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Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Our Loss of Ron Walters -- 1938-2010: A Major Contributor to the Blog No More

Wichita East Drum Section, Fall 1952

   The following are my remarks at the funeral service for Dr. Ronald W. Walters.  My perspective was that of a lifelong friend.  The memorial service at Howard University's Cramton Auditorium was a wonderful celebration of Ron's life workThe more personal side of Ron's life was the central theme of his funeral service.  Ron's overall contributions were enormous -- nationally and internationally.  Walters was rocognized to be "The Tallest Tree."   Having been appropriately recognized and honored for his professional life, my reflections were an extension of the family, more personal, specifically our friendship growing up.  My remarks were made at the funeral.  Since my time was limited to three minutes, my remarks were edited to fit the those constraints.  Here are the comments in full.  With Walters being a regular contributor to the blog, this tribute is a recognition of his insight on black politics.  RGN

Reflections on a Lifelong Friendship: Remembering Ronald W. Walters, Ph.D.
Robert G. Newby. Ph. D.

Ron Walters was my friend, my best man, my brother. We exchanged the Best Man role in each other's weddings.  Being an only child, when I say he was my brother, he was my brother. Pat asked me to make a few remarks about our growing up. My bond with Ron began at the end of my junior year at Wichita High School East in the spring of 1952. For the next year, my senior year, I was to be the head drummer in the marching band. At the behest of the band director, Kenneth Thompson, I recruited Ron to join our drum section at East as opposed to our cross-town rival, North. He chose to join me in that drum section and we have been more or less joined at the hip ever since.

Another aspect of that bonding was our respective identities were often blurred, since we were the only two blacks in this band of about 80 musicians and we both played the drums. About the second football game of the season I was injured in a freak accident and missed a game, which meant to all those white students in stands, he became “Newby.” To many of them he remained Newby for the next two years after I had graduated. I must say that our band director, who was very much ahead of his time, for not only was I the head drummer, he broke precedent to appoint me the first student, black or white, to be director of the pep band. When Ron became a senior two years later he had those same responsibilities. An interesting side point about Ron and I sharing the East High band together: When the picture of the drum section was taken -- note now I was the senior and I was the head drummer -- we were arranged for the photo shot. Of the nine members of the drum section along with our drums and symbols, there were two black faces in the photo. Ron is placed front row center. I am on the second row at the end. I assume the photographer thought Ron to be more photogenic. For those of you who have seen Ron’s captivating smile, you know the photographer was right.  As it turned out over the course of those early years, I may have run interference for Ron, but make no mistake, he was always the star.

During Ron’s hospitalization, I had the stark reminder of one of the jobs we had while in college. There was a group of about five of us African American students at Wichita State University who worked in the inhalation therapy department at Wesley hospital. Ron, Syd Dobson, and I, administered inhalation therapy treatments. Syd went on to become a technician with a heart transplant group in San Diego.

The three of us formed our social clique that had to the audacity to name ourselves “Le Clique.” To display this bond, at Syd’s urging, we often wore matching blazers with a patch with overlays of a compass, a double eighth note, and a gavel. The patch was indicative of our professional ambitions. Syd at that time envisioned himself as being an engineer, the compass represented Syd’s desire to be an engineer. Ron’s aspiration at the moment to be a lawyer was represented by the gavel. The musical notes of course represented by my interest in music.  In retrospect, the whole idea seems to be rather juvenile but it sure seemed cool at the time.  With both Ron and Syd having passed in October 2009, this is truly a sad day. This formation preceded Ron’s being the founding Polemarch of the University of Wichita, now Wichita State University, Kappa Alpha Psi chapter in 1958. Needless to say, Ron had a lifetime bond with those brothers he crossed over with: Galyn Vesey, who was Ron’s closest friend from Kindergarten on, Robert Blackwell, Lenward Holness, Howard Stewart, Charles Tisdale, Earl West, Willie Williams, and Billy Alexander.

There is one story about Ron and I that really puts our University Wichita times in perspective. In the summer of 1957, we were desperate for summer jobs. For some reason Wesley Hospital was out of the equation. We had heard that "running on the road" was a great summer job for young black male college students. We were striking out when it came to decent jobs in Wichita. Recall that we were the restricted to “Negro Jobs” at the time. The word was that out of Minneapolis between the railroads, the Great Northern, Burlington Northern, and the Northern Pacific, employed young black college males to work the Pullman and dining cars. We had been told that the railroads would start hiring on about the 18th to the 20th of June. Travelling between Minneapolis and Seattle, Portland, or San Francisco sounded like a fantastic opportunity. So, to beat the onrush of competitors, Ron and I took off for Minneapolis on the 9th or 10th of June. When we got there we were informed by railroad after railroad we were about 10 days too soon.

