An Interview with Berry Reece
The dream of my old "Pettigrew" story --
which President Obama turned into reality
An Interview with Berry Reece
Q. When and where were you born? Tell us about your family background and your friends growing up.
In 1932, when FDR was promising a New Deal, my lovely and gentle little mother, Margaret, overcame her own tough times and gave birth to me. She and my young dad, Berry, a smalltown accountant and witty storyteller obsessed with passion for golf and fishing, were protected from the darkest ravages of the Great Depression by the financial parachute of my grandmother, Maggie.
In the early 1900s, Maggie had been married to a successful young broker on the New Orleans Cotton Exchange, the first Berry Reece, who was also a rising chess champ across the Southern area. He contracted and died of TB, at the ripe age of 33. I would've loved to have been able to spend a little quality time with him. He was a seriously intellectual and unusual person. Some of his predecessors had been ardent military men. His dad, John Calhoun Reece, or "J.C.," a lieutenant in the 26th Mississippi Rifles, was captured and imprisoned in the Civil War - and during the late 1890s, according to family hearsay, this never-say-die Confederate injured a few more Yankees with his cane during a barbershop argument while visiting his daughter's residence on Long Island, NY. And one of J.C.'s forebears, who was also Berry's namesake, one Littleberry Leftwich, was a major in one of Gen. Andrew Jackson's regiments in the War of 1812.
So then Maggie, after the unfortunate death of her special husband, left New Orleans with their only child, baby son Berry, and retreated to her own hometown of Yazoo City, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta. And here - long before women's lib -- this daughter of Bavarian Catholic immigrants, a robust lady with a hearty laugh, entrepreneured her hamlet's first two movie houses. In Maggie's rambling old manse, perched on a last hill of Chickasaw Bluffs overlooking the black-earth, table-flat cottonland, was where I and my good younger brothers, Charles and Kelly, lived with full family in our early years.
My childhood years in this town, with a potpourri of good friends, was simple, safe, and relishing. Getting little-boy dreams of heroism. In Batman and Superman comic books. And in movies. My almost daily companion and afternoon shepherd during pre-school years, a bright and sensitive black teenage boy, would walk me to my grandma's theatre. Where we sat together and watched Flash Gordon and cowboys Gene Autry and Roy Rogers dash across the screen. Later, after he'd read comic books to me around our kitchen table, this talented, self-taught young artist would show me how to draw and watercolor all these mythic heroes. He introduced me to my love of art for life. Then, after his high school, he took the railroad north to Cleveland, Ohio. Where, from all I heard, he lived and worked in a factory for all his life.
In our schoolboy 1940s, my pals and I hung out at my grandma's movie house. For 10 cents a ticket. And got ourselves hooked on good old war flicks - like Bogart's Casablanca," and Peck's "Twelve O'Clock High," and Cooper's "Sergeant York" and "Cloak and Dagger" and, of course, "For Whom the Bells Toll." We built our World War II planes in balsa-wood models - iconic B-17s and P-38s and P-51s. Shot our B-B guns at our own live warbirds, tiny and innocent sparrows. Read mystery stories aloud to each other. Played a lot of sandlot football. Went to Boy Scout camps. And, in our early teens, three of us founded a surreptitious boy's club, which had a basic dark mission. To play poker, swap dirty jokes, ride our bikes around dark night streets, and initiate new guy members. Grossly.
Q. Where did you go to high school? Who and what motivated you? What did you read? When did you start writing and begin to see yourself as a writer?
After growing up in a tiny parochial school, and an altar boy sweat-dripping in his cassock in 100-degree pre-A/C heat at early morning Mass, I switched to our town's public high school. Most of my childhood buddies went there. Also it had athletic teams - where I longed, as we all did in our teens, to prove myself. That didn't happen. As a scrawny kid wearing glasses since age 3, I was sidelined in football and basketball. In tennis, my partner and I were runners-up in the regional and got to the state tourney. But a true jock I knew then I was not. The blessing was this forced me to experiment for my real stand-out strengths. On our high school newspaper, its moderator - who was also my young English teacher and became a lifelong friend - persuaded me I had some writing talent. So I dug in, read books on journalism, and grew from cartoonist and newswriter for the paper, to its sports editor, and then to its editor in my senior year.
