“You have never met a character like me.”
Part showmanship, part satisfaction guarantee; this is how the Reverend Joseph B. Head, the Liberty Bell minister, introduces himself. Between 1975 and 1985, Head’s roadshow would bring four different full-size Liberty Bell replicas to over a million children at more than 900 schools in 36 states.
November 22, 1980: Reverend Head and his wife, Leona May, carefully pull their camper, festooned with patriotic quotes, into the combination parking lot and playground of the Yeshiva of Spring Valley school in Suffern, New York. Towed behind the camper is a red, white and blue trailer with the star of the show, a 2080 pound Liberty Bell.
At 81, most of his contemporaries have their most active years behind them, content to sit and play cards, looking forward to the next visit from the grandchildren.
But enjoying a well-earned retirement is not Head’s style. So long as the good Lord blesses him with an able body and a sharp mind, the show will go on. And the reverend has been blessed, indeed.
The Yeshiva kids sit cross-legged on the gymnasium floor, patiently waiting, war bonnets and Revolutionary hats on their heads and tiny American flags in their hands. The reverend steps down from the driver’s seat, looking the part of a patriot from head to toe: white shoes, colonial tri-corner hat, white shirt and blue pants, all topped off with a red, white and blue stars and stripes blazer, with a matching tie. These kids have never met a character quite like him.
At 1:30 on the nose, with patriotic music blaring, the Liberty Bell Minister runs in from the back of the gym, around the waiting children and slides across the polished gym floor on one knee like an octagenarian Kevin Bacon. He’s got their attention now, and he’ll keep it for the next 30 minutes.
Quite a character
Head was born in 1899 in Stamping Ground, Kentucky. The son of a bank clerk, his American roots run deep — his ancestors fought in both the Revolution and Civil War. Head continued the family tradition, serving on a submarine during World War I.
After the war, he attended Georgetown College in Kentucky, where he majored in modern English and history and excelled at track and field.
Head worked odd jobs after college as a country preacher, schoolteacher, and reporter for the Louisville Courrier-Journal.
In 1929 he graduated from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and found his calling. In the ’30s Head lead a large church in Louisville, Kentucky.
Having weathered the Great Depression and firmly established a congregation, he could have easily ridden out the rest of his years preaching in his home state. The restless Head instead chose the road less-traveled — a road that took him north to Illinois, then on to Minnesota.
The Southern Baptist minister arrived in the land-o’-Lutherans in 1954, working for the Minnesota Convention of the American Baptist Church. There he helped start new churches in Bloomington, Richfield and Saint Paul.
Never content to do just one thing, Head also took a job as a salesman for the Pyramid Insurance Company. There too, he excelled. His supervisor would later recall, “He was a helluva salesman, the top man in the area for a number of years.”
Back to the show
The show has only just begun, and the acrobatics aren’t finished yet. Head adds a perfectly executed handspring before addressing the children. First, he extolls the value of clean living and explains how he’s still so physically fit.
“I’ve never tasted liquor or tobacco, even when I was stranded underwater in a submarine. I eat no fried food or pies or cakes. Ice cream is my only dessert.”
“Eat right. Sleep right. Think right. Treat everyone around you right, too.”
When it comes to clean living, Head not only talks the talk, he walks the walk. Or in his case, runs. In 1973, the Minnesota Teamsters Union Local sent him to compete in the All-Comers track meet in San Diego, where he set a new world record for his age group, completing the 100-yard dash in 15.1 seconds.
In rapid-fire succession, the reverend recounts the greatest hits of American history, volume 1: Patrick Henry, Paul Revere, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington and the Boston Tea Party. Acting out various scenes, the reverend brings this history to life.
Taking an unexpected turn, Head jumps into the crowd of attentive grade school children and pretends to punch one of them in the eye. He asks, “Should we cut the eye out because it was bruised?”
The crowd, stunned and excited, responds, “Nooooo!”
“Well then, what should we do?” Head replies. The children, thoroughly captivated, shout back their response, “Fix it!”
He tells the children that’s how they should think about our country. If something is wrong, we don’t destroy it; we fix it. “When there’s something wrong with America, we will work all together to get it well. It’s the everlasting teamwork that’s so important.”
