Monthly Archives: December 2010

The DTW Quarterly Issue #2: Winter 2010

The DTW Quarterly

 (An online quarterly dedicated to the life, works and vision of Douglas Turner Ward, African American theatre’s foremost artisan and advocate.)

 

Douglas Turner Ward is one of the most important figures in American Theatre today. He is the recipient of every major award in our theatre including “The Broadway Hall of Fame”. In practice he is a Playwright, Actor, Director, Producer, Administrator and Visionary who (with Robert Hooks and Gerry Krone) founded the NEC and is considered to be “The Founding Father of Modern Black Theatre”. And although he is semi-retired and has just celebrated his 80th birthday Ward continues to be a fierce advocate for the advancement of Black or African-American Theatre and its artists.

Each issue will contain news, photos, interviews, historical information and other pertinent data about this seminal figure.

I am not interested in integrated theatre; I’m not interested in segregated theatre either. I happen to be interested in the theatre of Negro or black composition, or orientation. This is not a narrow thing, it’s a broad thing.
-Douglas Turner Ward-1966

Editor’s note

WELCOME to our second issue of this Quarterly. The response to our Fall issue was gratifying and welcomed.

A CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

Thus far I have been writing all the articles for this Journal and if I have to continue doing it, of course I will. But I would like to have some other voices besides mine to become a part of this forum. So I am inviting submissions of articles, anecdotes, quotes, photos, opinions and/or observations about Doug Ward, The NEC or African American Theatre in general for meditation and discourse.  Please submit by email only to:

studioprojectgusedwards@gmail.com


Gus Edwards, Chief Editor


Travis Mills, Assistant Editor

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Doug Ward and the Haitian Chronicles

The Haitian Chronicles.

 

Doug Ward began his career as a writer. It is his profession and his vocation. Over the years he has written essays, done reportage (especially sports) and of course playwriting. So in spite of everything else he has done in theatre from Administration to acting and directing he always identifies himself as a writer first. For about 20 years or more (From around 1975 to 1996) he has devoted his literary efforts to The Haitian Chronicles, an ambitious trilogy of plays dramatizing g the turbulent history of the Haitian Revolution (1791-1804) from a variety of perspectives.

 

In one of our many talks I brought the subject up. This is what he had to say.

GE: How did the idea of writing the Haitian Chronicles take root?

DTW:  It started with Michael Schultz asking me if I knew anything about the Haitian revolution. I said yes I did. Then he told me he was interested in directing a play dealing with the subject but was only interested if I would write it. I told him that a number of plays on the subject including The Emperor of Haiti by Langston Hughes already existed. I think that Michael was attracted to dealing with the material because of the dominant mulatto involvement within the history. I told Michael that I wasn’t over enthusiastic about dealing with it in a dramatic form but in deference to his interest I would consider it. He then gave me several books that he had read on the subject. Now I knew before studying the material that I didn’t want to write conventional play dealing on the individual personalities with psychological conclusions and things like that.

GE: So you had decided to write the play.

DTW: No, but what I’m saying is if I did decide then that’s how I didn’t want to approach it. I’m saying that if I couldn’t find a way to incorporate the complex socio-economic – political dimensions of the revolution I wasn’t interested. I mean fuckit Gus, plays, a few good ones, had already existed about the situation and history. So why repeat what had already been done?

GE: When was this?

DTW: Somewhere in the early 70s. I don’t remember the exact year. This was the time when my family and I started spending our summers in Martha’s Vineyard in Cape Cod.  So with Michael’s books in tow and several other books I could find on the subject I headed for the island to find out if I was interested in proceeding any further. And over the course of several summers I amassed copious notes to the point of almost becoming an expert on the revolution and its dominant influence, the French Revolution. And after processing all that material, the pros and cons and the various points of views from which they were written one book stood out. The Black Jacobins by CLR James. The book is a masterpiece. It is a brilliantly insightful and magnificently written Marxist/Trotkyyist narrative and analysis of that epochal event. And with the excitement provided by the James book and a sudden inspiration- like revelation about the form I needed to depict the revolutionary period, I was hooked. That would become my next writing project. So after three summers of research and absorption I went to my typewriter to grapple with the problem of organizing and presenting the material in dramatic form. Then over the course of three summers and whatever time I could snatch in-between my NEC duties I completed the first in what I now knew would have to be a trilogy of plays: The Rise of Toussaint L’Ouverture. Because of the style I devised for the play which was epic in scope incorporating various other dramatic devices I began to realize that this was no ordinary play. And I suspect that Michael, the one who originally introduced me to the idea, while greatly impressed wasn’t particularly overjoyed by what I had written. I don’t think it was what he expected. But I was satisfied in realizing my own intentions and was content that the work existed even though even at that early stage I knew that the fact of it being produced was remote.