Summertime, I worked for our local weekly newspaper, the Yazoo City Herald. For $14 a week ($1 less than the janitor). One steamy August night, I and some pals witnessed an execution at our county jail. In those days Mississippi took its portable electric chair to the criminal trial venue. The condemned was a black man who'd shot a prominent white bootlegger to death. This event felt like a scene from Nero's Coliseum. Hundreds of spectators were gathered on the jailhouse lawn - mainly whites on one side, and a tiny knot of the condemned's moaning black family on the other. The man and his chair were quite visible through jailhouse windows. When the old lighted clock-tower on the nearby courthouse struck midnight, the electric chair jumped and spat. Thousands of bolts slammed into the man like a highspeed train. I drove straight home and spent all night on my typewriter. Writing a coliseum-story, laced with lots of unattributed quotes. Next morning, I took it into the Herald. The elder publisher refused to print it. His son, a World War II vet then working on his journalism degree, tried to get his dad to change his mind. It didn't work. But decades later, the son, who took over the paper after his dad died, would become a key lynchpin, along with our high school basketball coach and my parish priest, who helped this town try to fully desegregate.
Q. Talk about your college experiences.
After my childhood in that small Mississippi Delta town, with the support from good loving family and warm, zesty friends, I took off for another planet, at the University of Notre Dame. Surrounded there by a mosaic of smart and tolerantly good pals, my six years here, both in undergrad and then in law school, were a 14-karat adventure of testing and discovering self. It was here that I was inspired and ideologically transformed by undergrad teachers of history, religion, and political science -- and particularly by Prof. Roger Peters in Constitutional Law. They brought me face-to-face with the tragedies of slavery, our catastrophic Civil War - followed by the lack of federal staying-power during Reconstruction and the look-the-other-way denial by our U.S. Supreme Court, which metastasized segregation. In the Civil Rights Cases of 1883, which overruled a law making segregation a crime in hotels, theatres, and other public places. And then in the cornerstone Plessy vs. Ferguson decision of 1896 - which OK'd "separate but equal" facilities for whites and blacks, buttressing segregation for another half-century over much of our democratic America. Until 1954, our first year at ND law school, when along came the iconic Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Which began to remold our nation. And make ideals get real.
These golden years grounded my own beliefs and ideals. And yet I kept experimenting with what I should best do in my life's career. One summer, I worked as sports editor on a daily paper run by my Mississippi hero, Hodding Carter, who'd won a Pulitzer Prize for his anti-racist editorials and books. The following semester, I was night police reporter for the South Bend Tribune. Another summer, I covered key lawcourts in our state capital for the Jackson Daily News. So journalism as a lasting first-love kept on winking at me. On the law side, which I felt would be more secure and stable, I worked as summer apprentice for one of Mississippi's top trial lawyers, John Sharp Holmes. And yet watching him in the courtroom, I knew I'd never be that magically good on my feet. No matter how devotedly and deftly I researched cases 24 and 7 in a law library. So my longtime to-do debate with self continued.
Q. Describe your family life.
In 1956, while I was in training as a young lieutenant at the U.S. Army's Intelligence School at Ft. Holabird in Baltimore, I ventured out one bright autumn Sunday afternoon to the College of Notre Dame of Maryland. There on the campus I met, by hand-of-God accident, a lovely student named Mary Jo -- who would eventually become my wife and life's best friend. When Mary Jo and her mom attended my intel school commencement, and I got awarded as top graduate, my future mother-in-law was surprised. So were some of my classmates. And then, after I got shipped off to service in Berlin, and Mary Jo was completing her senior year as math major at CND, she and I mailed daily letters to each other. When she graduated, I flew back and married her.
We honeymooned on the island sands of Majorca, and Rome and London. Then returned for my final months in Berlin. And began our family. Over the years, Mary Jo delivered and shepherded our three very special daughters - Georganne and Mara and Charlotte. And until they were well along in school, this elegant, super-smart, and vivaciously upbeat woman postponed seriously launching her extraordinary career. As systems engineer for the respected think-tank MITRE Corporation, MJ rose in time to group leader, traveling widely and managing services for the Air Force Satellite Communications System, the FBI, the DIA. And the baton passed. Each of our three strong and lovely daughters at one point captained a school sport. And earned degrees at very good colleges. Two went on to get their MBAs. And all three manage career and volunteer projects today. In their home cities of Chicago, Houston and Boston. Yet for each of them and their good husbands, ministering to their own kids and family remains Job 1 in the dance of life.
Q. When your formal schooling was over, what sort of work did you do and where? You noted that you had been a political writer in your native South during the early civil rights movement - please discuss.
Service in Berlin was truly a psychological change-agent. For me, and others I knew well. In the late 1950s, this divided, pre-wall city was the epicenter of the Cold War. From our intel agency in Berlin Command, those of us given language training, many just kids in our mid-20s, were handling sources. Some of whom were high-ranking moles in East Berlin. And the stakes were real. The U.S., as well as Russia - which surrounded West Berlin with 16 divisions - both had nukes sitting in their backyards.
