Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine

JUNE 1997

P U B L I C    P O L I C Y &    &    I N T E R N A T I O N A L    A F F A I R S

Memories of World War II... moving forward with public tv... needle exchange programs under scrutiny

So that history might not vanish
A hint as to why novelist Robert Kotlowitz '47 decided to write Before Their Time (Alfred A. Knopf, 1997), a memoir of his combat service in the Second World War, can be found on p. 192 of the book. Kotlowitz is visiting Bern Keaton, possibly his only surviving buddy from the war. It is the 50th anniversary of V-E Day, in 1995, and they have not seen each other since the war.

Kotlowitz writes, "At one point, moving on to other matters for the moment, I mentioned to him that I had just read somewhere that more than half the personnel who served in the U.S. Armed Forces during World War II were already dead, a half-century after the war. This seemed an astonishing statistic to me, hardly possible to accept, in fact, one that somehow carried an important warning, or omen, as though history itself--Bern's history, my history--might begin to vanish with this lethal roll call."

That will not happen now. Before Their Time is a concise, poignant account of Kotlowitz's military service, from basic training to the aftermath of the author's horrifying experience of combat at Bezange-la-petite, France. For a long time, the former managing editor of Harper's Magazine kept his memories of the war "tamped down." When he moved to New York in the early 1950s, he thought about writing a novel about the war. "But all those big, macho novels by Mailer and James Jones were being published, and I wasn't about to compete with that. So I just sort of let it ride over the years. But if we don't tell our own stories, no one else will. It was just to nail this stuff down before we all go."

Kotlowitz concedes in his book that he was no hero. In 1943, he was a pre-med student at Hopkins, mostly to avoid the draft. But his grades were so lousy, the Army drafted him anyway, figuring he wasn't going to become a doctor anytime soon. He recalls, "I had gone through the Baltimore public schools and I wasn't prepared for the European style university like Johns Hopkins."

He writes about his many fears as he goes through basic training, and his embarrassment at being afraid, there and in Europe. "Once I knew I was going to be in the infantry, that I was going overseas, and that I was going to be in combat, I knew that my future was really going to be problematic," he says. "Then I really got scared. I had grown up thinking like everybody else: God, that can't happen to me.... And then suddenly, at 18, I was beginning to understand that the worst really could happen to me, and probably would. I was scared all the time. I got a letter from somebody who served in another division but went through an experience something like mine. He said, 'I was not only afraid, I was sick with fear all the time.' That was the truth."

In France, Kotlowitz takes part in just one battle, an engagement so small it only shows up in the most detailed of regimental histories. But in that single battle, that one day of combat, nearly everybody Kotlowitz knows is killed in a futile, and probably ill-conceived, assault on a German position called the Horseshoe. He is, so far as he knows, the only member of this unit who was not wounded. He survived snipers by playing dead for an entire day, until the German troops pulled back and American medics appeared to save whomever they could save.

By the time you reach this section of the book, Kotlowitz has crafted vivid portrayals of the ordinary soldiers who fight this obscure little battle: feisty Lt. Francis J. Gallagher, who doesn't bother to hide his scorn for the slow-witted Capt. Michael Antonovich; hapless, overweight, erudite Ira Fedderman; Rocky Hubbell, the squad leader who is prone to mysterious disappearances; Paul Willis, the scout with the peculiar habit of stealing underwear from the other troops. These are not guys who get movies made about their exploits. These are plain and simple G.I.s: young, scared, brave, homesick, competent one moment and stumblejohns the next, unsung until now. For a writer, they are a fine cast of characters. "Every squad has good characters," Kotlowitz says. "They weren't all people I admired or liked, but God knows they were as real as real could be."

Much of Before Their Time is about memory. "That's true, but it was not a conscious effort that way," Kotlowitz says. "I tend to do things behind my own back. I have an intense memory, and I remember a lot of my life. But you have to remember that more is forgotten than is in this book. There's a lot that's not there. It's just gone.

"I had a friend call me and say, 'The thing I liked best about your book was the fact that it was seen through the eyes of an 18- or 19-year-old, until the last chapter, when the voice became yours of today.' I knew as soon as he said this that it was absolutely true."

