City honors hidden historic figure

BUCKHANNON — What is the difference between once well-known people who disappear from the annals of history and famous individuals whose legacies last lifetimes?

According to Buckhannon city councilman and Create Buckhannon president CJ Rylands, having a story to tell is the key factor that can make — or break — a person’s imprint on collective historical memory.

On Monday afternoon, mayor David McCauley and city council hosted a special ceremony to celebrate the life and works of late president Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s official documentarian — Leonard MacTaggart “Pare” Lorentz.

“Having a story to tell makes a difference,” Rylands told the group of city officials and local arts enthusiasts who had gathered outside the old Colonial Theatre. They were there for the unveiling of another plaque on the outside of the theater — currently undergoing restoration — which details the life of Lorentz, who lived in Buckhannon, attended West Virginia Wesleyan College and died March 4, 1992 at age 86 in Armonk, N.Y.

“Learning the stories of this town and its citizens connects us all, and the strength of a community is directly proportional to the strength of the connections between its citizens,” Rylands continued. “The most important thing you can do for your community may be the simplest thing of all: develop a strong community narrative, research, document and tell your stories.”

So what is Pare Lorentz’s story?

According to McCauley, he is likely the most celebrated person to ever live in Buckhannon, although he frequently goes unacknowledged.

“He seems to be mostly overlooked locally, dare I say slighted,” McCauley said. “Our city intends to right that wrong, and we are starting to day with this dedication at our beloved and continuing to be renovated Colonial Theatre.”

Lorentz, who died 26 years ago, was born in Clarksburg, W.Va., but moved to Buckhannon when he was just a child, later graduating from Buckhannon High School. Lorentz also took violin lessons at West Virginia Wesleyan College at the age of 11 and went on to take a variety of American government courses from the college from 1921-1923, despite never graduating.

“Pare Lorentz wrote the first recounting about Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s presidency (‘The Roosevelt Year’ of 1933) capturing the glory of the first year as president and ultimately became FDR’s documentarian filmmaker and may be thought of as the Steven Spielberg of his time,” McCauley said. “Lorentz was a contributing writer for some of the most prolific newspapers and magazines of his time — ‘The New York Evening Journal,’ ‘The Washington Post,’ ‘Vanity Fair,’ ‘Town & Country,’ ‘McCall’s’ and ‘The New Yorker.’

“His documentaries, ‘The Plow that Broke the Plain,’ ‘The River,’ ‘The City,’ ‘The Land’ and ‘Rural Co-op’ are among the most famous works in film history,” McCauley continued. “He is the reason that the U.S. Film Service was established.”

According to the newly installed plaque, Lorentz believed movies held transformative power in that they could educate viewers and promote social justice. One of his major projects, “The Fight for Life,” for instance, explored infant and maternal mortality in the U.S.

The plaque also states that following the end of World War II, the War Department commissioned Lorentz to create a film version of the Nuremberg Trials, “for which he spent years editing more than a million hours of harrowing footage of Nazi atrocities, propaganda footage and footage of the trials themselves.” His efforts resulted in the production of “Nuremberg: Its Lesson for Today,” which become popular in several European countries, but was not shown in the U.S. until 1979.

In his later life, Lorentz collaborated with environmentalist Rachel Carson to write the Democratic National Committee’s platform on pollution and continued to serve as a film consultant and teach at several universities and colleges.

Wesleyan honored Lorentz with a Doctor of Letters in 1972, and West Virginia University awarded him with a Doctor of Humanities in 1978. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award posthumously in 1990 from the W.Va. Division of Culture and History, according to the plaque.

Shortly before ART26201 member Lisa Wharton and Buckhannon Community Theatre president Erika Klie Kolenich unveiled the plaque, McCauley said the best way to commemorate Lorentz is to encourage youth to explore the arts by contributing to the Colonial Theatre restoration project or volunteering at the Stockert Youth Center.

“There are more Pare Lorentzes out there waiting to be duly inspired,” the mayor concluded. “Long live the legend of Pare Lorentz.”


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