Connellsville plays major role in book on Ten Commandments

| Saturday, Aug. 2, 2014, 1:01 a.m.

At age 92, Guy “Rick” Tressler of Connellsville has seen quite a few firsts.

He was on the committee — of the Fraternal Order of Eagles Aerie 493 — that placed a Ten Commandments memorial in 1957 at then-Connellsville Joint Senior High School (now Connellsville Junior High).

Coincidentally, Tressler was the first to hold in his hands a new book titled “In Search of God and the Ten Commandments,” having received the printed copy even before its author, Sue A. Hoffman of Auburn, Wash.

The book, subtitled “One Person's Journey to Preserve a Small Part of America's God-given Values and Freedoms,” recalls the program during which Aeries of the Fraternal Order of Eagles placed Ten Commandments monoliths across the United States — and the legal battles that have dogged the program since its earliest days.

Tressler, a South Connellsville native who has lived on the city's West Side Hill for nearly 70 years (he's been married for 68 years to the former Rosie Capo), is the last living member of the Eagles committee that installed the Ten Commandments memorial. The dedication was done with great fanfare in 1957, with participation of students, school officials and board and city representatives, among them Connellsville Mayor Abe I. Daniels, he said.

First off the press

Tressler said he was tickled by the fact that he was not only on the first committee, but was also first to receive an advance copy of Hoffman's book.

“I thought this was the perfect way to promote the book for those interested in the local Ten Commandments movement,” he explained.

Connellsville's Ten Commandments monument has been controversial since an unnamed atheist and her daughter contested its location on school property in 2012. Since then, a grassroots organization called Thou Shall Not Move has garnered growing support. The nonprofit organization has sold more than 5,000 cardboard Ten Commandments signs — which dot private properties throughout Connellsville and Fayette County, in general. Led by the Rev. Ewing Marietta, pastor of Liberty Baptist Church in North Union, along with other volunteers, several organizations — including the Connellsville Eagles — and churches have conducted fundraisers to install marble-and-concrete Ten Commandments monuments on their properties in support of the cause.

Hoffman's book is the result of more than a dozen years of research, during which the retired teacher / businesswoman / Navy veteran, assisted by friends and family, traversed the United States in search of Eagles' Ten Commandment monuments. According to the book's preface, the effort began on Flag Day 2001, when Hoffman read an article in a national magazine about a suit that had been filed against a Ten Commandments monolith in Elkhart, Ind.

Charlton Heston writes

A writing campaign ensued — one which included a letter back to Hoffman from the late actor Charlton Heston, who portrayed Moses, the bearer of the Ten Commandments, in Cecil B. DeMille's 1956 epic film. She learned that the Eagles' program began in Minnesota earlier than the film's release, but Eagle lodges nationwide encouraged audiences to attend the movie after its release. DeMille embraced the Eagles' efforts and even provided funding for some of the memorials, which continued to be randomly installed through the early 1990s (often with litigation following). Of the 184 monuments identified, only 44 were placed by 1958, according to Hoffman.

Prior to writing her book, Hoffman met retired Judge E.J. Ruegemer in August 2001. The Minnesota judge was 99 years old at the time. He had held many offices in the Eagles organization and was instrumental in starting the Ten Commandments monolith program. In 1992, when Ruegemer was inducted into the Eagles Hall of Fame, he noted that while “there are thousands of manmade laws, God made only ten.”

The Eagles originally distributed thousands of framed Ten Commandments prints to public schools before putting forth its monolith program, which began around 1954, according to Hoffman and the Eagles' archive. Resistance to the Ten Commandments' placement began as early as 1958 and has been ongoing in various locations since.

'57 Eagles event

Tressler was Eagles Aerie 493 president in 1956-57, during which he received a letter from the national Grand Aerie asking if Connellsville was interested in displaying an all-paid-for Ten Commandments monument. He took it to the local Eagles, which endorsed it, and then to the school board, which also embraced the idea.

The reason for placing the memorial at the high school was simple: “We figured more kids go to school than go to church. We thought they'd look at it on their way into the school building and would learn the message of the Ten Commandments,” Tressler said.

Tressler and the Connellsville Eagles are featured prominently in the epilogue of Hoffman's book. There are several photos, including one of the 1957 Ten Commandments' dedication, the group's officers and one of Tressler at his West Side Hill home. It provides a recap of the Thou Shall Not Move effort that continues to thrive.

The 325-page book by Hoffman features information and photos and legal fate of more than 120 Ten Commandment monoliths throughout America (including one in Canada). There are several Pennsylvania memorials featured, in addition to Connellsville's. Among those are ones in Somerset, Ambridge, Monongahela, Pittsburgh, Clearfield and Hanover.

After being interviewed by Hoffman, Tressler kept in touch with her — and was promised an advance book. When he received his this summer, he contacted the Washington author. “She said, ‘Well, I didn't even get one yet. You're the first one!' How about that?”

Hoffman is scheduled to visit Pittsburgh this month and Tressler hopes she can make a visit to Connellsville. He wants her “John Hancock.”

“A book like this is always better with an autograph,” he joked.

Laura Szepesi is a contributing writer.

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