The White House Should Have Paid Attention


This photo shows the headline from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune on Saturday, October 3rd, 2020. Early in the morning on Friday, a tweet was sent out from the White House announcing that President Trump had tested positive for the Corona-19 virus. Subsequent news stories documented that the likely source of his infection was a close aid, Hope Hicks, and that one of the likely locations for the transmission was the celebration of the nomination of a federal judge to the Supreme Court that took place a few days earlier. The celebration took place on the White House lawn and was attended by a large number of political leaders, and Republican movers and shakers. Few attendees wore masks or followed social distancing guidelines. That just was not the Republican way. During the next few days, the president and his staff also made trips to the first presidential debate in Cleveland and fundraising trips to New Jersey and Minnesota. As of this morning, others who attended the Supreme Court nominee’s party who have tested positive for Covid-19 included, the president’s wife Melania, three US Senators, Mike Lee, Thom Tillis, and Ron Johnson, former New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, former White House advisor Kellyanne Conway, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, president of the University of Notre Dame Rev. John Jenkins, Trump Campaign Manager Bill Stepian, the president’s personal aide Nick Luna, and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel. That’s quite an impressive cast of characters.

Letter to the Editor

On the final night of the Republican National Convention on August 28th, there was a similar celebration on the lawn of the White House. More than one thousand guests attended and just like last Saturday, safety guidelines were not complied with. In the days that followed I wrote a letter to the editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. It was published on September 3rd and is shown above. The letter stresses the importance of wearing masks and social distancing and criticizes the White House for ignoring medical guidance. The letter concludes: “As the father of a registered nurse who puts his life at risk every night caring for Covid-19 patients in a VA hospital, I say shame on the president and his enablers. Enough is enough. It’s time for a new role model.”

It’s unfortunate that no one from the White House paid attention. I guess I’m not the only one who has been ignored. Perhaps this latest incident will open some eyes and minds.

Raking the Wilderness

A week or so ago, the president met with the governor of California and with state and federal officials to talk about the record setting wildfires slamming the west coast of the US. Millions of acres of land have been burned, thousands of people have been forced from their homes, and dozens of people have been killed. The forest fires are the worst on record, and temperatures are at an all-time high.

One of the experts who participated was Wade Crowfoot, the California Natural Resources Agency secretary. He urged the president to recognize the changing climate and what it means to the forests. “If we ignore the science and sort of put our head in the sand and think it’s all about vegetation management, we’re not going to succeed,” he said. The president’s response was, “It will start getting cooler, just you watch.” When Crowfoot told him that the science did not agree with the president, the response from the president was, “I don’t think science knows, actually.” Such statements are emblematic of the disdain that the president has consistently voiced about science, academic, and technical expertise. He assures us that he has a remarkable brain and is usually the smartest guy in the room.

The president went on to place the blame for the wildfires on democratic leaders and their failure to rake leaves and clear dead timber from forest floors. In the past, wildfire experts and forest managers have concluded that raking leaves makes no sense in the hundreds of millions of acres of US wilderness and forests. I’m guessing that if we had problems with personal protective equipment during the Coronavirus epidemic, we would experience similar acute rake and leaf bag shortages. We better stock up now!


Last week, Rachel and I visited Anastasia State Park in St. Augustine, Florida. This sign was posted along one of the hiking trails. It looked like it had been there for a few years. It was written to describe to hikers like us, the reasons that park staff do not rake leaves in the state forest. It turns out that decomposing leaves are good for the soil, plants, trees, and the entire ecosystem. Who would’ve thought? Perhaps we’ll send a copy of the photo to the Whitehouse. I’m sure it could change a few minds!

Two Million and Counting


The Coronavirus pandemic looks like it will be one of the seminal events of our lives. In just a few months, our routines have been upended and its tentacles have devastated people in all parts of the world. In the past week, the United States has surpassed two million confirmed cases and over one hundred fourteen thousand deaths. In Florida, where Rachel and I live, more than one thousand new cases are confirmed every day, and the numbers have been increasing of late. There is some irony that the number of people contracting the virus is increasing, as governments are easing restrictions on people’s movement and interpersonal interactions. I want to capture a few memories of the beginning of the pandemic. For Rachel and me, some of the first memories happened at church.

