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A sister uses her gifts to send messages to fallen soldier

She begins each time by sharpening her tools, with the sound of metal on metal echoing through the sunlit old house she calls both home and workshop. Making a violin is a methodical art. For Sonja St. John, that structure is a necessity — and the routine, in many ways, a saving grace.

"It's a way to stay on track even when chaos can be happening right outside," she says.

She finishes each new violin with another ritual, by gluing a small, handwritten message inside. This began as a light gesture, with favorite fortunes from cookies placed inside with a wink as hidden signatures of sorts from her, the violin maker. But the notes she leaves now have become far more personal and meaningful.

Each is different, but they are often a tribute to those who've given of themselves in some way, members of the military included. Her most recent one reads: "In honor of past, present and future souls of courage and wisdom."

The person foremost on her mind when she writes those messages is her brother, Jon St. John, an Army specialist who died a decade ago when a roadside bomb exploded near the military vehicle in which he was the gunner.

Jon, Sonja's only sibling, was 25. She was 22 and just beginning her career after graduating from the Chicago School of Violin Making. She has a vivid memory of sliding to her kitchen floor, her back against the cupboards, when her parents shared the news in a phone call.

This was her big brother, her fishing buddy and protector, tall and strong-willed but also kind in sometimes surprising ways. Her favorite photo of the two of them together was taken at one of her violin recitals in 2002. He'd come home from college, wearing what she figures was probably his nicest sweater, and brought her flowers.

"He was just always a good friend to have around," she said, noting how music had always been a bonding point for them. He'd teach her about his favorite rock bands. She introduced him to jazz violin.

But in the years after his death, Sonja stopped playing, as grief enveloped her.

She got married in 2008 and divorced seven years later. After moving back to Neenah, her Wisconsin hometown, to be near her parents, she increasingly tried to drown that grief with alcohol, so much so that she checked into rehab more than once.

"I was very sick for quite a long time," she said.

Her grandmother had died of heart problems shortly after Jon's death but, as Sonja saw it, she really died of heartache. Truth was, her own heart also had been broken for years.

Then, last fall, she received a note from Jason Moon, a musician and himself an Iraq war veteran whom she'd first met as a teenager, when they played music together. Moon had had his own struggles, with PTSD, after coming home from the war. He hadn't been able to offer much support when Jon died, he said, but things had changed for him in recent years.

Now the head of a nonprofit arts organization for veterans, called Warrior Songs, Moon asked Sonja if she'd be interested in helping create a song for his group's second album. This one will focus on telling the stories of women in combat, as well as the mothers, wives and sisters who've lost loved ones to war.

The Warrior Songs CDs are given free of charge to veterans and are intended to be a source of support and healing.

In honoring Jon — and telling her own story — Sonja, now 33, also saw a chance to move forward and to stay sober.

"I just really woke up when I realized I know that my brother was willing to die for me and our country," she said. "I better be willing to live and take advantage of what I DO have."

She agreed to play a violin solo for the song and soon began practicing again.

She also began building a new violin, work she'd set aside to focus on instrument repair.

This winter, Moon recorded an interview with Sonja, and she gave him some of her journal entries. He then shared those materials with songwriter Kevin Welsh, who wrote the resulting song, titled "Star in the Dark."

"Hey brother, where you gone?" the song begins.

"It's been too long since you've been home.

"They called it 'casualty.'

"It doesn't seem casual to me."

This month, Sonja recorded the violin accompaniment for the song at a studio in suburban Milwaukee. Her parents, Kay and Jon Sr., were there, too. They recalled the son who, in 2005, showed up with Army brochures to tell them he'd be leaving in 36 hours for basic training at Fort Hood, Texas.

"You know there's a war going on?" his mother recalled saying to him.

"Yes, I do," he said with a determined look. Though worried, his parents gave him their full support.

Now their daughter is the major focus.

"Who knew what kind of healing would come from this process?" Moon said of Sonja's personal journey in helping create the song, which is being released this weekend on the Warrior Songs website.

Still, it was clear that she was nervous. She'd never played in a recording studio before and was still feeling rusty.

To help keep her calm, she placed photos of Jon on a nearby music stand. Then she played a solo that would, like the song itself, become a message of another kind, much more public than those slips of paper hidden inside a violin that may never be seen.

As she finished, audio engineer Jonathon Leubner smiled. "That's lovely," he said. "I can't thank you enough."

"Well," she replied through a studio microphone, "let's all thank my brother."