 

GE: Why?

DTW: Because of the size and sheer scope of it, Gus. That one play alone was just goddamned massive and would require I just don’t know how much money and resources to produce. So I had no illusions about it. No, none at all… Then after a five year respite during which some major changes took place in my personal life I resumed work on the trilogy. I wrote the second play The Fall of Toussaint L’Ouverture retaining the epic style of the first but focusing more closely on the individual characters and scenes and expanding the function of the Greek- like Women’s Chorus. Three to four years later I finished this second play with the same observation that it was too difficult to be produced. But that didn’t matter. Once again I was elated that I had managed to so much of this ambitious project. I mean Gus, that between these two plays you had what amounted to ten hours of theatre already.

GE: So what did you intend to do with them?

DTW: I figured that when I was finished with the whole thing that perhaps I could get them published in book form. But you have to realize that the whole trilogy wasn’t completed as of yet. Then I ran into something I hadn’t anticipated.

GE: What was that?

DTW: I began to realize that creatively I had exhausted the epic form with the two plays and I was now stymied. My idea of covering the Revolution through examining the reigns of its three major figures was now in jeopardy for one simple reason. I was creatively blocked. So much so that I was tempted to settle for what I had already done. I mean hell; those two works and the research that went into them could ordinarily serve as many a writer’s lifetime output. So I stopped. My hiatus lasted for almost another five years until suddenly I woke up one day and in a flash the solution came to me. In order to move on I realized that I had to do a 360 degree turn as regards to form. That Dessalines, the third figure in this epic had to be dramatized presenting his historical narrative completely alone. In other words a one-person play expressed solely from his own viewpoint. His unique voice merging dramatically with my own. So, besides discovering a relevant form for the third play I could create and write in the voice and skin of the revolutionary character I identified with the most. After that the writing went relatively fast on that play which is called Dessalines. When I finished it I had achieved what I had previously calculated as my goal, a trilogy. But then realized that I had not covered Christophe’s reign. So I embarked on extending the project to a quartet of plays.

GE: Four,my goodness!

DTW: Not to worry, it didn’t happen. In the midst of what I felt to be some excellent writing I soon came to realize that thematically I had said it all. And that to continue, no matter the quality of the new content, it would nevertheless amount to mere repetition of thematic conclusions. Besides which the business of Christophe’s emperorship had been dramatized adequately and more in other works even though they are seldom seen or produced. So I was satisfied to end my work with the three completed plays standing alone.

 

GE: So what’s the status of the plays now?

DTW: They exist on paper in manuscript form. There was an effort some years ago by the members of the ANEC (Alumni of the Negro Ensemble Company) to raise money for a large scale reading but nothing came of it. Then a University Press considered publishing it but that too never panned out. So it’s just sitting here in my files. But you of course know about the video/DVD version of the last play (Dessalines) that I plan to do sometime in the near future. I’ve acted the role and will do it again in the media version. But that so far is the story of the trilogy.

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Doug Ward and Awards

Doug Ward / the NEC /and Awards

 

During the years of his tenure as Artistic Director of the NEC the company has won or were given just about every major theatrical award there is. Some years ago I spoke to him about it and this was his response.

