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Landmarks & Legacies: How Memorial Day began

Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer for many Americans, but the last Monday of May honors fallen veterans. The origin of Memorial Day is a complicated debate.

The Civil War claimed at least 620,000 soldiers’ lives, the worst loss of life on U.S. soil, necessitating the first national cemeteries. The holiday first known as Decoration Day may have been an early attempt to heal the country’s war wounds.

At least 20 cities claim the first Decoration Day, but Waterloo, New York, received President Lyndon Johnson’s federal stamp in 1966. According to historian Richard Gardiner, co-author of The Genesis of the Memorial Day Holiday, Union veterans organized Waterloo’s 1868 celebration, although a retrospective newspaper article misprinted it as 1866, so it wasn’t the first.

Decoration Day likely began in the South because soldiers from both sides were buried where they fell. It spread to Northern states, with each side recognizing their own soldiers. Four women in Columbus, Mississippi, organized a March 1866 Decoration Day, putting flowers on Southern and Northern graves. Many historians consider Columbus’ inclusive celebration the earliest Decoration Day. The New-York Commercial Advertiser proclaimed: “Let this incident, touching and beautiful as it is, impart to our Washington authorities a lesson in conciliation, forbearance, and brotherly love.”

Victors get to tell history, and federal authorities did little to mend the conflict between North and South. In 1866, Union Army Gen. John Logan stated: “Traitors in the South have their gatherings day after day and strew garlands upon the graves of rebel soldiers.” Logan would go on to declare May 30, 1868, as Decoration Day, either because no major Civil War battles occurred on that date or because flowers were in bloom throughout the country.

Another twist in the Decoration Day debate came in 1996, when Yale researcher David Blight discovered evidence of an even earlier celebration. Newspaper clippings from The New-York Tribune and The Post and Courier described a May 1, 1865, celebration organized by freed slaves where the war began in Charleston, South Carolina. As the war ended, soldiers abandoned a prison camp at Charleston’s Washington Racecourse and Jockey Club, where 257 imprisoned Union soldiers died under the camp’s harsh conditions. Newly freed slaves and white missionaries converted a mass grave to a proper cemetery.

Blight’s book, Race and Reunion, chronicled the celebration that reportedly involved 10,000 people, featuring black Union regiments performing double-time marches, ministers preaching, flowers on graves and participants marching around the racetrack to honor the soldiers’ sacrifice. He believes the celebration, suppressed in local and national memory, was the earliest Decoration Day. Some scholars claim it was a cemetery dedication that doesn’t count because it wasn’t repeated.

Whether Memorial Day began in Waterloo, New York, or Columbus, Mississippi, or Charleston, South Carolina, it’s America’s most solemn holiday — and a time to honor fallen soldiers.

Deadly delay: Fearful of coronavirus, residents waiting too long to call 911

Denton County residents may be dying preventable deaths as medical professionals report the COVID-19 pandemic has made people afraid to go to the hospital.

Experts in emergency care nationwide and in Denton County are documenting disturbing trends. In Denton, for example, the number of 911 calls is down, but paramedics are finding more patients dead on arrival compared with the same time last year.

A few days ago, Dr. Nik Mendrygal, an emergency room physician and director of emergency services at Medical City Denton, did something that he’s never had to do in his 15 years practicing emergency medicine.

Paramedics had arrived at a woman’s home after she was found on the floor. The 911 caller managed to get the woman in a chair before the medics arrived. She was clear-headed enough to know what was happening, yet she wouldn’t agree to go to the hospital. Mendrygal told the medics to put him on the phone to persuade her to come in.

“She was in really bad condition and probably wouldn’t have made it through the night,” Mendrygal said.

Even after she got to the emergency room, she was reluctant to be admitted into the hospital because of her fear of getting the coronavirus, he said.

In that way, her case was not exceptional. The emergency room staff have noticed big changes over the past seven weeks. Before the pandemic, patients arrived in respiratory distress or cardiac arrest once a week or every other week. Now, it’s almost a daily occurrence, Mendrygal said.

“I cannot remember the last shift without a CPR,” Mendrygal said.

In a conference call Thursday, he learned that the hospital has seen a 30% increase in Level 1 acuity cases, the most urgent cases that require immediate care and resources.

“That’s completely unheard of,” he added.

Some patients never come to the hospital at all, according to reports from paramedics.

