamble that paid off richly, not only for McGinniss but also for Roger Ailes.

Ailes, at only 27, had met Nixon when he appeared on the "Douglas Show." He had brashly told Nixon, who considered television a “gimmick,” that he would never be president if he did not learn to use TV. Nixon took him seriously, hiring him as a media consultant, in the process inventing a new business. With Joe McGinniss lurking in the background, Ailes went on to produce a dramatic victory. As I wrote in 1970:

“The Selling of a President was the bombshell of the non-fiction season, heading the best-seller list for four months and earning Joe McGinniss an estimated $500,000. Revealing the callous Madison Avenue techniques behind the Nixon campaign, the book portrayed Richard Nixon as an image carefully constructed from the wreckage of the old Richard Nixon. It described how protectively his managers kept their candidate insulated from the public in a germ-proof tent, waging a television campaign with live, rigged audiences who did not expose Nixon to the turmoil and harangue that characterized the hapless campaigns of Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace. If you disliked Richard Nixon to begin with, the book made you hate the man.”

But we added: “Not so Roger Ailes. If there was a hero in McGinniss’ book, it was Roger Ailes. Ailes came across as a driving, intelligent professional who ran the guts of the campaign, the television appearances, and provided moments of amusement with his irreverent and profane observations.”

Here’s one example. Keep in mind that Ailes is describing the man he was working for in the campaign, who by then had been elected president of the United States:

“Let’s face it,” Ailes is quoted in the book, “a lot of people think Nixon is dull. Think he’s a bore, a pain in the ass. They look at him as the kind of kid who always carried a bookbag. Who was 42 years old the day he was born. They figure other kids got footballs for Christmas, Nixon got a briefcase and he loved it. He’d always have his homework done and he’d never let you copy.”

Ailes was understandably surprised when he saw such quotes in the book.

“Oh, I laughed like hell the first time I read it,” he told me. “But I was also shocked. I thought, 'That dirty bastard. He really screwed me.'”

Nixon never commented to Ailes on the book. Instead, two months after its publication, he hired him again. Joe McGinniss turned out to have launched Roger Ailes’ ship of fame. The men became friendly; Ailes gave McGinniss some coaching for his TV appearances, even when they appeared jointly when McGinniss was promoting his book. Ailes realized McGinniss was also promoting himself. They remained in touch until McGinniss’ death in 2014. By then Ailes had 20 years experience as an expert political consultant, and another two decades as the celebrated and feared co-founder of Fox News.

His years of studying political figures and molding their television personas led him to make some savvy personnel choices. He hired Chris Matthews, who had little TV experience at the time, for the predecessor cable network to MSNBC. Ailes did not stay long after he could not control its programming. He had a lot more success at Fox, where he had total command. Among his hires was Bill O’Reilly.

I did not emphasize it in the 1970 story, but even then it was known that Ailes considered the media too liberal. He only worked for Republicans and it was known for years that his goal was to balance what he considered Democratic dominance of the media by establishing a Republican network. There was just a hint of that in my story.

“Ailes now goes out of his way to portray television as the most honest medium, the one in which the essential man comes through. He likes the phrase “truth television” and he insists that President Nixon’s 1968 successful television campaign was the real Nixon, expertly directed and counseled, of course."

We know now that that was an outrageous lie, and it foreshadowed his “fair and balanced” slogan for Fox News. That is only believed by those for whom Fox is the one true church.

In last week’s obituary, The Palm Beach Post summed up Fox News’ reputation among the rest of the lying media: “From its debut on Oct. 7, 1996, the network, under his (Ailes) tutelage, did its share of straightforward reporting but also unmistakably filtered major news stories through a conservative lens. Evening programming, which embodied the Fox News brand, was dominated by right-wing commentators like Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, who hurled opinions and vented resentments with a pugnacity that reflected their boss’s own combativeness.”

That combativeness was not so obvious in 1970. Ailes at 30 looked nothing like the shambling corpulent tyrant of later years who has been described as crudely dominating, and who lost his powerful position when accused of sexual harassment. A pipe smoker in his early years, he came off more as a reflective professorial type, except for his self-description:

“I’d say that more people dislike me than like me,” he says with a trace of pride. “A lot of people think I’m a little bastard. I’m aggressive, I’m hard driving, I’m impatient. I’ve found that I work best with these qualities.”

