For Father’s Day, I asked my friend, Judy King-Calnek to share some of her memories about her father, who was one of the few African Americans to go to Harvard University in 1941. Toward the end of her piece, you will find a link detailing his experience at Harvard told by the Boston Globe entitled, Southern Discomfort: With quiet grace, two black men change the heart of Harvard in 1941.
While driving down the FDR Drive in Manhattan, I was still savoring the excitement of Brazil’s first victory in the World Cup, which I had watched and celebrated with friends in a cute little Brazilian bistro in Brooklyn that could’ve easily been in Copacabana. I was on my way to work that morning, and even though it was only 7:45 a.m., the sun was shining brightly and it was so warm that I drove with my car windows and sunroof wide open, not to mention the radio cranked up.
As I surfed the pre-selected buttons to find some music, preferably something I could sing along to as it was one of those kind of days, I was grabbed by a voice I had known since my childhood growing up in Cleveland. It was Louis Armstrong on his tribute album to Fats Waller, singing “All That Meat and No Potatoes” – one of my father’s favorites. I sang along at the top of my lungs, not like the 50 year old teacher getting ready to talk to her anthropology students as they prepare for a summer of fieldwork, but like the little girl who used to dance frenetically about the living room, with no clue of the double entendre of the lyrics, laughing as my father laughed at my glee and excitement when Satchmo wailed, and Daddy and I both sang out, “Give that food to the alligators!”.
That song and my experience to it, made me think about how much I missed my father, but it also made me happy because for that moment I really was four years old again and my father was about to pick me up and tickle me. Immediately, I’d laugh and laugh some more and he’d call me his “little sugar-pie” just as Louis Armstrong began to blow his trumpet.
As a little girl, I felt safe and protected by my father. He’d always tell me that he was going to bring the sunshine to me when he’d join my mother and me vacationing on Nantucket. I knew he wasn’t magic, but the strange thing was, we could be having cloudy, foggy weather, and as soon as he’d get to the island, usually in August, our birthday month, the sky would clear up and the sun would come out – just like he promised.
As I moved into adolescence, my relationship with my father became strained by typical things like teenage rebelliousness. Soon, I was no longer his cute “little sugar-pie”. Then, one summer, as a teenager, I began to see a different side of my father. Being the youngest of four children, I was the last to go through the family rite of passage – working in my father’s office for a few weeks every summer, I found it hard to call him “Dr. King.” I remember being surprised when his secretary told me how proud he was of my siblings and me and how much he talked about us. We had no idea! In those days he was very stern with us. That summer, I was not only able to see just my father at work in his medical practice, but a man of great compassion who was profoundly respected by his patients and so many others.
Okay, it sounds like I’m idolizing my father, and I suppose that many daughters feel that way. It’s not that I didn’t see his warts and character flaws. I did. In fact, that’s what I focused on for many years, but now that I’m a parent of two boys, who will someday become fathers, I’m revisiting my memories of my father. You see, after becoming a parent, I thought of him differently, and realized that not only did I love my father deeply, but I really liked him as a person.
Unfortunately, it was not until his last few months, when my father was retired and in his 80s and had lost his physical mobility due to diabetic neuropathy, that I discovered yet another side of him. I knew he had gone to the prestigious Boys Latin School in Boston and on to Harvard before World War II, at a time when the term “affirmative action” wasn’t even a twinkle in the eye of a legislator or admissions officer. In fact, it would be more apt to describe that era as one of “negative action”. Yet, he had leapt and labored over many of the racially defined hurdles of the era as did countless nameless African American men and women of the first half of the twentieth century. But because it was Harvard, my father’s story carried certain connotations, or at least more attention than perhaps some others.
Now, as an adult and as a parent, I realize we are usually hesitant to share certain stories with our children. Obviously, we don’t readily tell them about the partying, exploits and abuses of young adulthood. But there are other stories, too, the kind that our children (and other people) often consider remarkable. It’s just that when we were living them, we didn’t see them as important. I now understand why part of my father’s story remained with him for so long. Firstly, he didn’t consider his actions remarkable or noteworthy; he felt he was doing what should be done. Secondly, there was an element of shame or humiliation attached to efforts he made to move forward in his life.
But thanks to one curious journalist, Ted Gup, who is now the Chair of the Department of Journalism at Emerson College, my father’s story came to be known through this article in the Boston Globe. Apparently it moved the 21st Century student body of Harvard as well as some staff and faculty members who saw fit to bestow on him the Harvard Foundation’s Humanitarian Award. The University planned a celebration in his honor at which he was to receive the award, but he passed away just three short weeks prior to the date.
My father died on April 1st, 2004. He was 84 years old. The day he died the film “Big Fish”, a surrealistic story about a son trying to reconcile the truth about his father’s life before his death, was playing on TV. I watched it over and over again and cried all day long thinking about my dad. His was a very good life. He did the things he wanted to, he achieved what he wanted to achieve; he had the family he wanted to have; enjoyed his grandchildren and even some great-grands. The day before he died he told my sister he was tired, and then we knew we could let him go.
So today is Father’s Day and it’s okay that I can’t call him and tell him “Happy Father’s Day” because he is still so big and so present in my life. But, I can reach for any one of those thousands of vivid memories and relive those My wish on Father’s Day is that my sons feel the same way about their parents as I feel about mine, and that their children feel the same. I think my father gave me a wonderful gift, which I have a hard time naming, but I can certainly feel it when I recall so many of the lessons he bestowed on me. So today on Father’s Day, I say “Thank you” to my father. I think I’ll light a candle for him, download some Louis Armstrong and sing and dance around my living room.