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What is liberty?

Americans want to be happy about their country on the Fourth of July. This year, it’s hard to cheer.

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Come Monday, July 4, this is the day Americans want to be happy, the day we want to feel good about the U-S-A.

It is the one day every year we want to celebrate and be thankful to our founding ancestors for two of the most extraordinary human concepts that took root in this land and flourished over the next 244*  years: independence and freedom.

Fifty-six men on July 2, 1776, with astonishing courage, declared with their signatures that the 13 American colonies were henceforth independent from British tyranny and, equally astonishing, that the 2.5 million inhabitants of America were “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights” — life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

They declared the right to live free.

John Adams wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail, that the Declaration of Independence “will be the most memorable epocha in the history of America.” He said the day should be “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other from this time forward forever more.”

Indeed, we should celebrate this historic occasion this coming Monday. We should be joyous, thankful and high-spirited about the miraculous moment that brought forth the most amazing, extraordinary country in the world.

But let’s be honest.

Will we honestly feel good about our nation on its 246th birthday? Will we honestly feel good about our independence and freedom?

Sure, we’ll whoop it up and ooh and aah in parades and under the sights and sounds of the fireworks. We will live that day, or in the moment, happy and thankful for the USA. And perhaps for the day we will block out of our minds that, in truth, we are living in a period of rapidly eroding personal freedoms and increasing tyranny foisted on us by an elite few.

When those 56 Founding Fathers signed the Declaration of Independence, the American people were in a war to stop “a long train of abuses and usurpations” of absolute despotism that inflicted intolerable pain and suffering.

They, along with their patriot colonists, were willing to die for their independence and freedom and determined not to be the slaves of a despotic ruler.

Now look at today, two-and-a-half centuries later. For the past year-and-a-half especially, we have been living under rapidly deteriorating economic and social conditions. If left unchecked or not overturned, they most certainly will take this great country down a path to inevitable destruction and an end to living free and living for ourselves.


Do not laugh or scoff. Read the condensed stories of five Sarasotans who themselves or their families have experienced firsthand the horrors of tyranny, of how governments abruptly confiscated their property, attempted to enslave them and deprived them of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Sadly, too many Americans take liberty for granted. They live day to day exhibiting little to no care about what their governments are doing to them.

As one of those Sarasotans, John Clarke, told us: “These governments might start out with sensible ideas, but very quickly they are taken over by despots.”

Clarke’s comment reminds us of other warnings that we all should heed on this 246th day of the birth of America, independence and freedom:

Ronald Reagan: “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children’s children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.”

Plato: “If you do not take an interest in the affairs of your government, then you are doomed to live under the rule of fools.”

By all means, enjoy the Fourth of July. But on July 5, commit yourself to doing your part to preserve your rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

*We say the U.S. has flourished the past 244 years; the past two it has not.


Personal stories of stolen liberty

In the course of this great job as a newspaper editor, you are afforded the opportunity to meet amazing people. Even better, you get to hear their life stories.

Every one of them is a treasure — rich and fascinating in its unique detail and DNA.

The following five stories fit that mold. They are stories of Sarasotans or their family members who had their property and possessions ruthlessly taken away, confiscated by tyrannical governments; who escaped the clutches of an evil government that wanted them to be slaves; or who witnessed the invasion of foreign forces who destroyed property and liberty in a quest to enslave an entire nation.

Each of these stories is a reminder of how precious and how tenuous liberty is and that it can never be taken for granted. Not even in the United States.


A daring escape from clutches of Communism
Zoltan and son Thomas Modly before Zoltan’s death in 2017. (Courtesy photo)
Zoltan and son Thomas Modly before Zoltan’s death in 2017. (Courtesy photo)

Thomas “Tom” Modly, now a resident of Siesta Key, devoted 20 years of his life in service to his country, the latter half in the highest levels of the Department of Defense.

A Naval Academy graduate with a gift for analytical thinking and leadership, he served as the head of the Defense Business Board, tasked with modernizing the business practices of the DOD. He became the undersecretary of defense for financial management, later served as undersecretary of the Navy as chief operations officer and finally served four months as acting secretary of the Navy.

If you know Modly, you know he is a serious man. His love of country and patriotism run deep. They are traits that seeped into his core through his parents, East European immigrants who hungered to come to the U.S. after their experiences during World War II.

Modly’s mother was orphaned at age 4 and separated from her grandparents for six years during and after the war. Modly’s father, Zoltan, spent the last two years of World War II living in a bomb shelter.

After the war, in 1948, with the Soviet Communists exerting their control in Hungary, they conscripted Zoltan Modly to leave law school and join the Soviet army and Communist Party.

Unwilling to become a Communist, Zoltan Modly traveled to the Hungary-Austria border. To make his escape, he dressed as a nun. After a heart-throbbing passage through the gates, the Communist guards released an attack dog to chase him down. He saved himself by subduing the dog with a cudgel, allowing him to flee to freedom.

Two years later, Zoltan Modly made it to the U.S., sponsored by an aunt and uncle. His first job: a bellboy at a Washington, D.C., hotel.

