The Undefeated Eleven


I’ve long been a believer of the “ripple effect” in dealing with people, especially the young people I meet.

The intellectual term is “elevation” which was coined by Jonathan Haidt, a professor at New York University. Haidt believes that witnessing courage, compassion, or generosity can not only make us better people but increase the likelihood we’ll do good works of our own.

I thought of creating good ripples when I came across the yellowed newspaper clipping that was stuck in the back of a book I found in the private library of the grandest estate in town. The clipping had a picture of two coaches and 21 boys wearing football sweaters and leather helmets which must have been miserable in the heat and humidity. It was taken in 1927 just a few blocks from our Old House which was newly built. The headline read “The Undefeated Eleven.”

This team was not playing for the local high school but for the Bartow Boy Scout Troop 1 and they travelled the state of Florida playing against military and junior high school teams. The never lost a game. The coaches were their troop leader: George Watters “Floppy” Mann and E.A. Bosarge who, according to the news report, “guided the boys in their troop in other activities besides football.”

“They taught them ballroom dancing, how to play bridge, and gave them exercises in table manners using silver borrowed from Gen. and Mrs. A.H. Blanding for place settings,” the story reported. “Mann and Bosarge did all the instructing, except for the girls who joined the group for ballroom dancing classes.”

“They took the boys on trips during two summers to Canada, Mexico and Colorado, using their own money plus a charge of $6 to each scout and contributions from interested citizens. The boys travelled in a bus, furnished by Bosarge, and a truck which Mann owned, and camped out at night along the way.

Mann was a success in business and lived in our town until his death in 1974. Bosarge went on to a long and prominent legal career which included arguing cases before the Florida Supreme Court. General A.H. Blanding was appointed Chief of the National Guard Bureau by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1936 and before that as a member of the Florida Board of Regents he helped to build the University of Florida into an academic powerhouse.

One of the boys, G. W. “Buck” Mann, helped guide the citrus and cattle industry for years in Florida. Another, Kelsie Reaves, went on the graduate from West Point, work as a staff officer for Joint Task Force 7 conducting atomic tests at Eniwetok Atoll, command the 14th Infantry 25th Division during the Korean War, serve on the staff of NATO, command the 3rd Armored Division in Germany as well as serve as the Deputy Director, Joint Staff, Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, D.C. during the Vietnam War. He retired as a Major General.

“Elevation seems to have a ripple effect, triggering cognitive, emotional, and behavioral changes,” professor Haidt says. “It makes people more open, more loving, grateful, compassionate, and forgiving.”

I like to think that it was their proficiency with etiquette, their world view influenced by travel in addition to toughness learned on the playing field that helped these boys establish a town, serve their country and lead productive lives. But whatever the reason, the story of these boys and their volunteer leaders from a tiny rural town is a great lesson to all of us that good actions can lead to good ripples.

The Old Man: Burning in the New Year


Traditions are one of the ways we tell ourselves and each other who we are. And if you live in a small town, you know how sometimes even the smallest of traditions can carry enormous weight. New Year’s Eve is when my little southern town in Central Florida carries on what is apparently a unique tradition in America.

The Bartow Christmas tree burning has been going on for 78 years according to some accounts. Even though the pile of trees collected and stacked around a 35 foot-tall wooden pole on the edge of a soccer field seems to get a little smaller each year, the tradition keeps going.

A decade-and-a-half ago, when we came to witness our first tree burning, we stumbled across the bumpy grass in a darkness that was so complete we wanted to stretch our hands out before us. Finally, we recognized the dim shapes of dozens people gathered at the edge of the field. We made our way there, recognizing voices from our church and neighborhood. We found a place to stand just as a pinpoint of light from a flashlight ignited above a small podium a dozen yards away.

The voice of S. L. Frisbie IV, the editor and publisher of our town’s twice-weekly newspaper, welcomed everyone and began to explain what was about to happen. With the soft-round vowels of our local accent and the gentle humor that is his trademark, he told the story of how a city councilman in the 1930s worried about the fire hazard of having tinder-dry Christmas trees inside wood frame houses more than a week past the holiday.

This councilman began a rumor that it is bad luck to have a tree in your house after the First of the Year. Once he convinced his colleagues on the City Council of this superstition, he succeeded in winning the City’s approval to hold a community bonfire with donated Christmas trees from the citizens. The idea quickly won support. Whether they were concerned about luck or just wanted to know that their own tree was part of the celebration, people eagerly contributed their trees to the effort, and a new tradition was born.

The bonfire was interrupted during the Second World War over concerns that Nazi U-boat navigators might spot the glow on the horizon. Once we were free from the thought of Germans peering through periscopes at a small town 60 miles inland, the tradition was renewed, and S.L. says the Associated Press occasionally lists our town’s tree burning as an example of unusual community events in America.

And so, our town’s tradition has also become our family’s tradition. Ever since we first came here, we have stumbled through the dark with children and friends to the join the small crowd at the edge of the soccer field.

We listen to S.L. deliver the same monologue — with the same jokes and same wonderment over such things as New Year superstitions and enemy submarines. Then we join the voices in the dark singing a Scottish tune most of us don’t understand the words to. And then we applaud and cheer as the stack of trees bursts into a golden blaze that climbs high into the sky, driving the night from around us.

In this moment we know the past is burning away, and its glow is helping us to see clearly everyone around us, smiling, laughing, and gazing at the flames. On New Year’s Eve, we’ll be there again, celebrating the past and looking forward to the future.

Happy New Year!