The star of the show
Jam-packed with history, acrobatics and song, the first 25 minutes of Head’s spectacle is just a preamble to the grand finale. Now it’s time to ring the Liberty Bell.
The Yeshiva teachers guide their students out to the parking lot, bundled in their coats on this crisp late autumn day. Waiting, there are a local newspaper crew and the star of the show.
Head tells them briefly about the bell’s history, how it was hidden in a church basement in Allentown to keep the British from melting it down for arms. He tells of its cracking and recasting and cracking again.
“… after 82 years of service, it cracked. It doesn’t ring anymore. It’s a silent bell, but it speaks. Freedom! It cries Liberty! The right of assembly, religion, speech and press!”
“I’ve brought the replica here to let you ring out what freedom means to America.”
The Liberty Bell is silent no more. The Yeshiva kids each take their turn yanking the rope and ringing the bell. This is a day they’ll remember all of their lives.
While the reverend and the Liberty Bell are perfect partners on this day, it was an interesting twist of fate that brought them together.
Bell #1 | 1975
In 1975, Leonard Beckman, a cemetery operator from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, was in Philadelphia on vacation. As most people do, he paid a visit to the Liberty Bell, then on display in Independence Hall. He was moved by how excited the children were to be there, but he was also saddened at the thought of all the kids who would never go to Philadelphia on vacation and see the bell. Right then, the entrepreneur had an idea.
Beckman turned to his wife, Virginia, and declared, “I’m going to have a replica made and send it around the country.” Virginia responded, “Len, that’s the greatest.”
Beckman likely knew nothing of the replicas created for the 1950 U.S. Savings Bond drive, and that most kids need only pay a visit to their own state capital if they wanted to see a Liberty Bell replica.
$12,000 later, Beckman had his Liberty Bell, cast by the storied Paccard Bell Foundry in Annecy, France, where the 1950 replicas were produced.
Beckman had his bell. Now he needed his man. After all, the deal was he would send the bell around the country, not take the bell around the country. He reached out to veterans groups in search of someone whose “patriotic blood pressure was over 100, who still has some mileage left in him.” A retired schoolteacher, perhaps. Beckman would provide an El Camino to haul the bell and a stipend of $20 per school.
It’s not known whether there were any other candidates, but clearly, this was the role Joseph Head was born to play. The two men and their wives met for dinner at the Normandy steakhouse to discuss the details, and they hit it off immediately. Unable to contain his excitement, Head asked if Beckman would like him to visit a school every week. Beckman replied, “No. Every day. Sometimes two a day.”
The two men had a plan. Now all they needed was a show and an audience. Head and the bell and the El Camino paid their first visit to Epiphany Catholic School in Coon Rapids, Minnesota, on April 8, 1975. The show was a hit.
In the year of their 50th wedding anniversary, the Heads set out on the road, allowing kids to ring the Liberty Bell without even leaving school. Head prefers grade school children, “Senior high kids get too sophisticated,” he’d say.
Throughout the 1975/76 school year, with Joseph on stage and Leona May backstage, the couple brought Beckman’s vision of bringing the Liberty Bell and its story to kids across the country. With his mission accomplished and his cemetery business to consider, Beckman took advantage of the bicentennial wave of patriotism and dedicated the bell at his cemetery, Morningside Memorial Gardens, in Coon Rapids, Minnesota.
The bell can still be seen there today, a little rusty and forgotten, but otherwise in good shape.
Head’s #1 bell at the Morningside Memorial Gardens, Coon Rapids, Minnesota
But for Head, this was just the beginning. He was not going to let a little thing like not having a Liberty Bell stop him from bringing the Liberty Bell to America’s children.
Bell #2 | 1976
The consummate salesman, the reverend set about getting his own Liberty Bell. Another Minnesota businessman, Arnold Kadue, president of Precision Associates, asked Head, “If we get another bell, would you keep this thing going, take it to other states?” Bell #2 cost $13,600 and was paid for by the Sons of the American Revolution with the understanding they would get it back when the tour was finished.
