As I entered church this morning the kindly greeter, Annmarie, said, “Hello, Sunshine!” Took me by surprise, because I was in a dark mood. I carry a lot of heaviness still since the death of my older son almost six months ago, and I was concerned about my wife’s even heavier mood. But, as they say in 12-step programs, I fake it to make it. Since I was a child, I’ve greeted the world with a trusting smile.
In meditation, too, teachers often suggest wearing the half-smile of the Buddha, bringing peace to your own countenance. Annmarie’s greeting reminded me of a friend from high school I have lost contact with — a girl named Alice Gates, who called me Smiley. She was the first person who got me thinking of myself as someone with a friendly face. I still have the high-school yearbook she signed: “Hello! Keep smiling, Sweetie! Love, Alice.”
I owe a debt to Alice Gates not only because she pointed out something I didn’t know about myself. She also introduced me to perhaps the most remarkable person I ever met, who had a profound impact on my life. That was a woman named Alice Johnson, later Alice Johnson Mcdonnell. I was about 17 and Alice J. was in her 30s when I met her in 1963. I wish I could find my picture of her in my messy office. You’ll need to settle for this description: an African-American woman who wore her hair “natural” before the word “Afro” was invented.
I don’t know what Alice saw in me, a white Jewish kid who had never had a black friend before, but she wanted a little brother, and I became hers. She had grown up in West Philadelphia, somehow got herself through Antioch College, and then served a couple of tours in Japan and in Africa for the State Department. When the civil rights movement began to show signs of life, she returned to Philadelphia and bought a row house in North Philadelphia to be part of it. I began dropping in regularly, and she always had time for me.
What she taught me is that it is possible to make things change. She knew how to talk to power. One example: She went to the local Bell Telephone Company and pointed out that almost all of their minority employees were in maintenance jobs, and she understood that they may not have the skills to advance. However, she told them, they could do something about that. They could give her a contract to provide the education the blacks and Hispanics needed for promotions. Then she talked Temple University into giving her classroom space, and a program was born.
She didn’t have patience for young black men standing on the corner dissing their mothers for cleaning white people’s homes and often gave guys like that around her neighborhood a talking-to and sent them home to apologize to their mammas. Alice met and married J. Brian Mcdonnell in the mid 1960s, and he and I became best friends. During the summer of 1970, Brian fasted for 37 days across the street from the White House to protest the United States’ invasion of Cambodia.
After I moved to New York City later that year, the three of us remained close. In early December 1971, Alice spent a weekend with me in my New York City apartment. It was her treat to herself before starting a tough mission she had created. She had gotten Rutgers University to grant her the status to go into Trenton State Prison to teach for-credit courses to inmates. She had arranged an apartment in Trenton where she’d spend three nights a week, and when she left me on Sunday, December 5, 1971, she took the train to Trenton to set up her apartment.
That night, she gave a talking-to to the wrong group of guys standing on a corner, and they stabbed her to death.
That was the first of the violent deaths that would continue throughout my my life, and I learned a lot from it. But I learned a lot more from Alice’s life.
Copyright 2015 © Mel Harkrader Pine