The extension of the new Brightline train to Miami on the historic FEC Railway corridor is a giant step in making the new service realize its potential. Brightline gave its spectacular new Miami station a splashy opening two weeks ago when it ran a VIP trip along the 60-plus-mile route. We were just as impressed with this trip as we were with our ride to West Palm Beach a few weeks earlier. To go from downtown Fort Lauderdale to the heart of Miami in a little more than 30 minutes was hard to believe—even for some veteran railroad experts who flew in from around the country for the occasion.
To put that speed in perspective, a few days before we drove from Fort Lauderdale to Worth Avenue in Palm Beach. We left at 7:30 a.m., hoping to get ahead of Interstate 95 rush hour traffic. Fat chance. We arrived at 9:05 a.m., five minutes late for our meeting. It took almost 20 minutes just to get to I-95.
The guests on the trip to Miami included a number of political types who were in a separate car from us media folks. But we did get a chance to introduce ourselves to Broward County State Attorney Michael Satz before boarding the train. Unfortunately, it wasn’t Satz, and the man we harassed graciously said the misidentification has happened before.
It was just as well that they kept the Pharisees separate from the scribes, for we had a chance to talk to several visiting passenger rail experts, all of whom were effusive in their praise for Brightline. They agreed the station itself is an architectural knockout, built on what used to be the FEC’s freight yard. Although thoroughly modern, it includes a salute to the old classic stations with a soaring glass ceiling atrium (above). It is the heart of a complex still under construction—six blocks of high-rise offices, residences and retail facilities. Those familiar with Philadelphia, where Penn Center has more than a dozen tall buildings over an underground station that was once on elevated tracks, can appreciate the concept. Another example is New York City, where Madison Square Garden was built on the site of the old Penn Station above subterranean tracks. Those railroads created their own destinations. The same will happen in Miami when thousands of workers, residents and shoppers will be drawn to the MiamiCentral Station, many of them arriving by rail.
What impressed the pros we met just as much, however, was the planning that brought the three significant rail lines in South Florida together at one hub. The platform for Brightline is adjacent to one that will be used by Tri-Rail when that 20-year old commuter train is routed from its existing tracks on the westerly CSX, and (longer range) if some Tri-Trains are shifted to the FEC farther north in Broward County. Both those events will bring thousands of commuters to downtown Miami.
Adding to the convenience is the fact that the elevated Metrorail tracks are so close to the new station that a walkway is planned to connect them. That will enable commuters to quickly reach parts of the downtown too far to walk to from MiamiCentral, and even take them another 20 miles as far south as Kendall.
It is an irony, and not an attractive one, that at the same time this futuristic development in South Florida is taking form, another event in the making appears to offset such progress by repeating the errors of the past. We are seeing the reckless kind of building that makes transportation advances such as Brightline so badly needed.
We speak of the massive American Dream Mall, which was just approved by the Miami-Dade Commission. This is billed to become the country’s largest mall, entertainment and retail complex, which will be surrounded by a large, new housing development. Only one of 13 Miami-Dade commissioners voted against it, despite the fact that it has raised concerns about destroying even more wetlands on the edge of the endangered Everglades, and worries Broward County leaders that it will drastically increase traffic in the southwest part of the county. In fact, with a projected 70,000 vehicle trips per day, it will generate traffic everywhere in South Florida because the tens of thousands of visitors that are expected at the new complex will have to use major roads to get there. It is far from Brightline or any other mass transit system. It is just beyond the Broward County line and will likely affect us more than Dade. The American Dream could become a Broward nightmare.
As usual, the developer says it won’t affect traffic that much, and new roads will solve the problem. That is absurd and everybody knows it. They said all the new high-rises in downtown Fort Lauderdale would not impact traffic, and now we see how untrue that claim was.
Piling irony upon irony, as the papers were reporting the American Dream Mall story, they were carrying a major feature, “The Invading Sea,” on the threat of rising sea levels. Three papers—the Miami Herald, Sun-Sentinel and Palm Beach Post—all carried the series. It was capped off with Sunday editorials headlined “Wake up, S. Florida! Speak up on sea-level rise.” The papers almost screamed at readers to shake elected officials out of their ignorance, lethargy—or both—about the urgency of the situation. They even listed contact information for five of the most influential leaders.
So, at a time when efforts should be made to conserve water absorbing open land and foliage, we continue to add to the problem by paving over every available piece of land, permitting huge developments and converting open spaces such as golf courses to houses. Wake up Florida indeed. Before your bed floats away.
Those of us survivors who have followed the history of the Kennedy assassination and its controversial aftermath are finally getting some answers to questions that popped up soon after that tragic day 55 years ago. Or, more accurately, we are getting clues to answers, if not direct answers themselves.
One of the troubling aspects of the assassination has been the lack of action by major news outlets in questioning the official government version that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. Sure, there have been a plethora of books and articles written challenging that conclusion, but very little of that activity began with major news outlets. Television and newspapers merely reported what private investigators had uncovered.
That strange silence began even before the Warren Commission issued its 1964 report. No less an institution than The New York Times praised the work of the Warren Commission, but it took some time before skeptical researchers discovered that the Times’ assessment came before anyone on its staff has actually seen the full report—the 26 volumes of evidence that were full of inconsistencies and testimony from numerous witnesses that the commission chose to ignore.
