Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Yes, Dwight Eisenhower was the St. Mary's Football Coach

Dwight Eisenhower first played football as a youngster in Kansas. Though it was never his life's passion to be a football star, he was a lifelong fan of the game. The young Midwesterner soon became a football star at West Point. In 1912 Eisenhower was a running back on an army team that included Omar Bradley. He was nicknamed the "Kansas Cyclone," and a New York Times correspondent called him one of the most promising backs in the East. An injury during a game against Tufts ended Eisenhower's football career at the academy during his freshman year.

After graduation in 1915, the newly commissioned lieutenant received orders to report to Fort Sam Houston. During the fall of that year, Eisenhower was approached by Peacock Military Academy to coach its football team. The school offered him $150 for the season, a tidy sum considering a lieutenant's pay. At first he refused because he felt, as an army officer, he would have no time for football. The head of the academy was a friend of post commander General Frank Funston. Funston learned of the offer and asked Eisenhower to accept it, citing it would be good for the army. The new coach won recognition for his handling of the prep stars. A San Antonio Express correspondent wrote, "Those who have seen this officer operate with a football squad believe him to be one of the best coaches in Texas — bar none." The army officer delivered a winning season for the 1915 Peacock Military Academy football team.

Lt. Eisenhower in his Army Uniform, in the middle of the third row

The year 1916 brought about a new set of challenges. Eisenhower was now married, and Peacock had acquired a new coach. St. Louis College (now St. Mary's University) was now after Dwight to coach their team. The college team was dreadful. They had not won a game in five years and were coached by a group of priests. Not only did they not win, lopsided scores of 50-0 and 80-0 were common. The small squad tied its first game under Eisenhower, then went on to win its next five games. St. Louis lost its last game and finished the season with a record of 5-1-1. Present at every game was the coach's young wife, Mamie. Quarterback Jim Sweeney told the Express, "We thought more of him than we did of any other coach we ever had. We respected him from the time he showed up until he left, and we fought as much for Mamie and the Douds (her parents who also attended the games) as we did the school. He was very frank and honest and we learned more about honor and discipline from him than we did anywhere else."

Mamie was the only woman ever to receive a St. Louis or St. Mary's football letter. The fathers were so pleased with the season that they gave the coach and Mamie a victory dinner, and a long-lasting relationship between the school and the Eisenhowers developed. The president last visited the school in 1962 to talk to students and faculty. In 1987 David Eisenhower, the former president's grandson, visited the school and discussed his grandfather's connection to the university during the school's annual President's Dinner.

Lt. Eisenhower and Mamie on the steps of St. Mary's College

Eisenhower also spent some time helping out with the school's baseball team. Ernest Stecker, a civilian employee, recalled to the Express in 1956 how he incurred the wrath of his coach during a close game. St Louis was behind by one run with two men on, and the team's slugger was in the on-deck circle. Stecker received the signal from Eisenhower to bunt but decided to swing away. On the next pitch, Stecker slammed the ball for a triple, but instead of congratulations, all he received was a stern look. He had disobeyed orders.

“Coming to San Antonio for my birthday is like coming home. I guess there isn’t a city or town in the whole world that holds more happy memories for me.”
Dwight Eisenhower, while visiting San Antonio in 1952

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Every landmark, legend and myth of San Antonio is here - from the ugliest statue to the histories of the railroad stations. It's a smorgasbord of overlooked and under-appreciated jewels from all over the city. The obligatory shrines and sites are here too - every one of them. Throughout the book's pages Mark employs the rarest type of humor - humor with genuine affection.
Mark corrects the old saw that said San Antonio is "a small town wanting to be a big city." It is, as he says, "A big town that desperately wants to be a small town." With this book as your guide, it's almost as though San Antonio gets its wish."

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Monday, February 23, 2015

An Illuminating Message - A Sign From God

George Dawson is a docent at the San Antonio Missions National Park. He had heard a local legend concerning Mission Concepcion. It took ten years to verify, but it was true. Franciscan Monks from 270 years ago were sending us a message, but it only appears once a year.

The mystery starts in the early 1700s, when Franciscan monks came to San Antonio and started 5 Missions along the river, Mission De Valero (better know today as the Alamo), Concepcion, San Jose, Espada and San Juan Capistrano. The Missions offered the indigenous people of South Texas protection from Indian attack and disease. It also offered a complex system of acequias that created irrigated farms that help to protect against drought and starvation. However the true ‘mission’ of these outpost were to convert the natives to catholicism and subjects of the Spanish crown.

Today, the four remaining missions are all active Catholic parishes with many of today’s members able to trace their ancestry back to the original parishioners.  Because of this, many believe that the Missions have always been intact and active.  This is a mistaken notion.

