Leon Bass is a true hero.
Born and raised in Depression-era Philadelphia to a Pullman porter and a no-nonsense mother who reared five boys and a girl, Leon volunteered after his high school graduation to serve in the United States Army.
While training, he encountered rude and unforgettable reminders that, in his own words, he wasn’t “good enough.” These messages came in the form of the segregated South, where he had to wait outside a restaurant to be served a meal and had to stand in the back of a bus that had many empty seats in the front section that was reserved for white people.
Furious at his country that he thought was using him, Bass participated in the Battle of the Bulge before witnessing the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Although in the camp for just four hours, he saw there sights and absorbed smells that he did not speak about for years, but which never left him.
The smell of burning flesh from what he called “infernal ovens.” Survivors whose fingers had webbed together due to malnutrition. The body parts-eyes, ears, noses, genitalia-from experiments the Nazi had conducted on their victims.
Bass survived the war, returned home, and heeded his father’s advice to keep his pain inside when he again confronted unequal treatment because of his race, this time at Pennsylvania’s West Chester State College.
While watching a movie in town, he was told to sit in the upper level designated for African-Americans. Leon instead marched down to the front section. Fear started to seep in after his anger subsided, but Leon stayed in his seat-he says to this day he could not tell us the name of the film-and emerged from the theater not having been arrested.
He earned the first college degree in his family, then began a 34-year career during which he taught and served as a principal. Inspired by Rosa Parks, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and its young leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Leon became an adherent of the philosophy and discipline of non-violence.
While leading Benjamin Franklin High School, one of the city’s toughest institutions, Leon came across Nina Kaleska, a Holocaust survivor who had lived through the horrors of Auschwitz, the death camp where more than 1 million people were killed.
Kaleska was trying to tell her story to a group of students who were indifferent to her pain and suffering.
Bass intervened and told the young men that what Kaleska was saying was true. He knew, he told them, because he was there.
The students responded, listening respectfully to the rest of Kaleska’s presentation before filing out of the room in silence.
In tears, Kaleska told Leon he had to tell his story to other people.
“You’ve got something to say,” she told him.
He’s been speaking ever since, talking throughout the United States in schools, prisons and religious institutions to thousands and thousands of people and sharing his life’s journey, growing up, serving his country, joining the civil rights movement, attending the March on Washington, marrying and raising a family, becoming a “convinced friend” who supported Quaker beliefs, and working in the trenches for decades before retiring in 1982.
Now, just having turned 86 years in late January, he’s written a book.
Leon called our house this morning to let us know that Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir on the Price of the Dream.
You can order the book at http://www.drleonbass.com.
This news gave me particular joy as Leon and I first talked about his writing the book in 1998.
The book will be available on March 15, but can be purchased now.
I urge all of you who do and do not know Leon to purchase the book and to help spread the word about a man I consider a true American who has lived his life with valor, integrity and humanity, and who, in the twilight of his days, has found it within himself to share his life’s experiences with others in writing.