By the time I was discharged, in 1958, I'd grown up enough to see life is truly a onetime thing. So I decided to launch my career in a world I knew from gut experience was best suited to my strengths: publishing. My earliest jobs -- first as the state political writer and columnist for the Jackson Daily News, and then doing the much the same for United Press International news service - took wife Mary Jo and me back to Mississippi in vibrant times. The NAACP was beginning its voter registration sit-ins. And whites were reacting with protest marches. I covered the election of raucous segregationist Gov. Ross Barnett. Who later in his term would stand in the door and try, unsuccessfully, to block Federal officers from helping James Meredith become the first black student to enroll at the University of Mississippi. One of my news stories for UPI during this same period also blew the whistle on the Barnett administration's secret flirtation with "Operation Plowshare" -- in which the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission's Dr. Edward Teller was attempting to sell his plan for exploding deep-underground nukes in Mississippi in order to try and generate peaceful energy.
Q. Discuss your involvement with the George Pflaum Publishing Company and the Treasure Chest comic book. How did your work there influence (or not) the development of the "Pettigrew for President" series?
After UPI, I worked a couple of years as news editor for The Young Catholic Messenger, one of the Pflaum Publishing Company's long-established weekly newspapers produced for millions of parochial school students across the nation. The firm's then president was the founder's son, George A. Pflaum Jr., who'd been a classmate of mine at Notre Dame. Also published by the company in those days was Treasure Chest - an educational magazine that charmed its student subscribers with non-fiction narratives told in comic-book style - stories about big and real heroes in sports and religion, history and science. These were aimed to inspire young readers with patriotism, equality, faith and anti-communism. This bi-weekly periodical had been started back in 1946 by the Pflaum Company, following a request by the Commission on American Citizenship at Catholic University because of wide concern among U.S. bishops that comic books in their heyday then were sensationalizing violence in ways that could prompt juvenile delinquency.
When I was made the editor of the Treasure Chest, I concepted and sold company management on publishing my "Pettigrew for President" series about America's first Afro-American nominee for President. Sure, it was a bit risky at the time. But it fit with the magazine's goals, especially of patriotism and equality. My storyline did not disclose this Presidential candidate's own racial identity until the last episode. My aim was to get young readers deep into Pettigrew's personal integrity and charisma and message before they made any pre-judgments based on his race. So then, in the denouement, Pettigrew walks on stage to accept his nomination in the final panel of the series. And its last lines say, "Could he win? Well, it would depend on how the boys and girls reading this grew up and voted … on whether they believed and, indeed, lived those words in our Declaration: All men are created equal."
Q. Discuss where your idea for the "Pettigrew for President" series in 1964 about the very first Afro-American nominated candidate for U.S. President came from? What prompted you to concept and write this series?
In 1963-64, America was in real turmoil. President John Kennedy had been assassinated. And racist killings were rampant throughout the South, including my native Mississippi - Jackson's strong black leader Medgar Evers, whom I'd known and interviewed during my newswriting days, plus three Freedom Riders in Philadelphia, and two blacks in a Vicksburg church bombing. And Rev. Martin Luther King, with his "I have a dream" speech, led 300,000 people in the biggest-to-date protest march on Washington.
During all this, JFK's successor, President Lyndon Johnson, was using his veteran legislative skills to get passed our Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act. Both were milestones. Racism had long been a major hypocrisy in America - the failure to live by our ideals in our Constitution and Bill of Rights. To practice what we preach. Our divide over slavery had precipitated our Civil War - which caused more U.S. deaths than any of our other wars. Five times more than World War I; 50% more than World War II.
So, in those racially-divided mid-1960s, I wanted to do this "Pettigrew" series as an outreach to American schoolkids -- in a small step to hopefully help better reunite our dis-United States somewhere down the line. I felt that no change-agent could better reunite us than a President. And no President could probably better do that, and get our nation moving towards a real realization of our Constitutional ideals of equal opportunity, than a black President.
Q. Discuss your collaboration with illustrator Joe Sinnott on the Pettigrew series.
After I engaged Joe Sinnott as the cartoonist on "Pettigrew for President," I flew out to his home in New York City with my storyline for various panels in the series. Joe's a widely-known illustrator who for decades created Marvel Comics superheroes like the Fantastic Four, the Hulk, and X-Men. And for months Joe and I collaborated on the Pettigrew story. Some creations were just fun replications of the real. During this New York Gov. Pettigrew's presidential debates, our TV anchorman was one Walter Finkly - who was Joe's charming caricature combo of CBS Walter Cronkite and NBC David Brinkley. Other moments in the series reflected events more hauntingly real.
