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My mother was tough.

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Sue Stautner doesn’t look tough in this photo. But she was tough.

She was born in the middle of the Great Depression and a chunk of her youth was taken up with the scarcity of the effects of a world at war. Those raised during the Depression and World War II were engrained with an exceptionally particular view that economic turmoil was always on the horizon and my mother was no different.

And despite my mother’s father having a job in advertising at National Cash Register (NCR) during those times of high unemployment he was an alcoholic. He died of cirrhosis of the liver at age 57. Having an alcoholic father is tougher than tough. It’s a wound.

Happy Mother’s Day, right?

But it is a happy Mother’s Day for me because I recall a woman who endured hardships and went on to have a productive life. I gave my mom her last Mother’s Day card a few days before she died last month.

Before she graduated from Fairview High School in Dayton, Ohio she had played field hockey, was a homecoming queen, and worked at the Dayton radio station WINK where she met comedian Jonathan Winters and humorist Erma Bombeck early in their careers. She also took classes at the Dayton Art Institute. 

 

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She met my father when she was a student at Ohio State University and part of the Delta Gamma Fraternity (Delta Gamma was formed in 1873 when what we commonly call sororities were called women’s fraternities). And to show how tough she really was—she taught art at South Seminole Middle School for 30 years.  Days before she died I saw a woman at Starbucks wearing a shirt that proclaimed “I ain’t scared—I’m a middle school teacher.”

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A student’s creation at South Seminole Middle School

She also raised two kids mostly as a single mother, and mostly on a teacher’s salary. Did I tell you my mom was tough? One year I gave her a Mother’s Day card featuring the iconic World War II art work of J. Howard Miller that originally encouraged women to roll up their sleeves and do wartime jobs in the defense industry.

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My mom was strong. And she was also loving, funny, and supportive. Looking back perhaps one of the toughest/loving/supportive things she did was sit through all of my football and baseball games. That’s part of her life spread over a decade just  standing or sitting in the Florida sun watching her son play sports.

My mom went to high school and college in the 1950s which was during the peak of cigarette smoking being cool. She started before the dangers of smoking were widely known, and unfortunately never stopped long after she knew the damage it was doing to her lungs.

 

 

I took the below photo sometime after she turned 80 and shortly before she was wearing oxygen full time due to having COPD. Living and dying with COPD has been called the long goodbye because it can be a long, slow process. For my mom it was a decline of six plus years from when she really began having difficulty breathing.

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Over those last six years my mother never missed a chance to tell me that this could be her last Mother’s Day. I knew one of these years she would be correct so I tried to maximize my time with her in person and on the phone.

My mom’s final act of toughness was enduring a month in various hospital rooms, an intensive care unit, and at a physical rehabilitation facility.  She always said she wanted to go peacefully in her sleep and she was able to do just that with her son and daughter on each side of her holding her hands as she took her final breath.

It was a sad and sweet moment. I’m thankful for my mom bringing me into this world and giving me the foundation to live a creative life. And I’m glad my sister and I had the opportunity to help her in the later stages of her life.

Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there. The definition of tough is to “endure a period of hardship or difficulty”—so I think all mothers are tough.

And another group of tough women were the nurses, med-techs, and care workers at the assisted living facility where my mother lived in her later years. They oversaw her medication, brought her food daily when she after she could not longer go to the dining hall for meals, made sure she got her daily paper, joked with her, often has extended conversations with her, and maybe put up with a complaint or two from my mother.

My mother was an avid reader of novels, enjoyed well-done witty Tv shows (Young Sheldon was her recent favorite), and I look forward to watching Cannery Row again because that was one of her all-time favorite films.

It was a tough but human process to watch my mother die. And it will forever shade how I live my life.

P.S. One of the fringe benefits of having someone close to you die is you get to hear stories you never heard before. I just received a phone message from Vivian Hurston Bowden (who is author Zora Neale Hurston’s niece) and she commented on how much she loved my mom and enjoyed working with her at the junior high/middle school.  She also let me that my mom did the decorating for her wedding in Sanford, Florida back in 1971. A long time neighbor of hers told me how my mom bought her little gifts when than woman went through treatment for cancer.  I love hearing those stories.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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“We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win.”
                                                
John F. Kennedy 
                                                 Rice University
                                                 September 12, 1962 

 

Ever heard of Wapakoneta, Ohio? 

It happens to be where screenwriter Dudley Nichols was born. He wrote over 70 screenplays including Bringing Up Baby which is a classic Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant film.  He also served as the Screen Guild President in 1937-38.

His first film credit was in 1930 which just happens to be the same year that another fellow was born in Wapakoneta, Ohio who would go on to eclipse Nicholas’ fame.

Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon, was born on August 5, 1930 in Wapakoneta, a small town just 59 miles north of where the Wright Brothers designed the first airplane (that would fly) in Dayton, Ohio around the turn of the 20th Century century.

If an Eagle Scout from a small town in Ohio becoming the first person to walk on the moon isn’t inspiration for you to pursue your dreams from wherever you live, then nothing I write can help.

I was eight years old when Armstrong uttered those famous words as he walked on the moon, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind.” Big moment. One of the greatest achievements in modern history. If it was symbolic as some have said, then it was symbolism at its finest. 

I have the original New York Times front page–MEN WALK ON MOON– hanging on my office at work (along with the Sebiscuit movie poster and Don McLean album I’ve mentioned in the past).

