For the Observer

It’s National Women’s History Month and I salute several outstanding women, including some local legends.

‘America the Beautiful’

Let’s remember Katharine Lee Bates, American writer, poet, scholar and social activist, who composed “America the Beautiful” — our signature patriotic song.

In these troubled times, I can think of no song that better captures the greatness and spirit of America.

“America the Beautiful” was composed in 1893 when Bates stood at Pikes Peak, over-looking purple mountain majesties and amber waves of grain.

Katharine Lee Bates

Katharine Lee Bates wrote “America the Beautiful,” a song that continues to inspire and unite.

Some congressmen and women have deemed “America” a hymn, a prayer, and even the “national heartbeat music,” with its more lyrical, less militaristic timbre, suitable to replace the “Star Spangled Banner.” The ubiquitous “America” is sung in multiple languages — even in reform schools and prisons.

When I first heard the late Ray Charles stunning rendition of “America,” I heard him launch his majestic recording, not with spacious skies and amber waves, but with a darker fifth stanza which reads: “O beautiful for hero’s proved/In liberating strife/Who more than self/Our country loved/And mercy more than life.”

Charles chose to focus on the huge sacrifices necessary to preserve the “sweet America” he loved so much.

I sometimes forget the men and women who died for my freedom. It’s hard for me to fully grasp their bravery and conviction to the freedom I and others sometimes take for granted.

I’ve always valued Ray Charles’s reflections on the wrongs America has undergone, while also focusing on her beauty and greatness.

Charles also asked for God’s guidance so we could use the gifts He gave us for good. That eloquently defines what I consider the real roots of America.

Set to music by Silas G. Pratt and rewritten in 1904, “America” captured my heart and the hearts of countless Americans, moving us to tears and a real sense of patriotism.

On Jan. 18, 2017, The New York Times quoted President Barack Obama, who declared that the Ray Charles version of “America” “would always be the most patriotic piece of music ever performed.”

I’m thankful for Bates’ inspired effort and Ray Charles’s splendid rendition, because “America the Beautiful” conveys an attitude of appreciation and gratitude for our nation’s extraordinary beauty and abundance — without mean-spirited nationalism and triumphalism.

The day after Ray Charles died — June 10, 2004 — Salon writer Charles Taylor remarked: “Ray Charles’ version of ‘America the Beautiful’ remains the least boastful of patriotic songs, and even so, his version teaches us all a new humility.”

I find that beautiful!

Pragmatic idealism

I also extend kudos to 39-year-old New Zealander Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, who has earned international acclaim for her leadership in the face of tragedy, and articulated a form of leadership that embodies strength and sanity, while also pushing for an agenda of compassion and community.

After the March 15, 2019 tragedy, when gunmen killed 51 worshippers at a Christchurch mosque, Arden moved swiftly to propose New Zealand’s first meaningful gun legislation in decades.

When some seemed to feel powerless and disenfranchised, Arden spoke up at a Feb. 7, 2020 interview, declaring; “we can either stoke it with fear and blame, or we can respond by taking some responsibility and giving some hope that our democratic institutions, our politicians, actually do something about what they’re feeling.”

While New Zealand has set moral precedents on several fronts — the first country to give women the vote, the first to introduce some form of social security for its elderly and the first to ban vessels carrying nuclear weapons from entering its waters — it yet faces many leadership challenges and domestic setbacks for Arden. But her authenticity and compassion may yet prevail.

Speaking of Arden, Mike Moore, former head of the World Trade Organization, said: “Leadership is more than finding an angry crowd and agreeing with it.”

I’m looking forward to more of Jacinta Arden’s inspirational “pragmatic idealism.”

More great women

Those are just two among many inspirational women I’m pleased to praise during National Women’s History Month. I would add other outstanding women like Harriet Tubman, Frances Perkins, Clare Booth Luce, Eleanor Roosevelt and many others — noted on page 3 of the March 16, 2020 issue of Time magazine — leaders, innovators, activists, entertainers, athletes and artists who have influenced and advanced many facets of American life and culture.

And I greatly appreciate local legendary ladies like Adelle Beechey, Barbara Poulshock, Martha Murfin (the “bead lady” who promoted reading in our schools), Marjorie Beard (outstanding teacher and grant-writer), and Edie Shire (promoter of reading, food-bank supporter and more).

All of them had significant impact on our communities. Three cheers!

Reach Dr. Robert Brake at

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