In one early episode, Pettigrew survives an assassin gunshot - retriggering memories, which in 1964 were only a year old, of JFK's death. Also, during the story's television debates, the protagonist's chief competitor, an audacious Texan named Sen. Oilengas, accuses (unsuccessfully) Pettigrew of cowardice during his service in Vietnam. Obviously, this was not any foresight on my part, but just a fictional coincidence some 40 years before the actual Swift Boat attack on the 2004 presidential candidacy of Sen. John Kerry.
Q. What, if any, kind of editorial oversight was exercised over the Pettigrew series by the publisher? Was there any conflict over the content? Did you consciously inject any Catholic content into this material?
On "Pettigrew," editorial oversight was just the same as normal at this publisher. As editor of Treasure Chest, I'd simply show drafts of all its stories to the company's editor-in-chief, Jim Pflaum. And there were no conflicts about this series. The only religious content at all in the story was that some of its characters were Catholic. Governor Pettigrew. His campaign press manager (and former college roommate), Bart Blatt. Blatt's smart wife, Mary Jane. And their two vivid and robust little kids, Joey and Angie - whom we used as narrative hooks, along with humor and suspenseful conflicts and end-of-episode cliffhangers, to enticingly walk our young readers through the basic ABCs of our presidential nomination process. Yet there was no religious ideology injected in the Pettigrew series. Separation of church and state's key to America's being a centuries-old democratic power in the world. We all knew that. And this story was about state.
Q. How does the 1964 "Pettigrew" series relate in your view to the recent Presidential election of 2008?
The long-forgotten old 1964 story about "Pettigrew," as I've consistently said since NPR's "All Things Considered," the New York Times, and the National Catholic Reporter each resurrected memories of that series during the 2008 Presidential campaign, surely had nothing to do with any prescience on my part. Back in those days over four decades ago, it was just a young man's dream. Until Barack Obama brought it all to reality. Yet he won the White House not just due to race. But because he's a person of serious intellect and integrity - a major thinker who most voters saw would have to take on the most complex burdens for any President since Franklin Roosevelt - our globalized Great Recession plus two wars mired by our long addiction to oil in the Middle East.
Q. When did you end your editorship of Treasure Chest? And what effects did this work with Treasure Chest have on your career?
In 1964, the year "Pettigrew" was published, I joined the National Geographic as a staff writer/editor. Worked on a number of their good photojournalism books, like Greece and Rome, Bible Times, and This England. And was elevated to serve as the project editor of another, Exploring Canada. Which took me and wife and young kids on a colorful coast-to-coast tour while I was writing a chapter on the Canadian West. All this introduction to book publishing now became the lasting joy of my career.
In 1969, I was hired by Boston's Houghton Mifflin, one of America's oldest and largest publishers, as their series editor on a bunch of innovative law books. One series was on Constitutional law; the other, on everyday law. All these had been conceptualized by the Law in American Society (LIAS), founded by a group of Chicago law and education professors - whose concern was our nation's spreading cancer of violence. In 1968, assassins had killed Presidential candidate Robert Kennedy and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Protests against the Vietnam War were exploding everywhere. And at the Democratic convention in Chicago, it all got close to home - 10,000 young street rioters took on Mayor Daley's police force. So the aim of these Chicago profs with their LIAS manuscripts was to re-inspire young students with respect for civil debate and the rule of law. These ground-breaking books on con law - Vital Issues of the Constitution, Great Cases of the Supreme Court, and Law in a New Land - were designed as supplementary American history texts for students in high school down to elementary. Collaborating with the LIAS profs, I and my Houghton Mifflin team edited and re-wrote long and laborious law cases in the manuscripts. Boiling them down into brief and simple, legally accurate, high-octane capsules - to try and excite young students, including even weak readers. And it worked. Our constitutional law books, plus the six other texts in the LIAS "Justice in Urban America" series, sold millions of copies to receptive schools across our very turbulent nation. And for me, this was all a good moment of personal payback honoring my education in the law.
My quarter-century at Houghton Mifflin was prime-time for me. For most of those years, I was promoted to manage its first marketing research department. My staff and I ran roughly 30-40 studies a year. Most were low-error national quantitative surveys of buyer/user needs, often contracting with good national research firms. And for half a decade I chaired the Association of American Publishers' Research Committee.
Symptomatic of our kaleidoscopic world's merger-meltdown of print publishing, Houghton Mifflin's been bought and sold three times during the last decade. And is now Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. But my pension's stayed solid. Thankfully. And after my wife and I moved down to Annapolis, Maryland, I ran the marketing research for the U.S. Government Printing Office for a few years. Until Mary Jo and I both fully retired in 2002. So nowadays she and I hip-hop, frugally, around our planet - frequently visiting with our warm and caring diaspora of kids and grandkids. And watching them each grow in soul and contribute to life.