Chilean Chronicles, Part XXX: Speaking about Dr. King and Dr. Bass at St. George’s College

Leon Bass bookThings are starting to groove here in Santiago, and it feels deep down good.

For starters, Dunreith and I have found a favorite, reasonable restaurant, La Republiqueta, a funky joint on Ave. Lyon, right where we stayed when we first arrived. She goes for a quesadilla salad with all kinds of seeds, while I have a sandwich with three kinds of mushroom and cheese. Throw in a mate to feed her burgeoning passion for that drink, a seltzer water for me, and a tip, and we’re out of there for less than $25.

From there we’ve established a firm, if not unbreakable, nightly ritual of splitting a chocolate bar filled with marzipan and a glass of the latest red wine we’re sampling during the next episode of the original version of “Betty, La Fea,” the inspiration for the American series, “Ugly Betty.”

A project that I’ve been working on around the Chicago Boys, the group of young Chilean economists who trained under Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman at the University of Chicago in the 1970s and applied his theories in Chile, is starting to bear some early fruit.

I’m having a terrific time with my students, who call me either “Profe” or “Jeff Kelly,” and am starting to connect with more colleagues at the university.

Dunreith is making great strides in Spanish, understanding just about everything and being able to speak more and more.

We’ve got our travel plans to Argentina and Brazil in October just about salted away.

I’ve started running again after a three-year hiatus, and my body is holding up well so far.

Dear friends Lisa Cook and Jim Peters will be flying here on Sunday morning for close to a 10-day visit.

And this morning I confirmed a speaking gig at St. George’s College, a private, English-language school, for next Wednesday, August 28.

Hugo Rojas, a law professor with whom I first connected in 2008 during my second attempt to land a Fulbright, connected me to his wife, a teacher at the school.

As justice-loving people the world over know, this year will mark 50 years since Dr. King gave his historic “I have a dream” speech.

Although he had delivered a similar version of the speech earlier in Detroit, King’s abandoning his notes and delivered an impassioned call for the nation to be true to its founding creed and that one day the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slaveowners shall eat together at the table of brotherhood is a high point in American oratory and history.

Twenty years ago, dear friend Dennis Downey and I, along with our ladies at the time, attended the 30th anniversary March on Washington.

Fifty years ago, personal hero Leon Bass was in the crowd of 250,000 people, weeping as he heard Dr. King describe his prophetic vision for the nation.

I’ve had the great privilege of knowing Leon for close to 20 years throughout his ceaseless commitment to fighting bigotry by talking for organizations like Facing History and Ourselves and the Anti-Defamation League.

Over that time we’ve become close friends.

He attended the second wedding Dunreith and I held at Look Park, giving us a check for $100 and telling me to go see a friend called gourmet.

A couple of years ago, after more than a decade of pushing from me and other people who love him, Leon published his autobiography, Good Enough: One Man’s Memoir on the Price of the Dream.

It’s a remarkable story that begins in 1925 and continues until today.

It’s a story of tradition and race and service and family and humility and seeking to find the courage to do the right thing.

Leon takes the reader through his childhood in Philadelphia, where he grew up with four brothers and one sister. His father, whom he revered, was a Pullman Porter. His mother ran a proverbial tight ship. As Leon’s told thousands of audiences, “If corporal punishment was child abuse, I was abused many times.” But he always makes it clear that he knew his parents loved him and wanted the best for him.

After graduating from high school in 1943, Leon volunteered to serve in the army, but was dismayed, and later furious, to find out that the country he had pledged to serve with his life, if necessary, was treating him as if he wasn’t good enough by making him stand at the back of the bus and eat at the back of restaurants.

He survived the Battle of the Bulge before having an experience that, as he described it, brought the blinders off and helped him understand that hatred was not limited to those who detested African-Americans.

This occurred in 1945, when he witnessed the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp and saw what he called “the walking dead.”

Bass spent about four hours in the camp, and that time was enough to alter his life’s perspective, even if he didn’t speak publicly about it for decades.

He returned home from the war and became the first member of his family to go to college, generally, but not always, heeding his father’s words to not go running his mouth so that he could complete his education.

“Once you get that, no one can take that away from you,” his father said.

Bass eventually graduated, becoming a teacher.

In the mid-50s, after some initial reservations, he became a follower of Dr. King after learning about his endorsement of the discipline and philosophy of non-violence.

One day, King came to Philadelphia, and Bass brought his class to hear him speak.

“He was a little guy,” Bass recalled, referring to King’s comparatively small stature. “But then he started speaking and I recognized him for the giant of a man that he was.”

King’s message to the students was direct. Not all of you may become doctors or lawyers, but whatever you do, you be the best at it. If you have to sweep the streets, so be it, Bass said later. You sweep the streets the way Michelangelo painted his paintings.

Bass was mesmerized, and, when the March on Washington came, he made his way down from Philadelphia to hear King offer his soaring rhetoric that endures to this day.

Bass later became a principal at Benjamin Franklin High School, one of the toughest in the city, if not the entire nation. He served there for 14 years before retiring in 1982.

About a decade before that, while at the school, he came across a Holocaust survivor talking to a class in the school.

She had lost almost all of her family, but the students were not interested in hearing about her pain.

Bass intervened, and, for the first time since that day in Buchenwald a quarter century earlier, spoke publicly about what he had seen.

What’s she saying is true, he told the young men. I know because I was there.

After the class ended and the students filed out in silence, the survivor implored Bass to start speaking in public.

You’ve got something to say, she said.

He has done it since.

One of my favorite parts of working at Facing History was taking speakers like Leon around to talk with students.

Leon and I traveled with his wife Mary, who was starting to be in the grip of Alzheimer’s, to Springfield, where he spoke to the entire student body at Cathedral High School.

I took him to Dorchester High, where, in his mid-70s, he stood down a group of unruly students by telling them, “You want to talk, you can come up hear and talk,” and then staring hard at them.

And I had the pleasure of working with Leon to tell his story in 20 minutes at a Facing History dinner that honored his years of service to the organization and that included a tribute by Dr. Calvin Morris, my former boss at the Community Renewal Society and one of Leon’s former fifth grade students.

Indeed, Dunreith and I later traveled to Cleveland, where Leon was again honored by Dr. Morris. That time, I got to have lunch with a select group of former Philadelphians that included Leon, Dr. Morris and one of Dr. Morris’ former students who had been a substitute teacher at Benjamin Franklin the last year Leon was a principal there. (They jokingly told me they’d let me hang around as a token Bostonian.)

Dunreith and I called Leon last night.

He sounded a bit tired when he answered the phone, but perked up when he recognized my voice.

He had just buried Claude, his last remaining sibling, on Friday.

I’m the last rung on the totem pole, he told me.

Even though there was mercy in his brother’s passing as he had suffered for a number of years, sadness crept into Leon’s voice.

We talked about our families and his attendance at Obama’s second inauguration, an experience he treasured. Although he’s not doing as much travel as he used to, he’s still speaking up for justice and still working to build the world that Dr. King described so memorably a half-century ago.

I told him about the speaking opportunity next week at St. George’s.

I’ll tell the students about Dr. King, I said. But I’ll tell them about you, too.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s