UU Sarasota

Rachel and I are members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Sarasota. It is a thriving church, and all seats are filled most Sundays. During the busy, snowbird season, there are even two services each Sunday. Rachel and I feel like youngsters in the congregation. The average age is in the mid-seventies. On Sunday, March 1, 2020, our minister, Roger Fritts, mentioned the virus that was making people sick in China and had just shown up on the west coast of the US. He joked that maybe someday, we’d have to stop holding hands during our closing prayer. The congregation chuckled. On Monday, March 2, 2020, the headline in the Sarasota Herald Tribune read, “Coronavirus comes to Florida.”

On Wednesday, March 4, 2020, we received an email message from Roger. He reported that a first Coronavirus case had been confirmed in a hospital in Sarasota. He shared some new rules that we would need to follow at church services. These included things like if you feel sick or have been exposed to someone with the flu, a cough, or cold, stay home. No hand shaking, hand holding, or hugging. The monthly church potluck was cancelled. If you touch the door handle or a light switch, try to wash your hands immediately. If attendance at services permits, try leave an empty seat between you and your neighbor. These seemed like extreme measures to us at the time.

Ten days later, we received another email message from Roger. The number of confirmed Coronavirus cases in the region had continued to sky rocket. The City of Sarasota had issued a public health emergency. All large group gatherings were to be cancelled. The church and all its building were being closed until further notice. Church services and all in-person meetings were being cancelled or postponed. Online systems were being explored. One of the sad things about this development was that Roger was retiring after several years serving the church in Sarasota. He would be returning to Maryland to be with his family. There would be no going away parties or other celebrations. His last service and sermon were done remotely from his home in Maryland.

On May 22, 2020, we received an email message from Beth Miller, one of the Associate Ministers. Beth shared a message from the president of the National Unitarian Universalist Association, Susan Frederick-Gray. Her guidance to congregations around the US was that they begin planning for virtual operations for at least the next year. Rachel and I found this to be a sobering message. No in-person church for at least a year. This was not going to just go away anytime soon.

It’s now a little over three months since Rachel and I first had these personal experiences with the Coronavirus pandemic. Rachel moved her office home and took over the study. She has led the efforts to keep all employees of Arsenault Dermatology employed and getting pay checks. We have done our best to abide by social distancing guidelines. We wear masks when we go out. We have not visited a restaurant in months. Most of our groceries are delivered. We made forays out into the retail minefields to find rare caches of toilet paper. We celebrated when we made such a score!

We recognize that we are more fortunate than many. We have each other for company and kids and grandkids just a video-call away. We have a comfortable home and our lake to enjoy. The shore birds and occasional alligators keep us entertained. I have reduced my consumption of news to skimming the morning paper and watching the local news and weather. Watching reports about the mismanagement by our state and national leaders creates significant stress. Rachel and I are anxious about the elections in November, but they can not come soon enough. I read this week that New Zealand reported that there were zero active cases of Coronavirus in their country. Maybe there is hope for all of us.

Addendum: July 2, 2020
There have been so many milestones reported about the numbers of people contracting the Coronavirus. Every day the numbers are staggering and often greater than previous daily totals. For the first time today, the one day total of people who tested positive for the virus exceeded 10,000 in the state of Florida. We now have a mandatory mask order for the city of Sarasota. Masks are suggested but not mandatory in the city of Bradenton and in Sarasota or Manatee Counties. The President continues to be nearly silent about the pandemic, and the Vice President has been touring the country praising the work of the administration in dealing with the crisis. This, in spite of the projections of the federal Coronavirus Task Force that the numbers of cases are likely to increase to 100,000 new cases per day in the near future. Leadership from the White House has been suspect at best.