In 1976 the Liberty Bell Education Foundation is formed as a nonprofit organization to manage the tour and related expenses. Kadue is elected president. Head serves as Executive Director.
In October of 1976, now equipped with a $17,000 camper and $2,400 trailer, Head drove from Minneapolis to Maryland to pick up his freshly-cast replica, just off the boat from France. Joseph and Leona May sleep in the camper most nights on the road, but when they arrive at a tour stop, the local VFW or SAR chapters usually find them a hotel or home for the night. The local fire departments keep the bell shiny and safe.
Their first stop was a dedication ceremony for the bell at the SAR national headquarters in Washington, DC. The next stop for the Heads was a school in Fairfax, Virginia, where they were warmly received by schoolteacher Ercell Bell, their daughter.
The Heads continued touring with this bell at the pace of a traveling salesman, visiting thousands of children across the country. But this tour, too, came to an end, and the bell was returned to its rightful owner.
Head’s second bell can now be seen inside the SAR Genealogical Library in Louisville, Kentucky.
Head’s #2 bell, at the Sons of the American Revolution Genealogical Research Library. Courtesy of TripAdvisor.
“God, if you give me my voice and give me my health, I’ll never retire. I’ll travel America and die with my boots on.”— Reverend Joseph B. Head, 1977
In 1983 he almost did just that. Head was hit by a skidding MCT bus in Minneapolis and was confined to a wheelchair. This slowed him down a bit, but there was no stopping the Liberty Bell minister.
Head would then go on to borrow Minnesota’s own Liberty Bell Replica, the one given to the state by the U.S. Treasury upon conclusion of the 1950 Savings Bond drive. Understandably, Head limited his touring with this bell to Minnesota schools.
The Minnesota Liberty Bell replica, Head’s #3 bell
Bell #4 | 1981
Once again Head needed a bell. Once again Arnold Kadue stepped up. He and Len Beckman’s widow, Virginia ordered a new bell from the Paccard Bell Foundry, this time on credit. As a ton of copper and tin is going to be very subject to inflation, this bell cost $20,000, including freight. Head received the bell the week of October 26, 1981. The bell first appeared before a group of citizens concerned about Vietnam MIAs before being officially dedicated at the Fort Snelling Memorial Chapel on April 18, 1982. As his appearance fees merely covered expenses, Head had to scramble to figure out how to pay for the bell.
The bell can now be seen at the Highground Veterans Memorial Park in Neillsville, Wisconsin, housed in a handsome enclosure built in 2002 by master timberframer Lyle Lindholm and a group of volunteers.
The next generation
While Head knew he had to slow down, he knew the crusade didn’t have to — the foundation finally had its own bell after all. Head looked to his heir apparent and assistant since 1982, Stan Eddy, to continue the work. Though 14 years his junior, Eddy had much in common with Head.
A lifelong Boy Scout — it was said he could start a matchless fire in under 9 seconds in his youth — Eddy was Robin to Head’s Batman, appearing in dark scouting uniform and red beret.
While they toured six Twin-Cities-area schools together as a sort of test run, it’s unclear if Eddy ever took the bell out on his own. If he did, it didn’t make the papers. At a joint appearance in 1984, Eddy shared his vision for the crusade, “We are planting the seeds of patriotism and scouting. Our hope is that they will take hold and make it easier for kids to resist the temptation of drugs and communism.”
Up until 1990, the bell was still dusted off for the occasional parade. Eddy would go on to leave a different legacy, best known as the man in the Santa suit who could be seen for 60 years in downtown Minneapolis, often in front of the Northwestern National Life Insurance Building. Eschewing the commercial aspects of the holiday, Eddy preferred to deliver smiles over presents.
The bell tolls
Among Head’s last appearances with his beloved Liberty Bell were the 1989 July 4th parade in Richfield, Minnesota and the Minneapolis Aquatennial parade later that month. Head died on October 14, 1990, at the Minneapolis Veterans Memorial Hospital. He was 90 years old. An obituary in the Minneapolis Star Tribune spanned four columns, painting a glowing picture of “the Liberty Bell Man.”
Stan Eddy put it best, “He was one of the real, true patriots of our time. He gave of himself so that the youth of America could learn about early history and patriotism and the Liberty Bell.”
