Dramatis Personae

From transnational titans to local heroes, world-class talent abounds.  By every empirical measure, by each freshly-ascendant generation’s yardstick of success, the Welsh Tract produces and attracts an astonishing roster of leadership far outstripping its modest size, ranging across all disciplines:  business, letters, arts, science, athletics, public service, human rights.  For nearly four centuries, this fruitful earth has nurtured and enticed the American continent’s brightest and best, plus global notables.  Historical heavyweights call the region home, while innumerable others visit.  Collectively, the players crossing this small stage — heralded and forgotten, native and newbie — illustrate the robust, complex majesty of the unfolding New World saga.  With poignancy and verve, MERION MERCIES celebrates history’s all-too-human face.

Statesmen abound

Tribal sachems, colonial and Commonwealth governors, proprietors, presidents, First Ladies (and Families), ambassadors, Cabinet secretaries, Attorneys General, senators, congressmen, Chief Justices, exiled regents.  The Second Continental Congress — marked men in full flight, steps ahead of the British hangman — escaping via the King’s Highway to Lancaster, a trove of their treasonous papers cached along the way.

All politicians are local

Colonial postmaster Franklin inspects wayside inns.  Colonel Washington shepherds a beloved nephew to college.  Aide-de-camp Hamilton’s horse is shot from beneath him, while glory-hound Lieutenant Burr pursues renown.  Secretary of State Jefferson — very near the cottage where, as a strapping 23-year-old, he convalesces from a revolutionary smallpox vaccine — later dines with “an ancient friend” (and fellow Founding Father) who has freed his own enslaved Africans.  Congressman Madison woos a young yellow fever widow.  On the eve of losing the popular election, yet claiming the Oval Office, John Quincy Adams toasts the valedictory Marquis de La Fayette.  As war drums beat, President-elect Lincoln addresses pacifist Quaker collegians.  President Grant opens the Centennial Exposition, where Bartholdi’s colossal torch later shines.  Depressed to be teaching women, newlywed professor Wilson seeks a government career, and adopts his orphaned brother-in-law.  Accompanied by ingénue First Lady Frances Cleveland — who takes the reins from a startled coachman — eminence grise Hayes plants a tree.  President Taft delivers commencement addresses.  Along with six senatorial colleagues, freshman Harding gets lost in the woods.  Two years into the Great Depression, 20,000 gather to hear President Hoover promise that their “privation and suffering” will yet produce America’s triumph.  Governor Roosevelt and wife Eleanor beam at a son’s nuptials.  Cadet Rudman, a pre-Communism crown prince, aspires to elective service.

Having committed U.S. ground troops to defend Korea but hours before, Commander-in-Chief Truman appeals to the world’s youth, while discouraging their flashbulbs.  Ike golfs.  JFK dazzles his sister’s alma mater.  Vice President Nixon and wife Patricia secretly recuperate from Venezuelan mob attack.  Senator Goldwater — courtesy a helicopter on the residential lawn — arrives to headline a suburban cocktail soirée.  The Happy Warrior charms campus progressives.  Vietnam Veterans Against the War’s Kerry protests at Operation RAW.  Folksy Carter makes a whistlestop train campaign appearance.  On the primary trail, ambassador Bush appeals to prepster GOP crowd, while rival Reagan sabre rattles.  Jackie O attends a Kennedy clan wedding.  Seminarian Steele contemplates the priesthood.  First-year Clinton repays a heavy political debt to a future in-law, while HRC champions women’s leadership.  Successive quadrennial outings witness Obama as insurgent and then incumbent.  Pervez Musharraf, the self-exiled former Pakistani strongman, expresses twinkled bemusement at kaleidoscopic, 21st-century suburban American democracy.  Yarmulke donned, Vice President Biden eulogizes a Senate stalwart.

Citizen soldiers

Patriots arise when diplomacy requires steel, from Queen Anne’s War to Operation Enduring Freedom.  Almost a century-and-a-half before Valley Forge’s privations, Swedish garrisons parry Dutch forays, until New Amsterdam’s peg-legged Stuyvesant leads a conquering armada.  Then and since, the Welsh Tract military parade extends well beyond its 40,000-acre locale:  Five-star generals, His Excellency to Hap Arnold; Mad Anthony and Light-Horse Harry to Stormin’ Norman; the Associators, Franklin’s ragtag militia, augment Braddock’s doomed campaign to wrest French control of the western frontier; Medal of Honor awardees; Tuskegee air aces; barrier-breaking “colored” line officers; Marine Corps commandant, a graduate of Annapolis North; architects of U.S.S. Constitution (“Old Ironsides”), first computer, DARPA satellites, Glomar Explorer, ICBM warheads; Cold War spooks, and their tennis-playing CIA boss; NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander.