Addendum: July 31, 2020
And the beat goes on. In Florida this week, the number of deaths from the Coronavirus hit 6,709 and the number of cases reached 461,379. Florida set new records for the number of deaths three days this week, yesterday surpassing 250 deaths in the state. The national totals were 4.4 million cases of Coronavirus and over 150,000 deaths. There is a surprising complacency about these growing numbers.

The sense is that people in the US are just not going to follow guidelines to protect themselves and others from the virus. The US is pretty unique in the Western world in this respect. Choosing to not wear a mask has become a political statement, encouraged by the President’s model. Large groups of people congregate to party, ignoring guidelines to social distance and avoid crowds. Shoppers at Walmart pull out their guns when instructed to wear a mask before entering the store. The President continues to brag about the awesome job that he is doing, while pitching medicines and approaches that have been proven to be ineffective. Some have even been dangerous. There continues to be progress on the vaccine front, but actual implementation is still months away. It’s scary to think about what the numbers will be like by then.

Rachel has had only one employee test positive for the virus, and she is recovering at home. To date, we have not had family or friends test positive. How long that will be the case, we don’t know. Our trips away from home have become even less frequent as we watch the number of cases and deaths increase in Sarasota and Manatee Counties. When workmen come to the door, we don our masks, and only allow them inside if they are wearing protection too. And even then, we are anxious. Still, all in all, we feel fortunate. This too shall pass, and time will probably be the best medicine.

Uncle Gus

One of the things that my mom and dad enjoyed the most during our last few years of visits home to Wisconsin, were outings to local restaurants. Just getting out of the assisted living facility was a real treat. By far, the most memorable of these trips was a visit to a place on Main Street in Cottage Grove called the 1855 Saloon and Grill.

We picked up Mom and Dad for an early dinner to avoid the crowds. It was a new restaurant that had received rave reviews from their neighbors. Mom had grown up in a house just a few blocks down Main Street in Cottage Grove, and we’d be driving right by her family home. Mom had become a little less communicative over the years due to her hearing loss, but as we approached Cottage Grove, Mom became more animated than usual. She identified places that she remembered and marveled at all the changes.

I dropped Mom, Dad, and Rachel off at the restaurant door and parked the car. At the time, Mom was using a walker and Dad a cane. Once seated in our booth, everyone began reading their menus. After a few minutes, Rachel looked up and noticed a large, framed, black and white photograph on the wall across from her seat. Under the frame was a gold plaque. The caption read, “Gus Duckert in his blacksmith shop on 300 East Main Street in Cottage Grove, Wisconsin. Photo taken by Clarence Olson for the Capital Times.”

“Duckert. Wasn’t your maiden name, Duckert?” Rachel asked.

Mom looked up at the photo. “Oh my. That’s my Uncle Gus. What’s he doing here?”

Rachel and I laughed. What were the chances of picking this restaurant and being seated right under the photograph of my mom’s Uncle Gus? It was a fascinating photo, capturing an older man, bent over his bench, hard at work blacksmithing. The tools of the trade surrounded him, including hammers, anvils, and an enormous stove. Later I would learn that he spent many years as the town blacksmith and eventually transitioned to repairing cars, specializing in Ford Model T’s.

Gus Duckert in his blacksmith shop in Cottage Grove, WI
Gus Duckert in his blacksmith shop in Cottage Grove, WI

My dad was beside himself with excitement and quickly decided that everyone in the restaurant needed to hear about our connection to the old picture. First, Dad called the waitress over and identified the man in the picture as my mom’s uncle. The waitress tried to appear suitably impressed. Next, Dad insisted that the waitress go find the manager and bring him over to our table. The manager had seated us a few minutes earlier and was a person of small stature. In Dad’s typical, colorful fashion, he demanded that the waitress go find “Shorty” and bring him right over. Once he arrived, Dad continued to refer to him as Shorty, much to the manager’s chagrin. I tried to apologize and explain that Dad was just excited. Within a few minutes, everyone seated within earshot knew all about Uncle Gus. Most smiled and seemed to enjoy Dad’s enthusiasm. As we moved through the restaurant after dinner, Dad completed his mission, inviting patrons in other rooms to go and look at the photo of Uncle Gus.

