The Eyes Have It


By Sam Garfield

July 30, 1958

(Grant Park) –“We cannot always build the future for our youth,” Franklin Roosevelt said, “but we can build our youth for the future.”

FDR was spot-on. It’s all about how we prepare our youth, how we encourage imagination and individual interpretation, especially in the arts and technology. Our future these days is all around us –in this world and beyond. If we step away from our fears –Russian supremacy, World War III, economic uncertainty- and concentrate on our young people, maybe, just maybe, our lives –and our future- will shine brighter.

A fortnight ago, on a sweet July evening, a tall, boyish-looking pianist from Texas not only presented Chicagoans with glorious music but he showed how, like all things true, our future is tied to our past. As an orange sun dipped behind a curtain of buildings along Michigan Boulevard, Van Cliburn, in a white coat and head of red curls, walked across the stage in front of the Grant Park Symphony Orchestra and sat at his piano. I was fortunate enough to be there, but I had no idea what I was in for. In the spirit of full disclosure, I must tell you I am not an aficionado of classical music.

But while I did not have an educated compass to guide me along the myriad of nuances in Cliburn’s dramatic interpretation of Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, the young man’s passion carried me along as his piano rode high atop the climactic waves of the orchestra. And it is this kind of young passion –Cliburn’s just twenty-three– that FDR said we should nurture. Enter Rosina Lhevinne, who taught Cliburn at Juilliard. Not so long ago, while Cliburn presided over his mother’s piano classes in a place called Kilgore, Texas, he received a letter from his former teacher urging him to enter Moscow’s International Tschaikovsky contest.

And last April, in just an-hour-and-a-half, Cliburn did what American diplomats and politicians still are not able to do. He changed Russian opinion about American culture. The young Texan dazzled the Russians with technical skill and romantic interpretation. The Moscow audience and the judges gave Cliburn a standing ovation when he concluded his final piece, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto in D-Minor. He won the gold medal and showed the Russians the future.

Said Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev: “He is a very warm, friendly young man who absolutely captivated the Soviet people.” I don’t know if Rosina Lhevinne has ever read the FDR quote that is at the top of this column, but she sure embodies its spirit. And, maybe our friend Khrushchev does too.

I also have a Rosina Lhevinne in my life. His name is Ted Neal, the great editorial cartoonist. Neal was my mentor when I first joined this paper as a young reporter. For some reason, he took me under his wing and showed me around, always there with an encouraging word or helping hand. On a wall in my office hangs a framed 1935 cartoon of an aging, tired Babe Ruth. The Babe holds three baseballs. Ruth, in a Boston Braves uniform, seems lost without the regal Yankee pinstripes. But his eyes are still alive with a young man’s dream –nothing out of reach. He would play baseball for just a few more games, but if you look closely at those eyes, as I do every day, you can see promise. Neal’s pencil drawing was done on the day Ruth hit three home runs in the final complete game of his career. In the seventh inning, those famous eyes stole the life from a fastball –slowed it down so his hands could reach back for one more dream. His big bat met the pitch waist-high and the ball took off for the sun. The baseball landed some 500-feet from home plate, in a neighborhood park where children watched the ball soar toward the sky and land on their playground. A young boy caught up with the ball and ran home with it. The home run was Babe Ruth’s final hit.

Many years ago, when Ted Neal retired, he presented me with his original artwork. He signed it: “Sam, may your future be filled with home runs –Ted.” I like to believe he saw something in my eyes.

Copyright © 2012. John Theodore — All Rights Reserved. Text may not be reproduced without permission.

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