Over the years major news organizations have seemed reluctant to accept conspiracy theories, even as they reported on them in detail. And in some cases, major newspapers have simply ignored dramatic information that appeared right under their noses.
We saw this up close and personal when our former employer, Philadelphia Magazine, printed one of the first articles casting doubt on the Warren Commission’s work. In 1966 Gaeton Fonzi interviewed Arlen Specter, the man who came up with the notorious “single bullet theory”—an idea necessary to support the single gunman conclusion. It was a long, detailed article, which created quite a stir locally when Specter could not explain his own theory. It actually led 10 years later to Fonzi being hired by Pennsylvania Sen. Richard Schweiker to take part in the reopened investigation of the crime.
However, at the time, the Philadelphia papers ignored Fonzi’s work. Specter continued to get favorable publicity as the man who had proved how a lone gunman killed a president. His growing reputation led to election as a U.S. Senator, an office he held for 30 years. There have been other examples over the years of important media ignoring stories in their own markets. One of the most glaring again involved Gaeton Fonzi. By then he had joined us in Florida as editor of Miami Magazine, which was sold in 1975. That’s when Sen. Schweiker contacted him to work for the government.
In late 1979, with five years of work behind him, Fonzi published a two-part article in Gold Coast magazine and The Washingtonian. The latter was an important magazine in the nation’s capital, and Fonzi had unusual credibility. He was now an insider who had dealt directly with the CIA and saw the agency’s efforts to sabotage any legitimate inquiry. In his articles, which later became “The Last Investigation,” regarded as one of the best books on the subject, Fonzi vented over the failure of two congressional committees to answer the question of who killed JFK. He had discovered a strong CIA connection to Oswald in the form of a high-ranking CIA officer who was heavily involved in anti-Castro activities in South Florida, but the House Select Committee on Assassinations, pressed for time and money, never fully followed up on that dramatic revelation.
Gold Coast could not have played the story any bigger (see cover above), but the local South Florida papers never mentioned it. The same thing happened in Washington, where Washingtonian was long established and highly influential. It sensationalized the story with a provocative cover, which resulted in the CIA officer suing for libel. He lost, but the magazine spent a lot of money defending itself. Despite all this, the former Washingtonian editor, Jack Limpert, said The Washington Post never carried a line about the story. Keep in mind the timing. This was almost 10 years after the Post showed great courage in breaking the Watergate story. More than strange.
Which brings us to the point. In recent years it has become known that major newspapers had CIA connections at the time of the Kennedy assassination. It only made sense. Reporters were stationed around the world. It was their job to have contacts that the intelligence community would find helpful, especially in places such as South Florida with all its Cuban anti-Castro activity. It did not mean that reporters were paid agents of the CIA, but it did mean they might sense a patriotic obligation to help gather intelligence when asked. And, quid pro quo, the CIA could be a valuable source of information to them. They had to be on good terms to keep up with the competition.
The fact that some reporters even had CIA code names was revealed years ago. It has long been known that the Miami News, which expired in the late 1980s, had one such reporter. Hal Hendrix impressed colleagues with his inside information on intelligence activities in Cuba and Latin America. He even won the Pulitzer Prize. But he blew his cover in 1963 when he revealed a CIA-sponsored coup in the Dominican Republic—the day before it actually happened.
And just last week the Miami Herald broke the news that among recently declassified Kennedy Assassination documents were several references to two of its own former reporters having CIA connections. Kevin Hall, a much-honored editor who works for McClatchy Newspapers out of Washington, D.C., revealed in a full page piece that the two Herald reporters, Don Bohning and Al Burt, now both dead, had CIA clearances and were assigned code names. Both covered Latin America at one time, and Burt later wrote prominent columns in the paper. Does this mean their contact with the agency was anything but normal for men in their position? Hall does not know. But it does support researchers who as early as 2005 claimed the CIA had friends at the Miami papers who could be counted on to keep some stories quiet, while promulgating others.
The more cynical among us—those close to important stories such as Fonzi’s, which were ignored by local papers—suspect that the CIA influence went beyond the newsroom grunts, and may have involved high levels of management. The initial reaction of The New York Times to the Warren Commission Report is one example. Perhaps a better one was the legendary The Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, a friend of President Kennedy. You would expect him to be a leader of the charge when the doubts about the Warren Commission were first publicized. But he was also the brother-in-law of a high-ranking CIA officer and was close to the agency’s top leadership. He would have been reluctant to associate his social friends with such a terrible crime. In an interview with David Talbot for his 2007 book Brothers, Bradlee admitted that when the first questions about the assassination arose in the mid-1960s, he was new to his job and concerned about his career. But that insecurity does not explain why his newspaper was silent when Fonzi’s magazine article roiled Washington 15 years later, after his paper’s brilliant Watergate work, and he had become a hero played by look-alike Jason Robards in the film “All The President’s Men.”
Bradlee is gone now, so we will never know his true thoughts. All we are left with are clues. And the clues keep coming. Perhaps someday they will lead to answers.
Image: Gold Coast magazine's November 1980 cover.