I think that was the only visit to the 1855 Saloon and Grill with Mom. We returned a few more times with Dad. Each time he would dash ahead of the host or hostess seating us, daring anyone to get in the way of him and his walker, as he sought out the best booth near Uncle Gus. I don’t think that we ever dined together at another restaurant.

Rachel and I spent a relaxing week in the summer of 2019 visiting our home towns of Muscatine, Iowa and Monona, Wisconsin. One pleasant afternoon we took a drive to Cottage Grove and stopped for lunch at the 1855 Saloon. The restaurant was near empty, and I didn’t need to push people out of the way to find seating near Uncle Gus. I even took his picture. He was my grandfather’s uncle. That would make him my Great, Great Uncle Gus.

Lions, Tigers, and Bears, Oh My!

The week of the 4th of July, Rachel and I had a great visit from our kids and grandkids, Laurel, Matt, Emma, and Ian. We took them to explore a variety of sites, including our favorite beaches, parks, and restaurants around Sarasota. Ian saw his first full-length movie (Toy Story 4) and it kept his attention all the way through. He must have some Imhoff movie DNA.

One of the interesting parks that we visited was the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary. This park serves as a sanctuary for a wide variety of animals. The kids enjoyed watching the bears, monkeys, chimpanzees, lions, tigers, and even a giraffe. Some enclosures offered lots of space and others not so much. Rachel and I were surprised to encounter two animals that we had never seen before. We had not even heard of them. And we had visited zoos across the country and even gone on safaris in Africa. We were introduced to the “liger” and “tigon”.

A handsome Tigon showing off his stripes
A handsome Tigon showing off his stripes

A liger is the hybrid offspring of a male lion and female tiger. A tigon is the hybrid offspring of a male tiger and female lion. We saw one of each, and they shared the characteristics of both lions and tigers. We thought the liger looked like a HUGE lion. The tigon had the dramatic stripes of a tiger. The liger is the world’s largest cat, due to “gigantism” during the early growing years. They can grow to a length of 12 feet. None of us could believe the height of the liger we saw, as he stood up on his hind legs to grab a piece of meat from a worker. Tigons are described as being much smaller than their parents. The males of both species are reported to be sterile.

Writings about the liger and tigon date back to the early 19th century. They have always been bred in captivity. It sounded like some breeding occurred by accident when a lion and tiger were allowed to share the same space. Surprise! Other times, the breeding was done on purpose to create the hybrid animals. There are around 30 ligers living in zoos and parks in the U.S. There are around 20 more living in China. The total population across the planet is less than 100, all living in captivity. Tigons are even less common than ligers. What a surprise to encounter these rare animals in a small park in Sarasota, Florida.

Matt, Laurel, Rachel, and I talked about the ligers and tigons throughout the rest of the day. The more we talked, the more my thoughts became muddled about seeing these majestic animals. I had lots of questions. Where had the liger and tigon come from? Where had the lion and tiger that were their parents come from? Were they conceived by accident, or did some mad scientist decide to cross breed two totally different types of animals? Why would someone want to do that? What kind of ethical zoo or animal park would allow that to happen? If scientists have tried to breed lions and tigers, what other kinds of experiments have happened, and how did they turn out?

This did not sound like something that a legitimate, scientific organization would approve of. As a visitor to the park, was I contributing to the exploitation of these special animals? But then, was it that different than the tens of thousand of wild animals, forced to live in captivity in zoos and parks? Was it any worse for the animals than traveling with a circus, entertaining crowds every day?

I did some research about ligers and tigons and came across a quote on the website of an organization called, Big Cat Rescue ( Here is what it said.

“The only reason that ligers, tigons, white lions, or white tigers exist at all is because stupid people will pay to see them. They serve no conservation value and breeding them only results in these huge and majestic cats spending 10 to 20 years behind bars.”