 

DTW: First let me just say that I, like a lot of people of my generation have pretty much gone on record as not being enamored with this business of getting awards. I think that all cultures need a way to acknowledge the worth of their artists and the value of their artistic achievements so they look for various methods to celebrate it. Ritualistically it gives special attention to the creators of this art in the form of awards. I think in some ways this is valuable. But the competitive business of who’s “Best” and who’s “Worst” or who’s “Second” or who’s “Third” in terms of artists just about renders those awards as invalid. And I have gone on record as not being in anyway interested in such distinctions. I don’t care if it’s the Oscars, the Tonys, the Emmys, The Grammys or what have you. The sort of thing where you vote on the best player and so forth. You vote and say; “Well this actor in a particular play is better than all the others in totally different plays presenting totally different challenges and everything. How do you find some kind of common way to say “This is better…This is worst.”? If people want to get into better or worst they should then set up a system where all the actors would be playing the same part. And even then you’re going to get into trouble because of the different interpretations that’s possible. So again there would be no common element to measure them against. In truth the whole thing, this award business is publicity, its public relations for the field but it pretends to be more than that. It pretends to have value that goes beyond its actual worth and merit. So that is my own philosophical point. However, just like everything else I’ve done I’d never impose my subjective philosophy as an objective standard for participating in the field. If I did that I would tell them all, everyone involved in a production, writers particularly; “Alright, I’ll do your play and don’t worry. It’s not going to be reviewed.  I’m not interested in putting it out there.” No that would be foolish. As a professional you have to put the work up to whatever existing scrutiny of the profession at the time that qualifies and evaluates it on some level as being professional. There are standards that are there. But the business of awards I can do without except for the public relations aspect.

GE: You mentioned The River Niger in an earlier conversation we had and I wanted to get into that and why you refused the Tony Award nomination for acting in that play.

DTW: Let me start by saying that The River Niger existed in its own environment, Broadway and everything. And therefore you couldn’t escape the fact that it was going to be put within the system. So when the play was nominated and so forth, I was happy for the play. Happy for what it meant for the theatre and the NEC. The publicity value and all that shit was fine. When they finally came down to the actors I was in California appearing in another production of the play and it was Gerry (Krone) I think who called me and said that I had been nominated for a Tony and I said; “Okay.” I didn’t give a fuck. But then he said it was for “Best Supporting Actor” and I said; “What supporting actor?” The size of that role in that play was equal in size to any other leading role on Broadway at the time. I think Jason Robards was doing an O’Neil play as well. (Moon for the Misbegotten). I think he may have even won the award. But Gus if you look at the size of his role in that play and the size of the role I played in The River Niger you would see that they are equal. In fact the role of Johnny Williams in Niger might be even bigger. So how the hell they could’ve viewed it as a supporting role? But I knew what had happened. The committee or whoever decides on the various nominations couldn’t ignore my performance in Niger. But since the field was crowded with star names that year they had to find a way to deal with the nigger because they couldn’t avoid the motherfucker being there. So I guess they said; “Oh why don’t we put him in the “supporting actor” category” even though the size of the role and the weight of it in the play says otherwise. And they tried to justify it by saying that the reason why they were doing it is because their rules say that in order to be nominated for the leading category you had to have your name above the title of the play in the playbills and on the marquee. So they were bringing up rules from the small print to justify the fact that by calling Johnny Williams in the play a secondary role   they were essentially devaluing not just me or my performance as an actor because as I said before I don’t give a shit about that. But they were devaluing the play and the effort of the company. I don’t even think that they were even conscious about what they were doing because it had become so traditional for them to put blacks in a secondary category whenever those questions came up. For years they did that shit with the Oscars too. And although I didn’t care about any of it I had to protest as a statement that went beyond me personally. So I rejected the nomination. I put it half sarcastically when I said that Johnny Williams didn’t support anybody but his family alluding to the fact that he was a patriarch within the play.  I made it because I wanted to make it clear that it wasn’t personal, I was making a statement for other blacks and by extension for all other actors white or black or whatever who were getting shafted because they didn’t have a box office name. The irony of course is that I didn’t give a shit about the system but I wanted to insist that the system adhere to its own rules. I mean if they want to talk all that bullshit about a so called meritocracy then it had to adhere to its own standards of what that meant.

 
Jason Robards

So anyway Gus, that’s basically what I did. But of course they refused to take my name out of the nomination and went on with it which then caused me to protest by not going to the ceremonies. And then despite of all the sound and fury the play won as the “Best Play”. Now I didn’t impose any edict on Joe Walker or any member of the company saying that they couldn’t attend or anything like that. What I did was personal for reasons that I stated before. So Joe Walker and Gerry went and accepted the award. Roxie Roker who played my wife was nominated in the supporting actress category and I was very happy for her.  It helped her careerwise. She got to Hollywood and The TV show The Jeffersons which was great. Thankfully I was in a position where I wasn’t dependent on a nomination to do anything for my career as an actor. My career was running the NEC first and foremost.  But that’s the story about the Tony and me and the refusal.

