CONNECTIONS: Stockbridge, America’s hometown

Once upon a time, the Rockwell images were not empty but reflective of what Stockbridge was. In 2015, at the same time that those images were unveiled at the UN, an important meeting was called to order and revealed what the village had become.

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the twenty-first century.

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Please note: Leaders of the United Nations, United Nations Foundation, and Norman Rockwell Museum jointly officiated at the opening of the exhibition We the Peoples: Norman Rockwell’s United Nations on Monday, June 29.

The exhibition organized by the Norman Rockwell Museum, with support from the United Nations Foundation, commemorates the 70th Anniversary of the UN. It features the unpublished, original Rockwell drawing of the United Nations along with over 30 other works. The exhibit will be on view to the public at the United Nations headquarters, New York, N.Y., through September 15, 2015.

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At 6:30 p.m. on Monday evening June 29 thirty minutes before the Stockbridge Board of Selectmen gaveled the meeting to order, the United Nations officially opened the Norman Rockwell exhibit. The juxtaposition is interesting.

Stockbridge belongs to America. Norman Rockwell made it that way. His images are of people and places in Stockbridge and so all Americans, even if they have never been here, “remember” Stockbridge. It is America’s hometown.

Norman Rockwell working on Golden Rule in his South Street, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, studio, 1960. Photo by Bill Scovill
Norman Rockwell working on Golden Rule in his South Street, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, studio, 1960. Photo by Bill Scovill. Norman Rockwell Museum Collections. ©Norman Rockwell Family Agency. All rights reserved.

Norman painted the best about us; the best about our form of government, our family life, ourselves. Stockbridge actually embodied many of those characteristics. In 1913 another man came to Stockbridge and opened a mental health center. Austen Riggs wrote that Stockbridge was part of his treatment plan, that is, the people were so ordinary and decent that he considered walking among them part of his patient’s recovery.

So once upon a time, the Rockwell images were not empty but reflective of what Stockbridge was. In 2015, at the same time that those images were unveiled at the UN, an important meeting was called to order and revealed what the village had become.

The basic facts are simple: the Stockbridge Fire Chief Chuck Cardillo was elected one of three members of the Select Board. Days later he received a letter telling him he must resign as selectman or lose his job. That job was his profession and his livelihood. Without the legal arguments it looks like schoolyard bullying; someone who didn’t like the outcome of an election sought to change it. With the legal arguments it looks like hopeless incompetence on someone’s part. Either way, it was the undoing of an election.

Why was a man made to resign both a post to which he was elected and a job he loved and relied upon? It was the law. Why did two selectmen stand back and let their colleague flounder? They were powerless to do otherwise; it was the law. Why is the town confused and fuming: because the law doesn’t seem to make any sense to anyone on either side.

The law is mutable. There is scant black letter law. Laws are interpreted and argued, upheld, revoked, and amended, then subsequently reaffirmed, reversed, or both in succession. Upper courts disagree with lower courts and judges disagree with one another in the same court. So if the explanation is “the law is the law,” well, it may not satisfy.

Ernest J. Cardillo, at the selectmen's table.
Ernest J. Cardillo, at the selectmen’s table.

With Rockwell’s images of the four freedoms hanging on the wall the meeting was called to order, elected officials and the electorate squared off. Through it all the guy who would go into a burning building to save you or your belongings; the guy at the center of the storm, sat silently looking like a Rockwell model – slightly bemused struggling to get it right with gratitude in his heart for those who supported him. In the village that supplied images of the best we ever were; in the village that lived up to the elements of the American dream, what happened? Did the Fire Chief resign or stand his ground? It doesn’t matter.

I believe now what I said then: “There are a lot of people here so there are probably a lot of different ideas about what a positive outcome would be. Still I think we can all agree on two things: this is not Chuck Cardillo’s problem; it is Stockbridge’s problem, and we would like our three selectmen to pull together to solve it.”

It doesn’t matter what the Fire Chief decided if what matters is preserving the heart of Stockbridge; if what matters is to win through and remain the village that inspired Rockwell and helped heal the patients of Dr. Riggs. To accomplish those only two things were necessary on June 29. One was that the three man governing board, the elected, pulled together to solve the issue for the benefit of the town they served and no one member was isolated. The other was the opposing sides of the electorate treated each other with respect and honored one another as friends and neighbors even as they disagreed on an issue.

Everyone seemed to ask: if Mary Flynn were there, what would she say. I can tell you what she did say to an Ethics Board representative when she was a Selectperson and an issue arose. Miss Mary said, “That may be the law, young man, but it is not the Stockbridge way.”