Author Ken Zurski (Peoria Stories & The Wreck of the Columbia) answers questions about his new book “UNREMEMBERED: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten:”
Unremembered is an interesting word. Why did you choose it?
I really liked it for one. It’s not used very often, but I saw it once and immediately knew it fit what I was trying to do.
And that would be a blog of forgotten history stories?
Well, yea, sort of. I was thinking a book first and thought it would make a terrific title. I had stories but wasn’t sure of the direction. I had a list of people and events I’d read about and wanted to write so I started the blog first and now here we are two years later and finally a book.
The book is different from the blog in that it tells multiple stories but within the context of a flowing or entwined narrative. Was that planned?
Mostly, yes. I didn’t want to do a bathroom book with just a bunch of articles. The stories on the blog are short so there would have to be a hundred or more in the book. I began thinking of stories intertwining and that sparked my interest in telling stories of people and events and their connections to each other, something I did in an abbreviated way with my book Peoria Stories. Some of the connections are more obvious than others and there are four parts to Unremembered so there are different themes, but with a thread that connects them all.
Some people seem to pop up and leave and others reemerge. Is this because of their connections?
Oh, Yes. There are probably 70 people featured in the book all under the same guise of being nearly famous or not quite forgotten. Some appear briefly others more prominently.
George Francis Train is one character that seems to have his hand in everything. Did you know that going in?
Oh, of course. Train was probably the person that best exemplifies what I was trying to convey in Unremembered. He was a resourceful figure and had some pretty amazing accomplishments in his lifetime, but he tried too hard to be important. Eventually his antics led many to believe he was insane. Others greatly admired him. In the end though, hardly anyone remembers him.
So he fits under the category of “nearly famous”?
Yes, I suppose, in how time treated his story. Today, he’s certainly not famous when compared to others, but in the later half of the 19th century he was a very famous figure, prominently in the news and influential and controversial too.
And Nellie Bly, the journalist, where does she fit in?
She is sort of like Train but never seemed to push herself into the spotlight like Train did. Certainly traveling around the world is a heady stuff for a woman at the time, but she did it to further her status as a journalist, not become a celebrity. That she became famous was a bonus.
So she is not quite forgotten?
Exactly her name comes up in books about the early history of journalism. But most people don’t know all of her amazing story.
Train and Bly seems to be main characters but don’t enter the book until the third part, especially Bly. Was this by design?
Sort of. Train has a connection to a man we meet in the first part Cornelius Vanderbilt, who has a connection to a steamboat disaster in New York whose tragic events has a connection to a young printer, it just follows along. Train is actually in every part in some way.
Niagara Falls is an interesting subject? How did you choose that to continue the narrative in Part Two?
Beyond the nature part of the beast, there’s a human story to the Falls which really interested me. Why did people risk their life to challenge it? So many stories emerged I had to tell it.
And yet, somehow it ties into balloon travel which ties into the birth of transportation
Yes, Part Three is about reaching new limits and new heights in transportation both by water and air. Some interesting and forgotten stories can be found here beyond the more familiar names like the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh and even the Titanic.
So there is an “unremembered” ship?
There is. Again famous for it’s time, but mostly forgotten now.
And then we’re back to a tragedy in Part Four?
Yes, the Great Chicago Fire.
And a familiar face emerges?
Yes, Train has a history there as well.
It’s all very fascinating stuff and the book covers a lot of ground. Were you ever surprised by the connections?
Most everything in the book is included because of the connections, but there were a few that were unexpected and came about while during research.
They call that writer’s luck, right?
“Unremembered: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten” is scheduled for release in August 2018 by Amika Press, Chicago.
By Ken Zurski
Breece D’J Pancake never had a book published in his lifetime. He died at the official age of 26, just shy of his 27th birthday. But four years after his death, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake was released to critical acclaim. In fact, it was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.
“A young writer of such extraordinary gifts that one is tempted to compare his debut to Hemingway,” praised author Joyce Carol Oates.
Born in 1952, the name Pancake is a surname of German origin. The odd apostrophe in D’J was a printer’s error, which stuck.
Pancake wrote about hardships of rural life in the Appalachian Territories where he grew up and rarely strayed. Most of his stories fly by in time, examining just hours of a character’s life, but packed with personal and social struggles both past and present. His stories for the Atlantic were submitted only after he composed four long-hand drafts and ten on the typewriter.