While in Minneapolis we discovered something we had not seen before, a black enterprise whose clientele was white. I think their name was Huggy Boys or something like that. We met their son who was a Kappa and had just finished his freshman year at Howard. We thought him kind of “out there” and representative of Frazier’s writings about the black bourgeosie of the time. Seemingly, his daily dress was suit, tie, hat and cane. Nonetheless, for the time that we were there, the family was kind to us, to the point of taking our calls from prospective employers.

After a week of being told that no hiring would begin before about the 18th of the month we came to the conclusion that even though lodging was not costing us anything, my car was our lodging, we could not last for another week. Moreover, we discovered that with its 10,000 lakes, the mosquitos in the Twin Cities in early June are fierce. On a Saturday, and no job prospects at hand, we decided that if we left Minneapolis by about noon we would get back to the Esquire Club before it closed so that we could party. We danced every kind of dance to be danced that night, fast dances, slow dances, the cha, cha, cha, you name it we danced it. Because we had to be flexible when it came to job applications, we had all of right attire, but we had slept in the car for a week. Nonetheless, we must not have “offended” anyone. Thankfully, no dances were refused.

The thing I will miss most in Ron’s absence is that he and I could always laugh at the same things. In the summer of 1963, in preparation for his marriage, Ron had found a job as a orderly at Crittenden Hospital in Detroit. I was living in Pontiac. Ron spent the summer with me. Our friends were a group of African American school teachers in the Detroit and Pontiac schools. This was still a time when teaching or social work, for all intents and purposes, were the only professions for young college grads. In this group were individuals who thought that their intellectual prowess was superior to everyone, particularly these two dudes from the flatlands of Kansas. After all, their degrees were from University of Michigan. At an afternoon backyard picnic, Ron and I paired up for a game that was popular at the time, "Password." Our experiences together allowed us to defeat all comers for hours, often with one-word clues. That afternoon was a highlight that we often reflected on and brought us much delight as a confirmation of our bond.

As many of you know, Ron was an avid fan of both tennis and football. As stated, Ron was in the marching band not on the football team. He was around the game of football. Before he was a fan of that Washington NFL football team, with its politically incorrect name, he was a fan of the East Aces and after that the Wichita Shockers and I assume Fisk’s team, as well. He liked the game. When it comes to the NFL, his team was always victorious over my team in even in the playoffs and when that team had a Hall of Famer, another native Wichitan, Barry Sanders. It is not necessary that I name the team for which I have season tickets for 34 years.

Ron’s love of tennis comes not just as an observer. Our game was at the courts of McKinley park, Wichita’s largest segregated park. That park has since been renamed McAdam’s park in the namesake of Wichita’s first black park administrator. Ron and I had a pretty good game. We both dug deep to spend $35 for the top of the line Slazenger rackets. We modeled our game after the Panchos, Segura and Gonzalez. We were not in the class of Charles McAfee, however. Charlie was the first African American to get a tennis scholarship to the University of Nebraska. Notice the scholarship was not to the University of Kansas. McAfee who was one of our role models, went on to become an award winning architect. The tennis culture at the park was socialization process of its own. Apart from McAfee, we often competed with these Korean war vets who called themselves the “Hungarian Freedom Fighters.” Hours on the courts particularly in addition to the trash talking, when no women were on the courts, the conversation was just like the barbershop when it came to race and politics.

Ron’s leaving Wichita for Fisk was clearly a case of racism having done us, the nation, a big favor. As indicated by the sit-in, Ron was ahead of his time. When it came to the social side of our relationship we were equals but when it came to politics, he was the leader. He introduced me to DuBois and E. Franklin Frazier. As a high school student, Ron participated in Boys State, an activity that no black students that I know of had participated. I don’t know if Ron was a member of the national Honor Society or not, which would have been very difficult for a black student at that time. I do know that his high school grades were exemplar. Even so, when he was a sophomore at Wichita, he received a “C” on a paper for a government class. He got the “C” with the explanation from the professor that the paper was really an “A” paper but he knew no “colored boy” could write a paper of that quality.” The very next semester with my encouragement he went to Fisk, where he thrived to become the student and scholar he became. Going to black America’s academic roots and legacy helped shape him in a way he never would have developed at Wichita State.