I guess I’m still glad that I saw the liger and tigon. However, I do agree with the sentiment of the statement by Big Cat Rescue. Something is not right with this picture.

Lessons from a Civil Rights Pioneer

I finished reading a book recently titled, “All the Way Home”, by Ann Tatlock. It tells the story of two women who experience the challenges of racism and the cruel behaviors that often accompany white nationalism. The first half of the book takes place in California near the beginning of World War Two and depicts the struggle of Japanese Americans following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The second half takes place in rural Mississippi in 1965 and paints a stark picture of the treatment of African Americans in the Jim Crow south, especially their struggle to realize the right to vote. It was a good read.

As I was nearing the end of the book the other evening, I turned to my wife, Rachel, and told her that the author had just written about a civil rights icon from rural Mississippi named, Fannie Lou Hamer. Not only was she an actual civil rights leader from the 1960’s and 70’s, but I had spent a week in 1971 staying across the street from her modest home and sitting in her living room every evening, listening to Fannie Lou and her husband, Pap, tell stories about their difficult but amazing lives. There were still bullet holes in the walls facing the street. In 1971, violence directed at civil rights leaders in Mississippi was not something from the distant past. I’ll share more about Fannie Lou Hamer in a bit. But first, I’ll try to explain what brought me to be sitting on her living room floor along with a bunch of other idealistic young people that Spring.

In the Summer of 1970 I was getting ready for my junior year in high school. Richard Nixon was the president. The military draft/lottery was still in full-swing and impacted most families. My brother, Bill, just two years older than me, had enlisted in the Navy and was in basic training in Illinois. He would begin his first tour of duty in Viet Nam a few months later. My brother, Jerry, was working for the Wisconsin National Guard and had trained as an Army nurse. My oldest brother, John, had enlisted in the Air Force following college and was stationed in San Angelo, Texas, learning to use radio equipment. The Air Force had sent him to school to learn Chinese and would eventually send him to Taiwan. His job would be to listen for interesting radio messages being broadcast from mainland China. John reports that there weren’t any.

It was a turbulent time in Madison, Wisconsin, with protests in the streets and student strikes on campus. In August of that Summer, Sterling Hall, a building on the UW campus that housed the Army Math Research Center, was bombed, killing a graduate student. The bombing was carried out by four college-aged men living in Madison. More than any other time in my young life, it felt like the world was falling apart.

Some of my closest friends at school were from the debate team. About half were in my class and the others, the class next older. We thought of ourselves as worldly intellectuals. We read books and the daily papers. We kept up with happenings at the university and spent lots of our free-time on campus. We attended some meetings of student groups opposed to the war and even tried to organize a student union in the Madison area high schools. Through a summer debate camp (yes, they really did have summer camps for debaters) I got to know several students from Madison West High School. They shared many of my ideas, dreams, and anxieties about the future. And I thought they were very cool. Several of them were involved in an organization called, Young World Development. YWD was a non-profit organization, formed to fight global hunger. It seemed to be led by students, and they were in the beginning stages of organizing a huge fundraiser. Over the course of a few weeks, I attended some meetings, did a bunch of volunteer work, and put my debate and public speaking skills to good use.

The leadership of YWD was made up mostly of students from the west-side high schools. I think they wanted to diversify and expand into some of the east-side schools. They asked me to take on a leadership position for the event. So, at the age of 15, I joined with a young man named, Rick Kreutzer, as the Co-coordinators of the 1970 “Walk for Development”. I had never had a part-time job. I didn’t have a driver’s license. I didn’t have much of an idea of what I was getting myself into. But fighting hunger seemed like a good quest. And I think I mentioned, the people seemed really cool.

Looking back on the experience, I am amazed at what our group of enthusiastic, young volunteers was able to accomplish. There was no “adult” infrastructure or supervision. There were no paid employees. All leadership was provided by high school students, and we operated like a small company. Committees were established to conduct the complex work required to pull off a major fundraising event. These included fund raising, finance, media and public relations, walk mechanics, and community development. The fundraising efforts would put most non-profits to shame, especially in the area of obtaining in-kind donations. A commercial real estate company helped us find donated office space in downtown Madison. The telephone company donated a phone system and multiple lines. Madison Gas and Electric covered all other utilities. Local businesses donated furniture, copying equipment, and office supplies. I should mention that the Chair of the Community Development Committee was a senior from Madison Memorial High School named, Sue Dodge. Some of my friends and readers may know her!

