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Column: Springtime quest for ‘rehabilitation and corrections’

  • Bill Nichols. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



For the Valley News
Saturday, May 04, 2019

In mid-March, when Nancy and I headed back to Granville, Ohio, where we lived as teachers for almost 40 years, it was a good time to be on the road. And there was a hint of Hollywood, small-town style, in our return. Denison University, where I taught for decades and was a dean for a while, had scheduled a screening of Invisible Chess: The Jason Goudlock Story, a prison documentary I recently produced.

Samuel Crow, who directed the film, joined me from New York to talk about the film at the screening, and we met with a black studies class titled Video, Race and Rights. The talks seemed to go well, and we met several people already working on prison reform in Ohio, where the recently retired director of the Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections has said there are far more people imprisoned than makes any sense at all. Students seemed genuinely concerned about the injustice and lack of attention to rehabilitation revealed in Invisible Chess. Some wrote postcards to Jason Goudlock and to a state senator on the Judiciary Committee.

Like people all over the country in mid-March, Nancy and I were tussling with bronchitis. But convinced we were no longer contagious, we gathered with old friends and attended meetings for a few days. At the end of the week we set out impulsively to visit friends in Tennessee instead of heading directly for home as we’d planned.

For several years, we have celebrated the approach of spring by visiting Dave and Sweet Young, college classmates of ours who live on the edge of the Smoky Mountains. Dave, an organic chemistry professor, has become an accomplished nature photographer. Sweet, a world-class quilter, majored in biology when we were in college. To walk with them in the mountains early in spring is to see tiny instances of magnificent beauty we might have missed without their guidance.

We drove to Tennessee partly because Dave and Sweet are about to leave their beloved Smoky Mountains to join part of their family and a community they’ve come to know in Decorah, Iowa.

We get some comfort from knowing they will be living just a short drive by Iowa standards from Michelle Werner, a rabbi we love, who has settled in with a congregation in Rochester, Minn.

Despite returning to wintry landscapes as we drove north, we also found roads clear of ice and snow, and it turned out to be a good time to ignore news filled with speculation about how the Mueller report might transform our political landscape.

Instead of the latest news, we listened to Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin: An American Life (2003) on our way to Ohio, and we heard Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism (2013) coming home. It was reassuring to hear, among the other things Isaacson’s book told us, that our country’s revolutionary founders often listened carefully to old Ben Franklin, with his little formal education, when he insisted on the importance of seeking common ground where there was any to be found.

With our free press under daily attack from our own White House, it was encouraging to hear Goodwin’s account of the courage and political influence of journalists like Ida Tarbell, Ray Stannard Baker, Jacob Riis, Ida B. Wells and Lincoln Steffens as the U.S. moved into the 20th century.

Meditating on American history as we traveled through Vermont, Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, as well as corners of West Virginia and Maryland, we somehow felt prepared to face contrived assertions from the White House and its supporters that the president has been totally vindicated by Mueller after being a victim of an illegal attempt to overthrow his presidency.

Historians tell us leaders with courage and integrity have emerged in the U.S. when we needed them. They say facts ultimately have large political influence, and somehow facts find their way to the voters.

Lies have worked to foster hate, but truth fosters understanding.

We have courageous journalists in our time, men and women who can inspire politicians to take the personal risks needed to help rebuild our democracy. We have young people committed to overcoming the hatred and violence and injustice they witness in their own schools — or in their own state’s prison system.

And we have newly elected politicians urging us to address the economic injustice, racism, misogyny and environmental crises this administration discounts. You might call it “the energy of rehabilitation and corrections,” which is working throughout America to right the ship of state.

Bill Nichols lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at Nichols@Denison.edu.