"How are you doing champ?" ...was how he greeted me. I was to be his caddy that day at Wicker Park, an Indiana public golf course 35 miles southeast of his home in Chicago. Because Wicker Park's pro welcomed him and his black golfer friends, I had steady work each weekend as a 12 year old caddy. The Windy City's links were not so accommodating in 1954 to black golfers even though these men were among America's finest businessmen, lawyers, doctors, and retired athletes.
The drive he walloped off the first tee landed far beyond the 150 yard drop-off of Wicker Park's 550 yard first hole, perhaps 270 yards down the fairway. For some reason, caddies were scarce that day. I was carrying a massive pair of leather bags on my 120 pound frame. During my struggle to the green, he seemed more concerned about me than his golf game. Gratefully, a caddy came from the club house to shoulder one of those bags before I'd collapsed on the way to the second green. Unbeknownst to me, he'd sent a message to get me help immediately.
He was so genuine, asking me about my dreams for the future... sports...family...friends. I never felt like his employee that day, though I was. He treated me as though I was a member of the foursome. Four hours later, I took his clubs to the car, regretting that my time with him had ended. Smiling, he waved as we parted. "What a special and wonderful man," I thought, "but I had never asked him his name. Somebody ought to know it?" Indeed, the first caddy I asked did... "Jerry, you just caddied for the world's greatest Olympian...Jesse Owens!"
He was my first black friend, a high school freshman basketball teammate. His inscription remained on the inside cover of my 1955-56 yearbook: "Jerry, what a great year we had (16-0)..., Kenny." I suppose recollections from a thirteen year old high school freshman, from nearly a half century past, are totally na´ve. They have to be wholly inept at capturing what it was like to be black in the 50s, even in the North. But I do remember the friendship we shared as a memorable highlight of my life.
Hammond High was a city school. Its nearly 2000 member student body intimidated me. Highland, my hometown, had no high school so that circumstance ordained I attend that city school even though the rest of my grade school classmates chose rural Griffith High School. No black students attended Griffith since no black families lived in either Highland or Griffith. Had it not been for that year at Hammond and Kenny, I might never have known anyone black until I graduated from college.
He was the most likable of my teammates, not puffed up despite his considerable ability, always lending a word of encouragement, a good listener, and a person who would "go to the mat" for a friend on or off the court. Yes, it was a novelty having so close a black friend, but I honestly know Kenny would have been my friend regardless of race because of "the content of his character."
Construction of Highland High School interrupted our friendship. I lost track of Kenny until my Senior year at Highland. It was a Saturday afternoon in March of 1960. Highland was playing Hammond High in the semi-finals of the Indiana State basketball tournament's first round of games.
I met Kenny before the game. Though he had been the high scorer of our undefeated freshman team, he was not a member of the Hammond varsity. I never found out why, but he came up to wish me well. With some regret, we recalled our days as freshman friends. Had Kenny been among the Hammond five that afternoon, I don't believe the outcome would have favored our team. I scored 21 points in leading Highland to a 20 point victory. That game led to a college basketball scholarship to Rice Institute in Houston, Texas.
I suppose that I benefited because Kenny didn't compete that day. Furthermore, I benefited because no black players were offered scholarships by Southwest Conference schools like Rice. As a white player, who had played his best two games that Saturday in March, I impressed the Rice coach. Needless to say, no Big Ten team, who could recruit players like Kenny, would have been interested in me.
During my years at the Rice Institute, the school became an integrated University. Sad to say, the only black players I encountered were opponents on northern teams. I'll never forget the Creighton game in Omaha, Nebraska, December of 1961. We were 37 points behind with a few minutes remaining when the coach put me in. Creighton's All-American black player Paul Silas needed but one basket to set some kind of Omaha Auditorium record. My teammate defending Silas called, "help me." Switching in front of the 6' 7" Creighton star found me between Silas and his destiny, the Auditorium record.
