Remembering Bill Danforth

How the former chancellor and a young Black professor grew to know each other

Gerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters in the Department of English and professor in the African and African American Studies Department, in his office. Photo by James ByardGerald Early, the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters; professor of English in Arts & Sciences


I had many encounters with Chancellor Emeritus William H. Danforth, who died Sept. 16, but these two I recall with particular fondness:

In the early 1990s, I was stopped and questioned by the police in nearby Frontenac, Mo., for walking around the Le Chateau mall, a small, exclusive shopping area, while waiting for my wife, Ida, and our children, who were attending a Junior League Christmas event. I was stopped because I was the only black male in the vicinity and a shop owner thought I was, as he so inelegantly put it, “up to no good.” I wrote about this incident at some length in a book called “Daughters” (1994) and I do not wish to rehearse it all again here. When Ida and I asked the city of Frontenac for an apology, which the city fathers for a variety of reasons, I suppose, were not especially eager to give, the situation became an ordeal that lasted for weeks.

When I told my friend, Wayne Fields, about what had happened, he arranged for me to talk to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. And Bill Danforth visited me and Ida at our home. I was surprised, a bit overwhelmed, as I had not expected it. I had met him several times before but I could not say that I had interacted with him very much. He did not stay long. He expressed regret about what happened and wanted to show his support. I suppose any chancellor or college president might have done that for a young minority professor but I have no way of knowing that empirically. What I know for sure is that Bill did.

I appreciated his visit enormously because the strain of the incident being publicized was already becoming more than Ida and I could bear. We felt alone. We had not consulted any lawyers, something that the leaders of Frontenac feared, because we were never interested in damages or money. We did not go to any civil rights groups for support because we did not want demonstrations on our behalf. I was not interested in being a “civil rights hero.” I did not want to be exploited and I did not want to exploit those organizations. This was, what you might call, a matter of mutual respect. I never told my Philadelphia family, even my mother, about it. So, it is no exaggeration to say there was a certain “lonesomeness” about enduring it all that made me feel akin to those old blues troubadours who would sing about hearing train whistles blowing across the prairie at midnight. Bob Dylan was right: It does take a train to cry.

I know that Bill helped to arrange the meeting that took place with me and Ida, and the mayor, city manager and chief of police (Ben Branch, I will never forget him though I would like to) in Frontenac. Bill came with us to the meeting. I was so grateful for that because I felt stronger with him there. I was so afraid that it would be only me and Ida against an array of Frontenac politicians and bureaucrats who were going to belabor the point of our being “overly sensitive” and bully us into defeat.

There was something rather Lincolnesque about Bill that day, not that he said very much at the meeting; he did not try to “represent” us as I think he held us in too high an esteem to feel that we needed him in that way. But I think it was the sheer steadiness of his support, the steely resolve of it, that had a kind of grandeur and glory to its unpretentiousness. We all glowed in dignity. “Well, I have somebody on my side,” I thought. He made me feel good to work at Washington University. In fact, he made me feel good to be alive that day, although it was, in so many respects, a miserable day “taken all around,” as Huck Finn would say. Ida and I got our “apology,” conditional though it may have been, and I do not think we would have gotten it had it not been for Bill’s support of us.

To say that Bill Danforth was a great man nearly goes without saying and seems a platitude without much meaning. What does it mean to be great, after all? In taking Bill’s measure, I think about Freedom and Fate, the poles around which all human lives orbit. Most of us keep them in a poor balance, misusing, abusing and wasting our freedom, cursing and railing against our fate. Bill kept such an equipoise of these Lords of our Life, an easy meshing of the exuberance of freedom and the acceptance of Fate. Not everyone knows the discipline of how to live but I think Bill did. I admired that.

A few years after the Frontenac incident, I had to have my gall bladder removed. This turned out to be a more serious procedure than the surgeon had anticipated and I had to be hospitalized for several days. My mother came from Philadelphia to see me and on the first day of her visit to my hospital room, I was complaining about the nurses not having come to empty some containers of fluids as I had, at the time, a veritable forest of tubes and such extending from various points in my stomach and side.

While my mother was there, Bill came to see me. When I introduced him as Dr. Danforth, my mother assumed he was my surgeon and began to give him a piece of her mind about the care I was getting. Bill chose not to correct her mistake and simply took the abuse. I was too weak, embarrassed and amused to try to stop it. He soothed her, saying he was sure that matters would be taken care of and everything would be fine. My mother, barely appeased, harrumphed and said it had better be. When she left to get some coffee (her choice of addiction), I apologized to Bill for her outburst. He simply grinned and said he was used to talking to angry parents. He had a sense of humor, too.


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