Good News in History, January 20

125 years ago today, George Burns, the comedian, actor, singer, and writer, was born. Reaching 100 years old, he was one of the few entertainers whose career successfully spanned vaudeville, radio, film, and television. Burns had a sudden career revival after playing a beloved comic elder statesman in the 1975 film The Sunshine Boys (opposite Walter Matthau), for which he won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor at age 80.

He and his wife, Gracie Allen, appeared on radio and film as an endearing comedy duo, and hosted their own TV show for nearly a decade, The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show.

In 1977, Burns starred in another hit film, Oh, God!, playing God, who chooses at random an earnest but befuddled supermarket manager (John Denver) to help revive his message on Earth.

Burns wrote fun books about his wife and show biz friends, and did regular nightclub stand-up acts in his later years—always smoking a cigar onstage. A prolific cigar smoker, Burns remained in good health for most of his life, in part thanks to a daily exercise regimen of swimming, walks, sit-ups, and push-ups. READ some of his funny one-liners, and WATCH him with Johnny Carson… (1896)

“First you forget names, then you forget faces. Next you forget to pull your zipper up and finally, you forget to pull it down.”

“Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city.”

“I’m very pleased to be here. Let’s face it, at my age I’m very pleased to be anywhere.”

“When I was a boy the Dead Sea was only sick.”

MORE Good News on this Date:

  • The English parliament met for the first time in the Palace of Westminster, now the Houses of Parliament (1265)
  • Happy 65th Birthday to Bill Maher, comedian and host of “Real Time” on HBO, formerly “Politically Incorrect” (1956)
  • Capitol Records released their first album by The Beatles in the U.S. and called it Meet The Beatles!, which featured “I Want to Hold Your Hand” that topped the charts for 11 weeks (1964)
  • Barack Obama became the first multi-racial president of the U.S., taking the oath of office before millions of hopeful citizens in Washington, DC. (2009)

And, 7 years ago today, the widow of McDonald’s franchise founder Ray Kroc, bequeathed $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army. It was the largest charitable gift in US history. Mrs. Kroc instructed that the money be spent on the construction of new community centers to provide cultural, artistic, educational, athletic, and social programs in neighborhoods that would otherwise go without.

Kroc’s first location in Illinois—by Bruce Marlin, CC license

Today, twenty-six “Kroc Corps Centers” operate in formerly underserved communities across the US and Puerto Rico with nearly 800 full time and 2,200 part-time staff serving kids and their families. Learn more in the book Ray & Joan: The Man Who Made the McDonald’s Fortune and the Woman Who Gave It All Away. (2004)

Photo by Scott Feldstein, CC license

And, 101 years ago today, the American Civil Liberties Union was founded with the mission “to defend and preserve the individual rights and liberties guaranteed to every person in this country by the Constitution and laws of the United States.” Bonded by anti-war activism during World War I, the group’s founding mother Crystal Eastman and its founding father Roger Baldwin inspired the early nonprofit. The group became quite nonpartisan—supported and criticized over the years by both liberal and conservative organizations alike.

The ACLU, which has over 1.5 million members active in all 50 states—and hundreds of volunteer attorneys—works toward its ends through litigation, providing legal assistance, and lobbying. One of the biggest successes in its 100 years was a legal case they actually lost: In 1925, they defended John Scopes against the state of Tennessee’s anti-evolution law. Attorney Clarence Darrow, a member of the ACLU led Mr. Scopes’ legal team arguing the teacher should have the right to expound on evolution in schools. Though they lost in court, the publicity became a phenomenal public relations success.

Supreme Court rally by Ted Eytan, CC license

In 1954, the group shared a major victory with the NAACP when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that racially segregated schools violated the Fourteenth Amendment—leading to the desegregation of public schools. READ a great quote from the Scopes trial… (1920)

“If today you can take a thing like evolution and make it a crime to teach it in the public school, tomorrow you can make it a crime to teach it in the private schools, and the next year you can make it a crime to teach it to the hustings or in the church. At the next session you may ban books and the newspapers. Soon you may set Catholic against Protestant and Protestant against Protestant, and try to foist your own religion upon the minds of men. If you can do one you can do the other. Ignorance and fanaticism is ever busy…” – Clarence Darrow (during the Scopes defense)

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