Monthly Archives: January 2015

The Summer I Met My First Great Man

 

My Desk

 

In the summer of 1961, when I was a fifteen-year-old boy, I was lucky to have the great Bill Dufford walk into my life. I had spent my whole childhood taught by nuns and priests and there was nothing priestly about the passionate, articulate man William E. Dufford who met me in the front office of Beaufort High School dressed in a sport shirt, khaki pants, and comfortable shoes in a year that history was about to explode in the world of South Carolina education circles. Because he did not wear a white collar or carry a long rosary on his habit, I had no idea that I was meeting the principal of my new high school. In my mind, I thought as I saw him moving with ease and confidence in the principal’s main office that day, that he must have been a head janitor in the relaxed, unCatholic atmosphere of my first day at an American public school. It was also my first encounter with a great man.

I was a watchful boy and was in the middle of a childhood being raised by a father I didn’t admire. In a desperate way, I needed the guidance of someone who could show me another way of becoming a man. It was sometime during that year when I decided I would become the kind of man that Bill Dufford was born to be. I wanted to be the type of man that a whole town could respect and honor and fall in love with – the way Beaufort did when Bill Dufford came to town to teach and shape and turn their children into the best citizens they could be.

Bill Dufford

Bill gave me a job as a groundskeeper at Beaufort High School that summer between my junior and senior years of high school. He had me moving wheel barrels full of dirt from one end of campus to another. He had me plant grass, shrubs, trees, and he looked at every patch of bare earth as a personal insult to his part of the planet. At lunch, he took me to Harry’s restaurant every day and I watched him as he greeted the movers and shakers of that beautiful town beside the Beaufort River. He taught me, by example, of how a leader conducts himself, how the principal of a high school conducts himself, as he made his way from table to table, calling everyone by their first names. He made friendliness an art form. He represented the highest ideals of what I thought a southern gentleman could be. He accepted the great regard of his fellow townsmen as though that were part of his job description. That summer, I decided to try to turn myself into a man exactly like Bill Dufford. He made me want to be a teacher, convinced me that there was no higher calling on earth and none with richer rewards and none more valuable in the making of a society I would be proud to be a part of. I wanted the people of Beaufort, or any town I lived in, to light up when they saw me coming down the street. I was one of a thousand kids who came under the influence of our magnificent principal Bill Dufford. For him, we all tried to make the world a finer and kinder place to be.

Bill Dufford was raised in Newberry in the Apartheid South where the Civil Rights movement was but a whisper gathering into the storm that would break over the South with all of its righteousness and power. Though Bill had been brought up in a segregated society, he charged to embrace the coming of freedom to Southern black men and women with a passionate intensity that strikes a note of awe-struck wonder in me today. He went south to the University of Florida the year I graduated from high school and came under the influence of some of the greatest educational theorists of his time. He returned to South Carolina with a fiery commitment to the Integration movement in his native state. No other white voice spoke with his singular power. He headed up the school desegregation department, which sent people into all the counties in the state to help with the great social change of his times. I know of no white southerner who spoke with his eloquence about the great necessity for the peaceful integration of the schools in this state. What I had called greatness when I first saw him in high school had transfigured itself into a courage that knew no backing down, to a heroism that defied the iron-clad social laws of his own privileged station from a great Newberry family.

Today, we honor Bill Dufford for a life well-lived. In recent years, he has been an articulate spokesman for the Diversity issue in our society. Because of Bill, his family donated their magnificent house to serve as Newberry College’s alumni house. The Dufford family has made large contributions to the Newberry Opera House, one of America’s loveliest buildings. Hundreds of his students went into teaching and education because of him. Today you honor Bill Dufford, one of the finest men I’ve ever met. It does not surprise me that you are honoring him; it just surprises me it took so long.

Remember, I was fifteen years old when I thought I had met my first great man. Mr. Dufford, it is a remarkable honor to introduce you today.

