(First of two installments on the 40th anniversary of Jonathan Daniels' death)
In 40 years, the story of Jonathan Myrick Daniels has been relayed innumerable times. Passed down in classrooms to rapt children at wooden desks. Planted in people’s minds over countless mugs of coffee.
Many have heard the tale of a young, white seminarian from Keene who answered Martin Luther King Jr.’s call to service in 1965. Of a 26-year-old man who pushed a teenage girl out of harm’s way, absorbing a bullet meant for her, falling on the streets of Alabama.
Those are the facts, so why do we revisit them? Because told and retold, Jonathan Daniels’ story is one that resonates.
He was one of many who died working to gain civil rights for all Americans. He is a martyr, considered a hero by some — but he didn’t seem to strive to be either of those.
He was a sharp-witted smarty with a tenor voice, who loved a good debate even in the pre-dawn hours.
He was once, and to many will always be:
It was midnight. Late in the fall of 1955. Jonathan Daniels, a Keene High School sophomore, really wanted to ride in his buddy Max Young’s new set of wheels.
Friends say Daniels’ parents, Philip and Constance Daniels, weren’t too keen on the pair bumping around town in the dark in Young’s old jalopy.
So the friends devised a plan. Daniels would creep out his bedroom window and climb down a ladder steadied by Young. They’d cruise, return home and no one would ever know.
Worked well, until on the scurry back to his room, Daniels toppled off the ledge, breaking an arm and bruising most everything else. The now-famous story says he managed to claw his way back up to bed in pretty rough shape.
“He missed breakfast the next morning, which is how his parents found out,” said Robert S. Perry, a childhood friend of Daniels who lives in Keene.
At the Daniels’ house, you didn’t miss meal time.
Daniels’ father was a doctor, one of the founders of the Keene Clinic, which became Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene. His mother was a teacher. Their house on Summer Street was knitted within a neighborhood chock-full of kids, Perry said.
And in the 1940s and ’50s, it was prime ground for merrymaking.
Growing up, there was always a baseball game or a round of hide-and-seek going on, Perry said, and Daniels always wanted in. In junior high, some friends even boxed a few times, though Perry recalls that it was “more like flailing.”
Perry grew up four houses down from Daniels. They were best friends for most of their childhood, and together started a secret society.
“Ye Loyal Knights of the Royal Order of the Skull Bones Society,” it was called. Perry said its undercover nature gave them a charge; the details of their rituals, though, remain tucked away behind Perry’s smile.
The club was exclusive, but Daniels wasn’t, friends say.
“He was able to talk to and interact with (people) from the top to the bottom of the scale and always dealt with them as if they were the most important person in the world,” said Tony L. Redington, a high school friend who now lives in Montpelier, Vt.
That was one thing that impressed Daniels’ first girlfriend, Carolyn Sturgis, then Carolyn Pierce.
“I admired Jon’s ability to speak intelligently with anyone of any age,” said Sturgis, of Harrisville. “He was sensitive, caring and understanding.”
Both the Daniels and Pierce families attended the First Congregational Church, then at the head of Central Square in Keene. The pair first met at a church youth group meeting in 1953.
Daniels wrote her a note, asking her to a dance, but he spelled her name “Caroline.” She accepted anyway.
Daniels and Sturgis dated for three years. He gave her a silver friendship ring to signify their “going steady,” and they enjoyed movies, dances and football games together.
Each night, the two agreed to read the same Bible chapter at the same time. It was just a way, Sturgis said, of being close.
At Keene High School, Daniels was tight with students a grade ahead of him. Daniels and his friends often delved into conversations about spirituality, literature, philosophy and history.
“We were typical teenagers and he was not,” Sturgis said. “He was a wise old soul in a young man’s body.”
“We had discussions about religion and the meaning of life, the things that teenage boys talk about,” said his friend Carlton T. Russell, laughing. “Along with girls and that sort of thing.”
Daniels, it seems, read just about anything he could get ahold of.
“His head was so full of poetry, literature and theology,” said Russell, of Stockton Springs, Maine. “He could cut through and zap someone very quickly because he was always a couple of steps ahead in the conversation.”
With his friend Tony Redington, Daniels listened to versions of Beethoven’s Fifth symphony and discussed the differences.
“We weren’t into the Bunny Hop and that stuff,” Redington said. “I guess you could also call us intellectual snobs.”
Sociological influences of the late 1950s called for men to marry, Redington said, to have children and put two cars in the garage.
“Both of us had problems with that,” Redington said. “We didn’t go in a materialistic direction.”
Instead, the group of friends simply enjoyed being together.
Whether it was their fledgling barbershop quartet as teenagers or an impromptu 700-mile trip with Redington to a Shakespeare festival in Ontario, Canada, as young men, Daniels was up for it.
When Daniels was a senior in high school in 1957, his older friends went off to college. But they all stayed close. Near the end of that year, Max Young, accomplice in Daniels’ high school joyride, died in a car accident.
To honor Young, the group began an annual retreat to an empty house in Dublin, owned by Redington’s parents.
“Max Annuals” started there.
Carrying six-packs and barbecue items, Russell said the group would honor their friend by “being up on the roof, listening to Beethoven’s Fifth, blasting it out on the hills, looking out at the stars and moon and talking about the problems of the world. We had a lot of good times, the way boys will.”
After the first “Max Annual,” Daniels went off to the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va. By this time, he had switched church membership. Some friends and authors theorized that Daniels moved to the Episcopal Church because he revered its abundant ritual and ceremony.
Daniels became valedictorian of his class in 1961. He went on to Harvard University for graduate studies, but left. The following year, at Easter time, Daniels reportedly had an experience at church that determined his life’s path.
He then enrolled in the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Mass.
“I am excited about the theological enterprise, reading some great people, and having an uncomfortable, glorious glimpse now and then of what the Cross of Jesus Christ calls us to,” Daniels wrote in a letter to his friend James Wilson in 1964, published in the book “American Martyr: The Jon Daniels Story.”
Daniels’ choice seemed to enforce what Russell said was his friend’s “larger view” of humankind.
“To me, it was his great gift,” Russell said. “For a man in his early 20s (to recognize) common humanity and love our neighbor and, in fact, love our enemies. I think he was way ahead of his time. (He knew) it doesn’t matter what your language or skin color is.
“That vision is so important. That vision guided his life.”
And, Russell added, what ultimately led Daniels to Alabama in 1965, at the height of a raging war.
Karen Sanborn can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1435, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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