At once Silas went air-borne in Michael Jordan fashion, sweeping me off my feet as his cargo. At the basket, he "slam-dunked" the ball through the rim and net. Because I was "plastered" on his chest, the ball bounded off the top of my head. Dazed, I collapsed backward onto the hardwood court. There I lay prostrate like a dead Texas cockroach, arms, hands and legs askew. Six thousand fans leaped to their feet acknowledging Silas's new record while the referee knelt down, extended his arm toward me, pointed his index finger at my chest, and shouted, "Foul on you number 31!"
Such an incident aptly demonstrated how unjust it was to preclude players like Paul Silas in favor of the likes of me during that era. "Jesse Owens, if ever I needed you I needed your encouragement that Saturday evening in December of 1961."
It was a morning in January of 1986, a shuttle launch day. Among those on board was Ron McNair, a black astronaut from South Carolina. As a NASA employee at the space center, I'd always wanted to meet Ron. Here's why: Since meeting Jesse and Kenny, I'd met another very wonderful person. Perhaps, their example was responsible for becoming acquainted with someone never to be forgotten. Of course, his name is Jesus. By 1986, I'd known Him for 14 years in a personal way. And that's why I wanted to meet Ron McNair because he too was Jesus' close friend. So close was Ron's relationship that it was often talked of at the Johnson Space Center. That morning, I watched Ron ascend into heaven...and as President Reagan said, "touch the face of God." Ron was with his friend Jesus now and forever more.
Finally, and most recently, I met another black friend, though as the Bible speaks of such friendships..."out of time." I hadn't thought much about Martin since he confronted the evils of racism which led to his tragic death, but I did recall something at the onset of my career at NASA in 1966. In the 60s, I managed the lunar lander's warning system. At that time, one of my colleagues remarked that the head of the entire NASA lunar lander program had a large painting of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the living room of his home. My unspoken thought was, "What would so impress this white NASA manager to boldly and proudly acknowledge Martin Luther King, Jr. in this way?" In May of 2002, I read Martin Luther King, Jr.'s autobiography. It answered my question.
I had not known that Martin was a man of learning and culture, a member of the philosophy society, one who enjoyed opera. As he prepared to launch his career as a pastor, two paths opened to him. One offered him the respect of learning, teaching, and scholarship in a northern Detroit church. The other promised struggle, persecution, and, perhaps, even death in the southern Dexter Avenue Church pulpit. After much earnest prayer, Martin chose the latter path.
Most know the story of Moses: how he shunned the lavish courts of Egypt for his people and his God. As a result, the Bible lists Moses among the heroes of the faith in Hebrews 11. If I were to fashion an Americans 11, it would include Martin Luther King, Jr. and might read thusly:
By faith Martin, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of culture and erudite learning, choosing rather to suffer affliction with his people of the South than to enjoy the pleasures of opportunity and acceptance in the society of the North, esteeming the reproach of his calling in Christ as greater riches than the treasures and comforts of scholarship and position, for he had respect unto the recompense of the reward. By faith, he forsook the land of the faint hearted, not fearing the wrath of the persecutors, for he endured, as seeing his dream maker who is invisible. Through faith he kept that dream alive, and saw the shedding of blood throughout his land, lest he that destroyed his people should be victorious over them. By faith, though they be slain, he and they passed through their Red Sea as by dry land that they might one day say "Free at last...Free at last...Thank God Almighty...We are free at last!"
...and now I know why Martin's picture hung in honor in that NASA leader's home for it hangs in mine as well.
For 45 years, Jerry Woodfill has been employed by NASA in Houston. He holds BAEE and BSEE degrees from Rice University. At the onset of the lunar landing program, he managed the spacecraft warning systems so that he was monitoring spacecraft Eagle's descent when Neil Armstrong landed on the Moon. Likewise, on April 13, 1970, Jerry was monitoring Apollo 13's warning system when the vehicle exploded. His system was first to alert mission control to the life-threatening malfunction depicted in the Tom Hanks-Ron Howard movie APOLLO 13. For his participation in the rescue of Apollo 13, he shared the Presidential Medal of Freedom as a member of the Apollo 13 Mission Operations Team.
For a free presentation of this message to your church or group, contact Jerry Woodfill at firstname.lastname@example.org .