Sunday, July 15, 2012

What’s What: Patriotism Award

Wernher von BraunAward given by the Montana Women's College; recipients have included Chiang Kai-Shek and Professor Reichsmotif [Saint Fidgeta and Other Parodies; 75].

While it may seem a silly, throwaway line about some of the goings-on at this nameless women’s college, two of Bellairs’ classmates from his undergraduate days – Al Myers and Charles Bowen – note this passage may be in reference to their time at Notre Dame, specifically satirizing that university's annual Patriot of the Year award, which was granted by a vote of the Senior Class.

In 1954, the university created the Patriot of the Year Award to honor a public figure “who exemplifies the American ideals of justice, personal integrity and service to country” [Scholastic; February 12, 1954; p. 10]. FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover was the first honoree of the award. Myers says the award is now "mercifully extinct" (it ended about 1970) and reveals the winners during their four years in South Bend:

“In the spring of 1956, our freshman year, the award went to General Curtis LeMay. In 1957 and 1958 the winners were JFK and RFK, respectively - understandable for a Catholic college but perhaps a little premature in both instances. In 1960, the year after we graduated, the award went to Bob Hope, the seniors that year obviously opting for a little free if stale entertainment. But it was our own class of 1959 that elevated the award beyond the reach of satire by nominating that great American and champion of the oppressed, Wernher von Braun."

Wernher von Braun got elected, Bowen explains, because most of the senior class paid no attention and didn't bother to vote. “However, an enthusiastic clique of science and engineering students rallied to vote for the man who was leading our desperate race to catch up with the Soviets in space. Since hardly anyone else voted, he won. When the name was made public, a big fuss went up about the class giving an award with that name to the guy who sent V2 rockets into London. Of course, the administration responded that, if we didn't want von Braun, we should have voted for someone else, and went on with the ceremony anyway. There's a certain consistency in giving a patriotism award to Chiang Kai-Shek the year after awarding it to Reichmotif, whose name suggests that he, too, may be a foreign national.”

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