It is the irony of ironies that in the week Roger Ailes died, Fox News had one of its worst weeks ever. It has always been a clear winner in the evening ratings, but for the first time in more than a decade both MSNBC and CNN led Fox in the prime time. The reason is that Fox was at its biased worst. When stories were breaking daily about President Trump firing an FBI director who was investigating his possible ties with Russia, Fox chose not only to downplay that major event, but actually to have its commentators and guests bemoaning the leaks in Washington and accusing its competing networks and prominent newspapers of a conspiracy to destroy President Trump with biased reporting.

Apparently, a number of its viewers abandoned Fox’s fair and balanced presentation to switch channels to the rival lying media, simply to find out what was going on in the real world. Roger Ailes must be turning over in his freshly dug grave.


by Bernard McCormick Friday, May 19, 2017 No Comment(s)

For the inexplicable, it is hard to top what is going on in South Florida, unless you count Washington. There is little we can do about Washington, not since our fairest daughter stopped working in Congress, but at least we can offer a little support for those voices that are having a hard time being heard in the South Florida forest of high buildings.

The Sun-Sentinel, with fewer readers, and fewer resources (namely reporters) every year, has done some notable recent work on the subject everybody is complaining about—the sudden and infuriating increase in traffic throughout the area. Several weeks ago the newspaper had a strong Sunday editorial on the proposed mall in western Dade County. This is a sprawling development (the paper called it a “monster mall”), billed as a major tourist attraction even larger than Disney World, which seems to enjoy near-unanimous support of Dade County leadership.

The paper pointed out that its location promises to affect Broward more than Dade, and yet Broward’s government has no say in the matter.  “American Dream Miami” is close to the Broward County line, and most of its traffic is likely to come from the north rather than south. But the Sun-Sentinel blames Gov. Rick Scott for killing the state’s growth management agency, leaving Broward without a say in the matter.

In supporting this project, Miami-Dade commissioners parrot our maniacal-looking governor who is obsessed with growth and jobs and doesn’t worry about the environment at all. What Broward officials can do something about, but don’t seem anxious to, is control the building going on in and around Fort Lauderdale. The traffic congestion, which civic associations warned about several years ago, became a reality this past season. Even as the snowbirds draft north, it doesn’t seem to make much difference as major intersections in the downtown are often gridlocked. It is hard to understate the anger this is producing in the neighborhoods surrounding the city’s business core and among workers moving in and out downtown offices. In many cases, the traffic jam begins in their parking lots and gets worse with every traffic light.

Our magazine company has employees traveling from northwest Broward and central Palm Beach County who come in early (one arrives at 6 a.m.) and leave in mid-afternoon. They effectively cut their travel time in half. Alas, most workers can’t do that, and they find themselves increasingly in the same situation that many of them left northern cities to escape.

That situation keeps getting worse. The building frenzy seems to intensify with every report (and they are getting frequent) that the ocean is rising even faster than the experts had predicted. It seems that the faster the ice cap melts, the faster it melts, and the faster the seas rise, and the faster developers rush to get new buildings up and sold—before people become aware that their Florida dream condo might be inaccessible, not a century from now, but possibly in their lifetimes.

The result, particularly obvious in Fort Lauderdale, is that instead of preserving open space and foliage to absorb water, the opposite is happening. Modest, single story houses with lawns and tree canopy are being knocked down for townhouses or apartments, often several stories high, enormously increasing the number of people, and their cars, in the same space. Worse are the increasingly taller buildings already built or approved, adding thousands of new residents (and vehicles) to streets that can’t handle the present demands.

University of Miami climate change expert Dr. Harold Wanless, among those predicting a water disaster sooner rather than later, has summed it up classically.

“They’re building like there’s no tomorrow,” he wrote. “And they’re right.”

The tone of the Sun-Sentinel’s editorials has been notably restrained, considering how upset their non-readers are. People find little comfort in the proposed solutions—a streetcar, which will make matters worse by blocking a lane of traffic on some of the busiest streets, and even narrowing some streets to make them more bicycle and pedestrian friendly. One official has been quoted as saying the city will force people to get out of their cars. Fat chance. You think people are going to walk or ride a bicycle a few miles on a humid August day? Not unless they have a locker room and shower at their workplace.