The best night in the life of this aging Citadel point guard…

 

I’ll not pretend this is not one of the greatest nights of my life and one of the most surprising. In the history of American letters, no writer has had such a troublesome and controversial relationship with his college. I’m personally responsible for much of that tension and I’m fully aware of that. But, when I was a cadet at The Citadel, I decided I was going to try to become an American writer and I found myself encouraged to do this by my English professors Doyle, Carpenter and Harrison, with a generous push from the history department of Conger, Martin and Addington. I took every course taught by the magisterial Oliver Bowman who let me in on the secrets of human psychology. Though I often lamented not going to an Ivy League college, I’ve talked to many of my contemporaries who did. They talk of great parties, drunkenness, and the great pleasure of midnight conversation and easy sex. I survived the toughest plebe system on earth, was taught by professors who cherished and loved me, and I was at my desk during Evening Study Period for four straight years. Now, I think I had the best preparation to write novels of any writer of my time on earth. I brought some of The Citadel’s fighting spirit into my life of words with me. From the beginning, I’ve told journalists that I planned to write better than any writer of my time who graduated from an Ivy League college. It sounds boastful and it is. But the Citadel taught me that I was a man of courage when I survived that merciless crucible of a four-year test that is the measure of The Citadel experience. I’m the kind of writer I am because of The Citadel.

The Citadel

Though I was not welcome on this campus for thirty years, my name will now be on a plaque hanging in McAlister Field House in perpetuity. It will hang there because I am a writer. But to me, it will be there because once I was young and raring to go and could bring a basketball up court and do it fast. Once I was a Citadel basketball player with the name of my college spelled out on my jersey and I think the happiest boy that ever lived on earth.

In 2002, I published a book called My Losing Season after I saw the brilliant shooting guard John DeBrosse in a bookshop outside of Dayton, Ohio. That night we talked about our 1966-67 team long into the night and I realized that year still carried all the agonies and splendors of sport in a single tormented season. I started to write that book and visited all the teammates I had abandoned after we lost a heartbreaking game in overtime to Richmond in the Southern Conference Tournament.

I had fallen in love with my teammates that year and never had the human decency to let them in on the secret. By going back to find the heart of my basketball team, I found my way back to the soul of my college. My teammates, in the grandeur and despair of their memories, provided the means for me to explore the regions of myself that led to the fierce pride I take in being a Citadel man. In the The Lords of Discipline, I tell of my disgust with the plebe system, but that it not a complete truth; it was the savage abuse of the system I loathed. It was the cruelty to boys under the guise of leadership that I rejected from the first day I walked into Padgett-Thomas barracks until the last. I never raised my voice to a plebe. I was raised in the Marine Corps and I was taught as a boy that you feed your own men before you feed yourself. It was my belief then, and it remains so today, that my platoon who loves and respects me will slaughter your platoon that hates you. But here is the great lesson I took from the Plebe System – it let me know exactly the kind of man I wanted to become. It made me ache to be a contributing citizen in whatever society I found myself in, to live out a life I could be proud of and always to measure up to what I took to be the highest ideals of a Citadel man – or, now, a Citadel woman. The standards were clear to me and they were high and I took my marching orders from my college to take my hard-won education and go out to try to make the whole world a better place.

The Citadel gave me all of this and then gave me one of the greatest gifts of my life – it allowed me to be a college basketball player, to represent my college from the hills of West Virginia to the banks of the Mississippi to the night lights of New Orleans. I tested myself against great players from Florida State, Auburn, Virginia Tech, Clemson, George Washington and thirty other teams around the South. Those great players taught me agonizing lessons about myself and my limits as an athlete. They taught me I was not very good, but I learned the same lessons every day from my splendid teammates at practice. I was a mediocre player out of his league in a very tough Southern Conference. But Lord have mercy on my soul, I loved that game with a passion that remains with me to this glorious night.