Ultimately, he struggled with alcoholism, but his untimely death by self-inflicted gunshot in 1979 may have been a tragic accident, some believe due to sleepwalking.
It all adds to his lore.
One book, however, remains.
By Ken Zurski
Perry Como may be the most popular Christmas performer of all time. Thanks to his long-standing annual holiday television special and beloved Christmas album released in 1968, Como’s face and voice became synonymous with the sounds of the season.
That said he may have been the most misunderstood as well.
Como was a one of the “good guys” whose relaxed and laid-back demeanor came across as “lazy” to some, a misguided assessment, since Como was known to be a consummate professional who practiced his craft incessantly.
“No performer in our memory rehearses his music with more careful dedication than Como.” a music critic once enthused.
Como also made sure each concert met his own personal and strict moral standards.
In November 1970, Como hosted a concert in Las Vegas, a comeback of sorts for the Christmas crooner, who hadn’t played a Vegas night club for over three decades. For his grand return, Como was paid a whopping $125-thousand a week. Even Perry was surprised by the remuneration. “It’s more money than my father ever made in a lifetime,” he remarked.
But since it was Vegas and befitting the town’s perceived association with mobsters and legalized prostitution, Como’s reputation as a straight-laced performer was questioned.
Como quelled any concerns, however, when he chose a safe, clean and relatively unknown English comic named Billy Baxter to warm up the audience before the show. Advisers suggested he pick an act more familiar to Vegas audiences, but Como said no.
A typical “Vegas comedian,” as he put it, was simply too dirty.
Keeping up the family friendly atmosphere accentuated in his TV specials, Como would lovingly introduce his wife Roselle during the “live” shows. Roselle, who was usually standing backstage and acknowledged the appreciative crowds, was just as adamant as her husband that his clean-cut image went untarnished. After one performance, Roselle received a fan’s note that pleased her immensely. “Not one smutty part, not even a hint,” the note read describing Como’s act in Vegas. “You should be very proud.”
Como’s cool temperament was such a recognizable and enduring characteristic that many wondered how much of it was real. Does he ever get upset? was one curious inquiry. “Perry has a temper,” his orchestra leader Mitchell Ayers answered. “He loses his temper at normal things. When were’ driving, for instance, and somebody cuts him off he really lets the offender have it.” However, Ayers added, “Como is the most charming gentleman I’ve ever met.”
Como’s popular Christmas television specials ran for 46 consecutive years ending in 1994, seven years before his death in 2001 of complications from Alzheimer’s.
He was 88.
(Source: Spartanburg Herald-Journal Nov 21 1970)
By Ken Zurski
Painter Piet Mondrian, born in 1872, was an important leader in the development of modern abstract art and a major exponent of the Dutch abstract art movement known as De Still (“The Style”).
Mondrian used the simplest combinations of straight lines, right angles, primary colors, and black, white, and gray. According to one art historian: “The resulting works possess an extreme formal purity that embodies the artist’s spiritual belief in a harmonious cosmos.”
The Partridge Family
Mondrian who died in 1944 probably would never have imagined that his well-known artistic style would be the inspiration for an exterior paint job of a school bus in a popular 1970s TV show, “The Partridge Family.” A striking but odd choice for a fictional but seemingly conventional family of traveling musicians and singers.
From Yahoo Answers: “Although the exterior paint job was arguably based on Mondrian’s Composizione 1921, it was never explained in the show why this middle class family from Southern California chose Dutch proto-modernism exterior paint, rather than the traditional school bus yellow.”
“The Partridge Family” ran on ABC television from September 25, 1970, until it ended on March 23, 1974. It would find an appreciate and loyal audience in syndication for years. Apparently the bus wasn’t so fortunate. As the story goes, after the show ended, the bus was sold several times until it was found abandoned in a parking lot at Lucy’s Tacos In East Los Angeles.
It was reportedly junked in 1987.
(Some text reprinted from Britannica.com and other internet sources)
Ken Zurski’s book “Unremembered: Tales of the Nearly Famous and the Not Quite Forgotten is available now http://a.co/d/hemqBno
By Ken Zurski
In the early half of the 20th century, shortly after World War I ended, mathematician Edward Kasner, a professor at Columbia University, devised the concept of showing the common features of whole numbers, no matter how large. As an example, he came up with the number one followed by a hundred zeros.
Writing out such a large number was ridiculous of course, and at the time formal names didn’t exist for numbers larger than a trillion.
But he needed a name.