The one idea that will help, but not much, is moving some Tri-Rail trains to the far more convenient FEC Railway tracks. That corridor is positioned to become a very busy commuter line, much to the distress of the marine industry, which would be plagued with more drawbridge closings. But the number of riders abandoning cars would not offset the numbers of additional vehicles associated with new development. Those downtown residents aren’t traveling far enough to become rail commuters.

The good news is that the anger of residents is starting to have an effect. Two controversial developments are now stalled. The Bahia Mar redo and the Galleria Mall expansion have drawn fierce opposition from neighborhoods where a lot of influential people live. They just don’t want any more traffic. More recently, the proposal for a zoning change for a large property on Davie Boulevard, which already has some of the worst traffic in the county, faces similar opposition.

And it just isn’t moving vehicles creating stress. All the new residents are too much for parking lots. A restaurant owner complains that although new buildings generate business, “parking is a nightmare. People can’t get to us.” The situation at one shopping center is so bad that cars line up on streets waiting to get into parking lots. Some drivers have taken to parking in a bank’s drive-through lanes.

The simple fact is that the city’s oldest, and in most cases most pleasant neighborhoods, simply were not built to accommodate dramatic density increases. Restaurants and other businesses on Las Olas Boulevard have been allowed without adequate parking. Workers and customers have been parking on the quiet adjacent streets to the annoyance of homeowners who sometimes can’t park in front of their own houses. Many have planted trees or installed concrete spikes in swales to prevent people from parking. Still, the old oak-shaded Colee Hammock neighborhood has taken the extreme step of seeking permit parking on streets near Las Olas. That would bar everyone but residents and their guests. Businesses on that busy strip are naturally opposed. A hearing scheduled for this week was canceled by the city at the last minute. That tells you something by itself. Stay tuned. On your car radio.

 

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by Bernard McCormick Friday, April 14, 2017 No Comment(s)

In defense of Bill O’Reilly, we can say without fear of contradiction that never once during his brief association with our magazines in the early 1970s was he ever accused of sexual harassment. In truth, we had no female employees to harass, but even if we had, in those days it would more likely have been  aggressive women harassing him, than the other way around. He was a charming, intelligent, good-looking young dude.


We use the word “association” in terms of O’Reilly because he was not an employee. For a brief time he freelanced for Miami Magazine, which we owned in 1972. He walked in unannounced to the Coconut Grove office and told our editor, Gaeton Fonzi, that he was our new film critic. Fonzi liked his brash style and took him on, probably for our usual freelance fee: nothing. O’Reilly’s time in Miami was brief, but long enough that he and Fonzi remained in touch for years. O’Reilly was teaching at Monsignor Edward Pace High School. We also had the impression, although it is not confirmed on his internet biography, that he was doing grad work at the University of Miami.

We only met him a few times and were surprised one night a few years ago when he mentioned us on his broadcast. He was coming to Palm Beach for an event, and we were a media sponsor. The man he really knew was Fonzi, with whom he kept in touch from his various stops along the way to national prominence. Fonzi got a note from him in Denver where he said the problem with being on TV is that he couldn’t even go to a dirty movie anymore. We might add that the Bill O’Reilly of those days hardly seemed like the moralizing conservative he degenerated into when he made the big time.


It was a stop in Dallas that reconnected O’Reilly and Fonzi in an interesting way. We had sold Miami Magazine in 1975, and Fonzi had gone to work for Congress in the reopened investigation of the President Kennedy assassination. In Dallas, O’Reilly was a rising star and took an interest in the assassination. He was following Fonzi’s work, which became increasingly dramatic when Fonzi discovered a link between Lee Harvey Oswald and a high-ranking CIA officer—a man very active in the anti-Castro movement in South Florida.