“They are going to so many calls where the patient’s already dead,” Mendrygal said.

He said he has also learned of patients who suffered with chest pains for several days before finally seeking help.

Denton is noting the same pattern in 911 calls, Denton Fire Chief Kenneth Hedges said. In April 2019, Denton paramedics responded to about five times more calls for chest pains not caused by a heart attack than for actual heart attacks. While 911 calls for heart attacks remains about the same, the department saw a 52% drop in calls for chest pains this year.

“That’s the number that concerns me,” Hedges said.

MedStar, which serves the southern portion of Denton County, reported a 54% increase in heart attack patients they were not able to resuscitate in March and April.

Those 911 calls that exhausted departments in other cities hard hit by the pandemic haven’t hit Denton. In fact, 911 call volume decreased after stay-at-home orders began, Hedges said.

However, reports he received about each day’s dispatches showed that when a report came in, “it was a true emergency,” Hedges said.

Hospital staff may have fewer options for patients who come in after suffering chest pains for days, or even a week or more, Mendrygal said.

The sooner people come in with symptoms of a possible heart attack, stroke or kidney failure, “the better we can turn that ship around,” Mendrygal added.

It may be a while before hospitals and public health officials get a fuller picture of how virus fears are keeping sick people away. Early in the pandemic, the public and the medical community were ordered to defer elective care. Hospitals shut down visits. In addition, some areas had shortages of protective gear for doctors, nurses and other hospital staff, triggering worries nationwide and in Texas that medical workers were vulnerable.

At Medical City Denton, the hospital screens every patient, and those showing symptoms of the virus are quarantined on designated floors with designated staff until tests are complete, Mendrygal said. If the individual doesn’t have the virus, that person is moved out of that designated part of the hospital to reduce the risk of exposure.

No one working in the emergency room at Medical City Denton has contracted the virus, Mendrygal said.

“That’s key,” Mendrygal said. “We’re getting exposed every single day. You’re going to be safe.”

And paramedics have always been scrupulous about cleaning vehicles and equipment after runs, Hedges said.

On Thursday, the hospital relaxed some restrictions on visitors, spokeswoman Dana Long said.

Patients are now allowed one visitor. Long and Mendrygal called the change a big win for patients.

“For some patients, that’s a huge concern,” Mendrygal said.

Older patients are particularly reluctant to be admitted when they can’t have a family member at their side, he added.

Local girl does good: George groomed charisma in Denton, took flight in Kentucky

A former Denton Record-Chronicle editor remembered the late Phyllis George as someone who had that special something.

Pat Shutterly, who worked for the local newspaper as the women’s editor from about 1968 to 1971, traveled from Denton to Atlantic City, New Jersey, with George right before Labor Day in 1971 for the Miss America contest.

George had nabbed the crown for Miss Texas, and had her eye on the more famous, more lucrative crown.

“There are small moments in life that seem small but portend more,” said Shutterly, who lives near Richmond, Virginia. “When Phyllis was up on the stage playing [the piano], the sound system got cranky. It went out all. All she could hear was herself. She’s up there playing and it’s almost a pantomime. She was just smiling, beaming and bouncing. I think a lot of people would have stopped. But she kept on smiling and beaming and bouncing. I remember thinking, ‘This is a girl who’s going to go somewhere.’”

George went on to become one of the first women in sports broadcasting. She died May 14 at age 70, after a blood disorder.

George was born to Diantha Cogdell and James George in Denton. She attended North Texas State University for three years, and was crowned Miss Texas in 1970. Because Texas Christian University awarded scholarships to Miss Texas honorees, George left North Texas and enrolled at TCU. She left when she won Miss America in 1971.

After she won the crown, George went on to work for CBS Sports in 1974. In 1975, she joined the cast of The NFL Today, co-hosting live pregame shows before games. George didn’t do play-by-play sportscasting, but rather became known for her human interest interviews with athletes.

George married twice. Her first marriage was to Hollywood producer Robert Evans, and her second to Kentucky Fried Chicken owner and Kentucky Gov. John Y. Brown Jr. With Brown, George had two children: Lincoln Tyler George Brown and Pamela Ashley Brown, a White House correspondent for CNN. Both of George’s marriages ended in divorce.

