Daily Archives: January 19, 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.