A Sort-of Movie Review on Ken Burns’ ‘The National Parks’ — With a Touch of Humility

September 3, 2009
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Director Ken Burns

Director Ken Burns

It being the start of football season, I can’t resist this story:

Frank Szymanski, a Notre Dame center in the 1940s was called as a witness in a civil case. He answered a series of questions.

“Son, are you on the Notre Dame football team this year?”

“Yes, your honor.”

“What position?”

“Center, your honor.”

“How good a center are you?”

Szymanski squirmed in his seat, but said firmly, “Sir, I’m the best center Notre Dame has ever had.”

Coach Frank Leahy, who was in the courtroom, was surprised. His player had always been modest and unassuming. So when the proceedings were over, he pulled Szymanski aside and asked why he had made such a statement.

Szymanski blushed. “I hated to do it, coach. But after all, I was under oath.”

Szymanski had humility. Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less.  Had Szymanski not been under oath, I’m sure his coach would have never heard his boast.

Humility has always been a key part of the American character, going back to our nation’s roots.

At the end of the Revolutionary War, some of Washington’s officers suggested that the Continental Army should take over the country and make him the first King of America. Washington flatly rejected the offer, resigned his commission and rode off to his home in Mount Vernon. The notion that anyone could refuse such power shocked Britain’s King George III. “If this is true,” the king said, “then he is the greatest man of the age.”

There have been many great humble Americans in more recent times, too. Hewlett Packard co-founder Bill Packard lived in the same simply furnished house, with its tiny kitchen and dated linoleum for decades. The self-effacing electronics leader didn’t need any symbols to show he was a billionaire, leaving his $5.6 billion estate to his foundation.

Dr. Norman Shumway

Dr. Norman Shumway

Or how about Norman Shumway, the first human being to perform a heart lung transplant. On his memorial website, a nurse recalled how the famed surgeon had “brought in a lawn chair and stayed there with me until morning” to monitor four pediatric heart patients. “I had no clue who he was,” she added, “and I did not care because he clearly cared about those kids and about me.”

Then there’s the equally obscure Maurice Hilleman. In his life, he and his team created more than 40 human and animal vaccines credited with saving millions of lives. He is the inventor of more than 40 vaccines, including those that prevent measles, mumps, rubella, Haemophilus influenzae type b, hepatitis A, hepatitis B and chickenpox. How did he regard his staggering achievement? “Looking back on one’s life,” he recalled, “you say, ‘Gee, what have I done? Have I done enough for the world to justify having been here?’ That’s a big worry – to people from Montana, at least.”

Maurice Hilleman

Maurice Hilleman

Lately, or not so lately, America has begun to lose its humility. We celebrate people for simply being famous. Instead of celebrating humility, we celebrate humiliation. (Jon and Kate, Paris Hilton, Donald Trump, the list has grown far too long and it’s getting longer.)

So, thank God, for Ken Burns who arrives in the nick of time later this month (Sept. 27 through Oct. 2) to bring us his long-awaited “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” In the series, he celebrates not only our precious lands but also the male and female stewards of these lands who are repaid in glorious sunsets and sunrises rather than in eye-popping salaries for doing or knowing nothing or appearing on a reality show.

It’s no secret of course, the series is on PBS, and that Burns doesn’t brook America’s low historical IQ very well. Not long ago, Burns wrote: “Nothing could be more dangerous to our future than this arrogance, brought on and amplified as it is by a complete lack of historical awareness among us, and further reinforced by a modern media, cloaked in democratic slogans, but dedicated to the most stultifying kind of consumer existence, convincing us to worship gods of commerce and money and selfish advancement above all else.”

So tune and enjoy this instant American classic and remember that Burns is great not because he stands in front of the camera, which seems to be America’s great obsession in the YouTube age, but because he stands behind it.


Part of humility is being able to tell a good story about yourself, even if at the risk of revealing some of your faults. Here’s the story Mickey Mantle, the great Yankee slugger and night club-hopping bad boy of the 1950s, told on himself:

He pictured himself at the pearly gates, met by St. Peter who shook his head and said, “Mick, we checked the record. We know what went on. Sorry, but we can’t let you in. But before you go, God wants to know if you could sign six dozen baseballs.”

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