Friday, July 2, 2021

Insight: Eyewitnesses to history

Actor David Carr, right, performs in a scene with actor Jack
Haley as the Tin Man from the 1939 classic film 'The
Wizard of Oz.'  COURTESY PHOTO 
By Ed Pierce

Managing Editor

When I was just starting out in journalism in the 1970s, colleagues would tell me that the longer I stayed in the profession, I’d either meet someone famous or cross paths with someone who had a front row seat to a historic event. After more than 46 years of doing this, I can say that’s a true statement, or at least in my case it is.

Through the years, I can tick off many actors., sports stars, politicians, and business leaders I have met – and it’s a lengthy list. Yet I’ve seldom mentioned the individuals I’ve met or interviewed who have witnessed history as it happened.

Here are three people who I’ve met who were eyewitnesses to history:

Joe Chavez of Bosque Farms, New Mexico was about the last person you’d ever suspect of playing a part in American history. He played practical jokes, would belt out Frank Sinatra songs when walking through the mall at Christmas and didn’t care who heard him. He had retired from his contracting business after building his own dream home and then began another career as the author of children’s books.

From a physical standpoint, Chavez was a wreck. For years, he ate whatever he wanted – mostly red meat – and by the time I had met him in the mid-1980s he was suffering from diabetes and had his right leg amputated just below the knee resulting from an infection he had picked up taking the trash out while barefoot.

Chavez may have been on the decline physically, but mentally he could detail almost every moment of being a part of history and surviving an event many others did not. As a young man, he had enlisted in the U.S. Army and right before the start of World War II, he was serving in the 515th Coast Artillery Unit in The Philippines, which was part of the U.S. defenses against the Japanese and made up mostly of servicemen from New Mexico.

On April 9, 1942, Chavez was part of a 200th Coast Artillery forced to surrender to the Japanese following the Battle of Bataan and along with other prisoners of war, he was subjected to undertake an arduous 65-mile trek to a prison camp in Luzon. Without food or water and medical attention and taking no breaks from the scorching heat, thousands of Americans and their Filipino allies died on the “Bataan Death March.” Somehow and against all odds, Chavez survived both the march and confinement in the prison camp and returned triumphantly to freedom in America when the war ended in 1945.

Ernest Green was born in Little Rock, Arkansas and was serving as the Assistant Secretary of Labor in the Carter Administration in Washington, D.C. when I met him in 1980.  He was the guest speaker at a U.S. Air Force observance of Black History Month, and I found him to be quiet and unassuming.

Green’s high school years were far from quiet though. He joined the Boy Scouts and eventually earned the highest rank of Eagle Scout but in his senior year of high school in the fall of 1957, Green became one of the “Little Rock Nine,” a group of students that desegrated the all-white Little Rock Central High School, escorted by the Arkansas National Guard and 1,200 soldiers from the U.S. Airborne sent to protect them and enforce their civil rights by U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower.

As the first-ever black graduate of Little Rock Central High School, Green endured mob violence, racial taunting, constant harassment in classes and physical abuse. At his graduation ceremony, his family was joined by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as their guest and Green became forever linked as part of the struggle for Civil Rights in this nation. He later earned a Bachelor of Arts degree and a master’s degree in sociology from Michigan State University and was awarded a Congressional Gold Medal in 1999 for his courage and fortitude as a member of the “Little Rock Nine.”

While I was serving in the U.S. Air Force in Germany in 1977, I met David Carr, a retired American actor living in Frankfurt. He had two dachshund dogs and when he would go on vacation, Carr would ask me to let his dogs outside and feed them until he returned.

Carr’s apartment was filled with memorabilia from his years in Hollywood, but one photograph he displayed in his living room grabbed my immediate attention. It was a black and white 8x10 of him with Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley and Bert Lahr and all were in costume for their roles in the classic 1939 film, “The Wizard of Oz.”

According to Carr, he had studied acting in college and went on to appear in many different Broadway shows before drawing the attention of a Hollywood talent scout and signed to appear in many motion pictures in the 1930s and 1940s. He had a small role in “The Wizard of Oz,” portraying a resident of the Emerald City who restuffs the Scarecrow and polishes the Tin Man before they are to meet the Wizard in the film. Carr told me Garland was “as genuine as they get” and the best actress he ever worked with.

Carr also portrayed characters in Hollywood classics such as "The Grapes of Wrath," with Henry Fonda, "The Magnificent Ambersons" with Orson Welles and "Strangers on a Train" for legendary director Alfred Hitchcock. <

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