One by one, friends have been testing the new Brightline service on the Florida East Coast Railway between Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach. Uniformly, they have given the fast train rave reviews. Last week, courtesy of Brightline, our editorial staff got to ride the train. Our verdict: Those rave reviews are right on.
The latest, and easily the most influential, comes from Trains Magazine, longtime (since 1940) bible of rail transportation. In a sprawling 10-page article with 20 photographs and illustrations, the magazine applauded Brightline for its meticulous planning and innovation. “Florida trains could rewrite book on U.S. passenger service” was the lead subhead. That’s impressive praise in a magazine that has not been shy about criticizing its industry.
We scheduled our trip before we saw this tribute. We planned a lunch meeting with our Palm Beach county publishers at City Cellar, located in City Place within walking distance of the new Brightline station. That meant catching the 11:55 a.m. train from downtown Fort Lauderdale’s station, just north of Broward Boulevard. The train pulled out on time and arrived in West Palm Beach at 12:30 p.m. That was just enough time for Ali Soule, director of public affairs for Brightline, who graciously hosted our little group, to give us a detailed briefing on the service, including some hints at expansion possibilities.
First, the stations are not your grandfather’s train terminals. They feature the latest technology in buying tickets and have airport-style baggage checks. Passengers wait in comfortable lounges, where you can enjoy a drink, soft or otherwise, and reach the platforms by escalators.
The train itself is a beautiful job, a consist (four permanently connected passenger units with sleek engines at both ends) built by Siemens in California. It is an upgraded version of trains we have ridden in Ireland—wildly colorful on the outside, very comfortable inside, with seats that face each other with a table in between. You will see a lot of laptop activity on this train. The ride to Palm Beach is as fast as permitted by law, 79 miles per hour, although it did not go that fast leaving busy downtown Fort Lauderdale. I guess we hit about 50 until the train cleared the busiest intersections. Then it opened up and rarely slowed for the next 40 miles.
The ride is as smooth as railroads get. That is partly the design of the equipment, but also is due to the excellent FEC Railway roadbed, recognized by train buffs as one of the best in the country. And it sure is fast. Not Bullet Train speed but slightly more than a half hour from downtown West Palm to downtown Fort Lauderdale is excellent time. On our return trip we hit a heavy rain around Delray Beach, so heavy that we could barely see the traffic on adjacent Dixie Highway as we blew by the cars. Had that downpour been in West Palm Beach at rush hour, it could have taken close to half an hour just to drive to Interstate 95.
I must confess that, given the number of accidents involving Brightline in its first months of operation, there was some nervousness during that rain as we flashed past grade crossing after grade crossing. It was comforting, however, to see FEC employees in bright vests guarding many of the crossings—just to make sure some fool didn’t invite eternity by driving around the crossing gates.
Which brings us to the challenge facing the new train if it is to reach its potential. There are hundreds of grade crossings on those tracks, each one an accident waiting to happen. They won’t be as dangerous once motorists get used to seeing the train race by, but it will take time for people who are used to slow moving (sometimes even stopped) freight trains to realize that their days of trying to beat the trains are over.
But the fact is that eliminating those crossings should be a priority for all communities along the track. They should have never permitted them in the first place. In major northern cities tracks that originally met streets at grade level were elevated, depressed or bridged more than 100 years ago. The fast Acela train on the northeast corridor has very few grade crossings along the entire 200 miles from New York to Washington.
It will take years, and great investment to bring the FEC up to that safety standard, but a good start would be eliminating dozens of the less busy crossings. That would open up stretches where the train might even go faster than the 79 miles per hour now permitted. In the longer run bridges can be constructed on those sections where no major buildings would have to be razed to make room.
Those safety improvements would surely reduce the criticism of the new train, which has been especially strident on the Treasure Coast. But that opposition would stop on a dime if, as is likely, Brightline adds a stop or two between West Palm Beach and Cocoa Beach, where a new track is scheduled to take the train on its last 40 miles to Orlando. All it would take to silence some critics is one ride on the train. No one who does that can fail to appreciate its value.
The train will soon be extended to Miami, greatly enhancing its utility, and it is almost a certainty that several stops between Lauderdale and the major station in downtown Miami will be added. The Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport is the most obvious. The track passes directly under the airport entrance (which once was a grade crossing) in contrast to Tri-Rail’s nearest station, which requires a bus shuttle. However, Brightline should not become another Tri-Rail, with stops every few miles; that would negate its speed advantage. Stops every 10 to 15 miles would seem about right.
Bottom line: Congratulations to the FEC and Brightline. You are long overdue and most welcome.
Images courtesy of Brightline
Washington, Dec. 8, 1941.
The alleged Japanese attack yesterday on the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor has resulted in cries around the country for President Franklin Roosevelt to ask Congress to declare war against the Empire of Japan and guarantee an inevitable triumph.
However, major newspapers and at least one broadcast outlet are questioning the accuracy of the reports of the attack. Ronald Dumph, an aspiring presidential candidate, says he doesn’t know who attacked Pearl Harbor. He says it could have been a 400-pound gorilla. Nobody really knows.