The Reverend Joseph Benjamin Head, the Liberty Bell Minister, was survived by his two children, six grandchildren, six great-grandchildren and his beloved wife Leona May. She died in 1997 at 92.
While his Liberty Bell crusade never made him rich, it did bring the reverend some notoriety and broadened his flock to include millions of children, who are now millions of American adults in their 40s and 50s, with families of their own.
Head was most proud of the letters he received from the children he met. He kept all 33,000 of them. Though some he’d commit to memory, like the one he got from a little boy named Bob in Alexandria, Virginia. It reads, “Dear Mr. Head: Gee, I sure got a thrill when I rang that Liberty Bell. Mr. Head, don’t ever stop telling this to the kids. Mr. Head, when I grow up, I want to be like you. Mr. Head, you are the second father of my country.”
Wait, there’s more
If you were to read only his obituary and the smattering of stories that ran in local papers as he toured the county, you’d get a pretty clear picture of the perfect patriot. An American superhero. Liberty Bell Man. That’s the picture I first formed of Joe Head, and I fell in love with him immediately.
But not unlike some of the American history heroes Head so loved, a deeper dive into his life forces us to rethink his legacy.
Head, it turns out, was actively crusading against the liberties so many Americans were fighting and dying for during his lifetime. To set the scene, here are a few quotes, compiled by Minneapolis Star Tribune staff writer, Dave Wood in 1982:
“90% of civil rights are civil wrongs” — Reverend Joseph B. Head, 1964
“Homosexuality advocates are part of a global Communist conspiracy to destroy America.” — Head, 1974
“Rich Jews control the press in metropolitan areas.” — Head, 1964
While Head’s Liberty Bell tour could be seen as a wholesome edutainment, his motivation was less than innocent. Head saw history as concrete, fixed. There is no need to teach it any differently than it was taught when he was a kid. He saw efforts to update textbooks with more nuanced and historically accurate perspectives as a global conspiracy aimed at destroying America from within.
As early as 1948, he supported a 64-page Sons of the American Revolution grievance aimed at ridding schools of communism. Efforts included rooting out “subversive” material in schools and libraries and demanding teachers and librarians take oaths of loyalty.
In 1977, he spoke of his mission to counter recent textbook updates, “I’m determined our kids are gonna know the truth. I think a bunch of textbook people are trying to change our history. In one book about America’s beginnings, there’s not one line about the landing of the pilgrims. Another history book depicted Patrick Henry as a rabble-rouser who made trouble in his community, and another considered Capt. John Paul Jones a myth.”
He went on, “The whole purpose is to degrade our American heroes. I feel there’s a conspiracy somewhere. I haven’t pinpointed it yet, but there’s an effort to downgrade America. They’re trying to make kids feel like all the great things about America are myths.”
Remember that time orange juice was at the forefront of the gay rights movement? Me neither. Here’s a recap:
In the 1970s, wholesome All-American singer Anita Bryant was the spokesperson for the Florida Citrus Commission. The ads she starred in were largely responsible for making frozen concentrated orange juice an American staple. In 1977, as the gay rights movement was building momentum across the country, a homosexual nondiscrimination ordinance was proposed in Dade County, Florida, similar to ones that were passing across the country.
Feeling the nondiscrimination ordinance violated her rights as a person of faith, Byrant set out to defeat it. Using her position as a public figure to push her platform, she told reporters, “As a mother, I know that homosexuals cannot biologically reproduce children; therefore, they must recruit our children.”
In response to her action, consumers across the county boycotted Florida orange juice. Head choose oranges over humans, driving across the country in a van filled with crates of oranges to campaign against what he called militant homosexuals.
This was not Head’s first public anti-gay efforts. In 1974, he opposed a proposed gay rights ordinance on the grounds that it would be “taking fag literature into schools.” Not content to be simply anti-gay, he doubled down, claiming that “homosexuality advocates are part of a global Communist conspiracy to destroy America.”
Head led a lawsuit against the University of Minnesota for allowing gay and socialist groups (independently) to use university facilities.
