The Unsinkable brian cork™

Brian Patrick Cork is living the Authentic Life

authentic human progress


Last week, I recalled that, during my many visits to the desert (you’ll ask: “metaphorically speaking?” I’ll respond: “does it really matter?”), I met a wise man named Buck O’Neil – a prophet, if you will – and, asked him the secret to a long, successful life.

“Good genes,” was all he said, at first.

Buck left us all behind October 6, 2006 – the day before my birthday, just like Dad. There is a rhythm and pattern to life with that. But, we’ll discuss it some other time.

His hair was white and his face was mahogany, calling pleasantly to mind a pint of Guinness. “I’m ninety-years old,” he continued, then pressed his fingertips to unlined cheeks, which shone like polished apples.

“Good black don’t crack”, he mused (I’m not sure he actually mused, but that word works, here).

With that, I was fully prepared to move on, and thanked him. In fact, I was already rising halfway from my seat, like a bluffing panelist on To Tell the Truth, when he said softly: “There is one other thing.”

So, I settled back, curious, I might add, and he said:

“I never fill my stomach. My mother was a great cook, but my father told me, ‘She’s only filling your stomach so another woman never gets to. She’s just trying to hold on to you.’ Ever since, I can eat more, but I never do.”

Look… The stories around Buck are countless. Many of them will bring a tear to your eye. Others will make you slap your thigh with joy in preparation of laughter. He was a black man, and it never mattered to him, even though it did to everyone else. But, everyone respected and loved Buck (Note: That might be a vital difference between men like Buck and Barack Obama. By the way, did you know that  Obama high-tailed it to Asia, pouting over his loss of the House Tuesday? Other than a vital need to drive home a point, here, I’m loathe to include Buck in the same story as Obama. But, the only real difference Obama will make in our lives is he must now change his plans to stay in power).

Let other, more articulate folks tell those stories. Especially those that lived them alongside Buck. I never had that privilege. But, I try to learn from men like him, every day, and any way.

Part of that is my on-going efforts to live the Authentic Life. And, that includes having a life well-lived, and worth remembering by those I’ve lived amongst.

So… What, then, is the secret to a life well-lived?

Here was another hint. “Don’t hate another human being,” said O’Neil, whose father was the son of a slave. “Hate cancer. Cancer took my mother, took my wife four years ago. Hate what happened on September 11. But don’t hate another human being. God made man.”

…oh wow.

I did, in fact, find myself thinking: But God made men who denied you, at various times, a toilet, a hotel room, an education, a living, your very humanity. And, of course, I voiced those thoughts, because that’s what I do (“oh really?[!]”, you exclaim. “Brian has opinions he foists on people?”).

“My parents always told me most people are good,” continued O’Neil. “Even when I was young, (Note: he lived his early days in Carrabelle, Florida), most people were good. The thing was, good people sometimes let the bad people have their way. But who wrapped their arms around Jackie Robinson in his time of need? Pee Wee Reese of Louisville, Kentucky, did. The commissioner of baseball in 1947 [Happy Chandler] was a man from Kentucky.”

With this, his left hand grabbed my forearm, and his right fist rapped his own breastbone as if it were a door.

“It comes from in here,” said he. “Doing the right thing. It takes somebody to change something. My grandfather was a slave. And God saw it wasn’t right, so he sent Abraham Lincoln. And Abraham Lincoln joined hands with Frederick Douglass, who joined hands with Sojourner Truth, who joined hands with Harriet Tubman – and, so on.”

Apparently, and thusly, human progress, in O’Neil’s view, is a chain of men with virtu (the Greek form, mind you) in their hearts (the word virtu always has me thinking of Dr. Nick Pappas at Radford University), linked at the wrist and leading to you.

O’Neil paused, and I could only sit quietly in wonder through what must be churning through that lovely mind, and then he added:

“This is the greatest country on Earth, but we can be better. That is going to be your job.”

He held my forearm like a bat. “In my day we changed some things. Now it’s your turn to change things. And you’ll do it. I know you will.”

I did pause. And, when I confessed that I struggled, with my generation, challenged to change our channels manually, much less to change the world, he invoked the memory of his grandfather Julius, born into slavery in South Carolina, and owned by a man with the surname, O’Neil.

