October 27, 2013 sermon – In Our Own Backyards

READING Khrushchev – Cold War & Cold Soup by Susan P. Curnan

When I think of Nikita Khrushchev’s first of his visit to Val-Kill in August 1959, I think of borscht: that strange, red, beet soup served cold with a dollop of sour cream. My father made it for the first time for Khrushchev’s visit! The perfect high-stakes recipe for cold soup to accompany high-stakes discussions of the Cold War!

It was an exciting, fast-paced, kind of scary day – the preparations were elaborate and intense behind the scenes. I was by my father’s side as he briefed secret service agents and state troopers at one moment and instructed kitchen staff and put finishing touches on the borscht the next.

It was a paparazzi occasion and we were all a little surprised when Eleanor Roosevelt asked to have me in the short receiving line with her. The moment sticks with me like it was yesterday. I was nervous and awkward as I was “escorted” to the front line; I had a sense this was more than a simple request…the event was captured by the press, photographers and film makers seized the moment to show Khrushchev’s “Pause for Affection.” The story was subsequently published in “Images of Peace – a television chronicle of a turning point in history.”

Unfortunately, the borscht moment didn’t go nearly as well. Time was short. The delegation made a quick pass through the kitchen and dining room, picked up a dinner roll and moved out to the limos. ER was furious about the hasty visit and we all ate borscht for weeks!

Only later did I understand the gigantic impact of this visit. Indeed, in Khrushchev’s final statement made on American soil, only days after the Val-Kill visit, he said, “We were here at the kind invitation of President Eisenhower. We visited various cities in your country from the Atlantic to the Pacific. We had many pleasant meetings and talks with Americans, with the business people of America, with political and public men. We met your workers, farmers and intellectuals. As a result of the useful talks we had with President Eisenhower, we came to an agreement that all outstanding international issues should be settled not through the use of force but by peaceful means and through negotiations. When we come home we shall tell the Soviet people of our impressions, of the meetings and talks we had on American soil. The Soviet people as a whole seek to live in peace. They want there to be good friendly relations between our two great nations. We are convinced that the American people also desire peace. There are many outstanding issues between us. But let us rather not turn to the past but look to the future and do all we can for that future. Let us join efforts to consolidate peace and to improve understanding between all the nations of the world.”

SERMON In Our Own Backyards Susan P. Curnan

By now, you have figured out that I grew up at Val-Kill, part of the Roosevelt estate in Hyde Park, New York. The Great Hudson Valley. My family was part of the landscape there – the hidden infrastructure that kept the place going, kept Eleanor Roosevelt going. Because of that, I inherited what I call an “invisible” legacy.

When I cross the old plank bridge to Val-Kill Cottage and walk on the grounds I reclaim two decades of social study and childhood memories. I hear the sounds of many voices and see the colorful, diverse images of people at work and play around the landscape. I remember Eleanor Roosevelt, her friends, family, adversaries, colleagues, and “the help” at Val-Kill. We were her “Kitchen Cabinet.”

Am I a Roosevelt? No. I am a Curnan, “the littlest Curnan” as Eleanor Roosevelt was fond of saying – when she complimented me on my “good seat in the saddle,” added me to her Christmas list, read to me on the porch, or invited me to lunch.

Recently the National Archivists at the Presidential Library described Val-Kill as a departure from accepted social conventions, represented by a pioneer spirit, curiosity, and determination.(1) Certainly that’s how it seemed to me. Tucked away from the public eye, Eleanor Roosevelt’s intimate circle could play, work and gather friends and colleagues – approaching these activities with what became her distinctive informal style of diplomacy.

My father, Charlie Curnan, started the Curnan-Roosevelt connection in 1931 when, as he used to say, he “was just a young kid out to make a living.” A Hyde Parker of Irish-Dutch heritage, he was 13 when he went to work in the greenhouses for FDR’s mother, at the “big house.” At the time, there were two kinds of people in Hyde Park – the very wealthy and those who worked for them on their Hudson River Estates.

Well, he did make a living working with and for three generations of Roosevelts, and he made a life for all of us. He worked his way up from tending the gardens to super-intending the Val-Kill estate. Early in my life, he purchased his own corner of the Val-Kill property for his family. Until that point, he (and the growing family) lived in and repaired Roosevelt farm houses – “fixer-uppers” – on all reaches of the property which at the time spanned six miles from the Hudson River to FDR’s famous “top cottage.”