 
Roxie Roker

GE: One final question on this subject; was there any kind of response back from them, The Tony Award Committee when you sent your letter of refusal?

DTW:As I said I was in California doing the play. When I came back everybody met with me. The whole American Theatre Wing group. Essentially what they said is that it was too late to take my name off and for me to play the game. Again I said; “Just take my name off.” And when they said that they couldn’t then I had no choice but to write to all the voters. I wrote a letter to all the voters and made it public. I publicized it and they then printed what I said and asked them not to consider me.

GE: Now I’m a little puzzled. You refused the Tony but I know that you have more than once accepted the Obie Awards. Why the contradiction?

DTW: Again I will say I don’t give a damn about awards. My distinction is about awards that get into that first and second and third bullshit. The Obie and Vernon Rice Awards we received were for achievement. They didn’t get into all that; “Give me the envelope bullshit…And the winner is-“crap. There weren’t on that level and therefore they were much more acceptable. Now that we’re talking about it I’ve forgotten how many Obie and Vernon Rice Awards we’ve gotten. It seems like nearly every year we were getting something or other. And thankfully they were often for some of our less recognized plays.

GE: One more question. You’ve gotten several of honorary doctorates along with other awards. Do you have a list of them anywhere?

DTW: No, I don’t. And yes, I’ve gotten a lot of awards but basically the City College and the one from Columbia are the ones that I think are for real.

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Actors, Directors, and Other Theatre Professionals

Actors, writers, directors, producers and other theatre professionals on the NEC.

The number of people the NEC has had an impact on through its existence, its productions, its standards as a professional Theatre Company along with the inspiration and confidence it inspired is innumerable but here are a few comments from many who were directly involved in one way or another with them during the years of Doug Ward’s tenure. 

Ed Burbridge – set designer

The NEC personally gave me a place to grow… Now I had worked before the NEC came along. I had designed on Broadway and done a lot of other work. But the NEC gave me a consistent place to work. A place where I could work “hands on”, where I could spend the night if I wanted to, which I didn’t often want to do, but I did. It gave me a place to try things out. And it gave me really direct contact with the actors, the director and importantly, with the playwright. We were actually working with the authors that were there and present. That’s a big difference. You could actually sit down at The Orchidia Resturant, which was just down the street from the theatre, after work and talk to the author and find out what the author meant. That’s invaluable for a designer.

Ed Bullins – playwright and educator (The Taking of Miss Janie – Northwestern University)

Well, there’s black theatre now in St. Louis now and in Atlanta and much of that is due to the NEC and its projection of itself and its work in black theatre. Black theatre is now in the classrooms. I teach Black Theatre Performance and things like that at places like City College in San Francisco and other places. But those courses are being duplicated in many other educational institutions across the country. And one of the institutions which was the foundation of black theatre in this country is the NEC.

Rev. Calvin Buttssubscriber

I was proud of the NEC as I am about Morehouse College. I grew up in New York but it was only when I went to Atlanta, in that kind of experience, where I was surrounded by black professionals who were extremely competent, that I realized how powerful our people really are and how we had developed in America. And the NEC really reinforced that even more in the theatre. Culture plays an important part in our lives. I mean Africans in America gave America its only original art form in terms of jazz basically. And DuBois would say: “We gave America its only fairy tales and its subtle sense of song amidst its money getting plutocracy.”

Rosalind Cash – actress (1938-1995)

At the NEC I stood a little taller and spoke a little clearer and walked with a little more certainty during and after the NEC. You see I was a little timid before the NEC. It was like: “Excuse me; I’m just a humble, poor black actress. But when I went to the NEC it was: “You’re an actor, you deserve your spot.” …You see, during the time of integration I was integrated into shows. But in many of them I was just a piece of furniture put there to satisfy the demands of integration. At the NEC I felt like I was home, like I had my little family. I have my memories and they’re precious. I had an experience that I think was unique. I was able to train and work in a compatible atmosphere and be appreciated. I liked the fact that they didn’t have a star system there or a pecking order. Everyone was equal and that was great. I still feel a connection to the NEC and I always will.