“Grandpa used to tell me he loved Mr. O’Neil,” he said. “And I would ask him: ‘Grandpa, how could you love a man who kept you as his slave?’ And Grandpa said, ‘He never sold off a mother from her children, he never sold off a husband from his wife.’ And Grandpa, this is before all the doctors and all the medicine we have today, lived to be one-hundred-and-two years old.”

Was this good genes, I wondered, or something greater? I was merely seeking the secret of a life well-lived – how to progress – and, felt I was getting closer. So, I asked about that. And when the old man, once again, took my arm in his hand, I felt physically linked in that chain-of-virtu to all who had gone before me…

“Love,” he half-whispered, as if sharing a confidence. “Love, man. This is the whole thing.”

So… You gotta be a “Love Kat”. It’s been awhile since I invoked that one. It’s timely to be sure.

Peace be to my brothers and sisters.

Brian Patrick Cork


brian cork remembering David Herbert Donald


NEW YORK (AP) – David Herbert Donald, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the Civil War and American South whose expertise on Abraham Lincoln brought him a wide general audience and reverence from his peers, has died.

I saw that heading this morning and was immediately struck by mixed feelings of nostalgia and sadness.

I first heard Lincoln historian David Herbert Donald lecture while an undergraduate at Radford University.

A ferocious and passionate writer, Donald passed away at eighty eight. And, he packed a lot into those years. A professor emeritus at Harvard University, Donald won Pulitzers for biographies of abolitionist Charles Sumner and novelist Thomas Wolfe. But his books on Lincoln became his legacy. Presidents from John F. Kennedy to the first George Bush summoned him for lectures and fellow scholars acknowledged his prominence.

An award was even named after him – the David Herbert Donald Prize for “excellence in Lincoln studies.” The first honoree in 2005 was, of course, Donald himself.

My guy has always been Thomas Jefferson. However, Dr. Donald was brilliant at drawing comparisons and contrasts amongst our country’s Presidents (with an obvious emphasis on Abraham Lincoln) that ran parallel to current events. He was apparently working on a character study of John Quincy Adams at his death. As we all know, (that particular) President Adams might be considered one of those ‘other’ or footnote-only caliber White House denizens. Yet Donald would have found a unique and likely thought provoking way to draw a correlation between something President Adams did that was relevant to Lincoln, or something they both had accomplished, or wanted. If you care about that type of nuance or “Jeffersonian” (parallel) thinking, it’s endlessly fascinating.

For more along this line of thinking, please consider my prior post: Barack Obama and the Jeffersonian Model.

Donald published his first Lincoln book in 1948, and kept at it for more than 50 years, going back on repeated vows to move on to another subject. His books included “Lincoln at Home,” a study of his family life, and “We Are Lincoln Men, (a personal favorite of mine) – both worthy essays about Lincoln’s friends and associates.

“Lincoln,” a single-volume biography of the president, came out in 1996 and became so popular that presidential candidates Bill Clinton and Bob Dole both claimed they were reading it (it’s certainly in my own library even I am not as yet a presidential candidate). NOTE: Clinton I can see actually drawing some form of inspiration from it. I am, however, skeptical about that poor little Mr. Dole. In any event, years later, when customers at the Lincoln Memorial bookstore would ask for a good biography, Donald’s book was recommended.

Donald, the grandson of a Union cavalry officer, was not a Lincoln man in his early years. Born into a farming family in Goodman, Mississippi, he fancied himself a musician before some odd twists landed him elsewhere. He majored in history and sociology at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. After graduation, Donald hitchhiked to Indianola, Mississippi, where he was interviewed for a job as a high school band teacher, a position funded by sales from a Coca-Cola machine.

This is my favorite passage from an interview he tolerated with the Associated Press in 2005:

“The man who interviewed me told me I could have the job and I went to gather whatever I had and started to follow him out of his office,” Donald recalled. “He said, ‘You forget your hat.’ And I said ‘I don’t wear a hat.’ And he said, ‘You teach in my school, you’ll wear a hat.’ So I didn’t take the job.”