He adds, "I get phone calls from veterans, and they follow a pattern. They are very hesitant and shy, and suddenly they start talking about their war experiences. And I realize, they haven't talked about it in 50 years, either! They go on for 45 minutes and it's amazing, it's wonderful." --DK

An "exciting time" for public television
Some people believe public television is in a downward spiral from which there is no return. Congress is slashing its funding to practically nothing, and cable stations are so profuse--and their programming so diverse--that it seems even Barney might not be able to compete. So you'd think that an offer to head Maryland Public Television (MPT) during these tough times wouldn't be terribly appealing. But David Nevins (MS '77) leaped at the chance.

Nevins (left) believes there will always be parents who want their children to watch educational, commercial-free television.
"This is a very exciting time for public television. None of us here is concerned about whether or not we'll be around. We're not going anywhere except forward," says the upbeat Nevins, who is now into his second year (of a five-year gubernatorial appointment) as MPT's chairman. He juggles the demands of the non-paid position with those of his full-time job as president of Nevins & Associates, his own marketing and public relations firm located in Owings Mills, Maryland, near the MPT headquarters.

Children's programming has always been the strongest part of MPT's lineup, and Nevins believes shows like Sesame Street and The Magic Schoolbus will continue to draw a strong viewership from the kindercrowd. That's because, he contends, there's always going to be an audience of parents who want their young children to watch educational TV that is free of commercials. "I'm still amazed at how public television captured my daughter's attention in a positive way, as a teaching tool," he says.

Nevins is also staving off the competition from cable by playing on one of MPT's greatest strengths: its local flavor. Already he's launched a new program on sailing, Boatworks, that takes advantage of the proximity of the Chesapeake Bay. And plans are in the works for electronic town meetings on "hot issues of the day," as well as a nightly news program that will be completely Maryland-focused. It will deal with current events in the area and provide "intense coverage" of Maryland's arts and cultural scene, Nevins says.

Wooing new viewers--and keeping current ones--will be ever more important in the face of declining congressional funding, Nevins says. Federal contributions to MPT's $30 million budget have dropped 5 to 10 percent over each of the past several years--and that's a trend Nevins expects to see continue. "We don't plan to make MPT smaller as a result," he says. "Instead, we're going to make the organization more entrepreneurial."

Using contacts he's developed in both the nonprofit and corporate worlds, he is forming "strategic alliances" with such organizations as The National Geographic Society, Discovery Communications (which operates The Discovery Channel), The Baltimore Ravens, and Bell Atlantic. The idea is to get these groups--and other corporations and foundations--to underwrite the cost of programming.

Of course, the most visible form of fundraising takes place right on the air, in the quarterly drives to attract contributions from viewers. The figures here have been good of late, Nevins says. The most recent winter drive brought in just under $1 million--a 20 percent increase over the preceding fall drive.

"We want MPT not just to survive, but to thrive well into the 21st century," Nevins says. "To do that, you have to reach out to the community." --HB

Discarded needles not a problem
On seven different occasions between August 1994 and August 1996, trios of researchers fanned out across a 32-block area in East Baltimore, their eyes trained on the ground. They were searching for--and counting--drug vials, bottles, and needles in an effort to answer an important question that has surrounded needle exchange programs in high drug use areas: namely, do they lead to more discarded needles?

"One major objection to these programs is the fear that they will increase the number of potentially infectious needles discarded in the streets or gutters," says Meg Doherty (MPH '92), a School of Public Health doctoral candidate who helped design the study and served on one of the three survey teams. "Another objection is that they might draw a greater number of injection drug users to a specific area of the city, thus potentially shifting the location of discarded needles."

The research teams performed their search-and-count missions once before a mobile van began regularly dispensing needles to drug users, one month after the program began, and then again at regular intervals over the two-year period. The teams were careful to return to the same blocks on the same days of the week in order to avoid bias in their observations, explains Doherty, who is now a first-year medical student at Harvard Medical School.

They found no significant increase in the number of discarded needles, and no significant shift in where discarded needles were found, Doherty reported at a recent meeting of the American Public Health Association and in the April 15 American Journal of Epidemiology.

Drug users can't get new needles from the mobile vans without returning their used ones, Doherty notes. Of the 25,713 needles distributed during the first two months of the program, 97.2 percent were returned.

Says Doherty,"Public health planners should feel confident in implementing needle exchange programs without fear of putting other members of the community at risk of infectious disease." --SD

Written by Heather Byer (MA'96), Sue De Pasquale, and Dale Keiger.