It was here that I learned to swim, shoot, ride, fish, play tennis, and play the piano. And it was here that I learned about social class, social kindness, diversity, democracy, politics and people – rich and poor. Early on, I learned about racism and civil rights, homophobia, Jews and anti-Semitism, communism and socialism; I knew what it meant to be called Democrats, Republicans, or Independents; I met accomplished and adventurous women called lesbians; and I learned about the UN Human Rights agenda.

I also learned to work hard, play hard and be “useful,” to see patterns, and to craft an agenda not just for meetings but also for lunch and dinner gatherings. To this day, I never go to, or host, a dinner party (or even lunch) without at least three topics in my back pocket! Mrs. Roosevelt taught me that simplicity is elegance, casual is comfortable, and conversation is important work. Simply by observing life around me, I learned that social change is possible: when you know who you are; when you act on what you know or think – even at personal cost; and when you are clear with others that that is what you are doing.

When I visit Val-Kill now, it still evokes mixed feelings that come with joy, excitement, high adventure, and high expectations. If you’ve been there, you know, Val-Kill Cottage is casual, comfortable, simple, and ripe for exploring and discovery. It was – and still is – a big rambling, cozy house with knotty pine paneling, wall hangings of all sorts in random patterns, and interesting furniture. I know every room and slept in most at one time or another.

I was thirteen years-old the summer Eleanor Roosevelt hosted her last party at Val-Kill. My mother told the story best: “That summer before Mrs. Roosevelt died, she made a big surprise party for Charlie. She was the one who dreamed it up, but her daughter Anna was in on it too, and I, of course, also knew. The only one who was completely unaware of what was going on was Charlie. He even helped preparing the food for the party. And then, when he appeared, everybody started singing, ‘He’s a jolly good fellow!’ and Charlie sang right along with them and he kept looking around to see for whom all this celebrating was. [Mrs. Roosevelt] laughed and Charlie joined her. ‘They really caught me by surprise,’ he said.”(2)

Asked when Charlie discovered that the party was for him, my mother responded, “When they gave him this.” It is a large silver platter. Engraved
on it are these words: “Presented to Charles Curnan in grateful appreciation of continued association with Mrs. James Roosevelt, President and Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt, Mr. and Mrs. John Roosevelt. 1931- July 28, 1962.”

The silver platter itself is a family treasure, as you can imagine, but the words say much about the giver. ER thought of my father as her “associate” – in sharp contrast to the more popular notion of “domestic help.” He was her “top man” at Val-Kill, and according to my father’s journal, – Charlie could do, and did, just about everything around the place.

As I write this part of my “spiritual journey,” I am at once discovering and remembering that time and place. Despite my father’s words, “never forget where you came from,” I did occasionally forget as I was busy climbing the ivy wall or building a career and balancing work and family life. We all forget some of what we know. And then, given the moment to reflect, we rediscover, we remember.

Of course, sometimes there are parts of our past that we don’t want to revisit. I had a dose of that too and only found my voice for telling this story as I was approaching 50. Rather suddenly, I realized that by virtue of growing up at Val-Kill, I had been given a “mantle to do justice” and I had a responsibility to share lessons from those times with my children and extended family and others – a responsibility never more important than today with what is going on in the world.

All of us have been influenced by many people, known and unknown, ordinary and extraordinary. Two such people in my life were Charlie Curnan and Eleanor Roosevelt. Ultimately, these early influences inform what we do, why we do what we do, and where. They influence what we come to know, think, and believe. I was fortunate – my worldview and values were born and nurtured at Val-Kill. It was a dynamic place where values were caught as much as taught.

“Go to Brandeis.” These are the last words my father spoke to me from his deathbed more than 35 years ago shortly after my mother died. I had no idea what he was talking about. I leaned closer and he whispered it again. Still it eluded me. I was just out of Yale graduate school then and happily launching a career with a private foundation. I told myself it was the illness, the drugs – they eased his pain and created confusion. I put the words out of my mind and got on with my career. I had no knowledge of the Eleanor Roosevelt, Val-Kill connection to Brandeis at this time.

