Last month I said a final farewell to two men of prominence. They were important not only in my personal life, but also in our Fort Wayne community and in the nation at large. When local folks would remark, “You must be so proud of your uncle,” I would smile and respond, “Which one?”
Dr. John Wilson Porter, my father’s brother, was born in Fort Wayne’s Westfield area in 1931. He played a key role as a member of Central High School’s basketball team as it advanced toward the state championship games shortly after World War II. Uncle John, often called just Wilson locally, excelled in sports, but it was in the academic area that he gained national recognition.
After attending Albion College in Michigan, Uncle John struggled to establish a professional career in Indiana. Ultimately, he moved his young family to Lansing, Mich., where he had an offer to teach. To put that decision in the context of time, Fort Wayne Community Schools did not hire its first African-American teacher until 1952. It would be years later before anyone of color would advance to an administrative position.
Uncle John moved up rapidly in the Michigan school system. While there, I remember visiting him on the Michigan State University campus on which he lived and worked. Eventually Uncle John became the superintendent of schools for the state of Michigan and later the president of Eastern Michigan University. Uncle John was always in demand as a keynote speaker, board member for Fortune 500 corporations and as an advisor to the Department of Education in Washington, D.C.
In my eyes he was always the uncle who often looked after me and my brother after our own father died in 1960. Each time he returned to Fort Wayne, he marveled at how much the city had grown. His final visit here in 2009 was for my mother’s funeral. He and my mother’s brother, Bill, talked fondly of the “ole days” and liked updating one another about their careers, families and retirement plans.
My mother’s brother, William Raspberry, wasn’t born in Fort Wayne, but did live here briefly in the 1950s. Uncle Bill, as we called him, was born in Okolona, Miss., in 1932, when segregation was the way of life in that part of the country. My mother, who was a few years older than Bill, had left the South during World War II as the bride of a Navy man who was a Fort Wayne native.
After finishing high school in Mississippi, Uncle Bill came to Indiana to earn money for college at the University of Indianapolis, formerly known as Indiana Central. He lived with my parents for a short time when I was a child. I recall my father and Uncle Bill getting up early each morning to drive to work to the GM plant in Defiance, Ohio, with several other men.
Uncle Bill started his career in journalism in Indiana, and after being a public information officer in the U.S. Army, he eventually was hired by The Washington Post.
His coverage of the Watts riots in 1965 earned him national prominence, and he was named journalist of the year by the Capitol Press Club. For over 25 years his columns for the Post were syndicated and often reprinted in The News-Sentinel. Uncle Bill received numerous awards and recognitions for his work, and in 1994 he was honored with the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished commentary. Uncle Bill frequently returned to Indiana and was a keynote speaker for IPFW’s Omnibus Series. Even as he was beginning to segue way into retirement, Uncle Bill kept busy as a Knight Professor of Journalism and Communications at Duke University. His passion project was Baby Steps, a parent training and empowerment program he created in his hometown in Mississippi.
While both men are gone from us physically, what they left behind will stay with me and others for generations yet to come. But for me the greatest legacy is the lesson on how to live. Neither man knew the impact that simple decisions would make on their lives, yet when faced with an obstacle of limited job opportunities or the injustice of racism, they simply looked within themselves for the strength to do the best they could and let the merits of excellence blast though the barriers.
Both men understood the value of education yet did not allow ego to keep them from doing manual work to support their growing families. Both men had high-profile careers with demanding schedules that often required travel away from home, yet both men found a way to stay connected with their families and loved ones. From family reunions, weddings, Facebook pages and other communications, both of my uncles took time to “stop and smell the roses.”
In a society in which men, especially black men, are often demonized as absent, imprisoned or abusive, my uncles showed by their presence and actions that fathers and uncles matter. Their work may have paved the way for others in their professional fields, but their positive relationships with family, friends and their community created a solid foundation that enriched their lives and ours with a balanced respective of purpose, privilege, responsibility and respect.
The best way for me to honor that legacy is to make sure that I do everything I can to pass those values on to the next generations in this community and beyond.