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Saturday, August 13, 2011

Having survived Rayville, dysfunctional democracy, evil cultists and tolerance only for ignorance, it was on the Main Street Salon, a cut-a-thon for Alzheimers and a moment with Alexander Doniphan

Alexander Doniphan Elementary School In Liberty, Mo., home of the Dolphins.

      A lot of shit's gone down since my wife, daughter and I moved to Liberty, Mo., from Oklahoma in 1990. And I'm not just talking sanitary sewers.
     I started work at the Liberty Tribune ("the oldest continuously publishing newspaper west of the Mississippi that pays minimal wages"), Marieta worked at a shoe store and eventually got a librarian's job she still has (and loves), we lived in a duplex that shook when a train went by and we moved into our own house.
     It turned out the house was in the attendance area for Doniphan Elementary, which we later learned was adjectivized by the word "Alexander".
     As an old Jew might say, "I don't know from Alexander Doniphan." Oh yeah, I am an old Jew. I didn't know from AD. All I knew was that my daughter, Sarah, was a true blue Doniphan Dolphin. I recently bought her a thrift-shop t-shirt to that effect.
     A little later, one of those local historians we all find so easy to ignore started going on and on about the actual Alexander Doniphan. They were naming a highway after him, Missouri 152 to be precise. There was all the usual hullabaloo about A. Doniphan, which I still managed to ignore. 
     That's not to say I wasn't proud of my daughter or didn't love her school. It was small, personal and so comfortable. I still see her principal from time to time and we say hello to each other. We run into a couple of her teachers and they remember her, her name and her curly hair. Teachers are like that, and it's a very good thing.
     But no one could get through to me on the fellow for whom the school was named. That was until the newspaper industry started going south (I believe we're in central Argentina now and moving rapidly) and I wound up at the newspaper in Richmond, Mo. It turns out that Doniphan lived there for a time, practiced law there and even died there (he's buried in Liberty, Home of the Dolphins).
     People in Richmond love their war heroes, any war hero. They also love soldiers in general, dead or alive, famous or forgotten, those who made the ultimate sacrifice, as well as those who stuck out their enlistment long enough to get out alive and enjoy the benefits.
    Doniphan was a war hero (that's him to the left; read the plaque that accompanies this post), so he's beloved in Richmond. Apparently, he was a pretty good lawyer, too, which paid the bills. It also allowed him to rub elbows with influential politicians, including Missouri's governor.
    I won't bore you with the details, but Doniphan was the state's go-to man when Mormons settled in Missouri and met with prejudice in Jackson, Clay, Caldwell, Ray, Daviess and Carroll counties. He was instrumental first in establishing what for a time was a haven for the Mormons (their own county, Caldwell, carved from the then-sprawling Ray County).
     The Mormons thrived there for a while, but things went downhill quickly. In 1838, the Mormon War erupted, setting the stage for Doniphan to be a hero again. This time, it wasn't for his exploits in battle, but his strength of character. It was AD who refused an order to execute Joseph Smith and other Mormon leaders:

(General) Lucas tried Joseph Smith Jr. and other Mormon leaders by court martial on November 1, the evening of the surrender. After the court martial, he ordered General Alexander William Doniphan:

You will take Joseph Smith and the other prisoners into the public square of Far West and shoot them at 9 o'clock tomorrow morning.[95]

Doniphan refused to obey the order, replying:

It is cold-blooded murder. I will not obey your order. My brigade shall march for Liberty to-morrow morning, at 8 o'clock, and if you execute those men, I will hold you responsible before an earthly tribunal, so help me God![96] (Passage quoted from Learn more there about the Mormon War and Alexander Doniphan's role.)
     Today, when I was walking back to the office from an assignment (a photo at a hair salon holding a fundraiser for the Alzheimer's Memory Walk), I passed the Alexander Doniphan monument in front of Ray County Courthouse. You'll notice that the plaque honors his war record, not his depth of character. There's no mention there of his refusal to execute a group of people who were simply different in their beliefs and practices. 
     That says a lot about our culture's values; war gallantry matters, depth of character is secondary. But thanks to my time in Richmond I know why my daughter's school was named Alexander Doniphan Elementary, why a highway carries his name and why that local historian I ignored was trying to get my attention years ago. Dolphins rule!

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