Swords into plowshares

In 1881, dozens of GAR and Confederate generals — led by a toasting Grant — re-affirm Aztec Club accord, brothers once again, no longer in arms.  Sitting Bull watches his niece perform Shakespeare.  Emily Greene Bache, among Bryn Mawr College’s first graduates, staunchly fights for peace and justice, as will Rufus Jones and the American Friends Service Committee.  Newly-enfranchised suffragists turn an election tide.  Future pontiffs Pacelli, Wojtyła, and Ratzinger hold private audiences.  Before ordination, before doctorate, Brother Martin regularly visits clergy brethren during seminary years nearby, returning after Oslo to encourage 3,500 Jesuits in the ongoing struggle for racial justice.  Anonymous amid 22 undercover FBI agents and informers, DoD analyst Ellsberg experiences a road-to-Tarsus conversion at an international pacifism conference.   And when burning Selective Service draft cards proves insufficiently catalytic, a middle-class physics professor orchestrates the greatest domestic security breach in Bureau history, bedeviling J. Edgar Hoover.  Within five days of Saigon’s chaotic fall in 1975, 83 Amer-Asian orphans, pregnant women, and NGO aid workers — the largest single contingent of Vietnamese refugees to escape — find “tu do” (“freedom”) in a tiny Berwyn congregation hall, thanks to a tireless Presbyterian minister and his flock.  Unbowed, the de-frocked Berrigan brothers batter and bloody nuclear nosecones.

Economic engines

From both front parlour and machine shop, business magnates and pioneers dominate the country’s affairs:  finance, shipping, mercantile, locomotive, steel, auto, motion pictures, pharmaceuticals, periodicals, aerospace.  Wampum, beaver pelts, and tobacco to O&Os, QVC, and Comcast, the commercial spectrum.  On a napkin, and sealed by a handshake, ambassador Annenberg and mogul Murdoch negotiate a $3.2b publishing bombshell.

National consciousness awakens

Literary lionesses (and lions) roar, thespians declaim, ageless voices uplift.  America’s first playwright, when the art form is yet labeled “moral and instructive tales,” so as not to offend Quaker sensibilities.  Subsisting on molasses and bread, penurious Poe writes by alehouse candlelight; vagabond Clemens typesets; Longfellow lauds ancient Radnor church; Dan Wister defines the frontier West; Soul-ful Du Bois assays; Kip Morley effervesces; Jerry Salinger helms his yearbook; teenage Albee rebels; Madox Ford and Dreiser retreat to write; hard-drinking Dylan Thomas rides shotgun in a ragtop; Potok divines faith in modernity; Barry satirizes; Paglia parses.  Overshadowed by a trailblazing mother, legacy co-ed Kath Hepburn is nearly excused for academic shortcomings before an audition debut finally engages her theatrical passions.  Pre-pundits Al Hunt and David Brooks come of age, while James Boylan tentatively discovers the woman he wants to be, eventually returning as Jennifer Finney Boylan.  Pulitzer Prize-winners for biography, poetry, drama, and journalism; Rhodes scholars; Guggenheim and MacArthur fellows; editorial control of the day’s circulation giants, Ladies Home Journal, Saturday Evening Post, and TV Guide; Tony glories; Oscar legends; Sweden’s “Nightingale.”

Huddie Ledbetter’s plantation laments rattle an afternoon tea; on the links, Crosby and Hope shill for war bonds; soprano Moffo radiates; Tiffany network’s Paley cuts an expensive ribbon; McMahon leads The Big Top clown brigade; Bandstand’s youthful Clark sweats impending Congressional testimony; novice Lester earns his cinematic spurs staging live television; Mike Douglas defines chat-show genre; college roomies McLean and Croce; Springsteen’s earliest gigs; ‘lost’ Lennon stinting as a television weathercaster; the Jackson 5 at play, pool splashing and horseback-riding; Zevon finds his acerbic voice; Fillmore producer Graham button-holing a whippet-thin Santana to perform at Live Aid.