Dumph added that the U.S. should be friends with Japan—it’s a good thing. He feels the same way about Germany, whose leader, Adolf Hitler, he admires for making Germany great again. He says Herr Hitler enjoys the unbridled admiration of the German Nazis, which is more than you can say for some American leaders. Dumph has a thing for strongmen. He likes generals and people in uniform. He loves Mussolini because he made the trains run on time. Dumph rarely rides trains, but he enjoys striking Mussolini poses.
Dumph reportedly gets most of his information from Doc’s News. He doesn’t read newspapers but goes with his gut instincts, which are always right. He says we should get along with the Germans because it’s a good thing, and they also have cool uniforms. And he loves the heil Hitler salute. He doesn’t trust the Pearl Harbor reports because he says the media is the enemy of the people—unless it loves him.
Other sources say the evidence that the attackers were Japanese is compelling, including the fact that the airplanes had big red meatball insignia, and several crashed planes had guidebooks to Palm Beach in the cockpits written in Japanese, and empty sake bottles. Dumph, who does not drink, calls those reports “fake news” and prefers listening to the 160 radio stations that are owned by Kamikaze Media, reportedly a division of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Group. Its stations tend to oppose anything President Roosevelt wants to do, and think—if the
Japanese really did attack—we probably had it coming.
Alas, that conditioning has led to abuse. Mainstream TV news on the big three networks is still pretty straight, but with the growth of cable, we have seen a trend toward presenting opinion as fact. It is an old idea, actually, used by Hitler, Mussolini and Japanese leaders. It is called propaganda.
Forgive me if I am a bit sensitive on this subject. I interviewed and wrote about the man who started it all —long before Roger Ailes insulted the aforementioned newsmen by launching Fox News. Ailes was in Philadelphia and had just starred in Joe McGinniss’ best-selling book, The Selling of The President-1968. The book described how Ailes ran a phony campaign, isolating Richard Nixon from the real press while staging rigged town halls in which Nixon answered prepared questions. And he won the election.
Ailes told me at the time that the media was controlled by Democrats, and made no secret that he wished for an outlet showing the other side. He got it decades later when he launched Fox News. That network was never “fair and balanced,” but it was tolerably mainstream at first. No more. It has become increasingly biased, so bad that it is now being described as state-controlled news, consistently distorting the facts of any story with political implications, promoting wild rumors, supporting Trump’s outrageous attacks on the media and government agencies such as the Justice Department and FBI—anything to please its favorite viewer,
The corruption has gone beyond reporting. The sex abuse scandals of its execs, starting with the late Ailes himself, have been sensational. It is true that there are some dissenting voices at Fox, but they are despised by many in its audience, for whom Fox is their sole source of information.
With Bill O'Reilly as one of the victims of the sexual harassment purge, Sean Hannity has become the favorite of Trump and his loyal base. So it appears to be a gift from providence for our argument that on Monday Hannity was exposed as the poster boy for Fox's corruption. It was revealed that Trump's fixer lawyer, Michael Cohen, has a close legal relationship to Hannity. It is hard to believe that anyone with any brains at all can take Hannity seriously in the future. But, they probably will.
Fortunately, there are signs that state sponsorship is beginning to fail. Some key personalities and contributors have left the network, unable to tolerate the culture. It is part of a general resistance to Trump propaganda. The governor of Oregon says she will refuse to send National Guard troops to the Mexican border. She may not have the final say on that, but the point is made. Defiance. Let us hope that a cure is found for the great media divide before we have another Pearl Harbor.
Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz has come to the aid of the beleaguered WAVE trolley—the one designed to solve Fort Lauderdale’s downtown traffic problems with 1890s technology. Schultz was quoted in the Sun-Sentinel to the effect that killing the WAVE deal, as recently elected city commissioners have vowed to do, would be a mistake. She says the city would have difficulty attracting federal money for any future projects. She added that the trolley is needed to relieve traffic. She also said the city had an obligation to those who made investments in downtown based on the expectation that the trolley was coming.
The strength of Ms. Schultz’s opinions has been weakened since her embarrassing removal as Democratic National Chairman after her committee was accused of favoritism in backing a candidate in the last presidential election, but she is probably right about a refusal to accept federal money leading to difficulty getting money in the future. But she is definitely wrong in saying the trolley will relieve congestion. No vehicle that blocks a lane of traffic is going to spell relief. It would be a different story if the trolley had a dedicated lane for its tracks, as new light rail systems have in other cities. The trolleys shoot right past lines of cars, encouraging people to abandon those cars in favor of the faster mode.
And the argument about investors is wrong. It’s the other way around. The WAVE was used as an excuse for developers to get approvals for overbuilding without consideration for the traffic problems—on the spurious grounds that the trolley would enable people to leave their cars at home.
With so much time and money already invested in the WAVE, is there no way out of this mess? There is. The city should accept the government money and send those pretty artists' renderings up to Washington—pictures that show a futuristic trolley on lightly traveled streets—and say the system is up and running and is a great success. Only we need some more money because the electric bills are higher than expected, and there have been expensive lawsuits from families whose breadwinners have committed suicide when frustrated by gridlocked traffic when trolleys stop to discharge and board riders.
Chances are that with Washington in such chaotic condition, nobody will challenge this effort, but if they do, there are several options:
(1) Say that stealing from the government is traditional, as many in the Trump administration have been proving.