A few years later, in the fall of 1983, I found myself on the Brandeis campus for an interview with the Dean of the Heller School for Social Policy and Management. As it happened, the school was restructuring its policy and research centers and our interests overlapped in the area of youth and community development. My colleagues had a vision for how we might combine efforts – many of us had met while working on a White House Task Force and in Washington, D.C. The interview was intriguing. But still, I was unsure why I would make this change when I was very happy where I was. I said as much, and we agreed to think about it more. I left the Dean’s office to tour the campus and a most amazing thing happened.

As I approached the library, there were grand posters of Eleanor Roosevelt hanging from lamp posts and buildings. And I remembered – in a flash – my father’s words: “Go to Brandeis.” At that moment, I realized he knew exactly what he was saying.

He knew that Brandeis was (and is) about “Knowledge Advancing Social Justice” and he knew that was a mission shared with Eleanor Roosevelt. Of course, he also knew that it was at Val-Kill that women’s roles and relationships were re-conceptualized in the early 20th century – a story at the heart of Val-Kill. He saw the era as a time of great excitement, social change, opportunity, and adventure for women; he saw how the social context shaped the friendships among women. He knew his daughter before she knew herself!

I entered the library and witnessed the start of Brandeis’ Centennial birthday celebration for Eleanor Roosevelt. There were photos of her speaking at the University’s First Commencement in 1952, and tapes and photos from “Prospects of Mankind,” the popular radio talk show she hosted with famous guests at Brandeis during the last three years of her life – she launched the first program the week of her 75th birthday! There were photos of Brandeis students and Professor Larry Fuchs at Val-Kill, too – one on the picnic grounds where I was a toddler in the background. Audiotapes offered insight into her teaching as well, which always focused on helping Brandeis students make the transition from university life to the outside world. She assembled panel discussions with Brandeis professors and guests like Margaret Mead, Archibald McLeish, Martin Luther King, Jr., Alfred Knopf and others.

Transcripts and lecture notes were everywhere. Of course, now I know the archives are rich with Eleanor Roosevelt-Brandeis history both on campus and at the Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park. Details including lecture and radio program notes, trustee budget notes (yes, she was always frugal!) offer precious insights into the life and times of ER and Brandeis.

In writing about opportunity and justice, the great social thinker, Hannah Arendt put it this way: “We are free and fated, fated and free.”

As much as I subscribe to ER’s notion that our choices ultimately make our life – there may be some magic as well – maybe even “spiritual intervention.”

As I celebrate 30 years at Brandeis and reflect on choices I have made – or thought I made – and the role of personal history and serendipity, bromides like “things happen for a reason,” and “there are no coincidences” come to mind as popularized versions of Arendt’s deep philosophical thought. Serendipity is my favorite term. Coined by English writer Horace Walpole, in 1754, it refers to heroes of a fairy tale who “wandered freely and were forever making discoveries by accidents and sagacity of things they were not in quest of….” That’s how I feel about how I ended up at Brandeis – it’s part of a spiritual journey.

Today, the work to advance human rights, civil rights, and peace continues at Brandeis. It goes on at the Heller School’s Center for Youth and Communities, in our classrooms, and in projects across the nation.

Recently, I sat down with a small group of Brandeis college students, known as “The Eleanor Roosevelt Fellows,” to learn how these students think about their connection to Eleanor Roosevelt. I was delighted with what I heard, learned and witnessed during our meeting. They spoke in highly energized tones about their “spirit of service.” They identified with what they called ER’s “bridge-builder” qualities – addressing controversial social issues of her time such as race, class, religion, and gender. “There is a weight that comes with being a Roosevelt Fellow. It becomes an identity and is much to live up to…”one said. And another: “Her life shows us what democracy means.”

When I asked how they thought the peer mentoring aspect of their work reflected Eleanor Roosevelt’s values and character, they were quick to talk about things like this:

how important one-to-one relationships are in personal development and academic success creating a caring community is the heart of the matter
being down to earth and approachable, the way Eleanor Roosevelt was

They perceived that she was perhaps the most influential woman of the 20th century because she established personal bonds and relationships with people from all walks of life and all corners of the globe. This, plus a mission of social justice and concern for each citizen, defines the Fellows’ agenda. They call it the “Brandeisian-Rooseveltonian Way.”

