Few authors have such a profound sense of their own voice to power prose as did Toni Morrison, the writer of such novels as “Beloved” and “Song of Solomon” and the first African-American woman to win the Nobel Prize in literature.  

Toni Morrison
February 18, 1931 – August 5, 2019

While many authors use actors to record their works, Morrison, who died Aug. 5 at 88, insisted on her own unique voice. She would sit, a pillow behind her back, and read for hours, according to a 2015 story in the New York Times.

Often overlooked in Morrison’s life story is her 17-year tenure at Princeton University, her years as a book editor at Random House – one of the few black women in publishing at the time – and a private life as the single mother of two sons in an age when black single motherhood still carried a cultural stigma.

She was a playwright, essayist, lyricist and children’s fiction writer. But it is her novels, written in a “visionary voice,” as described by the Nobel Academy, that made her a legend and contributed to an authoritative understanding of the black experience in America.

Morrison was nearly 40 when she published her first novel, “The Bluest Eye,” the story of a young black girl who believes she is ugly and prays to have blue eyes. Ten more novels in Morrison’s unique voice followed.

“Her prose, often luminous and incantatory, rings with the cadences of black oral tradition, reads her obituary in the New York Times. “Her plots are dreamlike and non-linear, spooling backward and forward in time as though characters bring the entire weight of history to bear on their every act.”

“Her writing was a beautiful, meaningful challenge to our conscience and our moral imagination,” tweeted former President Barack Obama, who awarded Morrison the presidential Medal of Freedom.   “What a gift to breathe the same air as her, if only for a while.”

Washington Post opinion writer Alyssa Rosenberg credited Morrison with enhancing her reading experience.

“I marveled at the way she pulled plot threads together, weaving her characters more and more tightly until the novel ended in a way I hadn’t expected, but that felt inevitable once I had arrived there,” writes Rosenberg. “And I marveled at Morrison’s ability to both construct the whole edifice of a novel and also to write novels that felt like the individual sections of stained-glass windows.”

 As an editor, Morrison championed black writers who were previously unknown and unnoticed, as well as books by Muhammad Ali and activist Angela Davis. Her public commentary was widely noted, including when she called Bill Clinton “our first black president.”

“Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime,” Morrison wrote in the New Yorker in the late 90s. “After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.”

Born in Ohio as Chloe Wofford, Morrison changed her name to Toni when she attended Howard University.  She went on to earn a master’s from Cornell, and later returned to Howard to teach. It was during that time that she took part in a fiction workshop,” according to the Washington Post, and began to develop what would later  become “The Bluest Eye.”

After a brief marriage that produced two sons, Morrison spent 20 years at Random House, during which she oversaw the publication of “The Black Book,” according to the New York Times. The book explored three centuries of African-American history through newspaper stories, photographs and print ads.

Next was “Beloved,” the novel that earned her a Pulitzer Prize and set her on the road to literary greatness. In conjunction with a documentary on Morrison that opened in June, writer Fran Lebowitz had this to say about the author’s work.

“I actually think Toni is an underrated writer,” Lebowitz told the Wall Street Journal. “I know that’s a crazy thing to say given that she is so lauded, but truthfully she’s often been reviewed or perceived as having limitations because of her gender and her race. It’s ridiculous.

“Toni invented a whole avenue for other types of books,” she added. “She literally widened the idea of literature.”

In 1974, Frank Sinatra was one of the narrators of the musical anthology film “That’s Entertainment.” Introducing a 1940 dance segment with Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell he remarked: “You know, you can wait around and hope, but I’ll tell you, you’ll never see the likes of this again.”

It is not overstating things to say you won’t see the likes of Frank Sinatra again either.

As singers go, no one else had his way with a lyric. As strangers go, no one permeated so many lives. For those reasons, it is the music and not so much the man we’ll remember.

He was there when we had our first dates, bought our first cars, kissed our brides and grooms, kissed and made up. He was there as we picnicked in the park, dealt a hand of poker, tossed a baseball or took a cool drag on a cigarette. He was there to wake us in the morning and lull us off to sleep at night.

He was there as we swung on the dance floor Saturday nights; when we made last call; and the next morning as we struggled with hangovers, drinking black coffee and listening to DJ Sid Mark’s Sunday with Sinatra.