The Walk for Development was a 30-mile fundraising walk. Participants would get monetary pledges for each mile they completed. A route was designed that wound through most Madison-area municipalities. Permits were required by each city, and close cooperation was required with the various police departments. This was essential since our goal was to get 10,000 people to walk. That would be the largest event of this type in Madison’s history.

Over the course of the summer, we interviewed non-profit organizations interested in being the beneficiaries of our hard work. Sometimes organizations would visit our office to make a presentation to our leadership team (all students). Sometimes we traveled to other cities or states to visit and evaluate programs. Our goal was to raise $100,000.00 and divide it between three projects. There would be one local project, one national project, and one international project. In the end, the local project was a Madison food co-op. The international project was helping build a school in Tanzania. The national project chosen was the Freedom Farm Cooperative in Sunflower County, Mississippi. Sunflower County was one of the poorest counties in the United States, and the person who started the Freedom Farm Cooperative was Fannie Lou Hamer.

Fannie Lou Hamer
Fannie Lou Hamer

The Walk for Development was held on a sunny Sunday in October. We reached our goal of 10,000 walkers. The walk started at Breese Stevens Field, a sports stadium on East Washington Avenue in Madison. I had the honor of welcoming the walkers and introducing U.S. Representative Robert Kastenmeier, who said a few words of encouragement and sent us on our way. I walked the 30 miles with a friend, David Clarenbach. Dave was the Chair of the PR Committee and was a natural salesman. He would later become the youngest person ever elected to the Wisconsin State Legislature, and a few years later would make an unsuccessful run for the U.S. House of Representatives. It took us all day to complete the route. We stopped for a quick bowl of chili at my house in Monona. For years afterward, Mom would talk about fixing lunch for David Clarenbach, before he became famous.

During Spring break in 1971, I traveled with a small group of people to Ruleville, in Sunflower County, Mississippi to visit the Freedom Farm Cooperative. We had the chance to see how our donation was being put to use in purchasing farm equipment. We also brought tools of our own and spent a few days helping repair some older homes in the community. We were put up by local residents. The older woman I stayed with lived across the street from Fannie Lou Hamer and her husband, Pap. In the evenings after dinner, we would gather at Fannie Lou’s home and spread out across the braided, living room rug. Fannie Lou would share stories about growing up as the youngest of 20 children, in a sharecropper family on a cotton plantation. She described having to drop out of school at the age of 12 to work in the cotton fields. Fannie talked about her experiences in the early civil rights movement, fighting to register to vote and being shot at, arrested, and beaten because of her activities. We were amazed that she had gone from being denied the basic right to vote in the early 1960’s, to running as a democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, a few years later. We learned about the forming of the Freedom Farm Cooperative and the work to change the economic model and improve the employment opportunities for agricultural workers in the region. For me as a sheltered high school student from a comfortable suburban community, this was an eye-opening experience.

Fannie Lou Hamer died in 1977, at the age of 59.

Rachel and I talk almost every day about the troubled times that we live in. We are bombarded by news stories about climate change, gun violence, racism, white nationalism, and corruption of our nation’s leaders. Sometimes it feels kind of hopeless. What can two people do that will impact on the myriad of problems that we face? But then I think about the accomplishments of a group of idealistic kids from Madison, Wisconsin. There are groups of kids organizing campaigns today to curb gun violence and to protect our planet. Maybe we can help the young people lead!

I also think about the courage, perseverance, and wisdom of a simple woman from rural Mississippi. There is a whole crop of new, progressive political leaders, ready to take up the mantle of civil rights pioneers like Fannie Lou Hamer.

Maybe there is still hope!