Wednesday, January 24, 2007

A Birthday Party for Dad

A few days ago on a family conference call with my siblings, my youngest brother, now nearly 49 years old, said "Do you suppose Dad ever had a birthday party when he was a kid?" As soon as he asked the question, we all knew the answer.

My dad will be 75 years old this week. He was born in rural South Texas at one of the lowest points of the Great Depression, less than 70 years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The town in which he was born, Rockport, Aransas County, had a population of less than 2000 people at the time. (Its estimated population in 2003 was about 8,500.) His parents were Jessie Beatrice Bowie (1909-1973) and Quentin V. H. Manson (1913-1987). His father was a jazz musician who left Texas in the 1940s to join the Central Avenue scene in Los Angeles. His mother worked most of her life as a domestic servant. When his parents split up, his mother sought work in the big city of Houston, leaving my dad behind on the Gulf Coast in the care of family and friends and others. The others included an influential German immigrant merchant family in Rockport to whom my dad's family was virtually indentured.

Family and friends and the merchant family paid scant attention to my dad's educational needs. So, according to a family story, my dad one day decided to enroll himself at school. And he walked and walked and walked until he came to a school which happened to be a Catholic school. He told the nuns he was in second grade (although he had never been to school before). I doubt that this story is true. Nonetheless, it is clear that the authorities in Aransas County had decided that they were not going have black children in their schools. As a result, some of my dad's cousins, including George and Dorothy Stafford, or to the Greyhound A. every morning for 30 mile trip to Corpus Christi in Nueces County. Aransas County was more than happy to pay the travel fees.

At some point my dad began splitting his time between Houston and Rockport. When he was with his mother in Houston, he went to school. She saw to it. But since he was not being educated in Rockport, Nana refused to pay the property taxes due on the Bryant homestead which she had inherited. Curiously, the authorities did not pursue the issue with her. (In 1962, long after he had left Texas, my dad, by then a captain in the United States Army, received a tax bill from Aransas County for his mother's overdue taxes).

Eventually my dad lived full-time in Houston with his mother and went to school there. He attended Phyllis Wheatley High School, but spent one year at Thomas Jefferson High School in Los Angeles where his dad lived. Houston was so different from Rockport it might have been Mars. Houston had paved streets and traffic lights. Houston had parks. And best of all Houston had public libraries.

Recently Dad described to me his reaction upon first being in a public library in Houston: "All those newspapers!" Newspapers became his passion. Dad didn't just read newspapers, he studied newspapers. He he read every newspaper he could get his hands on some big cities to small towns. He knew the great newspapers from the good newspapers from the average newspapers from the poor newspapers. He knew the big newspaper companies. He knew the names and something about the newspapers in virtually any city you could name. (Trivia game: "Wichita, Kansas?" "Wichita Eagle." "Long Beach, California?" "Press-Telegram.") He had found his calling. His love of newspapers would later be to my great benefit. Before I was old enough to go to school, my dad would sit me on his lap and read the newspaper to me. Not the comics; the front page. He would teach me words. By the time I did go to school, I had a bit of a head start on reading.

In 1951, as his high school graduation approached, Dad wasn't entirely sure what his next step would be. Late in the semester, a teacher told him about a journalism scholarship at Lincoln University in Missouri.

Dad met Mom at Lincoln University. He dreamed of working in a big city newsroom. But that would have to wait until after his ROTC commitment, and until big-city newsrooms were hiring black journalists.

Dad never did get to work in a big city newsroom. He stayed in the Army for 20 years and retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel. His last assignment was as deputy commander of the Defense language Institute in Monterey California. He earned a master's degree in public administration from the University of Oklahoma. He went on to a second career as an administrator at San Jose State University in California. And when he retired from that, he decided he wanted to be a paralegal. He went to school and got a paralegal certificate, and was hired by a prominent law firm in the South Bay area. After five years as a paralegal, Dad retired for good. He turned his attention to running the largest Cleveland Browns fan club in the world, the Bay area Browns backers which he had founded. (How a native of South Texas who had never been to Cleveland until he was into the 60s became the leader of the Browns fan club in the San Francisco Bay area is yet another story.) He was active in other community affairs as well, including being the foreman of the County grand jury one year.

In his last visit to Rockport before college, one of the Pictons offered Dad lifetime employment as her chauffeur. She was actually perplexed when he said he would rather go to college.

San Jose, California in the year 2007 is about as far away from Rockport Texas in 1932 as Pluto is from the sun. In the time and space between, my dad, born at home delivered by a midwife, became the first person in his family to go to college and to earn an advanced degree; reached a high ranking as an Army officer; acquired assets equal to the entire assessed valuation of Aransas County in 1932; raised four children all of whom went to college; and earned the respect of his community. I cannot possibly find words to convey the significance of this unlikely journey. A bookmaker would have given better odds that he actually would go to Pluto. For for a poor black child from a single-parent home, born in the midst of the Great Depression in circumstances not much different than they had been in the 1860s, to achieve what my dad has achieved is nothing short of incredible.

I became the first in our family to go to law school, achieved an even higher military rank my dad did, worked for a California Governor, was a Superior Court judge, and served at the sub-Cabinet level as a Presidential appointee. Nobody should be impressed. These things were low-hanging fruit as I stood on my father's shoulders.

So Dad will have a birthday party this weekend . . . and there will be funny hats!

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