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Neeleman's books on Brazil point up importance of two-nations' ties

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USA Today's front-page feature last week on the 150th anniversary of the arrival in Brazil of the "Confederados" who fled the post-Civil War South to begin new lives there was a reminder of my column on the same topic last July.

But while that Flynn's Harp dealt with the fact there was one place the Confederate Stars and Bars would always be honored, despite the burgeoning outcry against the flag in this country, the column was really about my friend Gary Neeleman's chronicling of the only emigration in U.S. history.

I got some pushback from some readers of that column for the comment that the 40 years of research by Neeleman, and his wife,Rose, through aged documents, old letters and newspaper clippings, had led him to conclude that history, not racial hatred, and pride, not prejudice, were the driving force for those who moved to Brazil.

I suspect USA Today likely has gotten similar pushback for its gentle treatment of the descendants, including kids wearing baseball caps with the Confederate battle flag emblazoned on them, of those 7,000families in the 1866-67 migration,

Neeleman's book, is in the process of being published in Portuguese in Brazil with negotiations under way for a publishing in this country in English.

As Neeleman explains, many of the southerners were from the most prominent families in the South who established in Brazil the cities of Americana and Santa Barbara d'Oeste and whose descendants gather annually at the old cemetery near the cities to celebrate their heritage.

Neeleman's book on the Confederates is actually one of three he has written to bring to light little-known details of Brazil's history. One that deserves broader awareness is the story, unfortunately little-known in this country, that after the Japanese captured the Indonesian rubber fields that represented about 97 percent of the world's rubber production at that time, the U.S. and its allies would have had little chance to win World War II without Brazil.

Rubber Soldiers-the Forgotten Army that a Saved WWII, details how Franklin Roosevelt and Brazilian President Getulio Vargas agreed to send 55,000 tappers into the Amazon Jungle to tap rubber for the war effort and how 26,000 of themdied of jungle illnesses, wild animals, accidents, etc. during the four years of the war. The rubber they harvested was the bridge that won the war.

It would be appropriate, as relations between what Neeleman routinely refers to as "the two giants of the western hemisphere," ebb and flow, if the fact that the U.S. owes a debt to Brazil were part of our historical recollection.

Neeleman laments the lack of awareness of our two nations' ties but points to what he refers to as "a linguistic tomb" because Portuguese is a barrier to entry for those seeking to explore history, with most historians who are seeking Latin American material search the array of Spanish-language nations.

Neeleman, 82, among my closest of friends since we worked together as executives for United Press International in the 1970s, got his Brazilian exposure with UPI as manager there in the mid-1960s. He has been a believer since then of the ties that have existed between what he routinely evangelizes as "the two giants of the western hemisphere."

After he returned with UPI to Salt Lake City, he set up annual trips for college all-star basketball teams, including 1979 national champion Michigan State and its star, Magic Johnson, to play games around Brazil and offer coaching help to local players.

Brazil recognizes his contribution and he has received a series of awards, including most recently being summoned by the Brazilian ambassador to Los Angeles a few days ago to receive the highest award that nation bestows, approved without his knowledge last summer by the National Congress of Brazil.

That award followed his receipt last summer for best non-fiction published in Latin America the prior year. That book, "Tracks in the Amazon," details the construction of a railroad through the jungle, at a cost of thousands of lives, to bring goods from Bolivia, down the Amazon to the coast. The golden spike marking completion, after 45 years, of what was known by various names, such as Devil's Railroad. Ghost Train and Mad Maria, was driven in 1912.

Last September he received an unusual honor as the fourth recipient of an award whose English translation is Citizen of Sao Paulo. Others who preceded him as recipients of the honor named for the State of Sao Paulo were the Pope, the Dalai Lama and the founder of the Mormon Church in Brazil.

Gary and Rose travel to Brazil about three times a year and when they're not traveling on personal or client business, or traveling to the Brazilian back country as part of their research for his books, he's doing Brazil's business as honorary counsel in Salt Lake City.

I kid Neeleman that his most important contribution to Brazil is the fact that he and Rose are the parents of David Neeleman, Jet Blue Airlines founder and now founder and CEO of Azul, the Brazilian carrier that is among the fastest-growing airlines in the world with its expansion and acquisitions.

Referring to Gary and Rose's ability to avoid slowing down (and because of his diminished eyesight it's essential for Rose to keep pace, or maybe sometimes set the pace) son Stephen, an MD and founder of publicly traded HealthEquity, recently told them: "You and mom are sucking the very marrow out of the bones of life." Told of that comment, another son in Brazil added: "And now you're chewing on the bones."

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