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Famous persons in America and my connection to them

by William McGaughey, Jr.

 

We live in a culture of personality. Some persons are unusually engaging. Some are famous. This article is about such persons who have lived during my lifetime and my connection to them, if any.

I will focus upon the cities of Detroit, Michigan, and Minneapolis-St. Paul, Minnesota. I spent the first twenty years of my life in Detroit, and the last fifty years in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Having a population in the millions, it was unlikely that I should meet or have substantial personal interaction with the famous persons who lived in those cities and states. But I did, and this is my story.

I was born in Detroit on February 21, 1941. I moved to Minnesota in the first week of January, 1965. Next week it will be 2017. I will be 76 years of age in February 2017. Lots of things have happened during my lifetime and I want to mention some of them. I want to mention important persons who lived then, again with a special focus upon Detroit and the Twin Cities of Minneapolis-St Paul. Did I rub shoulders with any of them?

World War II was raging when I was born although it was not until the following year, after the Pearl Harbor attack, that the United States became involved. We have famous Americans from that period - President Franklin D. Roosevelt, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, and General Douglas MacArthur. I was too young to interact with them although I did shake hands with Eisenhower during his 1952 Presidential campaign in Detroit. (Eisenhower later selected two Michiganders for his cabinet, C.E. Wilson and Arthur Summerfield.)

The prime list of famous Americans would be those who were President of the United States. An A-list of famous Presidents might be, among others, the following: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Andrew Jackson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Dwight D. Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama. Like him or hate him, Donald Trump has the potential to join this group of illustrious Presidents.

America has also produced famous persons in other fields. In my estimation, some of the American superstars would be the following:

Aviators: Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, Howard Hughes
Astronauts: Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, John Glenn
Inventors: Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell
Military officers: Douglas MacArthur, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Chester Nimitz
Cartoonists: Walt Disney, Charles M. Schulz
Comedians: Will Rogers, Jack Benny, Johnny Carson
Opera singers: Enrico Caruso, Maria Callas, Luciano Pavarotti
Circus impresarios: P.T. Barnum, “Buffalo Bill” Cody
Criminals: Al Capone, John Dillinger, Ted Bundy
Evangelists: Billy Sunday, Billy Graham
Runners: Jesse Owens, Florence Griffith-Joyner, Carl Lewis
Swimmers: Esther Williams, Mark Spitz, Michael Phelps
Boxers: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Muhammad Ali
Golfers: Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Tigers Woods
Baseball players: Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig
Movie stars: Clark Gable, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe
Novelists: Margaret Mitchell, William Faulkner, Earnest Hemingway
Scientists: Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Rachel Carson
Architects: Louis Sullivan, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Frank Lloyd Wright
Artists: Norman Rockwell, Andy Warhol, Georgia O’Keefe
Singers: Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Michael Jackson
Populist politicians: William Jennings Bryan, Huey Long, Ralph Nader
Civil-rights leaders: Martin Luther King, Jesse Jackson
Radio talk-show hosts: Aimee Semple McPherson, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck
Law enforcement officials: Wyatt Earp, J. Edgar Hoover, Eliot Ness, Joe Arpaio
Labor leaders: John L. Lewis, Walter Reuther, Jimmy Hoffa
Business leaders: Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J. Paul Getty, Henry Ford
Financiers: J.P. Morgan, George Soros, Warren Buffet
Media hosts: Rupert Murdoch, Walter Cronkite, Oprah Winfrey
Computer industry leaders: Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos

This is an arbitrary selection of famous personalities in America. The list could easily be expanded to other superstars. But let’s move on to a particular focus on Detroit (Michigan) and Minneapolis-St. Paul (Minnesota) where I have spent the majority of my life.

Start with Detroit. I would say that the person with the greatest impact upon this city was Henry Ford, founder of the Ford Motor Company. Detroit is “Motor City”, the headquarters of the three (or four) largest companies in the US automobile industry. Other prominent leaders of this industry would be Alfred P. Sloane, Walter Chrysler, C.E. Wilson, and George Romney.

