Challenge of the Ages

When my grandfather Norman T. Finlayson was born, his hometown of Dundas, Ontario, did not yet have electric lighting. In fact, the notion of electrifying a city, let alone homes, was brand new.  In the eighth grade, my grandfather stopped his formal education school, so he could get

Norman T. Finlayson far left with a Bertram-Nordberg display. circa 1955

a job at a machine shop. He started as the janitor. Nearly 70 years later, he retired from that same company, as one of its directors and Senior Vice President. The company had become the largest engineering tool and die company at that time in Canada Bertram-Nordberg.


I mention this out of pride, but also to exemplify what the dreams and ambitions were for a young man during the industrial revolution. His eldest son, my father Lorne D. Finlayson, became the first person in the family to go to university. When he was born, automobiles were a rare novelty and only with my father’s

Lorne on the right in 1935 working on a micro-qualitative set.

impending birth was a telephone installed in my grandfather’s house. My father got his education in chemistry, math and physics. He was a child in the age of science. In his life time, he was a plant manager, professor, an engineer and an extremely well-read man.


Growing up, I was often in the company of both these men. Their inquisitive natures rubbed off on me and more than a few of their character traits were absorbed. One of the lessons that I learned was passion for a vision. My grandfather saw everything as a function of machinery, industry. My father picked up that belief and applied his science. Everything could be explained either by chemistry, mathematics or physics.


My two older brothers went into engineering, further following the path that had been set out for us, and while I was intrigued by what they did, it was apparent from the outset that I was not cut of the same cloth.


I was nine years old when my parents married, and while my mother and I had lived at substance levels, we had a television. My father to be, while not rich, lived well,  certainly enjoyed a life style befitting his position as director of glass operations at Ford Motor Company.  Yet his household, had never had a television. There was much discussion on this difference as their union approached. My father thought it the great sin, calling the object of his disdain the idiot box, and my mother saw it as the only way to keep me quiet. When my father’s sensible compromise was eventually reached, I was allowed 1 hour of my choice of shows each night, assuming my homework was done.


What we quickly discovered however was that my father was a news junkie. And watching the nightly news sated some of his interest. So every night, aside from my allotted time, we watched the national news. And just as this habit was forming, the presidential race of 1960 went underway.

Now I was a child, so the meaning of what was being said by the candidates was certainly beyond my comprehension. But as I was already an avid reader, with a pretty good memory, words and phrases began to be planted in my head. There was a tonal reference that I have since ascribed to phrases such as:

John F. Kennedy


The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of the nation, is close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test to the quality of a nation’s civilization.

― John F. Kennedy


Part of the message that Kennedy was espousing at the time, which he later expanded to:


I look forward to an America which will reward achievement in the arts as we reward achievement in business or statecraft. I look forward to an America which will steadily raise the standards of artistic accomplishment and which will steadily enlarge cultural opportunities for all of our citizens. And i look forward to an America which commands respect throughout the world not only for its strength but for its civilization as well.


These were not messages that spoke to my consciousness, but they were words that infused my young mind with ideas. Arts, culture, creativity… my formative years were filled with words and ideas that I would not comprehend until a much later date. I was growing up at a time when art was introduced not as something to admire from afar but was a vehicle for contribution to the culture. And not just by the elite, but for the population at large.


In 1961, there were 23 of what are now called regional theaters throughout America. By 2003, that number had grown to 1,800. Along with this growth, there are the thousands of civic theatres, community theatres, church theatre groups, intimate theatre, the list goes on.


Why is this significant beyond the sheer numbers? Because theatre is a comprehensive collaborative art. It is a common point of practical demonstration of virtually the entire scope of creative effort. There is not a single art form that is not able to be incorporated and “displayed” through theatrical production. From the ethereal – writing, composing conceiving, to the practical – painting and building, to the performing, and theatre encompasses it all.


In 1961, this hub of artistic collaboration was relegated to very few opportunities. By 2003, it was possible to find some theatrical effort even in the smallest of hamlets in America.


In that light, we begin to see that the seeds that JFK had planted, had moved beyond vision, and into the fabric of American culture. The age of American Arts was born.

In 1962, Kennedy said,


I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit.


For millennia, humanity moved from hunters and gathers to an agricultural society. The primary function of the human race was to sustain itself; food, shelter, promulgation. And while there have always been occurrences of humankind genius in innovation and arts, survival was the dominant force.

Plow iron age to Eckert, vintage engraved illustration. Industrial encyclopedia E.-O. Lami – 1875.


In 1800, 83% of the US population worked in agriculture. By 1910, that number had dropped to 31%, and by 2012, less than 2% of Americans were involved in Agriculture.


In the process of that transformation, the United States of America went from being a backwater country, to the most dominant nation in the world. Most of that can be attributed to the refocus of effort. As the pool of talent grew for efforts beyond growing food, the genius of mankind was freed to more creative effort.


Industrialization and convenience were the earmarks of the 20th century. Sadly, much of that was fueled by two world encompassing wars, but genius was engaged none the less.  Kennedy recognized that and in perhaps one of his most incitefull moments said;


This country cannot afford to be materially rich and spiritually poor.


Later in an interview for Look Magazine, JFK said, in regard to goals.


… To further the appreciation of culture among all the people. To increase respect for the creative individual, to widen participation by all the processes and fulfillments of art — this is one of the fascinating challenges of these days.


Was this a clarion call to arts participation, or was it a look into the crystal ball seeing the better part of humanity prevailing? Less than a month before his death, he said;


I look forward to an America which will not be afraid of grace and beauty.


Thus, with incomprehensible words in my head, the tragedy of an assassination on my heart, I along with many of my generation embraced the quest that had been laid out for us.


That quest continues to this day, now embraced by our children and their children. We have long forgotten the idealism of Camelot, but the fundamental truth that JFK envisioned was that we were more to America than a society collected together for survival. We innately have sparks of genius, and the role of society is to best tap into that creativity.  FL

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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