____

Online:

Warrior Songs: http://www.warriorsongs.org

Sonja's site: http://www.sonjaviolin.com/

___

Carrie Antlfinger, an AP reporter based in Milwaukee, contributed to this multiplatform report. Martha Irvine, an AP national writer, can be reached at mirvine@ap.org or at http://twitter.com/irvineap

JFK’s daughter, grandchildren pay tribute in video

The centennial of John F. Kennedy’s birthday is Monday, and in an early Memorial Day tribute, his daughter and grandchildren reflected on the life of the 35th president and the impact he had on their lives. 

>> Read more trending news

At the start of a video created by the JFK Library, Caroline Kennedy said she has thought about her father “and missed him every day of my life,” Today reported.

“Growing up without him was made easier by all the people who kept him in their hearts, who told me that he inspired them to work and fight and believe in a better world, to give something back to this country that has given so much to so many,” she said in the video.

Kennedy, 59, recalled hiding under father’s desk in the Oval Office, and spoke about the generation her father inspired, Today reported.

"As my father said in his inaugural address, 'This work will not be finished in our lifetime, it's up to us to continue to pass these values on to our children and grandchildren,'" she said.

In the video, Tatiana Kennedy Schlossberg spoke of her connection to her grandfather, then described her unique connection to one of the nation's most historical figures.

"One of the defining relationships of my life is with someone I've never met, my grandfather, President John F. Kennedy," she said.

“To me, that is where he lives, as a historical figure rooted in the past, but also as a person connected to so much of what came after him,” she said in the video. “But while my grandfather had reverence for the past, and the lessons it could impart, he also knew that America was a country where change was possible. That we aren't bound solely by tradition if we understand the past with which we are breaking."

Tatiana's sister, Rose Schlossberg, also described the need to reflect upon the past to help shape the future.

"My grandfather would be proud of how far we’ve come as a nation since 1963, but he’d have been the first to tell us that we have a long way to go,” she said.

The president's only grandson, Jack Schlossberg, said his favorite speech by John F. Kennedy was about sending a man to the moon, "not because it would be easy, but because it would be so hard."

Stars turn out for lavish French Riviera AIDS fundraiser

A star-studded French Riviera AIDS fundraising gala has raised more than $20 million (17.8 million euros) to combat the disease globally.

Guests at the 24th annual amfAR Cinema Against AIDS gala were treated Thursday to musical performances by Nicki Minaj, Rita Ora and Diana Ross, a fashion show and auction of items for the superrich.

The lavish evening, which raises money for AIDS research and education programs across the globe, attracts some of world's biggest celebrities, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Eva Longoria, Will Smith, Nicole Kidman and David Beckham. Many are in the area for the Cannes Film Festival, which runs through Sunday.

The champagne-fueled dinner event included a fashion show that earned more than three million euros ($3.36 million) by itself.

This year's gala theme celebrated the "Golden Age of Hollywood."

A chance to play soccer against Beckham sold for 350,000 euros ($392,000), the same price paid for a five-day trek to visit the Dalai Lama. A 1958 Jaguar XK150 sold for 600,000 euros (approximately $671,000).

Sotheby's sells Tamayo's 'Bird Charmer' for $4.3M in NY

"The Bird Charmer" by Rufino Tamayo was sold for $4.3 million on Thursday at Sotheby's Latin American art auction in New York.

The 60 1/4 by 50 1/4 inch (153 x 128 cm) oil on canvas was sold a day after another impressive work by the Mexican artist, "Músicos," didn't find a buyer at Christie's.

The piece shows the reddish figure of a man against a blue wall, playing a wind instrument while birds fly about.

"It's a magnificent painting from Tamayo's most important period," Axel Stein, head of Sotheby's Latin American Art department, told The Associated Press. "Although the majestic work was painted during the dark times of 1945, the Pre-Colombian imagery and lyrical, optimistic composition speak to the artist's hope for the future."

The record for a Tamayo sold at auction is $7.2 million, reached in 2008 with "Trovador."

Also on Thursday, Diego Rivera's "Portrait of Senorita Matilde Palou" sold for $2.4 million, within the estimate. Sotheby's had hailed the 1951 painting as one of the most important pieces by the Mexican muralist to go to auction in recent years.

The 80 x 48 1/8 inch (203 x 122.3 cm) oil on canvas depicts Matilde Palou, a Chilean actress and singer who gained fame in Mexican cinema, reclining against what looks like a fireplace. She wears a resplendent dress covered in Mexican imagery, including flags, a coat of arms and Mexican jewelry.

Last March, Sotheby's showed it to the public at its Los Angeles galleries for the first time since 1988, when it sold it for $203,000.

"The painting is a wonderful example of the artist at the height of his powers and a glorious symbol of Mexican national pride," Stein told the AP in March. "It is undoubtedly one of the most important works by the artist to appear at auction in recent memory."