(2) If someone challenges that reasoning as problematic, say we were victims of fake news and really meant to say that the WAVE concept has had some change orders. These include giving up the idea of tracks in the street and overhead wires in favor of compact electric vehicles that can get out of traffic when serving passengers and run on well-publicized busy streets so often that as in Chattanooga or Atlantic City (the century old jitneys are not electric) you don’t need to follow a schedule because you can almost always see one coming a few blocks away.
That should certainly satisfy the U.S. Secretary of Transportation—if there is one—and the enormous savings of replacing the trolley with efficient electric buses would give the city money to use on something that the public really wants and needs—such as bringing back Maguires Hill 16.
If Ed Kennedy had died 20 years ago, instead of living to the ripe old age of 87, his departure from this life two weeks ago would have warranted an important obituary in the newspapers, maybe even page one. But with newspapers hurting, and not that many people even reading obits in print these days, the former Broward County commissioner had to settle for a paid, not very long sendoff in the Sun-Sentinel.
The brief obit did cover the man’s salient achievement, however. It recounted how as a Broward County commissioner from 1984 to 1992, he was an early advocate of a commuter rail. He was not the earliest, we must note. Anne Kolb deserves that distinction when she was commissioner in the early 1970s, but her vision turned out to be a long way off. A decade later, it was Kennedy who managed to bring three counties, historically not known for cooperation, into the compact that resulted in Tri-Rail. That was in 1989, and for a time, Kennedy was much in the news as Tri-Rail got off to a rocky start with late trains and disappointing ridership.
We got to know the man at the time. We were writing a column for the late Hollywood Sun-Tattler, and being a train junkie, we followed the problems of a system that everybody, including Ed Kennedy, knew was on the wrong track. Its initial reliability was hampered by the fact that its dispatching was controlled by its landlord railroad—the CSX. And, as happens with Amtrak trains all around the country, railroads give priority to their own freight traffic, even if that makes passenger trains chronically late.
We were sympathetic to Kennedy and Tri-Rail, a rare voice of hope amid a chorus of criticism from much of the media. We wrote of the challenges of a commuter train that missed by a mile the downtowns all along its 71-mile CSX route, while the nearby FEC tracks, perfectly positioned to the east and penetrating the commercial centers of Delray Beach, Boca Raton, Fort Lauderdale, Hollywood and Miami, were used exclusively by slow-moving freight trains. We illustrated the problem by trying to talk to the FEC about the possibility of using its tracks for passengers. We waited for weeks for a return phone call, and when it came, it was the president of the railroad. The FEC did not even have a PR person. Didn’t need one. The president, in a gruffly amiable way, said “Sorry Mac, no interest in commuters. We’re a freight railroad.”
Ed Kennedy appreciated our efforts, and was always available—even to meet a few times after work at Danny’s Downtown, a short-lived restaurant bar owned by the late Danny Chichester. It was in one of downtown’s taller buildings at the corner of Broward and Andrews avenues. It is now that green Bank of America building. Despite the pressure he may have felt, Kennedy was always upbeat and calm. It took some time, but eventually, his confidence was rewarded as Tri-Rail overcame its startup problems and turned into a useful train, gradually building ridership to 16,000 daily, despite the handicap of being on a track to nowhere. Its southern terminus was in a seedy neighborhood near Miami International, miles from the city’s booming business center. That will soon be changed, as the service is scheduled to be re-routed (along FEC tracks) into the heart of the city.
Ed Kennedy lived long enough to see the seeds he struggled to plant in the 1980s bear promising fruit after the FEC changed ownership and decided to re-enter the passenger field with Brightline, the fast train planned to connect Miami to Orlando. With that breakthrough, it is anticipated that Tri-Rail will at last use the right track, routing some trains to serve the core of fast-growing downtowns all along its right of way. Recently, Brightline has even hinted it might even serve commuters, with additional stops between West Palm Beach and Miami.
Too many politicians leave behind them a legacy of self-serving deals, sometimes even jail time. Ed Kennedy leaves behind something of value. He may have outlived the accolade, but amiable Ed Kennedy deserves a fond farewell.
We all know the question about the one person in history we would most like to have dinner with or get to know a little bit. Would it be Judas Iscariot, Winston Churchill, Stormy Daniels? Those are all good choices, but not ours. We have long thought the person we would like to know better is Hugh McNeelis.
That’s how he spelled it—at least that’s what it says on his gravestone in Allentown, Pennsylvania. Other members of that clan have spelled it McNealis, McNelis, just plain Nelis and, in the case of one chap who moved to Australia—Nayliss. Hugh McNeelis is our great-great-grandfather, and we think of him this time of year and wonder how much he would enjoy what has become the season of St. Patrick.
He was not just another Irish immigrant. He was the first of our family to leave Ireland, in his case from Donegal. He lived about as far north as you can go. He came over in 1835, when he was 32 years old. This was a decade before the great wave of Irish immigration caused by the potato famine. But he did not stay long. He arrived with his newly married sister and brother-in-law, a fellow Donegal native named Tom McFadden. They landed in Brooklyn, New York, where the sister had a baby and died six months later. Hugh and Tom felt challenged with raising a baby, so they returned to Ireland.