His music could take you places you wanted to go and places you wanted to go back to. To people you loved and lost. To a hazy past that mostly existed only in the quaint lyrics of the pop classics he sang.

Frank Sinatra had a catalog – an emotional songbook if you will – that applied to someone, somewhere, somehow with just about every title. His music – written by the likes of Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Simon and Garfunkel, even Paul Anka, addressed adults, children, old people, teens, the love struck, the  lovelorn, the lonely, the late bloomers. 

He sang to husbands and wives, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters. He   sang to the fatherless, the motherless, the childless.

1961 — The popular American singer Frank Sinatra is shown here in this closeup photo smiling. His nicknames include “Ol’ Blue Eyes” and “Chairman of the Board”. — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS Labeled for Reuse

He sang optimism, pessimism, patriotism, fatalism, romanticism – ever ism there is.

Has any singer ever sung better songs so consistently through so many generations? In a word, no. Grandparents danced to the smooth big band-backed sounds of “I’ll Be Seeing You” and “All or Nothing at All.” Their children swung to the Reprise sounds of “Old Devil Moon” and “Night and Day.” Their children’s children know Columbia Records’ “My Way” and “Strangers in the Night.” And great-grandchildren – in the MTV era that resurrected Tony Bennett’s career – may just be able to hum to any one of them.

As Lucille Ball is to comedy, Frank Sinatra is to music. But you have to physically turn on the TV to see Lucy. To hear Sinatra, you merely have to go about your day. His music will nudge you like an old friend: in an elevator, at the mall, on the car radio, at the corner deli, on the  lips of a singing stranger.

Hearing it – and connecting it to emotions and memories – can make your heart race and your hair stand on end. 

Sinatra may stand as the greatest entertainer of all time because of his incredible reach. There were better voices; he said so. There were more gracious public figures; everyone said so. But there was no one with the songs or the arrangements, from the likes of Nelson Riddle, Gordon Jenkins, Billy May and Sy Oliver.

And there was no one with the technique.

“You can be the most artistically perfect performer in the world, but the audience is like a broad,” he once said in his characteristically blunt style. “If you’re indifferent, it’s endsville.”

In Sinatra’s inimitable styling, love really was a funny valentine, the tender trap, mighty lak’ a rose, as deep as the ocean. Men and women fell in love too easily,   could write a book, were bewitched, bothered and bewildered, couldn’t sleep a wink and had high hopes for all their tomorrows.

He did other things besides make records; his acting was rewarded when he won a supporting actor Oscar for 1953’s ‘From Here to Eternity.” He could captivate the surliest nightclub audiences and hold them in the palm of his hand.

But it’s Sinatra’s songs that will endure. Songs that, in themselves, represent some of the best musical poetry ever written when approached by the greatest vocal interpreter of his time – of all time.

(Written by Christina Mitchell and originally published in the Courier-Post)

Read more about the legendary Frank Sinatra on Wikipedia)

Edward Lawrence Stella had firm rules about the produce nurtured at his eponymous Berlin farm.

Jersey corn should never be smothered in butter, nor be anywhere near a salt shaker. Fat, juicy Jersey tomatoes are meant to be eaten like an apple.

“He would reprimand anybody who put butter or salt on his corn,” said Stella’s daughter, Barbara Jean Stella-Lang. She and her brother, Edward Jr., never attempted it at home either.

“Are you kidding? I didn’t want to get shot,” Stella-Lang laughs. “He was adamant about that.”

Stella died Aug. 28 at 97. Just four months before his death, he still rode his blue, 1988 Chrysler through the fields to check on crops that also included strawberries, peppers and greens.

Edward Stella was born on the farm that was started in 1921 by his father, Joseph Stella Sr. The younger Stella left school early to help in the family business.

As an adult, he toiled at night designing parts for the war effort and worked the farm during the day. In the late ’60s, according to Stella-Lang, Edward Stella took the reins — and took no prisoners.

He insisted on growing his tomatoes on stakes, a labor-intensive process that involved wrapping the plants tightly three or four times. When his children joined him in the business, Lang says, they soon learned it was dad’s way or the highway.

“He grew nothing that he wouldn’t eat himself,” Stella-Lang recalls of her father, who preferred his Jersey corn raw.

“He was about producing quality, not quantity … but you had to do it his way.

