Day 424: The Good Folk Of ’71

originally published February 27, 2013

People – mostly the imaginary people who routinely accompany me in dull, solitary tasks like taking out the garbage or folding laundry – often ask me if I worry about exhausting the Wikipedian supply of kilograph-worthy topics. I have spent enough hours clicking ‘Random Article’ to realize that this will never happen. I could run this project through 10,000 days and still find fresh topics to draw my fingers into their daily tap-dance on my keyboard.

But I won’t. 1000 days and this project gets lit up like a cigar by a hundred-dollar bill. I’m out.

For now, I’m going to dip into a sampling of biographies of folks who may not warrant a full entry’s worth of prose, but whose life stories made me smile. Also, they were all born in 1871, so yes, there is a common thread.

In trekking through Wikipedia’s populace, I’ve tripped over numerous American football players and coaches. Most are abbreviated entries; some never even went pro. Writing an article about some guy who played left guard for Notre Dame in 1921 isn’t going to spark my muse.

Then there’s Fielding H. Yost. As a player, his record is dubious (after losing three times to Lafayette College as a tackle with West Virginia, Yost joined Lafayette mid-season for one game, just to play on a winning team), not a lot of coaches could match his numbers. In 1901, Yost hooked up with the Michigan Wolverines as head coach. His first season wasn’t bad – his team outscored their opponents by a combined 550-0, and he won the first ever Rose Bowl 49-0.

Nowhere to go but down from there. Actually, that’s not true. There’s always straight ahead, with no change of altitude. Michigan went a total of 56 games without a loss, outscoring their opponents 2821 to 42 over the next five years. Yost invented the position of linebacker. He was the first football coach to earn a living at it, making as much as a Michigan professor. Sixty-four men who coached under him as assistants went on to become head coaches, including two in the NFL. Bill Belichick can suck it – Yost is the man.

Hubert Cecil Booth (not an actual photo) was a British builder. Versatile is an understated adjective for Mr. Booth: he concocted everything from Ferris wheels to suspension bridges to engines for British Navy battleships. One day he was checking out a demonstration of a compressed-air cleaning system for railway carriages. He wasn’t impressed, but he was inspired. Rather than blow the debris and dust away from oneself, a machine that sucks air in through a filter might achieve the dual goals of cleaning a surface and not scattering crap all over the place.

The photo above is Booth’s (and the world’s) first electric vacuum cleaner. It should have made him wealthy beyond compare, but the Hoover company made better gadgets. Booth did okay, but Hoover ran the market.

Okay, an explorer born in 1871 doesn’t have a lot of uncharted earth left to cover. But David Wynford Carnegie found a few chunks of terrain that hadn’t yet been slapped on a map. Carnegie started out as a gold prospector in Western Australia. Unfortunately, that didn’t pan out (pun intended – I’m embracing the velvety seduction of low-brow humor today). He wound up mapping out a significant portion of inner Australia. When his party would run low on water, they’d find some natives, capture them, then force them to lead his gang to a water source. It’s like they say, what happens in the outback stays in the outback. Usually because someone is dead.

In 1897, Carnegie returned to England. He published a book about his journey, gave a short lecture tour, and received a medal for his work by the Royal Geographic Society. Carnegie had found his calling. It was time to find some new land, to build upon his reputation as one of the 19th century’s preeminent explorers. Off to Africa!

In Niger he landed a job, as Assistant Resident of the Middle Niger – the kind of job that could only exist in a colony nation. Carnegie was sent out to apprehend a local fugitive. While searching through a nearby village, he was shot in the thigh with a poison arrow. He died fifteen minutes later, six months shy of his 30th birthday.

How awesome would it be to become the first woman ever elected to a Russian cabinet? Sofia Panina holds this honor, even though the party didn’t last. I mean that literally – the Kadet Party was knocked into the ashes five months later during the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. Sofia was one of the folks trying to keep the government together in the shadow of Lenin’s successful coup, and she got arrested for her troubles.

The charge was embezzling 93,000 rubles from the Ministry of Education, an accusation Sofia staunchly denied. The Bolsheviks held a trial that almost escalated to violence, before finding her guilty and insisting she pay back the money. That’s hard to do when one hasn’t actually stolen anything, but Sofia’s friends came through for her, and she was eventually released from prison. She spent the rest of her life in exile, settling in Prague. When the Nazis came knocking on the Czechoslovakian door, she fled once more, ending up where all the interesting folks seem to end up: New York.

Okay, Robert Stewart Sparks was awesome.

In 1912 he landed the gig in charge of issuing marriage licenses in Los Angeles. For whatever reason, thousands of lonely people wrote to his office, looking desperately for a mate. He played Cupid (and earned that nickname) by sifting through those letters with his wife and pairing up the lovelorn as pen-pals. According to Sparks, this led to hundreds of marriages.

He spent most of the 20’s on City Council. Under his direction, private hospitals were forced to take emergency patients, the Humane Society was denied an extra batch of tax-collectors (Sparks believed even poor kids deserved a puppy, even if they couldn’t pay to have it registered), and he vehemently opposed a proposal by religious groups to have a tribunal of seven members to rule on whether or not films could be screened in the LA area. Sparks was in favor of match-making and opposed to censorship. He’d have enjoyed the internet era.

I’ll leave you with a piece of matrimonial advice from Robert Stewart Sparks, who wound up issuing more than 200,000 marriage licenses to Los Angelinos: husbands should always remember their anniversary, and buy a nice gift for their wives. “If husbands do this and storm clouds arise, and the matrimonial lute shows signs of piping some sour notes, the wives recall that their husbands, alone and unaided, did remember the anniversaries, and the difficulties melt away.”

Right. I’m sure pointing out, “But honey, remember that bracelet I bought you for our anniversary eight months ago?” isn’t going to lessen the burn when you’re caught with three or four prostitutes. But I guess Sparks’ heart was in the right place.

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