As a resident of Detroit in a later generation, I was privileged to see some of the automobile-industry leaders up close. I was too young, of course, to meet the elder Henry Ford but I did see his grandson, Henry Ford II, at his daughter’s debutante party in 1961. My father was head of the public-relations department of the Automobile Manufacturers Association and later vice president for communications at American Motors Corporation in the 1950s and 1960s. My father arranged for American Motors to sponsor the Disneyland television show. He was a close associate of George Romney, both at the AMA and American Motors. So I once knew the Romney family quite well.

Elsewhere, in Detroit, we had the internationally famous boxer, Joe Louis, who became heavy-weight champion. We had Aretha Franklin, the singer, Stevie Wonder, and Diana Ross of the Supremes. We had sculptors such as Carl Milles and Marshall Fredericks who were associated with Cranbrook. My classmates at Cranbrook school included novelists Thomas McGuane and Edmund White. I later had lunch and spoke with Walter Reuther at the Putney school in Vermont which Reuther’s daughter and my brother both attended.

But I left Detroit in the early 1960s, first to attend college in Connecticut, then spend a year in Europe, and finally a half year in Newark, New Jersey, before heading off to Minnesota in January 1965 where, surprisingly, I have remained for most of my life.

The focus here is upon famous persons. Charles Lindbergh grew up in Little Falls, Minnesota. (He was born in Detroit.) Billy Graham started his career in Minneapolis. But there are four persons associated with Minnesota more recently who have attained a national reputation worth mentioning here: Bob Dylan, Garrison Keillor, Robert Bly, and the rock star Prince. I approach the discussion of them from a personal standpoint.

Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan lived in Minnesota and came to prominence as a musician a bit before my time. Originally from Hibbing, he attended the University of Minnesota in the academic year 1959-60 before dropping out to pursue a musical career. In 1965, I attended one of his live performances in Minneapolis.

Otherwise Dylan has largely disappeared from the entertainment and cultural scene. He is a relic of the turbulent 1960s. This year, enigmatic as ever, Dylan was awarded a Nobel prize in literature but he declined it due to other obligations. Like many others, I was once captivated by Dylan’s music and free-thinking personality but, at least in my realm of experience, he gradually faded from the scene.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor, who did graduate from the University of Minnesota (in 1966), has developed an unusual career on the radio as creator and prime performer on “A Prairie Home Companion”. This is a variety show featuring music and humor which, produced in Minnesota, is broadcast nationally. It is an outgrowth of a show which Keillor produced as a university student. There is no other show like it. Keillor himself has become an oracle in cultural and political circles.

While I have often listened to “A Prairie Home Companion”, I never attended any of its performances. I have encountered Keillor himself at community events and have spoken with him on several occasions. But my relationship is largely as a distant admirer of Keillor’s personality and craft.

Robert Bly

Robert Bly, author of the best-selling book “Iron John”, is a poet of some distinction. I have been privileged to have regular and frequent personal contact with him over a period of 25 years as a member of a “Sufi” singing group that Bly organized in 1992. The group now meets at Bly’s home. Robert Bly recently turned 90. The next Sufi meeting will be in a week.

A complete write up of the Sufi group appears at http://www.billmcgaughey.com/sufi.html

Prince

Prince, the internationally famous rock musician, died this past April (2016). His home and headquarters at Paisley Park in Chanhassen, Minnesota, have been turned into a shrine. It is about a mile from where I regularly attend religious services.

I personally met or saw Prince twice, both times in 1990. I never attended any of his concerts. Of greater interest to me is Prince’s boyhood association with the Minneapolis neighborhood where I now live.

Prince’s father lived for two years (1990-92) in an apartment building (1707 Glenwood Avenue) across the street from my home in Minneapolis. Then the father moved to a house about six blocks away from me (539 Newton Avenue South) where he lived for another ten years before moving to Chanhassen to live in his famous son’s house. Prince himself was a frequent visitor to his father’s home in those early years.

Therefore, while I cannot speak with authority of Prince’s music or personal life, I have tidbits of information about him that may be of interest. A write up of my association with Prince or his circle appears at http://www.billmcgaughey.com/prince.html.

 

 

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