So he asked his nine-year-old nephew Milton to intervene. During a causal stroll in New Jersey’s Palisades Woods, Edward wondered if Milton could come up with one. “Googol” was the boy’s answer. So Milton’s silly sounding recommendation became “Googolplex,” or one followed by a googol zeros. Kasner began using the name in his classes.
Flash forward more than 70 years in 1995 when two Stanford University students Larry Page and Sergey Brin began collaborating on a search engine they originally called BackRub. The project began to attract investors and bandwidth grew. But they needed a new name, something catchier, something they could easily register online.
Google was chosen as the common spelling of Googol which, thanks to Kasner, was as close to an infinite number as possible.
“We picked the name “Google” because our goal is to make huge quantities of information available to everyone,” Page later recalled.
When they presented the name however, math traditionalists balked. “You idiots, you spelled it [Googol] wrong!” one chastised. But Google.com was available and Googol.com was not. Besides, Page said, “It sounds cool and [still] has only six letters.”
According to an official statement Google’s corporate website (yes, there is one): “The name “Google” reflects Larry and Sergey’s mission to organize a seemingly infinite amount of information on the web.”
Simple enough. But what about young Milton? How did the word “Googol” pop into his head? Speculation runs rampant here. A great niece of Dr. Kasner, Denise Sirotta, claims her father Edwin, Milton’s younger brother, should get some credit since he claimed the siblings came up with the name together. “He was asked for a word with a sound that had lots of O’s in it,” she said.
Another observation seems to make more sense especially in the imaginative mind of a toddler. Caroline Birenbaum, another great-niece of Dr. Kasner’s, speculates the word was inspired by a comic-strip character named Barney Google, who debuted in 1919. She says Dr. Kasner, liked cartoons.
“He may have tweaked the spelling to avoid any trademark issues,” she claims.
Barney Google was an American comic strip created by Billy DeBeck, that originally appeared on the sports pages. Google had big “banjo” eyes, a mustache, a large bulbous nose, and wore a tuxedo-type suit. He was an “avid sportsman and N’er do well” involved with some of the more contentious contests like poker, prize fights and horse racing. Google’s bow-legged horse “Spark Plug” was introduced in 1922, and nicknamed “Sparky.” The horse was a nag who rarely raced, but when he did it became a big media event. Millions of readers bought in.
A popular song was introduced, a foxtrot, titled “Barney Google and Spark Plug”
Barney Google—with the goo, goo, googly eyes,
Barney Google—bet his horse would win the prize;
When the horses ran that day,
Spark Plug ran the other way!
Barney Google—with the goo-goo-googly eyes!
In 1934, another character named Snuffy Smith joined the fray and Barney Google and Spark Plug were phased out.
So Google, the word itself, was in the public consciousnesses long before the giant search engine came along. Still, Kasner had no idea that it would become so popular in the next century.
So where did his inspiration for the seemingly infinite number come from?
Kasner, who never married, cited a description of unrequited love. In a divorce case, he explained, a woman called the commitment she had for her husband as “a million billion billion times and eight times around the world.” Kaisner was struck by the expansive description. “It was the largest number ever conceived of,” he said. So he set out to immortalize it.
And his little nephew inspired a name.
Before Einstein, there was Charles Howard Hinton, the ‘Other Dimension’ and the Birth of the Jungle Gym
By Ken Zurski
Mathematician Charles Howard Hinton was both equally fascinated and frustrated by the concept of the fourth dimension, also known as the “other dimension,” or the one dimension of time and space that no one had been able to verify or explain. Albert Einstein tried. He deduced in his Theory of Special Relativity that the fourth dimension is “time” and that “time is inseparable from space.” Since then science fiction writers have used the space-time continuum to great dramatic effect in their stories.
But in 1884, while Einstein was still a toddler, it was Hinton who wrote the definitive article on the subject. In “What is the Fourth Dimension?” Hinton explained that the theory behind a fourth dimension was firmly established, but there was no physical evidence to support it. That was the dilemma, he inferred: “If we think of a man as existing in four dimensions, it is hard to prevent ourselves from conceiving him prolonged in an already known dimension.” Hinton used a four-cornered room, or cube, for example, to explain how one can only reach three dimensions. “Space as we know it, is subject to limitation,” he conceded.
However, to teach his children math skills, Hinton built a three-dimensional bamboo dome with evenly spaced geometric shapes. His son, Sebastian, remembers climbing and hanging from the dome while his father called out intersections for the children to identify.
“X2, Y4, Z3, Go!” Hinton would command.
