In Memory: The Village of My Youth

Pat McGuigan 
NOTE: First published December 2, 1993. – The voice of Stanley Crouch, author of ‘Notes of a Hanging Judge’ (Oxford University Press, 1990) is, slowly but surely, being heard. As reported by Lynda Richardson of The New York Times (Aug. 29, 1993), Crouch “argues that all people, regardless of color or gender, have to be held to the same standards.”

Admirers include Oklahoma City native Ralph Ellison, author of “Invisible Man,” who says Crouch “makes the most of his American-ness. He’s irreverent. He questions the views of both liberals and conservatives, and that’s what critics should do.”

Crouch is weary of social analyses “overly influenced by the ideas of determinism – if you’re poor, you’re going to act in a certain way.” He grew up poor and black in Los Angeles, in a troubled environment, yet his public school teachers were determined, for his sake:

“These people were on a mission. They had a perfect philosophy: you WILL learn this. If you came in there and said, ‘I’m from a dysfunctional family and a single parent household,’ they would say, ‘Boy, I’m going to ask you again. What is 8 times 8?’

“When I was coming up, there were no excuses except your house burned down and there was a murder in the family. Eight times eight was going to be 64 whether your family was dysfunctional or not. It’s something you needed to know!”

Jean Hendrickson, principal at the Oklahoma City public school system’s Quail Creek Elementary, was the focus of a recent “Accent” article (Oct. 31, 1993) in The Sunday Oklahoman. Hendrickson recalled the African saying: “It takes an entire village to raise a child.”

As her own American version of that wise expression, Hendrickson remembered childhood in a small Texas town: “Regardless of where I went as a child – whether it was school, church or home, I heard the same message – that each child is important and we will not let you fail.”

Perhaps Hendrickson would agree that failure can be an opportunity for growth, the necessary option to fail but to rise again. Kids need someone to tell them 2 plus 2 equals 4, just as surely as they need love and nurture. 

A question to ponder: Are Hendrickson and Crouch saying, essentially, the same thing? 

The village of my youth centered on NW 32 Street, between Western Avenue and Classen Boulevard [in Oklahoma City]. My sisters and I came of youth in a consciously Irish Catholic family in the heart of Oklahoma, itself the heart of the Baptist/Methodist/Protestant Bible Belt. Mom and Dad raised us, to be sure, but others – Baptists, Methodists, Jews and more – helped in ways I could not discern at the time.

Life in our village centered on family, neighborhood, church and community. Church and school were only a block and a half away. Our teachers were a mix of lay women and Sisters of Mercy. Those teachers raised me.

An influential associate pastor was Oblate priest George Krupa, a native of Austria who had fled tyranny. Pastor for most of those years was Monsignor John Connor, who persistently and gently lobbied me to become a priest. Krupa and Connor raised me.

As I grew, the village included men such as that Southern Baptist deacon, a teacher at Harding Junior High, who broke up a fight I was in one day early in the summer of 1968. After a tough morning (The Oklahoman headline, I think, was ‘Sen. Kennedy Shot In Head’), I arrived at school distraught, to hear one lad utter a horrible wish about people of my faith. After ascertaining the full tale of our confrontation, the deacon took me aside to utter words of comfort. That deacon raised me.

Later, the village included Shepherd Mall, where I worked as a janitor with an elderly Black gentleman named Walker. Conversations over the years taught me that “Walk” had the same dreams for his grandchildren as my grandfather. Walker raised me.

Were those days idyllic? I don’t know. There was a lot of poverty, controversy and diversity in that village, but there was also a lot of hope, determination and unity. And that village worked – not merely in the sense of the labor of its people. 

I wonder if “what works” has changed all that much in three decades, in three centuries, or in three millennia.

What works was restated for me a few months ago by an Oklahoman named Daryl Brown. Brown and I enjoyed dinner together in Taipei city, in the Republic of China on Taiwan. Born 37 years ago in our fair city, Brown’s professional baseball career included a hitch with the Minnesota Twins, until a slugger named Kirby Puckett came along to take his place. When we met last spring [1993], Brown was in what would be his final season as one of the American players in the Chinese Professional Baseball League

Brown spoke at length, and with candor, about his life. After the glamour of professional sports, his thoughts these days are on education, kids, family, church and institutions such as the Boy Scouts. Brown reflected on America’s contemporary social problems:

“I’ve known guys like Wade Boggs. … I’ve been in the big leagues. All that used to impress me, but you want to know what impresses me now? A man and a woman celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. Now, that’s impressive.”

This Sunday [in 1993], the Washington Journalism Center begins a conference on “Violence & Society: Kids, Cops, Women & TV,” running through Dec. 8. The seminar’s topics and speakers (with a couple of exceptions) may spark another spate of news stories about misogyny, guns and television as, allegedly, principal sources of American social collapse.

Just about everyone will get blamed but the human beings who are murdering each other. In the process of all this killing, are we seeing the death of those dreams that blossomed in our village, when the civil rights movement made its moral claim on the American conscience?

In the village of my youth, there were assuredly bigots, but I didn’t see or hear much from them, for people of all races knew the difference between the law-abiding and the thugs.

I recognize characters in the stories of Stanley Crouch, Daryl Brown and many others, from their words and actions. Somewhere in memory, weren’t we all from the same village?

Until that village is rebuilt, the madness will continue.  

NOTE on April 11, 2021:  McGuigan wrote this commentary in 1993. Concerning the two American literary figures mentioned in his essay: Stanley Crouch (1945-2020) was an American poet and music critic; Ralph Ellison (1914-1994). His ‘Invisible Man’ was judged by a wide range of critics as among the greatest American books of the Twentieth Century.