“He was Italian,” she adds matter-of-factly. “His favorite song was Frank Sinatra’s ‘My Way.’ That was his theme in life.”

Stella woke every day at 2 a.m. for house chores, then went out on the farm, which eventually grew to about 300 acres.

“He would often encounter problems …” Stella-Lang wrote of her father. “But if you asked him how he was doing, he’d respond, ‘I never had a bad day in my life.’

“There was no greater honor for Ed than to cultivate his land. He was truly dedicated to his calling.”

It was a calling he knew well. In a 2005 interview with the Courier-Post, Stella offered perspective on tomatoes.

“Beyond his farm stand on New Freedom Road, he (Stella) examined neat rows of staked tomato plants hiding plum, heirloom, grape and hybrid regular tomatoes. (Stella calls those ‘monkey faces.’)”

The story went on to report Stella ate three tomatoes a day.

“Raw, just plain,” he noted then. “No salt, no pepper, no nothing. Out of the field.”

His way.

(Written by Christina Mitchell and originally published in the Courier-Post)

In a 1959 Courier-Post article, Ed Keegan reflected on the contract he had accepted with the Phillies two years earlier.

The Haddonfield standout pitcher got $4,000, not enough, the story noted, “to buy a used, slightly battered Cadillac,” and paltry in comparison to the five-figure sums lesser prospects were signing for at the time.

But the scrawny right-hander who had a missile of a fastball did not want to warm the bench, even for the Phillies. So Keegan signed a non-bonus contract that would allow him to play in the minors, he told the paper.

Photo of Ed Keegan pitching in his Phillies Uniform“I didn’t want to sit on the bench; that was the role for bonus babies then,” said the Franklin resident, who died last Sunday at 75.

“Two months after I signed, they dropped the bonus rule. I could have had a free college education and a handful of money. It was too late.

“I can’t worry about that now.”

At the time, Keegan was 19, married and already a father. Life went on.

The recollection of Keegan‘s younger brother, Bob, was that his sibling could have earned a $100,000 contract.

“That was like a million dollars today.”

But as Ed’s daughter Cheryl Quieti says: “He loved the game more than life itself, and only wished players these days would have the same burning passion.”

While Keegan once used his 94 mph fastball to strike out Yankee great Mickey Mantle, he always pointed out it was during an exhibition game. But for history’s sake, here’s how it went, according to an interview years later in the Reminder newspaper:

“Called strike. Strike swinging. Strike swinging.”

And Mantle was out. Keegan told the Philadelphia Inquirer it was his biggest thrill.

“He never wanted to brag,” Quieti remembers. “We all said, ‘We don’t care if it was a Wiffleball game. You still struck out Mickey Mantle.’ ”

Keegan honed his big-league arm at Haddonfield Memorial High School, where he compiled a 26-2 record in three varsity seasons, according to the Hot Stovers Baseball Club of South Jersey.

“When his fastball hit the catcher’s mitt, it sounded like a shotgun going off,” Bob Keegan told the South Jersey Times.

After signing with the Phils, Ed Keegan spent time in the minors and saw major league action against the Dodgers, Pirates and Cardinals in 1958. That included striking out Pittsburgh’s Roberto Clemente with a rare curveball, then giving up a homer in the future Hall of Famer’s next at-bat.

A rotator-cuff injury cut short Keegan‘s baseball career in 1961, according to his brother, just as the pitcher was developing a changeup and curveball.

So Keegan worked for several years as a bartender at the Rainbow Inn in Clayton.

“He talked baseball with people there,” Bob Keegan notes softly. “They enjoyed that.”

In 1985, Ed Keegan got hit by a drunk driver as he waited to cross a street. The impact knocked him into an opposite lane, where he was struck again by another car.

He was hospitalized for six months and had 19 surgeries on his right leg. The limb was amputated in 2012.

“But that didn’t stop or hinder him,” Quieti remembers. “He was a determined man and would never give up. … He had triple bypass surgery, a ruptured spleen, ruptured appendix and was always fighting a bone infection in his leg from the accident.

“He was like the Energizer bunny or a cat with nine lives …” she adds. “He lived with constant pain most of his life. But you would never know it because his focus was NEVER on himself and always on others.”

Bob Keegan says his brother’s greatest reward was his grandchildren, Sam and Zack.