Zaida Coles – subscriber / fund raiser

The NEC makes it possible for the average person to see theatre that relates to their life experience without paying an arm and a leg to do it. Now that’s not to say that the NEC couldn’t prosper by charging more and I certainly hope they won’t charge more, though they need the money. So that’s where fundraising comes in. But what they do is valuable because they’re keeping it within the scope of the average person who wants to see theatre and theatre that relates to their life.

Lonne Elder the 3rd – playwright and screenwriter (Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and Sounder) 1927 – 1996

The NEC caused a number of people in the black communities across the nation as a whole to all of a sudden recognize that there’s this place you could point to with a certain degree of pride. It changed a lot of lives. I was working with a young man doing a show and he remembered when we would come down South on some tour. He was in school and they went to see the show and he said that it changed his life. That’s when he made the decision to become an actor because he knew there was a possibility. Never before had he thought it was possible.

Charles Fuller – playwright (A Soldier’s Play)

Theatre in America is fundamentally a very segregated institution, unfortunately. In the mainstream theatre for the most part we never see ourselves in any meaningful way. We never have much of ourselves as a people operating and functioning as human beings in the United States. Most of the theatres in this country will not produce black playwrights on a regular basis. If they do it’s only every now and then. Well part of the problem is that we function in society every day of the week. Douglas and the NEC for a very long time with the only consistent view of black people in the theatre….And in doing so, I think that the NEC through its consistent work really changed attitudes in a strange kind of way. The company raised the level of consciousness in the US with regard to what black people can do, the kinds of things they can think.  That I think is very important and it will probably have a lasting effect far beyond anything I can imagine.

Norman Jewison – film director (In the Heat of the Night/A Soldier’s Story/Moonstruck etc.)

The NEC besides providing like all private theatres, an outlet for artists and a source of encouragement and hopefully confidence in young people, especially black writers and directors and actors and scenic designers and so on provided history. I think part of the theatre is dealing with one’s history. This is what most plays are written about. They’re written about our feelings. And through theatre we can learn about the past as well.  I think constantly at the NEC you see this Black history in America being used as a source of inspiration. So I think it is very important. And I think that it is also important for the white community because it constantly gives them insight into their own history and their own relationship with Black Americans.

Woodie King Jr. – Theatre administrator (The New Federal Theatre)

We looked, saw and said; “Well if the NEC can do it maybe it’s possible that my dream could be realized. They do four plays a year and I’m inspired, I’m moved. I see acting like I’ve never seen before. And it’s the same with direction. Then I go back to the University and I say: “Well I know this is possible because when I get out I know there’s an institution that exists that I might be able to go and work in. That’s what I think happened across America. So Black theatres in particular are, in a sense, indebted to the NEC. And in a sense, indebted to the contributions of Douglas Turner Ward.

 Sylvester Leeks – journalist

In terms of accomplishment and the NEC I think you have to say, first it survived. That in itself is a miracle. No one gave it five years. Frankly I thought that once the first grant from the Ford Foundation was exhausted it would probably just peter out like so many other groups have done. And number two; it has left its footprints in the sands of time in Black culture and Black American culture. It has brought awareness to the world because it’s done productions all over Europe as well America. And insight into the black psyche. And it has left a repertoire of plays through its production of them for others to come along and either duplicate or supersede. I think that’s perhaps the best way to put it.

 

W. McNeil Lowry – Ford Foundation Administrator (1913-1993)

They came along and said to these young, aspiring black people “it can happen to you.” This to me their greatest accomplishment and their greatest legacy.

This was done through the training program, the existence of the training program. That became a factor that others couldn’t ignore. So that when the NEC started going around to black colleges their young people didn’t say “Maybe someday this will apply to blacks” because they were looking at a tour by some small white company.  They say: “Look, this applies to people who graduated from colleges like ours, or didn’t graduate at all. Who came out of high schools and other places.  And here they are, theatre professionals.

Joseph Papp – Founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival (1921- 1991)

Although the NEC has demonstrated that some of their plays can move into the commercial arena, it doesn’t need that justification at all. Its existence is its own justification. It has done excellent plays and important work. Black writers have to write for black actors and that is important.

