Wednesday, August 3, 2011

It really did take a village

Someone reached out to me yesterday on this blog to ask if I could promote a new program the Knight Foundation is sponsoring in Detroit.  The new initiative is called BME (pronounced be me) and it is designed to amplify the good works of black men and boys in the city.  Philly residents can participate too.

What piqued my curiosity about was a post for the Knight Foundation by Trabian Shorters formally announcing the program.  Shorters' story sounded oddly similar to my own.  He describes his grandfather as the paragon of his family.  He had a number of men who made it their business to be involved in his life, a fact he did not recognize until he was at a conference in Philadelphia.  I didn't realize just how many men stepped up to help me until Gumpy passed away.

Shorters was particularly profound when he said, 
I had all these things. My grandfather, rest his soul, was the paragon of our family. My uncle Charles went off and fought in Vietnam, returned home and raised his family through whatever may come. My mother dated a man named Swoop who did right by us ‘til the day he died.
Yet I had stood here and dishonored all these men because I had become so used to focusing on what was missing that I neglected what was there.
Fact of the matter is, I would not be here now were it not for everyday men like these who do more than their part to lead others in the right way to go.  
For me, it was men like Cleo Prescott who gave me my first job and helped teach me patience.  Or Dennis Vanderhoef who taught me how to play the trombone, took me bow hunting and let me raise his raccoon hunting dog George Butch.  Or Bob Siple who taught me exactly what a hard day of work was really all about.  Or Darwin Foster who let me use a cell phone for the first time back when the phone was the size of a briefcase.  Or Gumpy, who taught me patience, golf, how to talk with people of all stripes, the value of understanding politics, how to love my family and many other invaluable life lessons.

In reality, this list is much longer.  It really did take the village of Vermontville to raise me.  And I am fortunate to have the opportunity to show my appreciation.  Not everyone is so fortunate.

BME is a way for black men and boys to stop the bravado that is normally associated with being a man, replacing the bravado with true appreciation for the men in their lives who are role models.  It gives them a chance to recognize the little things these men do to positively impact their community.  The challenge does specifically focus on black men, which is fine with my world view given how many men of color this country insists on imprisoning each year.  The boys that are left behind need to see examples of hope and service by people who look like them, or they risk believing that their fate is to live a life as a caged man.

But the challenge really should extend to all men.  A man accepting to share his emotions is often met with questions about our sexual orientation, jokes about losing our manhood or outright humiliation if he is not careful.  It generally causes us to shove those feelings aside, ignoring the need to give sincere thanks until it is too late.  Thank goodness I had a grandfather who wasn't afraid to express his emotions!

Sieze the day men.  Start small if necessary.  But start thanking the men in your life who have made a positive difference.  Make BME an inspiration for appreciation.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Saying goodbye to another good man

Last Saturday (July 23, 2011) was the memorial service for Cleo Prescott, although he passed away in January at the age of 85.  He was a volunteer firefighter in Vermontville, eventually serving as their fire chief for 20 years.  He was a mail carrier, serving Vermontville's rural route one for many years.  He sold tractors in the family business, he cooked in the Army during the Korean war and he was one half of C and P Ceramics.

Most importantly for me, he was another man who decided to step up to help me when my dad left.

Cleo and his wife Pat (who is also a cousin of Ema's) gave me my first job.  I poured greenware in their ceramics shop the summer I was 14.  I think they paid me five percent of the value from everything I helped pour.  We always started by making sure the molds were clean, then strap the pieces together and use the gasoline pump Cleo repurposed for pour slip to fill the molds.  We would set a timer for each mold so we knew when to pour the excess slip out of the mold and take the straps off.

One day we hopped into his old Jeep Cherokee that he used when he was still a mail carrier and went off to Sebewa Township.  There was nothing to note about the trip, other than Cleo really didn't need to have me make the trip with him.  I think I might have helped move a few new molds into his car, but it was certainly work he could have accomplished himself.

That is really how my relationship with Cleo was, he had me help him with work he could have done by himself.  I have no big, flashy memories of incredible adventures with Cleo or sordid tales to share.  To me, Cleo was a man of incredible constancy.  We always listened to Tiger baseball games when they were on while we worked.  He was always interested in what I had to say.  He never yelled or scolded me.

He was consistent in my inconsistent, tumultuous existence.  

Tears welled in my eyes when Cleo's memorial service was closed by the Eaton County (MI) dispatcher read his obituary over the emergency channel for every person listening that day to hear.  He was humble, honest, kind, trustworthy and loyal.  He served willingly served his country, his community and his family without complaint.  He was a good friend to a young man who was angry at the world and I am eternally grateful for his kindness.