The auction record for Rivera is $3,082,500, set in 1995 with the painting "Baile en Tehuantepec" (1928), also at Sotheby's.

___

Sigal Ratner-Arias is on Twitter at https://twitter.com/sigalratner

___

Online:

www.sothebys.com

USAA pulling ads from Hannity's Fox News show

Financial services firm USAA is adding itself to the list of companies that have pulled advertising from Sean Hannity's Fox News Channel show.

But the company, which caters to members of the U.S. military and their families, says the move had nothing to do with pressure on Hannity's advertisers. Some groups have called for an advertiser boycott after Hannity's focus on a discredited story involving a murdered Democratic National Committee employee. On Wednesday, Hannity he would no longer talk about the story of murdered DNC staffer Seth Rich.

USAA said Thursday it has a policy not to advertise on any opinion-based programing.

"There was an error which led to our ads running during certain opinion-based programs, and as soon as that was discovered, the error was corrected," the San Antonio, Texas-based company said. "We will continually review our ad placements to ensure we are consistent with our policy."

Liberal lobby group Media Matters for America lists six other advertisers that announced they are leaving Hannity, including Cars.com and Crown Plaza Hotels. Hannity has accused Media Matters of mounting a campaign to silence him, which the group denied.

Hannity is the sole survivor from Fox's once stable and powerful prime-time lineup. He has been a strong backer of President Donald Trump and believes the president is under attack from media and opponents who want to destroy him.

Jeffrey Dean Morgan to drive Indy 500 pace car

Jeffrey Dean Morgan, one of the stars of the hit TV show "The Walking Dead," will drive the pace car Sunday for the 101st running of the Indianapolis 500.

Morgan shot to stardom with a recurring role on ABC's show "Grey's Anatomy," and has appeared on shows ranging from "Supernatural" to the award-winning comedy series "Weeds" on Showtime.

He also has appeared in several films, including the comedy "Watchman."

Morgan won the Critic's Choice Award last year for best guest performer in a drama series for his role of Negan in AMC's drama series about survivors of a zombie apocalypse. He will be driving a Corvette Grand Sport to set the pace for in the Indy 500.

Val Kilmer is just as excited as the rest of us about ‘Top Gun 2’

Since Tom Cruise confirmed the sequel to “Top Gun” in an Australian interview Tuesday, fans of the 1986 film have been excited.

>> Read more trending news

It turns out that “Top Gun’s” own Iceman is excited too.

CNN reported that Val Kilmer, who played a rival to Cruise’s character Maverick, shared on Instagram that he’s ready to go on “Top Gun 2.”

“I’m ready Tom -- still got my ‘Top Gun’ plaque! Still got the moves! Still got it!” Kilmer captioned the photo.

Related: Tom Cruise confirms ‘Top Gun’ sequel is in the works

The film has been in serious talks by people in the film industry for at least the last few years. In a 2015 interview with Collider, film producer David Ellison confirmed “Top Gun 2” was in the works and that Cruise would return as Maverick. In 2016, producer Jerry Bruckheimer, said in an interview that discussions were underway for the film.

Cruise confirmed the sequel was “definitely happening.”

“I'm going to start filming it probably in the next year,” he said.

Mike Huckabee to revive his talk show on TBN

Former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee will start a new weekly talk show on the religious Trinity Broadcasting Network this fall.

The show will follow a format similar to the weekend show that the former Arkansas governor hosted on Fox News Channel from 2008 to 2015. TBN said on Thursday that the show will be filmed before a live audience in Nashville, Tennessee.

TBN chairman Matt Crouch called Huckabee a "welcome voice of wisdom, integrity and faith" that the nation needs.

Huckabee left Fox two years ago to explore a run for the presidency. TBN is available in some 100 million households in the United States, and is seen in 175 nations.

Woman drops lawsuit over assault at 50 Cent's mansion

A woman who said she was assaulted at rapper 50 Cent's Connecticut mansion in 2009 has dropped a lawsuit against him and his G-Unit Film & Television production company.

Court records show Vasti Ortiz withdrew the lawsuit in Hartford Superior Court on Wednesday. There was no settlement or payout.

Her lawyer did not return messages Thursday seeking comment.

Ortiz said she was beaten at the Farmington mansion by another woman, Michelle Krzykowski, while an employee of 50 Cent's, Dwayne McKenzie, held her down.

The rapper was not home. His real name is Curtis Jackson III.

Police said the encounter stemmed from an argument after McKenzie asked a woman for oral sex.

Krzykowski and McKenzie were convicted of misdemeanor reckless endangerment and avoided jail time.

50 Cent's lawyer declined to comment.

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