They made it through the famine (four of mother’s great grandparents did not) and then re-emigrated around the time of the Civil War with the baby, also named Tom, now grown. Hugh McNeelis by then was married (to Tom McFadden’s sister) and had his own family, which he brought over all at once. That suggests he had more money than the average impoverished Irish immigrant. This time he settled in Allentown, where he owned a tailor shop.
That’s not unusual, for Donegal is famous for its tweed industry. But what was unusual was that Hugh McNeelis fancied genealogy—at a time when many Irish had never heard of the word. He kept records of every relative he could trace. Thus we know that his father was Michael McNeales, born around 1767. His mother was Catherine McCarron. Other names he traced to the 18th century include McFadden, of course, along with Sweeney (mother’s name) McGee, Gallagher, Campbell, Ward and Durning, all of Donegal. There is also O’Toole and O’Malley from County Mayo, Burke from Cavan and Ryan from Tipperary. The latter produced our most famous ancestor, Patrick John Ryan, who is believed to be a cousin of our great-grandmother. As a young priest he ministered to Confederate prisoners in St. Louis during the Civil War. He later was archbishop of Philadelphia from 1884 to 1912. He was a gifted orator and a charmer, credited with becoming friendly with the old line power structure and easing tensions between Irish Catholic immigrants and the Philadelphia Protestant establishment.
Hugh McNeelis lived long enough to know most of these relatives. At age 89 it took a train to kill him. He was struck by the Buffalo Express on the Lehigh Valley Railroad while bringing the cow home from pasture. By then he had passed along family records, including 19th-century photos, to his granddaughter, Kate McNealis (shown above as a young woman c. 1885). Her daughter Sara (Sweeney), our mother, updated them until her death in 1990.
And we wonder how old Hugh, who obviously had great pride in his Irish heritage, when earlier American settlers had contempt for the new immigrants, would feel today when a college football team takes pride in the name “Fighting Irish” and other teams go by names such as Celtics and Gaels. He did live long enough to see his countrymen literally fight their way toward respectability, partly because of their brilliant service in the Civil War. He knew that two young Gallagher relatives were among the many thousands of Irish who died preserving the Union.
But we still think he would be amazed to see Irish not just in the mainstream of American life, but celebrated each March as no other group in the country. Mick, once a slur, today offends few. Irish have become the symbol of American success. The name Kennedy has been described as American royalty. The surnames of people who once saw “No Irish Need Apply” signs have been adopted by more recent immigrants who want to appear American. No other group has family names prevalent as first names. Ryan, Bryan, Ward, Carroll, Kelly, Murphy, Nolan, Donovan, Grady, Connor, Riley, Murray, Neil—the list goes on. Most parents who select those names don’t even think of them as Irish.
This does not happen with other nationalities. You don’t find many people named Gaetano O’Brien, and for some reason Huizenga, Netanyahu and Putin have never really caught on as American first names.
It would be great fun to break bread, or share spirits, and discuss all this with Hugh McNeelis. Some day, God willing, we might. Until then, Stormy Daniels should suffice and might be nice.
A few weeks ago, the lead editorial in a Sunday edition of the Sun- Sentinel was one for the ages. It dealt with the extraordinary reaction by some South Florida political leaders to an extraordinary situation. Namely, the refusal of the state legislature to even consider a ban on military assault-style weapons in the wake of the Parkland tragedy, despite unprecedented appeals by so many people, including the eloquent Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, to do something about these weapons in the hands of unstable people.
The Sun-Sentinel applauded “local profiles in courage”—prominent South Florida leaders, and others in municipalities around the state, who are advocating what we might call “civic disobedience,” a government version of civil disobedience—defiance of the state government whose gun laws are dominated by redneck legislators who are either bought off directly by the National Rifle Association, or otherwise intimidated by the threat of political opposition in their next election. Among those saluted by the paper:
Coral Gables City Commissioner Frank Quesada and his colleagues for passing an assault weapons ban in that city—in defiance of a state law that local communities can’t pass gun control ordinances, and says such conduct is punishable by a $5,000 fine, removal from office and requirement to pay one’s own legal expenses.
Coral Springs Mayor Walter (Skip) Campbell, who is calling for a state initiative to ban assault weapons. He needs more than 700,000 signatures to get it on a ballot, but considering that polls show overwhelming support for gun control, that is possible.
Broward Commissioner Michael Udine, Parkland’s former mayor, who has been an outspoken advocate for an assault weapons ban.
Weston Mayor Dan Sterner, whose city commission is planning to sue the state to overturn present laws permitting such weapons. The Sun-Sentinel also cited Dania Beach and Boca Raton, who have passed resolutions calling for an assault weapons ban and other gun reforms.
The Sun-Sentinel showed its own courage by writing: “Many more communities need to join this overdue revolution.” It was, in effect, endorsing defiance of the state, encouraging civic disobedience. Later in the piece it added this strong assessment of the situation:
“This is an existential struggle between the gun lobby’s perverted idea of ‘freedom’ and the right of everyone else to freedom from fear and to life itself. To the NRA, ‘freedom’ means being able to manufacture, sell, buy and bear any weapon anywhere and anytime. If people die on that account, it’s the price of their ‘freedom.’”