 

C.T.Perkinson – musician/ composer (1932 – 2004)

I think NEC’s community was the New York theatre audience. And I think with its growth over the years it has impacted favorably. They produced work that otherwise would not have been seen, some of which have gone on to becoming films, which give you a much broader, larger audience. And they’ve impacted favorably upon that larger audience. So they began with this microcosm, so to speak, of New York and blossomed into that audience of America.

 

Lloyd Richards – Director (Fences) and Educator (Dean: Yale School of Drama) (1919 – 2006)

The NEC was not the first black company. There had been others before it. But it came at a time when many things were in question, when there was a social revolution taking place in this country. And it significantly demonstrated in its time the potential and the artistry of black people. And it manifests and realized the possibility for accomplishment, both in terms of the artistry of the theatre and the technical artistry as well as the writing artistry. It manifested that and it permitted people to say: “Hey wait, that is possible also.” I think it spoke for its time I think it demonstrated those things in a very important time.

Esther Rolle – actress (1920 – 1998)

You didn’t have to be white or blonde or thin to do this really. You just had to be you. And that was, for me, the most wonderful thing that could have happened because I didn’t have any of the requirements that the establishment said they counted at the time. My skin was black; my hair was short and curly. I wasn’t exactly Twiggy and I wasn’t twelve. So the chance that the NEC gave me I shall be eternally grateful for. And it gave us all the same chance.

Roxie Roker – actress (1929 – 1995)

The company is important for those things we don’t always stress: the backstage work. Training technicians, wardrobe people, lighting people, directors etc. It’s all there. And if you didn’t have a place like the NEC in which to work and learn, where would young black performers or artists or technicians het the opportunity? There needs to be many more companies and we hope that many more will be formed. But the important thing is that it launched us out into the commercial world, the commercial theatre and what have you. And my gosh, what more could be said than that?

 

Michael Schultz – Stage and Film director

The legacy of the NEC is almost its motherhood. It gave birth to most of the dramatic actors that are on screen today. At least in the past ten years. Roz cash, Moses Gunn, Esther Rolle and the list goes on and on. It definitely started my career with a major splash. But what I think will live in is the worth of the writers it produced because that’s what always lives on. They have been responsible for creating at least four classic pieces to my way of thinking.

Denzel Washington – actor

I grew up in beauty parlors and barber shops. So when I had a special affection for Ceremonies in Dark Old Men because it takes place in a barber shop setting. And I said to myself when I saw it: ‘This is what my life is all about.” And it was one of the first opportunities where I really saw a part of my life reflected on (TV) the screen, and I felt as though I belonged. So I wanted to know who was responsible for that. And it was the NEC. So I tracked them down over the years and finally got a chance to work with them in 1981.

Samm-Art Williams – actor-playwright (Home) and producer (Fresh Prince of Bel Air)

I think that the NEC gives the writer a chance. That’s all you can ask of a producing company; is to let the writer see his play. The primary concern initially is the writer. That’s one good thing about Doug that you can always depend on. It’s constant and as sure as rain; the writer will have his say.

Hattie Winston – actress

Part of the vision of the NEC was to develop an audience that had never experienced theatre before. Particularly people who had never even been out of Harlem. When they saw themselves on stage there was pride. They were very proud. NEC was not just fifteen actors who were on stage. NEC was an entire community. The NEC was the audience because they saw themselves and it was exciting. It was absolutely exhilarating because they identified so passionately with what was happening on stage. They would talk back to us on stage. “That’s right! Yes, I understand what you talking about sister. That’s gone girl, tell me about it.”

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Doug Ward Today: An Update

Doug Ward Today: An Update

  

I live in Arizona, Doug lives in New York. Our communication is primarily by telephone, letters and email. As you know Doug is recovering from a very serious cancer related operation. This was last May and his recovery has been slow. I spoke to him last week and I am happy to report that he is sounding clearer and sharper than he did before. To me a real sign of his recovery is that he’s anxious to get back to several personal projects he had to put aside due to his illness. Particularly the film/video production of his single character drama Dessalines the third play of his Haitian Chronicles. Besides that he is also looking forward to Christmas with his wife, his children and grand children.

He also asked me to convey to all how moved and pleased he was by the outpouring of support that he received from so many of you during that difficult time… He has promised to send me some of the letters and notes he received so that I can publish them in our next issue.

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