So… Donald looked instead at graduate schools. His academic adviser at Millsaps was too busy to help, so Donald wrote his own recommendations and was accepted into the University of Illinois. Years later, he visited the school and had a chance to see his records.

“I looked into my admissions file and it said, ‘Admit this man. He has excellent letters of recommendation.”

If you know me, you understand why I am drawn to professional people that see the world in their own terms. The latter quote always made me think of Captain James T. Kirk and his Kobayashi Maru.

Just roll with me on that.

I will leave the best insights into Donald’s brilliant work to other historians and writers of greater merit than my own. However, he had a great impact on me and my views in terms of how two people can look at the same subject and yet understand it in completely separate ways, while drawing strong direction from the exercise. That is both Jeffersonian (my view), and important in critical decision-making.

For example:

Some reviewers faulted Donald for insisting on “the essential passivity” of Lincoln, while an interpretation that The Washington Post’s Jonathan Yardley found contradiction positing the president’s “determination and vigor” in carrying out his decisions.

For decades after Lincoln’s death, writing on the president was dominated by nonhistorians, such as poet Carl Sandburg, who wrote a best-selling, lyrical and famously unreliable biography. Donald helped literally transform Lincoln studies into a professional discipline.

A mentor of Donald’s encouraged him to write about Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon. “Lincoln’s Herndon” began as a dissertation and became Donald’s first book, published in 1948, with an introduction, ironically, from Sandburg.

During his aforementioned AP interview, Donald outright dismissed recent theories that Lincoln was gay or chronically depressed. Donald also acknowledged that he, too, had, over time, changed his feelings about Lincoln.

“When I started out, I wasn’t interested in Lincoln, and frankly found him a tiresome old fellow who was rather long-winded, told too many stories, was kind of a rough, frontier sort,”

“As I grew older, I realized the jokes and stories he told were really very funny and they always had a point to them. And I watched the way he worked with people and what an extraordinarily adept politician he was. … He was much more sensitive and human than I had thought before.”


Donald’s reputation grew throughout the next few decades as he carefully picked apart the Lincoln myths dear to poets, dreamers and politicians. In such classic essays as “Getting Right With Lincoln’‘ and “The Folklore Lincoln,” he noted Lincoln’s transformation from laughing stock to saint upon his assassination – and, the efforts of both Democrats and Republicans to claim him for their parties.

Thank you for helping us all to think, argue and change our minds Professor Donald.

Peace be to my Brothers and Sisters.

Brian Patrick Cork


Democratic Debates: Irony and History


Starting this Monday the 23rd, the Democratic Party is hosting a major national debate featuring all of the party’s leading contenders for the presidency at the Citadel in Charleston, S.C..

Imagine: A US presidential debate (with genuine General Election implications) involving a woman (Hilary Clinton, Democratic Senator, NY) and a black man (Barack Obama, Democratic Senator, IL) – only 80-plus years after US women were extended the voting franchise, and given the fact that right now there are people living in the United States of America whose grandparents conceivably could have been – or, for that matter, owned – slaves.

Is it irony – or, maybe just an interesting footnote, that the last time the Democrats put on anything important in Charleston — the 1860 National Democratic Party Convention — they ended up without a nominee for president, which in turn led to the election of the first Republican candidate ever (Abraham Lincoln), and the American Civil War.

I am sure Tommy the Tour Guy/1 would agree that was a disaster for Charleston. Note: Lincoln himself called the divisive convention “The Charleston Fandango.”

Peace to my Brothers and Sisters

Brian Patrick Cork


1/ My wife Joanne and I believe this is the best walking tour of Charleston.


What’s All This About?

"What am I looking at?", you might wonder.

Lots of stuff.

Meanwhile, here, I discuss events, people and things in our world - and, my (hardly simplistic, albeit inarticulate) views around them.

You'll also learn things about, well, things, like people you need to know about, and information about companies you can't find anywhere else.

So, while I harangue the public in my not so gentle way, you will discover that I am fascinated by all things arcane, curious about those whom appear religious, love music, dabble in politics, loathe the media, value education, still think I am an athlete, and might offer a recipe.

All the while, striving mightily, and daily, to remain a prudent and optimistic gentleman - and, authentic.

brian cork by John Campbell

photos by John Campbell


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