I have always been proud to say that I was able to be a part of his really big transition in academia. From a frustrating struggle following King's assassination, as the regional director for the Michigan Civil Rights Commission in Battle Creek, I came to DC to spend time with Ron and Pat and check out the “Poor People’s” campaign. The night I was to leave for DC, Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. While on my visit, my brother in law at the time was a graduate student at Brandeis, was desperately hoping I could find Ron. The students at the university had just successfully negotiated for an African American studies program. Ron’s Ph.D. with an emphasis on Africa made him an ideal candidate to provide leadership for such a program. Ron became the pioneer. The real victory for the students is that with his commitment to academic excellence, the program at Brandeis gave shape to an academic mission not simply a center from which to wage protest.

As brilliant as Ron was, in about 1972, I discovered he had a blind spot, when it came to race. When I was in graduate school at Stanford, he came to the campus for a visit. Having grown up in a very white Kansas and attended school in a segregated Tennessee and attended graduate school at American University, the diversity of the Bay Area, with its large Asian and Latino populations presented a challenge to his paradigm. His question to me was “Who are all of these people?” In Wichita there were some Mexican Americans but their numbers were few. Even though there were some Chinese restaurants in town, we had no Chinese classmates. Surely, he was cognizant that people of color, other than blacks lived in America, but not in these numbers. He went on to provide international consultations on the role of white nationalism in Latin South America.

In preparation for that excellent story on Ron that appeared in the Washington Post on September 12th, and even though he chose not to include it in his story, Matt Scheur asked me a profound question about Ron: What shaped Ron’s ideas, particularly notions that he would defy well entrenched social norms? Ron’s family was not middle class or members of Wichita’s black elite but they were entrepreneurs. His grandfather was a plumber, I believe. His grandfather had brothers who were also in the trades as carpenters, brick masons, radio/TV repair, you name it. They were independent not relying on whites for their livelihood. His father was Gilmor Walters, known in Wichita for being a “race man.” He had been in the service and served as the Warrant Officer for the Army’s Black musicians. Gilmore’s organizational affiliation was primarily the “colored” Musician’s local. From that platform he would express his protest by writing letters to the editor. Once his son had a Ph.D. in "black liberation" he became unrelenting in his attack on the system. This was the family context of his socialization, independence, and a commitment to the black community.

It is important that we recognize that the Dockum Drug Store sit-in did not just fall from the sky. Ron’s family always supported his leadership in the community. Also, as Aldon Morris points out in his award winning book, “The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement,” in regional meetings of the NAACP, chapters in Kansas, Oklahoma, and other states in the Midwest shared ideas about how to attack segregation. In his capacity as President of Wichita’s NAACP Youth Chapter that Ron attended these meetings. Though not an NAACP meeting per se, it was such a meeting at the University of Illinois-Urbana that Ron met his companion for life, Pat. When he came back to Wichita, he proclaimed to all that he had met his love. A student at Philander-Smith, she was intellectually strong with a commitment to civil rights. In fact, as he described it, the two of them had stayed up all night talking civil rights. Our response was sure, talking civil rights?

From that night on, their life’s work was fused. As was said so many times yesterday [at the Howard memorial service], whatever Ron’s accomplishments, he did not do them alone. Pat was his constant support and critic. That night in Urbana led to a marriage just short of 50 years, and a commitment to the black community and black politics that has been unparalleled, and taken us to a different place. Ron will be missed but we can rest assured that in Pat his legacy will be preserved.

1 comment:

Gretchen Eick said...

Thank you for this. I met Ron in DC during the late 1970s when I worked on anti-apartheid activities and, without realizing it, was amidst many civil rights pioneers who had turned to the hard work of bringing down apartheid. "Last Grave at Dimbaza" film previews, picketing and being arrested at the South African Embassy, supporting Ron Dellums' annual effort to get the House to pass total sanctions--our paths crossed in this work. ONly decades later when I moved to Wichita and began researching my dissertation topic, the civil rights movement in the midwest, especially Wichita, did I realize that Ron was a Kansan and get to learn from him of his other lifetime, which you share so eloquently here, growing up in this very segregated yet whimsically inconsistent city. A giant in both movements and in the analysis of life in these United States has passed and we are depleted by his passing.