Along with wanting to be a fireman and a professional baseball player I added astronaut to things I wanted to be when I grew-up. Growing up in Central Florida in the 60s was a fascinating place to be for the single reason that it in an age before cable TV,  Disney World, and video games (heck, pong wasn’t even invented until 1971)  you could watch a lift off on TV and then run outside and see this small glow rising into the sky on its way to space.

Today is the 40th anniversary of man landing on the moon. And while I remember sitting around the TV watching the event on a fuzzy screen it is the years leading up to it that I remember more. It was a feat that many thought could not be done. And there was plenty of evidence that it was not going to be an easy effort. At one point it is estimated that 400,000 people were working on President Kennedy’s dream to put a man on the moon by the end of the 60s.

It was an endeavor where there would be years of failure and the loss of lives.

Beyond making history the events remembered today are textbook storytelling that has a clear goal at the start, full of interesting characters, plenty of conflict and a fully developed and satisfactory ending. I’m not sure anyone born from 1969 on didn’t grow up thinking that technology could do just about anything. But that wasn’t always the case.

The space program as a whole has resulted in many great books, movies, and television programs on the subject. One of the best is Apollo 13 which was based on a book Lost Moon; The Perilous Voyage of Apollo 13 by astronaut James Lovell and Jeffery Kluger.  Kluger  wrote the recent Time magazine article on the historic event and touched on one of my favorite themes; what happens after you’ve been to the top of the mountain. Once you have the t-shirt that says, “Walking on the moon –been there done that” then what?

Kluger remembers Lovell’s warning when their book was a best seller and Apollo 13 was in theaters; “Remember where you’re standing when the spotlight goes off, you’ll have to find your own way off the stage.”

That’s wise advice for anyone.

Scott W. Smith

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Mentioning yesterday that the character William Holden played in Sunset Boulevard was a screenwriter from Dayton, Ohio triggered in my mind an actor/comedian with Dayton ties, Jonathan Winters. Winters was born in Bellbrook, Ohio, raised in Springfield, Ohio and went to Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio (where Paul Newman also attended) where he studied acting and began developing his humor. He also studied cartooning at the Dayton Art Institute and became a local radio personality at WING-AM in 1949.

His stay at WING was short lived because he had a tendency to go off-script and in an interview in 2000 Winter’s explained,  “I had to have some fun while I was there. Consequently, I was asked to leave. I remember the exact words: ‘Do the time. Do the temperature. And put on Nat King Cole.'” He then spent a few years in radio at a station in Columbus, Ohio. 

He eventually would move to New York and became a stand-up comedian. He found great success on TV even having his own TV shows The Jonathan Winters Show and The Wacky World of Jonathan Winters. He also recorded many comedy albums and Comedy Central Presents: 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time listed Winters at #18. His wacky, off-the-wall humor greatly influenced Robin Williams. Over the years Winters has appeared in over 50 films and in 1999 he was honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

In a day and age of reality TV programs and news filled with an unmarried woman having octuplets one wonders that if Jonathan Winters was starting his career today what he would have to do to be considered wacky and off-the-wall. 

“Now the freaks are on television, the freaks are in the movies. And it’s no longer the sideshow, it’s the whole show. The colorful circus and the clowns and the elephants, for all intents and purposes, are gone, and we’re dealing only with the freaks.”
                                                                        Jonathan Winters 

Update 3/28/08; So it turns out that my aunt worked at WING in Dayton when Winters was starting out on the radio and he had a thing called the breakfast club there where they would record before a live audience. And sometime while my mom was a student at Fairview High School in Dayton she did a couple skits at the  breakfast club with Jonathan Winters.  

Now I am working on a script that takes place in a retirement home, wouldn’t it be something….

Scott W. Smith

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It’s been many years since I watched the classic Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard. I don’t recall seeing it in the over five years since I moved to Iowa. What I realized seeing it recently is that perhaps the most famous on-screen screeenwriter had Midwest roots.

“As I drove back into town I added up my prospects and they added up to exactly zero. Apparently I just didn’t have what it takes. The time had come to wrap up the whole Hollywood deal and go home. Maybe if I hawked all my junk there’d be enough for a bus ticket back to Ohio. Back to that $35 a week job behind the copy desk at the Dayton Evening Post if it was still open. Back to the smirking delight of the whole office. ‘Alright you wise guys, why don’t you go out and take a crack at Hollywood.'”
Joe Gillis (William Holden)
Sunset Boulevard 

A modern day Joe Gillis hopefully wouldn’t end up floating dead in a pool in a mansion on Sunset Boulevard but would return to Dayton and hook up with some actors from there and Yellow Springs, as well as some creative folks from nearby Cincinnati and that little fat girl in Ohio with her digital camera and they’d made their own films.

(By the way… I’ll be one state over from Ohio in Michigan next month speaking on screenwriting and production and will fill you in as I know more details in case anyone in the area is interested in attending.)

Re-write 101:
The script version I have of Sunset Boulevard is dated March 21, 1949 and here is what the writers (Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman, Jr.) had written originally:

“So, I started back towards Hollywood. All the way down Sunset Boulevard I was composing a letter: ‘To W.W. Agree, Managing Editor, the Dayton Evening Post, Dayton, Ohio.  Dear Mr. Halitosis: I am in a terrible predicament. I have just been offered a writer-producer-director contract at seven thousand a week for seven years straight. Shall I do it? Shall I subject myself to the corruption and sham of this tinsel town with its terrible people, or is my place back home where there are no people —just plain folks? In other words, how’s about that thirty-five-dollar-a-week job behind the rewrite desk?’”

Scott W. Smith

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