BRETHREN — Seventy-two years ago a lanky Manistee County teenager was challenged by his teacher to read, aloud, a poem he had written.
There was good reason Dickson High School English teacher Donald Crouch wanted the student to stand front and center and be heard by his classmates — the wise educator was looking for a way, any way, to help the shy Todd Jones overcome his self-imposed isolation due to his stuttering difficulties.
The simple, but soul-numbing ploy worked. From that day forward, young Todd Jones — he soon would change his name to James Earl Jones to better suit his yearning to perform on stage and the silver screen — would speak boldly and with such character that his voice has become one of the most recognized in the world.
That is “how I found my voice,” Jones would say over and over and when interviewed about overcoming his youthful difficulties with stuttering: it was because of a teacher — a mentor who challenged him, and supported him.
To honor Jones and Crouch, the Arts and Cultural Alliance of Manistee County has commissioned life-size bronze statues of the two, which are expected to be installed in front of the Kaleva Norman Dickson Public School in Brethren, where Jones attended in the late 1940s (he graduated in 1949), and where Crouch taught.
The theme of the sculpture is “Mentorship Can Be Life Changing.” The statues are being created by acclaimed Michigan artist/sculptor Bernadette Zachara Marcos of Honor. Her artwork can be viewed at many locations throughout Michigan, including her sculpture of children playing “Ring Around the Rosie,” which is located in both Sterling Heights, and Livonia. The Farmington Hills sculptor who retired to the Honor area with her husband, Randy, studied at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, and also studied folk art in Poland.
The ACA’s goal is to raise $100,000 to build and place the Jones/Crouch bronze statues and $10,000 to be directed to the Ramsdell Regional Center for the Arts to ensure young people have access to plays, art shows and other events.
“I’ve had some good role models who have influenced me in my lifetime,” said Cindy Asiala of the ACA. “However, I believe a mentor is more than a role model. He or she is someone who encourages and pushes me to be the best I can be. That person sees what I’m capable of and believes I can achieve what I may not believe I can do. She is there to praise me when I succeed and isn’t critical if I don’t. It’s often silent encouragement, but I can feel it.
“The mentor isn’t always physically present when I’m attempting a task but the memory of that person is with me. For me, it is my mother, Mary Alice Grossnickle.”
Asiala has been with the Arts and Culture Alliance Board since 2006.
“One of our goals is to place artwork or sculptures in all parts of Manistee County,” she said. “We have helped with a sculpture to honor Robert Rengo, long-serving mayor of Kaleva, we sponsored the sculpture to honor Migrant Workers’ contribution to the area, and now we aim to create bronze sculptures of James Earl Jones and his mentor/teacher, Donald Crouch and place them at KND schools.
“I think of the many times I’ve read and heard James Earl say Mr. Crouch helped him find his voice. I think about James being a poor kid from a small, rural school who was able to speak in public because a teacher believed in him. I think we need to do this project so more people know this story and value their mentors and become mentors themselves.”
Joy Smith, president of the ACA, said their organization is excited “... to offer a sculpture honoring our mentors past and present, headed by the great figure of Mr. Jones, who has become a hero to many of us in America.
“His life story confirms that people who are dealing with a handicap can achieve great things through perseverance and the help of a mentor,” she said. “Mr. Jones has been an inspiration to actors in Manistee County, notably Ms.Toni Trucks (co-star on CBS military drama “SEAL Team”), but surely others as well.
“He inspires those who see him on the screen, as well,” said Smith. “One man I talked with said that when he saw Jones in the role of Thulsa Doom (“Conan the Barbarian”), he was impressed with his air of confidence. He said that seeing that character gave him hope; it was good to know that a man of such strength and mastery existed in the world. This is but one example of the value of Jones’ abilities onscreen.”
As it was with Jones, Marcos said she was inspired early on by a teacher — a mentor — to reach for excellence in the arts.
“In high school, I took this art class and my teacher — she was very kind — recommended I take a class at the Detroit Institute of Arts on a Saturday,” said Marcos. “So I took two buses to get there, and that’s where I made my first head (bust).
And though she would never meet Jones, she did say she’s watched many his movies, with “Field of Dreams” and “Traveling to America” being among her favorites, and she’s read an endless amount of articles about him, as well as studied many of Jones’ pictures from his early life.