Considering the decline of The Miami Herald’s circulation (and influence) in half of Broward and all of Palm Beach County, the Sun-Sentinel enjoys a monopoly over a broad stretch of the Gold Coast with the audience that still reads newspapers. That audience, although smaller than in the past, is still the power structure of the communities it serves.
Because the Sun-Sentinel’s circulation dies off around Delray Beach, our northern readers don’t often see it. But they have a consolation prize in the Palm Beach Post, whose opinions on the gun subject are in sync with the Sun-Sentinel. And they get a bonus with the popular local columnist, Frank Cerabino, who often adds a touch of humor to his insightful opinions on the subject of guns.
If the Sun-Sentinel’s editorial were designed to make people angry, it succeeded brilliantly. The only thing we might have added are the salaries earned by the NRA figures. Wayne LaPierre, the CEO, reportedly earns in the millions. Marion Hammer, the organization’s lobbyist who is credited with making Florida the leader in reckless gun-friendly laws was reported making in the hundreds of thousands—for relatively few actual working hours.
In the past, such a gutsy editorial from the Sun-Sentinel would have been close to shocking. But today, not so much, thanks to the leadership of Rosemary O’Hara, editorial page editor (above). In the opinion of the many newspaper people in the area, this woman has been one of the best things that have happened to local journalism in years.
Dan Christensen, former Miami Herald reporter who does the Florida Bulldog blog, an investigative outlet that has filled a void left when newspapers cut staff drastically, shares a common view with Ms. O’Hara: “She’s almost single-handedly brought respectability to the paper’s editorial page with her strong, thoroughly researched editorials. A side benefit is that she’s boosting the paper’s image in the community even as it dwindles in size and coverage.”
Well done, Ms. O’Hara. Well done, Sun-Sentinel.
Image courtesy of Rosemary O'Hara
Jimmy Fazio, the late restaurateur who knew how to navigate the rougher waters of life, had just been paid a visit by the cops. This was in Wally's Olde Town Chop House back in the mid-1990s. The place is now called Himmarshee Public House.
The police visit had resulted from a complaint by one of Fazio's business associates.
"They said Mr. M----- said that I had threatened to kill him," Fazio reported. "They asked, 'Did you threaten to kill him?’ I told them, 'No, I never threatened to effin' kill him.' They said, 'Did you threaten him in any way?' I said, 'Yes, I threatened to break his effin' legs.’ ‘Oh,’ they said, ‘That's OK.’ So Bernie, be sure to never threaten to kill anybody, but it's OK to threaten to break their legs.' "
This picaresque tale may be amusing, but it applies to a situation that is anything but funny. It is a defense mechanism to prevent us from writing anything extreme about the punishment deserved by those we consider accomplices to the murder of 17 people in our county last week.
This awful incident was not just close to home. It was home. There are not many people around here who have not been personally affected by the latest mass shooting. In our case, one of Gulfstream Media's oldest and most valued employees, art director Craig Cottrell, had a kid and a nephew at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. Thank God they were not victims. His daughter escaped by climbing over a fence.
One of the students killed is the daughter of the lacrosse coach at St. Thomas Aquinas High School, which our grandchildren attend. Another victim was Douglas' cross-country coach, whose team competes against our talented grandsons at St. Thomas.
The anger here is therefore more immediate and personal that any of the other mass shootings. And the accomplices to murder are close enough to be reminded of Jimmy Fazio's advice. They are all the Florida politicians on both the state and federal level who are prostitutes for the NRA. They take campaign contributions which amount to bribes. That money is legal, but it should not be. It is blood money. Some observers have noted that it isn’t all about money. There is also the fear that the NRA will use the same dollars to defeat any candidate it can’t control, and will fund a primary challenge to those who defy it. Either way, the politicians are afraid to cross this organization which is funded by the arms industry.
Sunday’s Miami Herald ran the photos of nine of these politicians, beginning with President Trump, which looked almost like a “Most Wanted” poster. Such condemnation leads to hope that perhaps our local tragedy may prove a tipping point.
"Maybe this time it will be different, maybe this time people will be so angry that something will happen." So spoke our colleague Craig Cottrell, father and uncle of two students at Douglas. We would like to think so, but the early reaction seems to be terribly familiar. The local response has been uniformly admirable. Saturday's Sun-Sentinel caught the mood. There was a lead op-ed piece by Gary Farmer, Broward state senator, calling for gun control. His piece concluded with seething determination:
"As legislators and parents, we will not rest until we can ensure the safety of our children and communities. We will fight tooth and nail against every dangerous and nonsensical pro-gun piece of legislation in the legislature. We will not allow our legislature to act as a contributing factor for the terrifying violence that we saw this week, and we demand that our fellow legislators do the same."
In the same section Broward Commissioner Michael Udine, whose district includes Parkland, wrote "...in addition, we must demand that Congress enact an assault weapons ban that includes AR-15 semi-automatic rifles and further background checks. Any issue whatsoever that comes up in someone's background should be investigated before they can obtain a gun."