He went on to become a father of four and a chemical engineer in Cleveland. “After the war,” Modly said, “he was not a big risk taker. He was an introvert. He just wanted to live his life.” In freedom.



They took land 'for the people'

John Clarke is best known in Sarasota as the former CEO and president  of Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, one of three people credited most with bringing the vision of Lakewood Ranch to life.

Now 84, he has been a resident of Sarasota for 30 years. Before then, he spent his youth and his early adult life as a farmer and rancher in Kenya and Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia.

His parents, British natives, had owned a ranch in Kenya since 1937, when the African nation was a colony of the British government. They raised sheep and cattle.

After periods of violence between native black Kenyans and British settlers in the 1950s, Kenya gained independence in 1963. With Clarke age 23 and back from being educated at Cambridge, the Clarkes received a letter from the new government giving them one week to move their livestock and belongings off the property. The government was seizing their land — “for the people,” it said.

They managed to buy another farm in Kenya 80 miles away and began anew.

They rebuilt their operations, big enough to employ 40 African families and operate an on-farm school for the employees’ children. They were raising livestock and producing food that fed people around the region.

Seven years later, it happened again. Another letter. The Kenyan government notified the Clarkes they were converting their land and adjacent farms into a government-owned agricultural cooperative. Declining to participate, the Clarkes sold their farm to the government for a pittance far below market value, laid off the 40 families and shuttered the school.

“It was a horror,” Clarke said.

He remembers visiting the farm years later. The government had destroyed the property’s beautiful cedar forest. Clarke: “It was an utter disaster.”

For a third time, at the beginning of the 1970s, the Clarkes started anew, this time in Rhodesia. Clarke and his wife, Lorna, took on debt financing to purchase a ranch at 8,000 feet altitude. They produced high-quality tobacco leaves, cattle and sheep.

The business grew to employ 50 families and another on-site school for the children. But once again, civil unrest erupted. “I spent more time fighting terrorists than farming,” Clarke said.

By 1977, with four children, the Clarkes saw another Kenyan-like takeover coming. The government wanted to take land and give it to “the people,” African settlers. The Clarkes sold, laid off the farmhands and shuttered the school.

Soon after, the government confiscated the land and handed their former property over to a brigadier general who had three wives. It was payment for his military service.

The Clarkes packed again. This time, they left Africa altogether for the United States. When they left, the government allowed them to take $1,000 of their own money and their personal belongings.

“We don’t talk about it,” Clarke said of his family and their experiences with government confiscations. “But they all know how lucky we are to be here.”


The bloodbath in Havana

In 2016, the ever-gracious and kind-hearted Carol Siegler became so agitated with former President Barack Obama, she felt so compelled — and so out of character for the Sarasota philanthropist — to speak out and speak out loudly.

Obama triggered long dormant emotions in Siegler when he issued an executive order lifting the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

In response, Siegler wrote a 1,600-word open letter to Obama. It was published in the May 19, 2016, editions of the Observer.

Siegler rebuked Obama, calling his order “a reckless” and scolded him, noting that even though he was well intentioned, “unfortunately, you are dealing with ruthless and intransigent operatives. My family and I know about them firsthand.”

Like the John Clarke family in Africa, the Siegler family in Havana experienced the terror of government thugs wantonly invading their home and confiscating their family business, property and wealth.

Seigler’s father, Charles Shapiro, a New Yorker, was a business owner in Havana for nearly 30 years before Fidel Castro arrived in Cuba in 1953. Shapiro was the first person to open a textile factory in Cuba and later became the owner of the oldest and largest department store in Havana.

But Siegler recalled how shortly after Castro ousted Fulgencio Batista on Dec. 31, 1958, the revolution to liberate the Cuban people “became a bloodbath.” Its terror included the Shapiro home. In her letter, Siegler wrote:

“My parents, Charles and Wilma Shapiro, resided outside of Havana at the time of the revolution. They had hired Castro soldiers to guard their home when it was obvious that a regime change was coming.

“One early evening, the guards did not appear, and at sunset, several armed soldiers invaded my parents’ home looking for money.

“My father, who had accepted Castro as the reformer for the Cuban people, suddenly saw the revolution for what it really was and decided to take steps to protect the family. He withdrew money from his bank and within hours distributed the money among his trustworthy Rotarian friends.

“Without a doubt, someone at the bank shared this information, prompting this invasion of my parents’ home. Among the intruders was a Czechoslovakian soldier. His accent was identifiable. No doubt, the Russian presence was already actively there.

“Everyone in the house was terrorized. My father was hit with a bayonet across the eyes. My mother was disrobed by force and suffered multiple injuries.”

In 1960, 40 years after Siegler’s father arrived in Havana and at age 65, Charles and Wilma Shapiro “left Cuba under duress with the shirts on their back and nothing to show for their years of hard work on the island.”


Frantic dash to freedom
Javier Dubrocq’s self-portrait (Courtesy photo)
Javier Dubrocq’s self-portrait (Courtesy photo)

This is another story about Cuba. But this one is about a dancer whose hunger for freedom compelled him to make a split decision at an airport and run for his life — to escape a life of government-imposed misery for a life of liberty.