She said she “it could be two years, or less, hopefully a year and a half,” to complete the two life-size bronze statues of Jones and Crouch.
Jones, 90, lives in upstate New York. In September, 2006, he returned to the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee to join his 1949 classmates for a class picture, and to recite “Poems I Love to Read” at a benefit performance for the then-planned Dickson School Cultural Center. It was during that return to the place where he grew up and first took center stage, that he talked about his youth, and overcoming his difficulties with speaking.
For his secondary education James Earl traveled 12 miles north to the tranquil hamlet of Brethren to attend Dickson Rural Agricultural Consolidated High School — he would graduate with honors as class vice-president in 1949 — where he gained a love for poetry (Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and Walt Whitman were among his favorites), Shakespeare, history, language, and, thanks to Crouch, where he regained his speech.
“Being a stutterer as a kid, I didn’t realize how important language was until I began to hear great ideas expressed by the people,” Jones said in 2006. “I read great ideas being written by the people. And finally, with the help of my English teacher, I got the courage to confront the public that I had a stuttering and stammering (impediment).”
Challenged by Crouch, Jones began to read poetry aloud, in front of his classmates. The ploy by “The Professor,” as Jones called his teacher, worked. By the time Jones left his high school and moved on to the University of Michigan, he found himself able “to deal with those great ideas, great words.”
Jones joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, and started out in pre-med at the U of M — but eventually changed his studies to U of M’s School of Music, Theatre and Dance, from where he would graduate in 1955. Then, after a stint with the U.S. Army in which he served with a cold weather training command in Colorado, his acting career began to take off with stage appearances from the Ramsdell Theatre in Manistee, to others in New York.
“The Ramsdell opera house is as much of a monument to me as any Greek amphitheater,” said Jones. “And as long as it stands it will represent the artistic world and my early connection to it. I still have some very fond memories of Manistee. In a small town like Manistee, you’re in close contact with people, even people you do not know.”
Jones credited his summer stock appearances at the Manistee Ramsdell Theatre for being important to his early career, especially in 1956 when he cut his acting teeth on Shakespeare’s “Othello.”
“I got the chance to play my first, full production of Shakespeare (in Manistee),” said Jones. “I was God awful! I barely had my lines memorized. In summer stock you have only one week to memorize your script — lot of words to learn. We never got around to how the characters would relate to each other, and that’s a very important part.”
Following a distinguished career in acting spanning more than seven decades — it began in 1950 at the U of M and continues today — the authoritative voice of “Star Wars” arch-villain Darth Vader and Disney’s hero Mufasa in “The Lion King” has amassed a long and legendary list of stage, television and movie credits.
Beginning with his first major motion picture in 1963, “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb,” Jones has appeared in dozens of films, including his breakout starring role in “The Great White Hope” in 1970 that won him international acclaim and an Academy Award nomination for best performance by an actor. The year before he won a Tony Award for his stage presentation of that same character.
A longtime resident of Pawling, New York, a small community located 70 miles north of Manhattan’s famed Broadway Avenue where Jones is no stranger, Jones has won or been nominated for numerous awards over the years, including Drama Desk, Obie, Tony, Golden Globe, Grammy, ACE, National Medal of Arts and more. In 2009 he was presented with the distinguished Screen Actors Guild Lifetime Achievement Award.
Brethren High School — located just a tall tree’s shadow from his old high school that it replaced in 1951 — today has a display case honoring its “Favorite Son,” including a Darth Vader helmet he autographed with the inscription, “May the force be with you.”
The Manistee Public Library has a framed, autographed dust jacket from his autobiography, and the Ramsdell Theatre has a beautiful painting of him in the 1956 summer stock production as “Othello,” when he called himself Todd Jones.
The name of that poem Jones wrote as a teenager — and that Crouch challenged him to read aloud in front of his class that would change his life — was named “Ode’ to a Winter Grapefruit,” and was spoken to the style and rhythm of the poem, “Hiawatha.”
Donations to the Jones/Crouch statue project may be submitted by mailing a check to ACA Treasurer L. Cudney, 19708 Cadillac Hwy., Copemish, MI 49625 or online at allartsmanistee.com.