In 1990, he looked back on his efforts with fond memories and no regrets, “I like Minnesota. I’ve fought the fight, fought the gays and the secular humanists and communism. I’ve won some and lost some. But people here respect my opinions even if they don’t always agree.”
No conspiracy theorist’s portfolio is complete without blaming Jewish people for something, and Head was no different. While his anti-semitic leanings were less overt than his anti-gay leanings, his actions still clearly reflected his worldview. In 1974 when a Minnesota bill (S.F. 2812) sought to end the exclusively Christian use of the state-owned chapel at Fort Snelling — a bill supported by the local VFW chapter, the Minnesota Rabbinical Council and the Jewish War Veterans — Head called it a “garbage” bill, claiming it persecuted chapel users. He also claimed the Rabbinical Council and Jewish War Veterans groups did not reflect the opinion of the vast majority of Twin Cities Jews.
In 1971, when Minnesota Governor Wendell Anderson signed a seemingly benign Declaration of World Citizenship, Head saw something sinister afoot, “Behind the declaration is an effort to destroy our state and national sovereignty.”
Reverend Joseph B. head greets Duck Club founder Robert White, 1981
Once Head had his own Liberty Bell, he put it use beyond teaching schoolchildren about Patrick Henry. On November 1, 1981, Head, with star-spangled suit and Liberty Bell in tow, gave a grownup version of his presentation to the Minneapolis/Saint Paul chapter of the Duck Club, a fledgling right-wing group founded by Robert White. Head was not only spreading the good word, he was also soliciting donations to help pay for his new bell.
Head found kindred spirits among the ducks, “The Duck Club is an organization dedicated to patriotism and changing some of the things in America that need changing.”
The Duck Club would gain national attention in 1985 when, after alleged Communists were outed at a meeting of the Seattle chapter, Duck Club member David Lewis Rice brutally murdered Charles Goldmark along with his wife and two children. He believed, mistakenly, that the family was both Jewish and Communist.
Lessons from the Liberty Bell Man
It’s tempting to view Head’s actions and words through the lens of historical or cultural relativism — the idea that what’s acceptable and what isn’t is relative to the culture of the time. But that approach would do both Head and history a disservice. It’s clear the reverend saw himself as an absolutist. Things are black or white, right or wrong, American or Un-American. He lead with his chin, said what he meant, and his actions supported his viewpoints. There is no evidence of Head denying anything he said or did, or changing his position in any way over his lifetime.
What separates Reverend Head from others who at the time held racist, sexist, homophobic and anti-semitic views, is that he actively used his position as a community leader to work to withhold basic liberties — free speech, free assembly, equal protection — from those who most needed them.
Head made great copy, knew how to get publicity, and used the media artfully. He understood he could reach many more people with the printed word than with the pulpit.
The reverend’s fatal flaw was to see liberty as finite and history as concrete. He saw the American experience as a zero-sum game. If you seek your own liberty, you must be trying to take some of mine. If you see history from a different perspective, then you’re trying to invalidate my perspective.
Liberty, like God, is an infallible concept. When humans try to execute those concepts and come up short, that’s when things get ugly.
The story of the Liberty Bell Man serves as a reminder that the bell stands for liberty, not just for those who already enjoy it, but, most importantly, for those who actively seek it. The duty of those who enjoy the liberties the bell represents is not just to celebrate our own freedom, but to assure the bell continues to stand as a beacon of hope for those who fight for their own liberty.
The Reverend Joseph B. Head was terribly wrongheaded and incredibly entertaining. It’s hard to love him, and it’s hard to hate him. I can’t bring myself to do either. Instead, I think we can see his story as a conversation-starter. Head’s story raises more questions than it answers.
The most pressing question for me is how the reverend reconciled his hateful and discriminatory words and actions with his message of treating everyone right and the seeming fact that he felt no hate in his heart. Many who hold beliefs like Head held are outwardly bitter, fearful, mean-spirited and easy to both dislike and dismiss. Head was none of those.
When asked if there was ever anything mean-spirited about his work, Head replied, “Never mean.” pointing to a prayer on the wall next to his bed.
Lord, make me an instrument of Thy service. Where there is hatred, let me sow love …