Hinton died unexpectedly in 1907 from a cerebral hemorrhage and while he is mostly remembered for his work on the fourth dimension, in stark contrast, he is also credited with introducing the first pitching machine – more like a gun – called the “mechanical pitcher,” and designed for the Princeton University baseball team. The machine used gunpowder to fire the ball.
But the geometric dome he created for his children also had a lasting effect. Especially on his youngest son Sebastian.
Sebastian ended up marrying a teacher, Carmelita Chase, who grew up in Omaha, Nebraska and moved to Chicago in 1912 to become Jane Adams’ secretary at Hull House. That’s when she met Sebastian, a patent lawyer in town.
Carmelita was pretty, smart, and multi-talented. In college, she excelled in tennis (among other sports), acted in plays and sang in the choir. “She has distinguished herself in athletics as well her studies,” the Chicago Daily Tribune described in announcing the couple’s engagement in 1916. She and Sebastian would eventually have three children.
Shortly after getting married, however, Carmelita put most of her time and efforts into her work. She opened a kindergarten and nursery school at her Chicago apartment which was directly across from a park.
“Frustrated by her own ‘dreary’ school experience, she was determined to create learning environments for her school children and others that would be joyfully experimental,” author Susan Ware wrote about Carmelita in Notable American Women.
The type of teaching she endorsed already had a name: progressive education. For Carmelita, this included incorporating more outdoor activities like hiking, camping, farming and the care of animals to daily activities. “She would come into a room and it would be an explosion,” a former student recalled in the book Founding Mothers and Others, “But it was a happy occasion. She could sweep people up and carry them to Mars.”
In 1920, while watching his wife’s school children playing outside their Winnetka, Illinois home, Sebastian had a revelation. Why not build something they could climb on?
He envisioned a three-dimensional structure similar to his father’s geometric dome, but for play rather than instruction. He reportedly jotted down the idea on a napkin and perfected the plan for a patent submission. Then he built it.
Hinton called it a Jungle Gym.
At the time of its conception, however, the Jungle Gym was never heralded as the important contribution to the children’s playground as it is today. In fact, Hinton’s only recorded words about his invention are attributed to his detailed patent filings: “Children seem to like to climb through the structure and swing their head downward by the knees, calling back and forth to each other. A trick which can only be explained of course by a monkey’s instinct.” While the name Jungle Gym never officially changed, many people began seeing the correlation with the primate’s distinctive behavior and started calling it “monkey bars” instead. The moniker stuck.
Unfortunately, Sebastian Hinton is a figure lost to time. Although he married a socialite in Carmelita, Hinton preferred to stay out of the spotlight. Tragically, just a few years after creating the Jungle Gym, he committed suicide in a clinic after reportedly being treated for depression.
Caremilta chose not to publicly disclose her husband’s illness and cause of death (he hung himself). She packed up the family and moved east. Today, she is best remembered for founding Putney School, an independent progress education institution in Vermont that is still in existence today.
Hinton’s original Jungle Gym is permanently on display in the backyard of the Winnetka Historical Society Museum.
By Ken Zurski
In May of 1915, New York wine importer George A. Kessler was on the deck of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania watching the crew go through its daily lifeboat drills when he had an idea.
Known as “The Champagne King,” Kessler was sailing to the United Kingdom from New York on business and despite the threat of a German submarine attack in open waters, had no reservations about traveling.
After witnessing the crew drills, however, Kessler went to the captain and asked if there should be drills for the passengers as well. Perhaps, Kessler suggested, each person be assigned a lifeboat, just in case.
The captain graciously said he was not authorized to do such a thing.
Later, hosting a party in his stateroom, Kessler’s concerns were met with indifference. “That is the captain’s decision,” others told him.
Two days later, on May 7, the Lusitania was at the bottom of the sea, befallen by a German torpedo. More than thousand people perished.
Kessler was not one. He survived by reaching a lifeboat. “We tried bailing and balancing, “Kessler recalled, “but the boat would tilt and turn and finally capsized again.”
Kessler made a promise to himself, vowing that if he lived through the ordeal he would help others injured in war.
A promise he would keep.
Later in the hospital recovering, Kessler met a disabled British newspaperman who opened a center for soldiers with eye injuries. Inspired, Kessler sought out a person he knew could help.
Her name was Helen Keller.
Together they founded the Permanent Blind Relief War Fund, an organization which still exists today.
(Sources: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larsen; Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston; various internet sites)