At the same time, they were largely aware (though not necessarily in a scholarly way) that her life spanned some of the most difficult, challenging events in modern history, including The Great Depression, two World Wars, the Holocaust, establishment of the United Nations, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. Also during this period, changes in the organization of labor and expanding job opportunities for women opened “new freedoms” and led many women to recognize the need for social change and realized their collective strength.

I chose this moment in the conversation to tell the students about “Eleanor Roosevelt Day,” proclaimed by President Clinton on her birthday October 11, 2000. In part, the proclamation reads:
“Whether working for the United Nations, the NAACP, the Girl Scouts, the Presidential Commission on the Status of Women, or the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Eleanor Roosevelt devoted her boundless energy to creating a world defined by respect for and dedication to democratic values. She was a woman ahead of her time, and her achievements transcend her generation. As we seek to chart a steady course for America, democracy, and human rights in this new century, we need only look to her values, character, and accomplishments to provide us with an unfailing moral compass.”

At this point it’s tempting to say, “Ah, but I’m no Eleanor Roosevelt!” What would ER say to that?

Where, after all, do universal human rights begin?

In small places, close to home – so close and so small
they cannot be seen on any maps of the world.

We must also look to ourselves and work in our own backyards. We must inspire others and aspire to “Set our corner of the world on fire!” These words are emblazoned on the Fellows’ purple t-shirts (as worn by my kids today!). Eleanor Roosevelt used those words in 1952 at the first Brandeis University commencement to encourage people and inspire a student body discouraged by the Korean War and other world events at the time. Today, the Fellows use these same words as a fierce reminder that each citizen can and must make a difference – at a university, around the world and in our own backyards.

As for me, I recently launched the first-ever course in social justice and social policy in the American Gay Rights Movement and again I ask – what would ER say? It’s about time. It is time! My work with young people harkens back to “The Youth Congress” and various education initiatives she helped to establish. Workforce development and entrepreneurship can learn from her work with Francis Perkins’, Secretary of Labor in the FDR Administration and Val-Kill Industries, a business she started with two close woman friends in her own backyard to ease unemployment during the Great Depression.

And now a final story.

A couple of years ago, I returned to Val-Kill during the planning and building of the Eleanor Roosevelt Center in the exact footprint of my childhood home. I was a bundle of mixed emotions. So I did what I always do when I have to work through things – I went for a walk – at Val-Kill. Now, I know these 182 acres like the back of my hand. I ran, biked, hiked and rode my 18-hands high palomino Amigo all over it. I walked often with my father, and ER, and the dogs on the loop road through the forest.

It was late afternoon in the fall. I dropped my pack and water at the head of the trail and took off. After all, the loop is less than an hour’s walk. About ½ mile in, I approached the spot where I would often sit with ER and my Father – the Lycopodio-covered, north-facing hemlock ravine. There is a stream running through the secret place in the woods and it attracted deer and birds – just so peaceful.

I veered off the main trail to sit for a spell. When I started to look around me, I noticed there was a new trail – less traveled – but newly marked and created by the National Park Service. I thought I should explore. It seemed to be a shortcut to Top Cottage. Surely I had time to do that climb.

Well, to make a LONG story short, I got lost in my own backyard! The sun was setting fast, the temperature was dropping and I was all turned around and scared for a couple of hours. I finally followed a stone wall and streambed back to the loop road and popped out in what used to be my Father’s Christmas tree plantation. (I’d helped him cut those trees.) It was a safe place and I took some deep breaths. I knelt down to drink from the stream (you can imagine how thirsty I was!) and a most amazing thing happened. In this streambed, laden with shale – that thin, flat gray rock that underlies much of the Hudson River Valley – there was this heart stone. It appeared red with the water running over it. I know, beyond any doubt, this was a message. I said out loud to myself, “I am not lost. I am home.”

CLOSING WORDS Susan P. Curnan
From my Father: “Never forget where you came from.”
And from Eleanor Roosevelt [IN VOICE]:
“Courage is more exhilarating than fear and in the long run, it is easier. We do not have to become heroes overnight. Just a step at a time, meeting each thing that comes up, seeing it not as dreadful as it appeared, discovering we have the strength to stare it down. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

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