Thanksgiving with `Uncle Toby'

AS a rule, gubernatorial proclamations have a short life and, at best, a modest readership. But in Connecticut, and perhaps elsewhere, the approach of Thanksgiving Day in 1986 reinforces the contention that the 1936 Thanksgiving Day proclamation of the late Gov. Wilbur L. Cross is indeed an enduring work of literature and a noteworthy exception to the rule. The proclamation issued by the scholarly governor that year acquires increasing renown because editors of newspapers and magazines tend to reprint it in celebration of the autumnal feast, often in place of ones released by governors in office.

As a matter of fact, one Connecticut governor, James L. McConaughy, formally reissued it in 1947, with Governor Cross's permission, instead of writing one of his own. Today, a half-century later, the Cross proclamation, with its poetic phrasing and striking imagery, is quite as moving, and as applicable, as it was on the day it was written. Governor Cross managed to convey his memorable message in a single paragraph consisting of two sentences. It read:

Time out of mind at this turn of the seasons when the hardy oak leaves rustle in the wind and the frost gives a tang to the air and the dusk falls early and the friendly evenings lengthen under the heel of Orion, it has seemed good to our people to join together in praising the Creator and Preserver, who has brought us by a way that we did not know to the end of another year. In observance of this custom, I appoint Thursday, the twenty-sixth of November, as a day of public thanksgiving for the blessings that have been our common lot and have placed our beloved state with the favored regions of earth for all the creature comforts: the yield of the soil that has fed us and the richer yield from labor of every kind that has sustained our lives -- and for all those things, as dear as breath to the body, that quicken man's faith in his manhood, that nourish and strengthen his spirit to do the great work still before him: for the brotherly word and act; for honor held above price; for steadfast courage and zeal in the long, long search after truth; for liberty and for justice freely granted by each to his fellow and so as freely enjoyed; and for the crowning glory and mercy of peace upon our land; -- that we may humbly take heart of these blessings as we gather once again with solemn and festive rites to keep our Harvest Home.''

For Governor Cross the writing of proclamations was, undoubtedly, a literary exercise which he thoroughly enjoyed. Although he claimed to be the state's first ``full time'' governor, at a salary of approximately $5,000 per year, there were sufficient lapses in the demands on his time so that he could, when the spirit moved him, as it often did, devote time to the composition of proclamations or other public statements. Virtually all other governors, most of them will admit, assign the chore to an anonymous writer to whose literary efforts the governor is willing to sign his name.

Before Wilbur L. Cross's election to the governor's office at the age of 68, he had been a professor of English at Yale, dean of its graduate school, and the author of a number of eminent literary works including ``The Development of the English Novel'' and ``History of Henry Fielding.'' A good-humored man, he was fondly known as ``Uncle Toby'' to his students and, later, to his constituents.

Governor Cross's proclamation in that depression year of 1936 struck a responsive chord. It was read in hundreds of churches and published in virtually every paper in the state. Alexander Woollcott, a promiment literary figure of that day, read it to the nation on his radio show. There wasn't, however, 100 percent approval. Governor Cross revealed in his autobiography that one constituent wrote to complain that the proclamation lacked a ``confession of sins on the part of the governor and the legislators...'' and that the governor ``could not face reality'' because he had left out references to a disastrous flood and labor disputes.

Otherwise, reaction was generally favorable. Some people wrote, the governor reported, to inquire about the source of his phrase ``heel of Orion,'' wondering if, perhaps, he had found it in Shakespeare, Milton, or the Bible. Cross replied that credit for ``heel of Orion'' belonged to Helen McAfee, a former colleague on the Yale Review, who, as far as he knew, had coined the phrase herself.

Governor Cross, a Democrat, served four terms in office but was defeated in 1938 by the Republican candidate, Raymond E. Baldwin. Cross loved his role as governor, even the almost compulsory tours of the banquet circuit during campaigns. He was a convivial and witty man and could usually come up with a story or anecdote that would appeal to whatever group he was addressing. Talking to an audience of insurance executives one night, for example, he pointed out that he knew very little about insurance. ``In fact,'' said the governor, ``to show you how little I know about insurance I will tell you that once when I was a young man there was a fire in my apartment -- and I put it out.''

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