In 1977 Fonzi learned that a man named George de Mohrenschildt, who had been close to Oswald in Dallas, was visiting in the Palm Beach area. We now know de Mohrenschildt was a CIA operative who appears to have been Oswald’s “handler.” Fonzi wanted to reach him. Through the Palm Beach Social Register (in our office) he found the address of the family at whose Manalapan home de Mohrenschildt was staying.
He wasn’t home when Fonzi showed up the same day, but Fonzi left his card. When de Mohrenschildt returned and saw the card, he went upstairs and blew his brains out. That afternoon an excited O’Reilly called from Dallas and said he was flying in the next morning to cover the story. He wanted to know where Fonzi would be and Fonzi said to reach him at the magazine. That was our magazine office.

In retrospect, it is obvious de Mohrenschildt was tormented by the guilt of having been indirectly involved in the death of a president. He had been threatening suicide for some time. O’Reilly was in Dallas when it happened. The importance is that in his 2012 book, Killing Kennedy, O’Reilly wrote that he was at the Manalapan home and heard the gunshot when the man killed himself.

Fonzi was dead by the time O’Reilly published that claim, but his wife Marie, who never liked O’Reilly, was very much alive. Furious, she produced a tape of the phone call O’Reilly had made from Dallas. It attracted national attention and became just one more in a series of criticisms of O’Reilly’s tendency to enlarge his role by distorting events he covered, and misstatements about important subjects in his books. The respected columnist George Will excoriated him, writing  that “his vast carelessness pollutes history.”

Fonzi remained friendly with O’Reilly for the rest of his life. He actually helped O’Reilly make contact with a TV executive in New York in 1980—the beginning of his rise as a cable news star. Fonzi admired O’Reilly’s success, but was disappointed in his work at Fox News, which he considered corrupt. He summed it up: “Bill took the money.”

We don’t know how much of the harassment stuff is true. Maybe there is some exaggeration, but obviously not on O’Reilly’s part. It may turn out taking the money was not a bad idea. It looks like he may need it.

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by Bernard McCormick Tuesday, March 28, 2017 No Comment(s)

The teaser on the Internet said only one in 50 people could pass this Civil War test. Thus challenged, we passed easily with 50 of 61 answers right. That was only fair, for we began studying the Civil War before we started grade school, looking at fat history books our late grandfather had owned that featured beautiful lithographs of battle scenes, with neat columns of Confederates all dressed in smart gray uniforms, and only a few fellows lying around wounded, none dressed like ragged scarecrows, which many Confederates were, or with their heads blown off, as actually happened in the real fight.

Some of the test questions were easy; others, such as “How much did a Union army private make a month?” were very difficult. A number were just tricky and took some guessing. They were multiple choice, and one question was to name the cause of the war. “Slavery” was the only answer that made sense. That, however, was only a partially correct answer. More on that to follow.

Anyway, our score qualifies us to an opinion on the ongoing fight in Hollywood to rename three streets bearing the names of Confederate generals—Robert E. Lee, John Bell Hood and Nathan Bedford Forrest (shown above in his riding outfit). Members of the black community tend to resent all three and don’t think they deserve the petty honor of a street name. It shows that 152 years next month after the Civil War ended, many people don’t understand it. It’s why the Confederate battle flag is regarded in some quarters as the equivalent of the Nazi swastika.

For starters, the Civil War had two causes. Slavery was obviously the economic cause. But the political cause, which applied to the great majority of southern soldiers, was states’ rights. So people on both sides of that old argument are right.

We forget over the years that until the Civil War there had been an ongoing debate over state government versus federal control. The states were not a true union. From the birth of the country, they were more a confederation of states with a common interest (independence from foreign powers and economic interdependence), but there were also many divisions. For instance, there were minor wars fought over boundaries.

Because so many religious groups settled in early communities, states took on sectarian complexions. Many, if not most people, considered their first loyalty to their home state, not to Washington, D.C.  Laws were not uniform. At the time of the Revolutionary War, slavery was legal in the north, if not very common. Over the next three decades, the northern states one by one banned the practice. New Jersey did not abolish slavery until 1804. Slavery was much more part of the southern agrarian economy, and there was constant tension between the sections. The South simply did not think the North had a right to tell it what to do. The war settled that question. Historian Shelby Foote put it succinctly: He said before the Civil War it was “the United States are” but after, the expression became “the United States is.”