Javier Dubrocq is now an accomplished artist living in Sarasota, with collectors of his works around the U.S., Mexico, Argentina and Spain. He and his wife, Isabel, a Mexico native, have lived in Sarasota for 25 years and have three grown sons, all born and raised in Sarasota.

Dubrocq, the youngest of four from a struggling Cuban family, said he cannot believe and is effusively grateful that he is living the life he dreamed about growing up in the destitute environs of Cuba.

Talk to Dubrocq about his youth, and he will tell you: “In Cuba, when you wake up, every day is a struggle to find anything to survive.”

Dubrocq was born to be free. He remembers always resisting going along and having a constant burning inside for freedom and a better life. He refused to go to the government military school his brothers attended because of its strict rules and government propaganda.

His mother lived in fear because “I had a big mouth,” Dubrocq said. He always complained about their restricted, poor life. “The neighbors would hear me, and my mother would say, ‘You know I’m going to die because of you.’”

At age 15, after Castro boycotted the Los Angeles Olympics, Dubrocq’s gymnastics career ended. The Cuban National Ballet recruited him. He excelled at dance.

But his feistiness and outspokenness worried the authorities. When a friend abroad sent him a copy of the American dance movie “White Nights,” he showed it to his dance colleagues. His instructors confiscated it and accused Dubrocq of brainwashing his fellow dancers.

Dubrocq’s talent catapulted him to be among the Cuban dancers who would travel the world performing as guest artists. In one trip, Dubrocq caught the eye of Anne Marie DeAngelo, artistic director of Ballet de Monterrey in Mexico. She wanted him in her company.

In December 1992, Dubrocq traveled to Mexico City with five other Cuban National Ballet dancers to perform for the ex-president of Mexico.

DeAngelo called Dubrocq and asked him to join her company. In turn, Dubrocq called Cuban authorities for permission. But they told him to return to Cuba to fill out the proper paperwork. Dubrocq knew what that meant. They would not let him go.

On Sunday afternoon, when the dancers went to the Mexico City airport for the flight home, one of the female dancers was missing. Unbeknown to her Cuban chaperones, she had spent the night not at the hotel with the other dancers but with her father who was visiting in Mexico City. As departure time neared, the chaperones fretted over her absence.

She finally arrived. Worried about defections, the chaperones began screaming at her.

At that moment, with everyone’s  attention focused on the young woman, Dubrocq made an instant  decision. He began running, dodging people, jumping over chairs, racing for a set of doors to get him outside.

He jumped into a taxicab. “I turned around,” he said. “The last image I saw was two guys running after me.”

He defected.

With only a shoulder bag with ballet shoes, ballet clothes and his passport, Dubrocq spent the rest of the day in a cafe, called DeAngelo and made it to Monterrey.

Free at last.

Footnote: Dubrocq’s mother and siblings now live in the U.S. His father is deceased.


Ukrainians show value of liberty
Lilly and Nolan Peterson (Courtesy photo)
Lilly and Nolan Peterson (Courtesy photo)

Nolan Peterson, graduate of Pine View and the U.S. Air Force Academy and an Iraq-Afghanistan veteran, has spent the past eight years as a war correspondent in Ukraine.

This past Sunday, a Russian cruise missile exploding nearby awakened Peterson and shook the walls of his and wife’s apartment in Kyiv. He was unscathed — as was his wife, Lilly, whom Peterson relocated to safety in France last February.

As a writer of the first draft of this history, Peterson has seen horrendous atrocities and destruction the Russians have inflicted on the Ukrainian people. He described the outskirts of Kyiv as “Warsaw in 1945.”

“It’s hard to understand where that brutality and barbarism comes from,” he told us this week.

Despite the savagery, Peterson nonetheless continues to be awestruck at the resolve of the Ukrainians and the value they place on preserving their freedom.

Every last Ukrainian still in the country is involved in the war.

“It’s so amazing,” he said. “Even the millennials. … They are so willing to pick up a gun and stare down a tank because they want to be free.”

Whenever Vladimir Putin  increases the bombings, Peterson said: “It doesn’t work. It just pisses (the Ukrainians) off and hardens their resolve. They have this core ideal that they have the right to make their own decisions. It’s so emotional to them.”

Peterson said watching the Ukrainians is “inspiring and upsetting at the same time.” Inspiring to see their “will to fight and commitment to democracy.” Upsetting to see what they are enduring.

From his vantage point, Peterson believes the outcome is going to come down to a difficult decision for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy: Make a concession to Putin or keep fighting, knowing the cost will be high.

“They are not going to surrender,” Peterson said of the Ukrainian people. “They will fight with sticks and stones if they have to.”

For his fellow Americans, Peterson said the Ukraine war is a reminder: “We can’t assume freedom will last forever. There are always dark places out there. To maintain freedom, you have to keep working at it. You have to be ready to defend it.”



Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is the CEO and founder of Observer Media Group.

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