George was successful in business, launching Chicken by George fillets in 1986, and later starting a cosmetics company in 2003 that sold merchandise through the Home Shopping Network. She also had deep civic roots in Kentucky, founding the state’s Museum of Art and Craft in Louisville.

Shutterly tagged along with George as she represented Texas through the preliminary rounds of the Miss America competition.

“Phyllis stood out pretty immediately, I thought, from all those very pretty girls,” Shutterly said. “Phyllis sparkled. That’s what I always thought. She sparkled. She was really pretty but she sparkled. She had this warmth.”

Shutterly recalls the contest was being like a political convention, with family and friends traveling to Atlantic City to cheer on their contestant with signs and whooping. George had just a friend and her parents for a portion of the trip.

“When we were in Atlantic City one afternoon, and we were on the boardwalk — I don’t know what Atlantic City is like these days, but ... there were guys standing there hawking their wares,” Shutterly said. “Phyllis had had a long day, doing the pageant. She said she would do anything for a slice of watermelon. So we decided we were going to get a watermelon for Phyllis. What we didn’t count on was getting it back to the hotel. It was big. I carried it for a little while and her friend would carry it for a little while. But we got that watermelon back to the hotel. I told her, ‘After what we went through to get you that watermelon, you better win.’”

Shutterly wrote her stories, then called the Denton Record-Chronicle newsroom to dictate them. On the evening of the big competition, the Sunday paper’s deadline was midnight. Shutterly hustled from the pageant to phone in the story of “local girl does good.”

Shutterly kept tabs on George’s career after her big win. She had gotten a job at the Fort Worth Press when George was on her post-contest tour.

“The year after she won, she was doing all the touring,” Shutterly said. “We got together and talked for a while. She never seemed to have a facade or have a celebrity attitude. She was not an arrogant celebrity. She was not impressed with herself. We were talking, and she was tired — she had her shoes off and was rubbing her feet. She looked around and saw a photographer taking pictures of her. She just shrugged. So there again was that thing that I remembered. She just shrugged. She was real.”

Students celebrate when they receive their diplomas during the Braswell High School graduation ceremony Friday at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth. More on area graduations / 7A, 11A

Denton's unemployment tops 14% in April

Denton’s unemployment shot up 10 percentage points between March and April to a rate of 14.1%, according to local statistics released Friday.

The local numbers are not seasonally adjusted — a calculation statisticians use to remove seasonal components in job markets (harvest time or Christmas rush, for example). The city’s rate is slightly higher than Denton County’s April unemployment rate of 12.9%.

The local unemployment numbers may be without precedent, said Michael Carroll, an economics researcher at the University of North Texas. They also understate local joblessness, he said.

“It’s probably in the high teens,” Carroll said.

Since government officials refined their work in the 1940s, unemployment calculations have been dependable, he said. But they also only count the people who have filed a claim, are looking for work and haven’t found it yet.

They don’t count people who’ve had their hours cut or who have given up on looking for work.

State officials said 10,265 Denton residents were looking for work in April, part of the 1.7 million Texans, or 13%, who were unemployed last month.

Michael Carroll

Jobless claims, a different economic indicator that comes out weekly instead of monthly, suggest that about 20% of the workforce is idle, Carroll said.

Fifty years ago, the national unemployment rate hovered around 7-8% for several years.

“We lived with that in the 1970s and 1980s,” Carroll said.

After the Great Recession in 2008, the unemployment rate peaked at 10% in 2009. As the economy recovered, so did unemployment numbers, though they got stuck at about 5% from 2014-16.

Nationwide, the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for April hit 14.7%. Government officials consider a rate of 3-4% full employment.

“That’s where we were before the switch flipped,” Carroll said.

However, it is possible that the “gig economy” — workers earning a living with temporary jobs, such as driving for Uber or making deliveries — hid a point or two in the local unemployment rate, he added.

Either way, when workers don’t have money to spend, it has a ripple effect in the economy, Carroll said. The next wave of economic indicators will likely show in mortgage defaults and shrinking tax revenue for governments.

He wonders, too, whether the loss of health care benefits will hamper the recovery, too.

In other words, conditions look grim for May’s jobless claims and the unemployment rate.

“I’m concerned that they will go up,” Carroll said.

The U.S. Department of Labor releases jobless claims every Thursday. The Texas Workforce Commission publishes labor market and career information at texaslmi.com.

Local unemployment numbers for May will be released on the website on June 19.