That the South believed that the states were independent was demonstrated throughout the war, as governors fought with Confederate president Jefferson Davis. They felt Davis was repeating what they had rebelled against. The governor of Georgia refused to let some of its militia fight, until Georgia itself was threatened. North Carolina hoarded uniforms and supplies for its own troops. Davis felt the lack of union and support caused the Southern defeat.

Ironically, we can appreciate that attitude right now, on a local scale. North and Central Florida interests dominate Florida, despite the fact that South Florida has the largest population and pays most of the taxes. Tallahassee is interfering with our lives on several fronts. Right now there is legislation proposed, which takes control of decisions affecting our cities away from county and city governments, giving it instead to the state. Local media and governments are uniformly upset over this possibility, which includes the potential to take vital zoning decisions away from local government. We face potential water problems because Tallahassee is interfering with efforts to acquire land for water storage south of Lake Okeechobee. There is even a threat to local rail transportation, including the fast train from Miami to Orlando, and Tri-Rail’s promising future, because the state can spike funding efforts, and some legislators are trying to do just that. Efforts to deal with the epidemic of gun violence face similar obstacles from Florida’s redneck wing.

It won’t come to civil war, but you get the point. Why should people hundreds of miles removed from our problems have a say about efforts to cure them? On an infinitely larger scale, that was the attitude of the southern states in 1861. When war came, it was a neighborhood battle, and with few exceptions, men fought for their neighborhoods.

Which brings us to the generals. Robert E. Lee is considered by any serious historian to be an admirable American. He, and many in Virginia were reluctant rebels. Many opposed secession. Lee, in particular, had much to lose and did. His home, now part of Arlington National Cemetery, had a spectacular view looking down across the Potomac River toward the Capitol. He had plans to free his slaves. But he felt his first loyalty was to Virginia, which he served with honor and brilliance. His willingness to sign the oath of loyalty to the Union after his defeat helped heal the wounds of that epic conflict. Many other southern leaders followed his lead. He not only deserves a street in his name, but a college—and he has a distinguished one—Washington and Lee.

Lee was typical of almost all-important military figures. They stayed with their native states. A notable exception was Lee’s fellow Virginian, Gen. George Thomas, “the rock of Chickamauga.” He despised slavery and fought with the North and was considered a traitor by his own family. Gen. John Pemberton, the southern commander at the Siege of Vicksburg, was a Philadelphian who joined the southern cause because his wife was from Virginia, and he had served mostly in the south. He was never really trusted by many Confederates because of his Yankee background, and after the war when he moved back to Philadelphia, he was understandably unpopular, so much so that prominent citizens objected to his burial in a cemetery there.

John Bell Hood was a brave, bold but unfortunate general. He lost the battle of Atlanta. He made some foolishly aggressive moves with an outnumbered army, but he also had bad luck. On two occasions he almost became a hero but had near misses. He lost the use of an arm at Gettysburg, and had a leg amputated almost to the hip after being wounded at Chickamauga a year later. After the war, he lost his insurance business in New Orleans when a yellow fever epidemic hit. He and his wife also lost their lives in the process. Does the poor bloke really deserve another loss in a place that did not exist during his lifetime?

Nathan Bedford Forrest is the only one of the three generals who is truly controversial. A superb cavalry leader, he rose from private to general during the war, and only afterward was his military contribution fully appreciated.  Shelby Foote wrote that the war produced two geniuses—Forrest and Abraham Lincoln.

The knock on him is that before the war he had been a slave trader (among other businesses), and his men were associated with one of the worst massacres of the war. Moreover, after the war, he was a founder of the Ku Klux Klan. What is often forgotten, however, is that he also helped shut down the Klan just a few years later when what was started as a political organization to combat excesses of the Reconstruction era became a violent movement. The KKK was to be reborn several times after his death, but that was not his fault. Indeed, some southerners criticized him after he made an 1875 speech to a black audience in which he spoke with affection toward blacks and urged harmony between the races. In short, he wasn’t as bad as he looks, especially to modern black leaders.

It all goes back to a misunderstanding of history. Our advice to Hollywood is to require all citizens who voice an opinion on street changes to take the Internet Civil War test. Anybody who scores 60 percent or better is entitled to an opinion. Wait, make that 50 percent. It's not an easy test, and everybody doesn't have the advantage of our grandfather's books.

 

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