  The Mission period in South Texas actually ended in the early 1800s when they became secularized  during the 1824 Mexican Revolution. Shortly thereafter, the Governor of Texas ordered the Mission’s surrounding property to be sold. 

   Mission De Valero, better known as the Alamo, is a well documented example of what became of a former mission. Over the years it has been used as a fortress for revolutionaries, an army depot and a wholesale Grocery warehouse.  The others suffered similar fate and were left in a state of disrepair and decay. Slowly, different Catholic orders came to San Antonio and saw an opportunity to restore  these chapels. 
   Mission Espada was one of the first to return to active status with the arrival of French Priest Father Francis Bouchu in 1858.  He helped to rebuild and restore the decaying church. Later he helped to save Mission San Juan to the south.
   Benedictine monks from Pennsylvania arrived in San Antonio in 1859 and worked to restore San Jose in hopes of making it a mission. 
   The Brothers of St Mary who came to the city to establish St Mary’s Institute (and later St Mary’s College) were given farm land at Mission Concepcion to grow food for  their students, and for a time used the chapel as a barn.

Caption Reads "Mission San Jose - 134 Years Old" 
Possibly taken in 1854

   In the early 1900s, the local Catholic Diocese regained control of the four remaining missions, but  the church had little funds for preserving these decaying relics of the Spanish crown. Of all the missions, San Jose was in the worst state. The chapel and granary’s roofs had collapsed as had the tower. The ownership of San Jose’s surrounding grounds were also in dispute having passed through many hands over the years. The mission who have slowly become a modern day ruin if it were not for the preservation efforts of the San Antonio Conservation Society and the US Government’s Civil Works Administration in the 1920s and 1930s. 

   Of the 4 remaining missions, only the chapel of Mission Concepcion withstood the test of time. It is still in its original condition and stands as the oldest unrestored stone church in the U.S. The church’s  exterior was once painted with brightly colored geometric designs that attracted the indigenous people to the compound. Those have faded over the years, but many of the Mission’s original interior frescos are still intact. 

Today the 4 Mission are under the watchful eye of the National Park Service and are constantly observed and cared for.  But the many years of decay, neglect, multiple owners and restoration have take their toll. Particularly when you consider that one of the Missions most amazing secrets was almost lost forever if it were not for the tenacious efforts on a National Park docent named George Dawson. 

Dawson had heard a local legend from a retiring docent that light through various windows at Mission Concepcion illuminated certain parts of the church on various religious holidays.  It took ten years of research and observation for him to verify that the Franciscan monks who built the mission were sending us a message.  On August 15th, 2003, Mr. Dawson discovered that on the annual Feast of the Assumption, (held every year on that date to celebrate the Assumption of Mary into heaven) at 6:30pm, light from the two west facing windows would meet behind the alter to illuminate a painting of Mary. Simultaneously, a lens above the door created a beam of light that would center under the church’s dome.  The phenomenon is called Solar Illumination and was used to convey the presence of God to Native Americans, as the ‘Light” is a metaphor for Christ.

Through the years, Dawson discovered numerous illuminations, including three from the south window of Concepcion’s Dome that marked the Feast of the Immaculate Conception on December 8th and the winter solstice 2 weeks later. 

San Antonio's Mission Concepcion - The Oldest Unrestored Stone Church in the U.S.
Notice the Windows above the Door, placed there to create the light effects 

George Dawson standing before the effects of Solar Illumination on the Feast of the Assumption
Photo by Carol Baass Sowa | Today's Catholic

The Window above the main door that lets the light in once during the Feast of the Assumption 

   A few years later, a similar illumination was noticed at Mission Espada, when beams of light lit the statue of St Francis of Assisi, (the Franciscan’s founder) on October 4th, the Feast of St Francis. On March 9th, on the Feast of a female St Francis, the illumination effect returns to Espada.

Ruben Mendoza, an archaeologist who first documented Solar Illuminations in a California mission in the year 2000,  says the Franciscans built these chapels as “ecclesiastical computers,” and used sunlight to make calculations such as the date of Easter. It was also an effective tool in the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity.  Dawson says that the sun was extremely important to indigenous peoples, “It was part of their world view. It was part of their religion. It was part of their lifestyle.”

   The recent discovery of Solar Illuminations is yet another way for us to appreciate these relics of the Spanish Crown. Today as part of both the National Parks System and the local Catholic Diocese,  all 4 missions are involved in ongoing restorations. That, along with living farms, functioning acequias, active congregations and the Mission Reach section of the San Antonio Riverwalk, the Missions have created a lasting appreciation for the oldest part of San Antonio. 
   In 2015, the rest of the world discovered the sites, as they were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The UNESCO designation was the first in Texas and only the 22nd in the US.

Hear my interview with George Dawson on the 
Travel With Hawkeye podcast

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