Let me tell you how it was. My guys and I would dress for the game and listen to the field house filling up with the noise of a fired-up crowd. Let’s play Davidson, the year they were ranked number one in the nation at the beginning of the year. I want the place packed to the rafters and I want the whole Corps there. When you’re a jock at The Citadel, you play for the Corps and there is nothing on earth to compare to the thunder and excitement and raw menace of the Corps screaming for their team. The Citadel band goes wild when you take to the court for the outcry of the Corps and it is that superb band that provides the musical score with its theme of wildness, and oneness, as the Corps rises in unison, its huge demon-driven voice urging its team on. Under the boards, Dan Mohr grabs a rebound, tosses it to John DeBrosse, who hits one on the wing and I take it flying down the court – yes – and I said flying and I once felt like a winged, unstoppable creature when I led my team on a fast breakout that polished the floor with my golden teammates filling the lanes around me and I heard Hooper or Connors calling from the left – Bridges filling the right lane and the opposing team sprinting to cut off our mad dash to the basket. This scene played out in eighty games over my career as a Citadel point guard and I would go flashy and show-offy when I neared to top of the key and watched the eyes of the guard who was supposed to stop me. I turned my head to the left or to the right and if I saw him overplaying I would streak past him, just because I could and I wanted to put on a show for the Corps and my teammates. If the big man came up too fast to stop me, I’d lay the ball off to Tee Hooper or Doug Bridges and they would fly through the air to score. The Corps would ignite and explode in a pandemonium of roaring and chanting and they put a primal fear into the hearts of the enemy who dared get in our way. Eighty nights of my life on earth were spent with the name of The Citadel emblazoned across my chest. I had never been so deeply alive before and so rarely have since.

But it was my team, my team, my bruised and damaged team, that was my greatest gift from that year – Dan Mohr, Jimmy Halpin, John DeBrosse, Dave Bornhorst, Bob Cauthen, Doug Bridges, Tee Hooper, Bill Zycinsky, Greg Connor, Al Kroboth, Brian Kennedy. I grow weak when I think about these guys, the way it felt to be around them, to be part of them. Our coach was the Ahab-like Mel Thompson and we fought through that year with his heel on our throats. He was a man of relentless fierceness and he ran us as a Gulag rather than a team. Several of us would vomit from exhaustion after practice and those practices were more physically exhausting than anything we ever suffered during the plebe system. Ten out of those twelve players had a game in their career where they scored over twenty points in a Citadel varsity game and the whole team averaged over eighty points a game before the era of the three point shot. That team could play ball, but I believe it got its heart cut out by a coach who didn’t know what he had. They were magical young men who have lived exemplary lives as Citadel men. All twelve of us graduated, many with gold stars and most with time on the Dean’s list. They have also become one of the most famous college basketball teams in history. When My Losing Season came out, I got letters from some of the most famous coaches in the country, coaches of all sports. Professional basketball players wrote me, the book was featured at the ACC championship tournament. It was used as a halftime special during the NBA championship. Whenever I sign new books, people ask me questions. “How’s Root doing? Is DeBrosse still coaching? Did Connor ever get a date? What happened to Zipper? Did Bridges ever apologize to you for getting you kicked off the team? Is Barney still a nut?”

The book is being taught in high schools and colleges around the country. Young men and women have applied to The Citadel after reading this book. My team is going to live on in some library forever. I finally got to tell my team how I felt about them and I finally got to tell my college how I felt about The Citadel.

So I’ve lived a lucky life and this night is the wonderful conclusion of a very long war between my college and myself. I speak to you from a room that is named for the Boo and his portrait is watching from behind me. My name will hang among the greatest athletes ever to play for the long gray line and I could not carry the jock of a single one of them. I chose to go into this hall of fame as a Green Weenie, what Dave Bornhorst called the second string of The Citadel basketball team, and it was the Green Weenies who kept the spirit of sport and competition

The Ring

alive for me. Their fire and their loyalty and their steadfastness moved me and I claim myself as one of them tonight. I want every second stringer in the history of this school to know that a Green Weenie is going up on The Wall. I began this journey in 1963 and it reaches some beautiful and surprising conclusion by the generosity of this committee tonight.

But ladies and gentlemen, I told you a long time ago why this night means everything to me.
I’m the guy who wrote his first line in The Lords of Discipline for all the world to hear. It summed up the way I felt about The Citadel and always have – I wrote four words. “I wear the ring.”

I thank you with all my heart for this priceless honor.