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Si Howard

This Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Not everyone can be Uncle Sam. It takes a man the right size. Around Rock Island, Cy Howard was that man. Even before he donned his top hat, dressed up in a red white and blue uniform, and began appearing in local parades pointing his finger at the crowds, people mistook him for Uncle Sam. His lank frame, gaunt face and white goatee gave him away.

Cy began actually dressing up as Uncle Sam in the early 1970s. He was a favorite at Veterans' Hospitals. Cy was upset that so few Americans bothered to vote and was proud of the waves of patriotism his visits stirred up.

There were those along the parade routes who assumed that Cy Howard was an actor dressed up in a costume, playing a part. They did not know Cy Howard. Cy was born in 1933 in a small town near Birmingham, Alabama. His father was a sharecropper. Each summer, the whole family followed the harvests north as migrant workers, picking tomatoes in Indiana, apples and cherries in Michigan.

When World War II began, Cy's father was running a small sawmill in Alabama. Lumber production was critical to the war effort and meeting a government-imposed quota of lumber allowed him a draft deferment. When he refused to fire a black worker at his mill, his supply of logs dried up, and he was drafted and spent two years in the South Pacific.

Cy never forgot his father's expensive refusal to commit an injustice. "An affirmation of the dignity of all persons is what Uncle Sam is all about," he would later say.

Cy Howard followed in his father's footsteps. He enlisted in the Marines, risked his life testing the effects of atomic bombs on troops before being sent to Korea. He returned to Rock Island where he spent thirty-six years working at John Deere.

Appearing in parades as Uncle Sam was a way of giving something back to a country that had allowed him what he called a fortunate life. Cy Howard died unexpectedly in the spring of 1996. He was buried in his Uncle Sam uniform, an appropriate gesture for a man who fit the uniform so well: inside as well as outside.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.