“They were the love of his life,” agrees Ed’s daughter. “That and baseball.”

Besides his daughter, brother and grandchildren, Keegan is survived by his wife, Carol. Another brother, George, predeceased him.

Bob Keegan‘s favorite memories of his brother include one that has nothing to do with America’s pastime.

When rain kept the Haddonfield High School baseball team inside, the coach would arrange dodgeball games. Instead of a baseball, Ed Keegan‘s cannon-like arm launched a volleyball at his own teammates.

“He had big hands. We were scared to death of (getting hit by) him,” Bob relates.

“Nobody wanted to play dodgeball against him — including me.”

(Written by Christina Mitchell and originally published in the Courier-Post)

Al C. Rinaldi’s life was a testament to survival of the fittest, though it was hardly fitting to say he was healthy.

The 77-year-old chairman and CEO of Jacobs Music Company died the day before Halloween of cancer — his 15th bout with the disease, according to his son Bob.

Until his latest go-round with the illness, Al Rinaldi was able to recover from cancers of the colon, bladder, stomach, duodenum and lower bowel.

In a bitter twist of fate, the Mount Laurel resident lost his son Michael to bile duct cancer in 2006.

“He had an unwavering will to live,” said Bob, a senior vice president at the Philadelphia-based company.

As understatements go, that one is over the top.

“He never ceased to amaze me,” said Al’s wife, Gabrielle Kazze Rinaldi, who first met her husband when he hired her at Jacobs in 1978. She is now executive vice president of the regional company.

“There really was nothing he didn’t believe he could overcome. He approached everything as one more hurdle to get over, and he did.”

Those hurdles would have swamped a lesser man.

Abandoned at nine months, the Scranton-born Rinaldi was taken in by a female alcoholic in the same tenement where he had lived with his mother. He saw his father, known as Fritzie, only twice in his life, according to information provided by his family.

Bessie Nolan was Irish and poor, so her charge had to hit the streets for food. Then known as Freddie Nolan, he would ask the neighborhood deli owner about scraps for a dog he didn’t have.

He took bread from trash cans, loading it with sugar so he could get it down. He once ate moth balls, mistaking them for peppermints.

It was in that Dickensian environment the young Al Rinaldi realized he could sing for his supper. He and a friend would perform at bars, passing around a hat for money. The sax player took 90 percent of their $1 earnings.

“Brother, can you spare a dime?”

But Rinaldi didn’t quibble. Perhaps because at that point, he realized music would be his salvation.

Bob Rinaldi, in fact, sees it as the recurring theme of his father’s story, like a swinging Sinatra tune that pops up on the radio just when you need a lift.

“Music saved his life, whether he was singing in a bar or panhandling … or whether it was how he made his living,” noted Bob, whose brother, Chris, is president and CFO of Jacobs.

Al Rinaldi didn’t have enough wind in his underfed body for the sax, so he eventually mastered the jazz accordion — or ’cordine, as it was known — an instrument he needed help strapping on.

His career, however, led him to pianos and organs.

After taking his knack for survival with him into the Navy — where he charged his mates for music lessons — Rinaldi happened on an ad for a job selling organs.

Because he had lied when he said he could play the instrument, Rinaldi took some quick lessons. He eventually sold and demonstrated Hammond organs from a shop window, worked as manager of the organ department at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia, sold both pianos and organs at Strawbridge’s and Wanamaker’s and even became a banker.

A Chestnut Street dream became his legacy. Part of the Philly block was once known as “Piano Row,” home to more than a dozen piano stores, including Jacobs Music Company at 1718.

Started in 1937, Jacobs was eventually sold to Sherman Clay of San Francisco, its owner for three years. Then Rinaldi stepped in, not only buying the company but gaining permission from the Jacobs family to bring back their name.

It was 1976 and Rinaldi now had Jacobs, Wanamaker’s piano department and cancer.

He was 39.

“Once he decided on something, he saw no reason why it couldn’t get accomplished,” Gabrielle recalled.

Rinaldi earned the distinction of being a Steinway representative in 1985 and was its dealer of the year for 2009.

“I was a poor kid with no parents, and now I represent Steinway,” he said at the time.

For Bob Rinaldi, it is important to remember not only his father’s business acumen but his generosity.