Converted into a modern recording studio, a 19th-century mill complex resounds with Patti LaBelle, Teddy Pendergrass, DJ Jazzy Jeff, Boyz II Men, Chuck D and Flavor Flav, while Overbrook’s Fresh Prince charms a Hollywood ending.  The national zeitgeist resonates with thirtysomething, co-created by hometown alum Herskovitz (and set locally).  From public and private schools, future A-list directors like De Palma, Nancy Meyers, Shyamalan, and Lee Daniels commence their storytelling careers, as does studio chief Stacey Snider, while NFL analyst Mayock graduates to varsity.  Native-daughter-makes-great, whip smart Fey skewers pretensions, shattering expectations.  Broadcast journos abound, both birthrights and ticket-punchers:  Ed Bradley, Brian Williams, Jake Tapper, Kasie Hunt; in the booth, Jim McKay inaugurates a family legacy, as Steve Burke builds a media Goliath.

Artistic wealth, beyond compare.  For Peales, Cassatt, Eakins, Parrish, the Welsh Tract landscape is their backdrop.  Bartholdi previews his colossal enlightening torch.  Muybridge photographs equine animation.  Pyle and the unbridled Red Rose Girls — Willcox Smith, Shippen Green, and Oakley.  Encouraged by Dewey and Matisse, iconoclastic Dr. Barnes pursues a radical aesthetic, amassing a multi-billion dollar collection soon coveted by the Establishment he so loudly renounces; thrice rejected entrance, Michener resorts to impersonating a blue-collar iron worker to behold its unmatched wonders, while T.S. Eliot is denied outright, with a single-word rejection:  “Nuts!”  Little Marie Berl blossoms into Quita Brodhead.  Esherick harmonizes with Nature, sculpted wood undulating beneath his touch.  Rockwell enthuses 50,000 jamboree Boy Scouts.  Gilded Age castles by Furness, Trombauer, and Mizner; architectural revisions follow by Wright, Kahn, and Venturi.

Pursuit of excellence

Academics and pathfinders innovate.  Godfrey’s sextant, Johnson’s Victrola, and Eckert’s ENIAC all spur fundamental, universal change.  The Junto Club, and Rittenhouse’s Transit of Venus.  Before the Great Expedition, Meriwether Lewis trains as a field scientist; afterwards, he and William Clark independently report.  Susan B. Anthony exhorts.  Lindbergh lends newfound celebrity to a relocated college campus, while a contentedly grounded Earhart refuels with her publisher husband.  Far removed from National Socialists incitement, Bonhoeffer relaxes in the bosom of family.  Einstein and Thomas Mann sup together, beneath The Dance II, while Hunchback Laughton and surrealist Dali make the grade.  Ivy League presidents; Librarian of Congress; Surgeon General; Gemini, Apollo, and shuttle astronauts, including the moon’s third-ever surface visitor, following in the powdery footsteps of Armstrong and Aldrin; homegrown Nobel laureates for peace, economics, sciences.  Tuskegee Airmen to Guion Bluford, African-Americans soar to new heights.

In the arena

In athletics, legions of Hall of Famers:  golf, baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, track, horse-racing, plus golden Olympians and the NFL’s founding commissioner (and his gubernatorial brother).  An Eisenhower favorite, Merion East’s ravines and shaggy rough anoint amateur Nicklaus, and host epic majors won by Jones, Hogan, and Trevino; the U.S. Open returns in 2013, humbling Tiger and Lefty, while an English Rose blossoms.  Wimbledon champions ply grass courts, as does U.S. Army Lieutenant Arthur Ashe, on leave from duty at West Point.  Proud, unbowed Muhammad Ali — religious dissenter, stripped of his heavyweight belt — fights in court for right to re-enter the ring, while residing quietly in Overbrook.  NFL Films hatches and rehearses at a Lancaster Avenue prep school.  Phenom Kobe, a true native son returned, leads the Aces to a state hoops crown before vaulting straight to the NBA.  Devon Horse Show dressage, squash, cricket, polo — area (blue) bloodlines also inhabit a more rarefied sporting strata.

American tapestry

Across the ages, across every facet of human enterprise, world-class achievers spring from this very landscape, on the periphery of William Penn’s Greene Countrie Towne.  Some are born and bred; others are drawn by the freedoms, the capital, the schools.  Redemptioners, abolitionists, Quaker whip-hands, religious refugees, inimical Tories, free women of color, oil barons, civil rights leaders, all players in America’s serial drama.  Represented on this profuse continuum, this remarkable corner of the global stage:  Lenni Lenape, Dutch, Finn, Swede, Angolan, English, Welsh, Six Nations, German, French, Scot, Acadian, Irish, Albanian, Italian, Ojibwa, Japanese, Hmong, Vietnamese, South Asian, and more.  Distilled, compact, the Welsh Tract is a New World tableau in miniature.