Saturday, December 24, 2011

Second Careers, from the CHS 2011 Alumni Journal

This appeared in the fall 2011 Central High School Alumni Journal, written by Merrill Freedman, class of 208.

Does anyone recognize the name of our fellow alum,
Philip Francis Nowlan (111)? That should be easy
for sci-fi fans. But I digress. Perhaps I should start from
the beginning:

Edgar Davis’ (184) retirement from the Philadelphia Gas
Works in 1988 marked the beginning of a new adventure
that, with his wife, Selma, shows no sign of slowing
down. Edgar’s passion for photography, and Selma’s
for writing led them to becoming freelance journalists.
Years before the blogosphere gave space to aspiring writers
and journalists, Selma and Edgar were meeting with
and writing about some of the world’s most famous and
interesting people. Local newspapers were happy to pay
modest sums for their interviews.

My wife and I visited Selma and Edgar at their home on
a chilly Friday morning. The first thing we saw was the
floor covered with laminated newspapers bearing their
photographs and articles. From the Tuskegee Airmen
to former Secretary of State Alexander Haig, from actor
Robert Wagner to actresses Stephanie Powers and Janet
Leigh, the pair has interviewed a seemingly endless
number of famous people. We came wanting to know
stories about the people they interviewed, but found
that we were more interested in getting to know Selma
and Edgar themselves.

How does a retired couple, frankly journalistic amateurs,
get to meet and interview so many famous and influential
people? “We call and we ask,” Selma said, as though
the question was almost silly. Credentials? Gatekeepers?
“Never a problem.”

Not satisfied with that straightforward answer, I asked
who was the most difficult individual to get to interview.
“That would be Luther Smith.” Luther Smith? “One of
the Tuskegee Airmen. He lived not too far from our
home, so we called to arrange an interview. When he
answered his door, he didn’t want to let us in, but eventually
he softened, and we spent two hours in his living
room hearing many stories about the war.” The story of
the Tuskegee Airmen — the first and, initially, the only
African-American aviators in the racially segregated
U.S. Army Air Force — is among the most fascinating of
World War II.

The Davises’ stories went on and on. Finally, I asked
which of the interviews was the most interesting to
them. They both agreed that it was with Alexander Haig.
I wanted to know if he discussed his brief moments
when he put himself in charge of the nation — and they
said he had. Haig said, in a matter-of-fact tone, that
President Reagan had been shot. When he was asked
if anyone knew the condition of the president, no one
had any information. He was asked the whereabouts of
the vice president. He said that Vice President Bush was
in Texas, but it wasn’t clear if he had been advised of
the assasination attempt. Not having been asked about
the Speaker of the House — third in the line of succession
— Secretary of State Haig announced that he had
taken charge until the facts were determined. Many of
us remember those moments in 1981 vividly, but how
many of us got the story from the source?

I almost missed the reference to “Buck Rogers.” It seems
that the Davises had interviewed the elderly son of
Philip Nowlan, the creator of comic strip character Buck
Rogers. They mentioned that Philip Francis Nowlan
was a fellow Central alum. When I asked if they knew
his class, they did not, and the son they interviewed
was long since deceased. Thanks to our own archivist,
David Kahn, we found that Philip Nowlan was, indeed,
another Central alum of note. He was in the Chess Club
and a member of the 1905 championship football team,
and is ultimately credited with creating the story of
Buck Rogers.

From an historic Central perspective, that was the most
interesting discovery of the interview. What impressed
me most, however, was their walk-on appearance on
“Baywatch.” How did they manage to get on the show?
“We asked.”

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