Archive for November, 2010

W&L Alum Rob Rain in Afghanistan

Rob Rain shakes hands with an Afghan elder prior to a shura in Darawaty. (Photo by Lance Cpl. Joshua Hines)

A little more than three years ago Rob Rain, of the Class of 2007, was conducting honor hearings as president as Washington and Lee’s Executive Committee. Today he is leading weekly shuras with Afghan elders as part of his deployment in the Helmand Province.

First Lt. Rain is a platoon commander with the 81 Millimeter Mortars Platoon, attached to Company B, 1st Battalion, 8th Marines, Regimental Combat Team 2. He began his deployment in early September and has been focused on counter insurgency, including the establishment of the weekly meetings, or shuras, that allow members of the local community to express their concerns.

Rob’s work was featured in a recent story distributed by the Marine’s public affairs division. Rob described the weekly consultations as allowing the Marines “to let people know we’re legitimately doing our best to assist them while providing them security, and trying to give them a better life.” He added that these conversations have led to the discovery of many IEDs (improvised explosive devices).

The work is dangerous. One member of Rain’s platoon was severely wounded in an IED blast in early October.

“The Marines out here are performing extremely well,” said Rob. “Everyone has made a huge effort to interact with the people. Every patrol that goes out tries to sit down and have chai with someone, just to sit down, drink tea and really talk to them.”

You can see some photographs from Kunder Village where Rob’s platoon is currently conducting its mission on the website One-Eight Basetrack, which features the work of several freelance journalists and photographers. Rob is featured on the second and fourth images on the page.

Art and Fiction

Bill Acquavella '59 with Steve Martin in a New York Times photo by Ruth Fremson.

Comedian, actor, author and art collector Steve Martin’s new novel, “Object of Beauty,” has an interesting Washington and Lee connection. The novel is set in the New York City art world. Martin is a renowned art collector in his own right.

The W&L connection (actually, there are two) is the presence in the novel of real-life art dealer William Acquavella, a 1959 alumnus who heads up Acquavella Galleries in New York. Described as a “mega dealer” in a New York Times feature story about Martin’s new book, Bill is cited by name in at least two different scenes in the novel.

In one passage, Martin refers to the Italian restaurant Saint Ambroeus where the art crowd gathers. Martin describes the restaurant this way: “When Larry Gagosian, the champion art world muscle-flexing aesthete, and Bill Acquavella, the connected and straight-shooting dealer in Impressionists and beyond, were at their separate tables, the place had a nuclear afterglow.”

Martin goes on to discuss the rivalry between the two dealers, who deal with “different corners of the market, though temperatures could rise to boiling when their merchandise overlapped. Picasso was implied to be Acquavella’s, and Cy Twombly was implied to be Gagosian’s, but what if some Saudi prince wanted to swap his Picasso for a Twombly? Star wars.”

There, of course, is the other W&L connection. Artist Cy Twombly is a member of W&L’s Class of 1953.

Acquavella Galleries are located at 18 East 79th Street. The gallery was founded by Bill’s father, Nicholas Acquavella, in 1921, and originally specialized in works of the Italian Renaissance. Once Bill joined his father in 1960, the gallery expanded its focus and is now known for major works of the 19th and 20th centuries.

In 1990, Bill partnered with Sotheby’s to buy the contents of the Pierre Matisse Gallery. It was one of the largest art deals of the late 20th century — a $143 million deal for 2,300 works by Joan Miro, Jean Dubuffet, Alberto Giacommetti, Marc Chagall and other 20th-century masters.

Drive Safer Sunday is Today

Cullum Owings '03

Today (Nov. 28) is Drive Safer Sunday, the sixth annual national observance of an event created in memory of Cullum Owings ’03 by Road Safe America, an advocacy group founded by Cullum’s parents and brother, Pierce ’06.

At the end of the 2002 Thanksgiving vacation, Cullum and Pierce were driving back to Washington and Lee from their home in Atlanta when their car was struck from behind by a tractor-trailer on I-81, just three miles from the Lexington exit. Cullum, a senior, was killed in the accident; Pierce , a freshman, sustained minor injuries.

Road Safe America is designed to bring awareness of the hazards of highway travel and to campaign for better driver training for all drivers and a limit to the top speed for large trucks. Each year the organization reminds drivers of the special dangers on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the busiest day of the year for highway travel.

The Road Safe America website includes an electronic petition, urging the administration to order activation of speed governors set at 65 mph on all large commercial vehicles.

In a recent article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution, Pierce cited pending regulation in front of the Department of Transportation calling for all electronic governors on trucks to be programmed at a top speed of 65 miles per hour. “If [DOT Secretary Ray] LaHood rules favorably on that, it’s something that could save lives immediately,” he said.

Pierce went on to talk about his family’s efforts in memory of his brother.

“Cullum was my big brother and my best friend,” he told the Journal Constitution. “I am proud of my parents for taking something that is so horrible for my family and trying to help others by getting the speed governors done so that other families don’t experience what we did.”

If you’re traveling on Sunday, drive safer in Cullum’s memory.

W&L’s Connection with the First Macy’s Parade Telecast

Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade

The following post is a reprise of the one we published on Thanksgiving two years ago, but we thought the story should be retold, and we invite you to forward it to W&L alumni, or others, who might not have seen it. Happy Thanksgiving!