Even more telling were nine letters to the editor. One was a short pious "praying for you" thought. The other eight all called for gun control or voting out those paid-off legislators who block sensible laws. There was no sign of the usual second amendment rights BS.
That was here. Elsewhere, the early returns showed the usual NRA lackeys reaction to such tragedies. President Trump made a publicity trip to say this was bad and praised the first responders and health care workers, but there was no mention of gun control. It was more of the same with Sen. Marco Rubio, House Speaker Paul Ryan, State Senate President Joe Negron, who all called for action, especially in the area of mental health and increased school security, but did not touch the obvious problem—the existence of military-style weapons in the hands of anyone except combat troops.
The mental health issue is simply a way of avoiding the truth. And the same Sun-Sentinel page handled that canard beautifully. Surely the young man who confessed to the murders is mentally ill. Steve Ronik, the highly respected CEO of Henderson Mental Health Clinic, whose organization had contact with the shooter, and did not consider him an immediate threat, wrote that the percentage of violent crimes by the mentally ill is very small. He identified the real problem—that the mentally ill can get their hands on the weapons that even the sanest person should not possess in civilian life.
But newspaper articles are not going to solve the problem. And since Jimmy Fazio’s advice to threaten to only break their legs is probably illegal, even in Florida, where do we go from here?
We go back to the west of Ireland, 1880, when Charles Parnell suggested to angry Irish who wanted to kill a hated landlord, Charles Boycott, that a better, more Christian solution was to “shun” the man.
And they did. No restaurant would serve him; no carriage driver would transport him; no servant would work at his house; no field hand would harvest his field; no one would even speak to him. People crossed the street when they saw him coming. It worked. He could not even get a driver to take him to the train when he left for his native England. He left Ireland and he left the English language with the word “boycott.”
So it should be with these NRA bribe takers. They should be met with contempt at every turn. Do not honor them with invitations. Boo when they are introduced. Call the Hessian bastards exactly what they are—accomplices to murder. Make their lives unlivable, as the better angels of the Irish nature did to Charles Boycott so many years ago.
And, of course, vote them out of office, early and often.
A tourist walks into a bar and asks for a Bud. Bartender hands him a bottle of Miller.
“I asked for Budweiser,” man says.
“That is Budweiser,” replies the bartender.
That exchange used to happen on a regular basis in Fort Lauderdale, especially in its busiest neighborhood bars. The reason: William Thies & Sons, the local Miller Beer distributor, had developed such a close relationship with its best customers that a number of bars did not even carry Budweiser. Back in the 1960s, when Budweiser was the dominant beer in most of the country, it failed to keep pace with local customers’ needs when the crush of college spring break caused bars to run out of product and need a resupply fast.
When Budweiser was slow in response, William Thies & Sons made sure that Miller was available during the busiest times. Some of the most popular bars rewarded that service by refusing to carry its rival.
Bill Thies, who as a young man built that remarkable relationship after he took over the business when his father died suddenly at age 53 in 1964, died Tuesday at age 80. He had been in failing health for several years and did not recover from the effects of pneumonia over the Christmas holidays.
Thies and his brother-in-law, Bob Blaikie, were a Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside team. Blaikie was at the company plant in Wilton Manors, watching the books and keeping the trucks rolling. Thies was mostly on the outside, knowing the customers and expanding the company’s business. His friendly nature and big personality made him a natural salesman, and one of the best known figures in the bar and restaurant industry. He was on a first-name basis with countless bar owners and their staffs.
“My father never told me I couldn’t enjoy my job,” he liked to say.
The company’s market was large, stretching from Broward County to Vero Beach. Thies’ younger brother Dennis, known as Dee, ran the business north of Broward County. The company had a second distribution center in Lake Worth. It eventually expanded to include distributorships in Fort Myers and Sarasota. The brothers (Bill is on the left) are shown in a photo that first appeared in Gold Coast magazine in the 1970s, and was repeated in the magazine’s 50th-anniversary issue in 2015.
It did not hurt the business that the Thies family was well connected in Fort Lauderdale. The family came to Florida from Washington, D.C. in 1948 and got the Miller franchise in 1951. Bill attended St. Anthony School and Central Catholic High School (now St. Thomas Aquinas) where he was a three-sport athlete. He attended Notre Dame for two years and left when he married and joined the army. He was 26 when he took over the family business.
The company capitalized on the popularity of Miller Lite in the 1970s. Before it was sold in 2001, it had expanded to carry numerous brands, including Heineken beer. Thies had seven children and was joined in the business by his sons, Bill Jr. and Jim, who also joined him in real estate investments. A daughter, Krista Marx, is a judge in Palm Beach County. Other family members live in South Florida and Hawaii.
In retirement he became a private investor. He and his son Bill were shareholders in Gulfstream Media Group, publisher of Gold Coast magazine, when the company reorganized in the mid-1990s. Among the real estate investments was a Christmas tree farm in Blowing Rock, North Carolina.
A funeral mass will be held at 11:30 a.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 30 at St. John the Baptist Church in Fort Lauderdale. In lieu of flowers, contributions may be made in Bill’s name to the St. Anthony Friends for Education, 920 NE Third St., Fort Lauderdale, online at saintanthonyschoolfl.org/give-now-2/ or call 954.467.9009.
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