“He always was very compassionate, beyond his success in business,” the younger Rinaldi said. “Many people knew of his success … what people don’t realize is the hundreds of scholarships that he passed out at Rowan University and other colleges.

“And he would hand money to performers on the street as well.”

A nod, no doubt, to Al Rinaldi’s childhood panhandling, a circumstance he never begrudged.

“He always said he never felt poor until he got much older and had money … ” Gabrielle observed. “When he truly had nothing, he was perfectly happy. Because everyone else was as poor as he was.”

“I didn’t realize how remarkable his life was until he passed,” said Rinaldi’s son. “He was an enormous individual with an amazingly remarkable life.”

(Originally published in the Courier-Post)

In an unlikely confluence of history and movie magic, no less than the President of the United States had this to say about America’s most popular film star during the depths of the Depression.

“ … It is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents, an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles,” Franklin Delano Roosevelt said in 1934.

The patrician president was slightly off in his calculations. A movie ticket at the time was actually closer to a quarter.

But the value of Shirley Temple Black’s impact on the American psyche at its lowest was immeasurable.

The former child star died Monday, two months shy of her 86th birthday. Some thought she was already dead. Others thought she was older.

Perhaps that’s because from 1935 to 1938, the winsome moppet was the top film star in the country, a record that came before she was 10. Not the top child star — but any star — in an age of movie royalty that included the likes of Clark Gable, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

So awesome was Shirley Temple’s fame, she practically kept Darryl F. Zanuck’s 20th Century Fox afloat, with help from Will Rogers and Janet Gaynor.

The loss of her baby teeth was an event; one popped out as she sank her hands and feet in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, according to her 1988 autobiography.

A crazed woman once aimed a gun at her in a theater. In the late ’30s, Temple Black recalled, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover himself stopped by to take her fingerprints in case anyone had the idea of kidnapping a motion picture money machine.

She was tipped off to the existence of Santa Claus by a department store version who asked for the movie star’s autograph, according to the Associated Press. She even had a child’s cocktail named after her, complete with a maraschino cherry.

And here’s the truth about “The Wizard of Oz,” from Temple Black herself and film historian Aljean Harmetz. Like it or not, Shirley Temple would have starred in that timeless film — regardless of whether she fit the role of Dorothy — had fate not intervened.

Harmetz’s version is that Zanuck would not lend his prized star to MGM for “Oz.” Temple Black herself recalled it differently:

“If Zanuck would loan me, (MGM head Louis B.) Mayer would loan Jean Harlow and Clark Gable to Zanuck,” she wrote in her memoir.

MGM had recently lost its songbird, Deanna Durbin, and its executives weren’t entirely sold on Judy Garland as Dorothy. But when screen siren Harlow suddenly died in 1937, the deal was off, according to Temple Black.

“Nothing was left for Mayer but to go with his already rejected option of Judy Garland. Sometimes the gods know best.”

Yes, they do.

By that time, Shirley Temple was only 11, but not so much the cute child star anymore. She later made a few grown-up films — 1944’s classic “Since You Went Away” showed she could handle adult emotion — but even being paired with Cary Grant couldn’t offset the reality of adulthood.

Still, a failed first marriage to a fellow actor was followed by a chapter in Temple Black’s life that could have been penned by Hollywood screenwriters.

She married war veteran and businessman Charles Black in 1950. He had no idea she had been a child star and good-naturedly accepted his role as the spouse of a famous woman.

They raised three children in a happy union that ended with Black’s death in 2005. Their years together included her roles as a Republican party fundraiser and U.S. ambassador to both Ghana and Czechoslovakia, the latter just as the Iron Curtain came down in Europe in 1989.

She also served as chief of protocol under President Gerald Ford. Ironically, as Ford’s wife Betty later would, Temple Black made public her 1972 struggle with breast cancer to help destigmatize the disease.

She told women at the time not to “sit home and be afraid,” according to the New York Times.

In her 85 years, Shirley Temple Black served her country well politically, socially and, most importantly, as a ray of light in perhaps the country’s darkest time.

“She’s indelible in the history of America because she appeared at a time of great social need, and people took her to their hearts,” fellow child star Roddy McDowall told the New York Times.

It’s hard to fathom that kind of need now. Then again, have you ever heard anyone walk up to a bartender and ask for a “Shirley Jones”?

(Originally published in the Courier-Post)