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Old photo offers new window into life of Jonathan Daniels

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Old photo offers new window into life of Jonathan Daniels

Michael Moore / Sentinel Staff

Bob Perry, left, holds the photo taken of his friend Jonathan Daniels by Arto Leino at the March on Washington in 1963. Leino holds a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. that he also took that day. 

Bob Perry and Jonathan Daniels were best friends as kids. They were born 11 days apart, grew up four doors from each other in Keene, shared a secret clubhouse and sneakily smoked cigarettes.

“We were probably roommates down at Elliot Community (Hospital) when we were born,” Perry said, noting newborns normally stayed in hospitals for about two weeks in 1939. “For as far back as I can remember we were in each other’s backyards.”

It makes Perry’s discovery about his friend’s whereabouts on Aug. 28, 1963, all the more remarkable.

No one knew Daniels attended the March on Washington 50 years ago. Yet unmistakably there he is in a black-and-white photo, about 20 feet from Martin Luther King Jr. as King delivers his “I Have a Dream” speech, the Washington Monument in the background.

Wearing a white collar, Daniels is standing next to two other seminarians and appears to be holding a sign though it’s impossible to tell what it reads.

The photo even stunned Larry Benaquist, a retired Keene State College professor and co-producer of the award-winning 1999 documentary, “Here Am I, Send Me In: The Jonathan Daniels Journey.” Benaquist says the revelation is further proof of Daniels’ dedication to the civil rights movement.

“It’s an important discovery for us because we were never sure how deeply Jonathan was involved,” Benaquist said. “We learned early on we could tell a lot about Jonathan by his trail of things.”

Daniels was killed Aug. 20, 1965, while shielding a black teenager from a shotgun-toting white special deputy shortly after being released from jail in Hayneville, Ala.

Perry, 74, actually came across the 50-year-old photograph a couple of years ago. He used to chronicle people’s life stories in video documentaries, and was working on one with Arto Leino of Keene and his family.

Leino, a native of Finland, was an exchange student in 1963, who had never been to New Hampshire. He was in the middle of a 15,000-mile odyssey across the U.S. that summer with fellow exchange student Bill Quinn. Leino remembers they had only two fixed destinations planned in their wanderings and one was the March on Washington.

Picking up the story, Perry said, “Arto happened to mention he was at the March on Washington. And he says I even have pictures of that.”

So Perry asked to see them for possible use in the video about Leino. “Arto started thumbing through the pictures and I’m thinking, ‘That’s a nice shot of Martin Luther King.’ All of a sudden I’m looking at (a picture) and I said, ‘Wait a second, do you have any idea who this is?’

“I about fell off the chair,” Perry said. “I said, ‘That’s Jon Daniels.’ It’s one of those extremely small-world circumstances.”

Benaquist also has Daniels’ NAACP card, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which he joined in 1964. Benaquist says he also thinks he has a photo of Daniels at one of the marches in Boston in 1963 during bus integration, though the photo is a tad indistinct.

In Benaquist’s documentary, narrated by actor Sam Waterson, he interviewed more than 75 people about Daniels, yet no one mentioned he was at the March on Washington.

Quoting noted 1960s black activist Stokely Carmichael, Benaquist said, “Jonathan ran deep.”

Perry says he and Daniels were best friends through their early years in high school. They were typical kids, he says, sometimes getting into mischief although he could tell even then that Daniels felt a calling to the priesthood.

In 6th or 7th grade, they discovered some loose bricks that shielded a crawlspace underneath Daniels’ home on School Street. They loosened and moved the bricks and dug it out for weeks, stealthily depositing the dirt behind a garage so no one would know. It became their secret clubhouse.

“We thought the world had no idea we were there or knew what we were doing,” Perry said.

Daniels, he said, decreed it “Ye Royal Knights of the Loyal Order of Skull & Bones Society” for no other reason than it sounded cool. But Perry says he also got an inkling of Daniels’ future because he built an altar in there and conducted ceremonies.

Decades later, Perry says, in doing research at the house Benaquist stumbled upon a rusty, metal Band-Aid box that contained a half-pack of Camel cigarettes — it was their smoking stash.

The pair split up their junior year when Perry was sent to a different high school, namely, “so I could get my act together,” he said with a smile. “Let’s just say Jon was a lot more studious than I was.”

They continued to keep in touch and last saw each other in Syracuse, N.Y., where Perry went to college, a couple of months before Daniels was killed.

On that day, Aug. 20, 1965, Perry was vacationing at Laurel Lake in Fitzwilliam. He went to dinner at the Old Black Lantern and ran into Connie Daniels, Jonathan’s mother, whose birthday was Aug. 20. It was about 7 p.m., and she was troubled, Perry says.

“She was worried. She hadn’t from him. She knew he was in jail, but she hadn’t heard from him and he never missed her birthday.”

When they returned to the cottage, Perry says his sister called from Boston with the news that Jonathan Daniels had been shot but he didn’t believe it. “It had to be a different one because I just saw his mother,” Perry remembers thinking. Then they turned on WBZ radio and it was the lead news story.

He headed straight for Daniels’ house, fearing Connie would hear it on the news, but the house was already full of people who had waited for her to get home.

A retired financial insurance agent, Perry and his wife, Judy, named their son Jonathan after Daniels. His middle name is Marsten, whereas Daniels’ was Myrick, which gives them the same middle initial. Jonathan M. Perry today is an English teacher at Keene High.

Perry says it’s doubtful his friend would have been comfortable with the hullabaloo over his work. More than anything, he knew of his humble nature, even as 50-year-old artifacts like the March on Washington photograph surface.

“I probably knew Jonny Daniels better than I knew Jonathan Daniels,” Perry said.

Benaquist says unearthing the photo is like continually putting together the pieces of a mystery.

“Stories like this — these are windows into somebody’s behavior,” Benaquist said. “Of all the films I’ve made, this one has really stuck with me.”

The Historical Society of Cheshire County in Keene will host a showing of Benaquist’s documentary Tuesday night at 7 p.m. on the anniversary of Daniels’ death. Benaquist, fellow producer William Sullivan and several people who knew Daniels will lead a discussion afterward.

Steve Gilbert is a columnist for The Sentinel.

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