When you’re comfortably seated in front of your televisions on Thanksgiving Day watching those huge balloons float down 34th Street in New York, you might want to thank a Washington and Lee alumnus, Don Hillman, for his pioneering work that put the parade on television for the first time back in 1949. Hillman, Class of 1946, had been hired as a stage manager at NBC and was quickly elevated to a director. It was as producer and director that he ran the show on the first live telecast of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for NBC. Hillman went on to become the first executive producer of National Educational Television (NET), which became the Public Broadcasting System (PBS, Inc.) in 1970. There’s a terrific account of Hillman’s TV career in the Horace Mann School Alumni Magazine. It includes his several encounters with such luminaries as Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

But back to that first Macy’s live telecast. In an email exchange this week, Don explained how it worked in those earliest days when a coaxial cable had just been built from the West Coast to the East Coast. Prior to that, according to Don, black and white kinescopes were exchanged within four regions of the country to create a kind of network. But he remembers vividly when he first saw a live picture come up on the screen from Chicago. “It felt like Columbus discovering America.”

NBC-TV’s Mobile Unit handled the Thanksgiving Day Parade as a network telecast in 1949. It was later taken over by WNBT — the local New York City NBC station. On Thanksgiving Day 1949, Don recalls how the NBC Mobile Unit was parked on the north side of 34th Street in the middle — sideways to the Macy’s entrance, where a stage area was set up for the entertainment, i.e., Radio City Rockettes, Milton Berle — and NBC commentators Ray Forrest and Bob Staunton. The unit had a floor dolly camera plus two cameras on the roof, including one with a Bok Zoom Lens to pick up the parade and the balloons as they turned right off Broadway and down 34th Street. There was, Don says, no coverage up town where the parade organized for its march downtown.

Wrote Don: “We had to bounce our microwave signal from our dish on top of the Mobile Unit across 34th Street positioned to angle up from a building with a clear sight path to NBC’s antenna on top of the RCA Building at 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The signal was then relayed from master control to the antenna on the Empire State Building.”

In many respects, as Don notes, the parade has always been familiar. Those famous balloons and their handlers, who were Macy employees, along with floats and vehicles carrying show business stars. The lip-synching of performances by the casts of Broadway shows didn’t come until later.

Don’s recollections about that first “hysterical” telecast were part of a History Channel special that was shown several years in a row but is now available on DVD.

Tom Wolfe ’51 Honored by National Book Foundation

Tom Wolfe at National Book Awards (AP Photo by Tina Fineberg)

Tom Wolfe, of the Class of 1951, became the 20th recipient of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters from the National Book Foundation last week during the National Book Awards ceremony in New York last week. Previous recipients of the award included Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, John Updike, and Gore Vidal.

In presenting the award, Tina Brown, founder and editor-in-chief of the Daily Beast, said that “We read [Tom Wolfe] as we watch fireworks, with wonder and joy.”

Tom’s acceptance speech, which he termed “a tour of his life in six minutes,” included a vivid description of his first assignment with the New York Herald, which was to interview a mob boss. He went on to talk about the way that his life in journalism and in writing nonfiction was a huge advantage because “you can’t make this stuff up.”

“I wouldn’t dare do a piece of fiction — I’ve done three novels — without treating it just like a reporting assignment,” he told the audience. “I brag with tremendous ego that my novels are highly journalistic. I think that is the future. The new writers to watch in this country, Michael Lewis and Mark Bowden, are both nonfiction writers.”

Offering advice to future writers, whether of fiction or nonfiction, Tom amended Sinclair Lewis’s advice to writers, which was “First, sit down,” to “First, leave the building. Then, sit down and write.”

Tom is currently working on his fourth novel, Back to Blood, which is set in Miami.

You can watch the entire proceedings on the National Book Award’s site. Tina Brown’s introduction begins at 19:38, and Tom’s remarks start at 23:45.

Saving a Ship

H.F. "Gerry" Lenfest '53, '55L and the SS United States (Photo by Patrick Murphy)

At a news conference in Philadelphia later today, the results of a feasibility study to save one of the world’s fastest passenger ocean liners will be unveiled. The SS United States, built in 1952 and withdrawn from service in 1969, set a transatlantic speed record on its maiden voyage when it sailed from New York to Cornwall, U.K., in 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes. It also set a new westbound crossing record on its way back (3 days, 12 hours and 12 minutes), a mark that it still holds.

What does all this have to do with Washington and Lee? The ship has been docked at Philadelphia Pier 82 since 1996, but the new efforts to give it life were spurred by a gift from Gerry Lenfest, ’53, ’55L, who is credited with saving it from the scrap heap.

The current issue of Preservation magazine, a publication of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, has a story about Gerry’s involvement in the project. His $5.8 million gift in July to the S.S. United States Conservancy allowed the organization to buy the ship from Norwegian Cruise Line and maintain it for up to 20 months.

Gerry is quoted in Preservation as saying “She was a beautiful vessel, the most iconic example of the greatness of the United States in shipbuilding, so I felt she was worth preserving.” He also noted that his decision to help was based, in part, on hearing his father, a naval architect, tell stories about working for the company that built the ship’s watertight doors.

According to a story in Sunday’s Philadelphia Inquirer, the proposal to be unveiled today will be to “[r]enovate and refit the 58-year-old vessel — an estimated $150 million to $200 million job — with gaming floors, restaurants, event space, a museum, and, possibly, a boutique hotel.”


For the latest on the project, see this story from the Philadelphia Inquirer following Monday’s news conference.