My Turn, Roger Barbee: Mettle as model

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 12, 2023

We all need positive role models — those heroic people who show us how to act or conduct our lives when defined by the kind of courage needed to do what is seen as impossible or unpopular. When we think of folks such as Rosa Parks we encounter such a positive role model, an ordinary but heroic person, and one especially worthy and one (among many) about whom young people should learn. For instance, J. Elmer Morrish was a bank vice-president and Robert Emmett Fletcher, Jr. was a state agriculture inspector. Both lived in California during the outbreak of America’s entry into WWII.

My first such hero was Glenn Cunningham, the great University of Kansas middle distance runner. In the 1932 Olympics he placed 4th in the 1500 meters and won the silver medal in the same distance four years later in Berlin. His best mile time was 4:06.7, and he retired in 1940 after holding numerous collegiate and national records in the half-mile and mile. But those accomplishments tell little of Cunningham’s story.

To fully appreciate that, you must return to a cold Kansas schoolhouse when his older brother Floyd and he were burned in a stove fire. The brothers would arrive early and light the stove so that the room would be warm when the teacher and other students arrived. They would pack the stove with wood and soak it with kerosene before lighting. But that morning the mixture exploded because someone had placed gasoline in the can.

Floyd was killed in the explosion and because of the severe burns to his legs doctors told Cunningham’s parents that he would never walk again. However, as he later said, to walk hurt too much, so he ran everywhere after teaching himself to walk again by holding onto a picket fence around his yard. His story, read in school books, offered so many of us 1950’s elementary-aged children a role model for what could be accomplished with enough grit.

Recently I read about the heroic acts of Morrish and Fletcher following President Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 which removed over 100,000 people of Japanese descent to isolated camps. 70,000 of those were U.S. citizens and some had family members serving in the armed forces, like Daniel Ken Inouye who was awarded the Medal of Honor and became a United States Senator.

The following is an example of the posters placed across Pacific Coast states, this one on May 3, 1942, in Redwood City, California: “All persons of Japanese ancestry, both alien and non-alien, will be evacuated from the above area by 12 o’clock noon, P. W. T., Saturday May 9, 1942.”

Families had little time to settle affairs such as selling automobiles, securing homes, and managing their businesses, and it is estimated that $1 billion to $3 billion was lost by families during this forced removal. However, some families had allies to turn to for help. Bankers such as Merle Carden in Hayward, California, Louis Lopes in Watsonville, California, and J. Elmer Morrish, the vice president of the First National Bank of San Mateo County, acted heroically to help their removed neighbors: They managed bank accounts, helped with taxes, and managed property. Fletcher, the Sacramento, California Agriculture inspector quit his job and he and his wife cared for the fruit farms of Japanese families during World War II. Heroes all.

But what school-age child will read of their courageous acts? What school-age child will read of how these citizens stepped up to do the right thing? What school-age child will learn about them and use their lives as models of right living?

Few I fear will, if any, because of political pressure to sanitize much of the history taught in our public schools. To fully appreciate the courage and humanity of such folks as Fletcher and Morrish, we would have to see them in the light of Executive Order 9066, which would shine light on a dismal period of American history—one so grim that under President Reagan every surviving Japanese internee was paid $20,000. Sadly, according to the wishes of some parents and politicians, that episode of ours cannot be taught and each child slighted would miss out on learning about such heroic folks as Morrish, Carden, Lopes, and the Fletchers. In fact, could the awe-inspiring story of Floyd and Glenn Cunningham’s horrible accident be taught in today’s elementary grades? Or would some mother for her own liberty object because the story is too horrific and may cause feelings of disquiet. But as Cunningham wrote later, he was forged in fire, and out of fire comes strong mettle.

To teach about and read about such lives is to model as best we can life as it should be lived. To do less is to cheat our children.

Roger Barbee lives in Mooresville. Contact him at