His name was Paul. A more beautiful, loving soul there was not. Paul died recently, ironically on the Ides of March, the day tax debts were settled during Roman times. He was 97 years old, and he had no debts to pay. Others owed him for the many acts of kindness that defined his life. I am one of them. I don’t recall exactly when in our relationship that Paul adopted me. But he did.
Elders are treasures. We would sit for hours and discuss every topic imaginable. There seemed to be no end to his knowledge or curiosity. He was living history, a window to the past and present through a unique prism. More than anyone, Paul pushed me to write for a living. He used to tease, “Forget humor. Write about what you know best—life. If you do, the practice of law won’t miss you.” And then he would chuckle, “but don’t expect me to pay your mortgage.”
Born in 1921, his birth certificate listed his race as “[n]egro.” The designation was white society’s way of branding him like a head of cattle. But Paul wore his blackness with equal parts pride and indifferent acceptance. As a youth, he understood the injustice of life’s prejudices of the times. “It was what it was,” as Paul would say. He assumed that he may ultimately become a train porter or postal worker. However, one of Paul’s most endearing qualities was his ability to be stubbornly oblivious, defiant, or at least resistant, to the status quo. In his mind, the unwritten rules and expectations of white society didn’t apply to him. He was special, and he knew it. He dared to believe that by the sheer force of his intelligence, his charisma, and his work ethic, the color of his skin may not matter.
Paul was right—he went on to become a pioneer. As a decorated World War II veteran, Paul returned from the war to New York, where he drove a taxi to supplement his GI Bill benefits while he earned a degree in physics from the City College of New York. The circumstances of his first post-graduate job proved to be a microcosm of his effect on others in life. By happenstance, one of his taxi fares was so impressed with him that she said, “You should go to college.” When Paul replied that he had just received a degree in physics, she asked for his contact information, and shortly thereafter, Paul received an unsolicited call from the head of the New York office of Union Carbide to interview for a job. He never looked back. On his first day of work, his supervisor announced to Paul’s co-workers: “We just hired our first black man. If you have a problem with that, you can leave now.”
That serendipitous experience was quintessential Paul. He had a way about him that parted, and simultaneously calmed, racial waters. Paul didn’t just break color barriers, he made those around him question them. With his unique balance of wisdom, humor, and self-confidence, he had an aura of regalness about him. He was a real-life embodiment of characters played by Sidney Poitier in “Lilies of the Field,” “To Sir with Love,” and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner,” three groundbreaking movies from the 1960s that had the courage to portray a black man in a positive light. Wherever Paul went, whoever he met, he changed his environment and those around him for the better. He was the ninth planet in the solar system, with his own gravitational pull—an undeniable invisible force that drew friends, colleagues, and acquaintances to him from all parts of the world and all walks of life.
Paul’s distinguished career included an extended stint at pioneering TRW, the aerospace and automotive industry giant, where Paul became one of the first black physicists to help design, test, and put satellites into space. When he retired from the Rand Corporation years later, he held the nation’s highest security clearance. Imagine the waste of talent if Paul has resigned himself to being a train porter or postal worker. There’s a lesson for all of us in the accomplishments of Paul’s life.
Paul would often smile and say, “I’ve lived a charmed life,” as if his success were by chance. Hardly. He refused to compromise his dignity, even while staring at the first rung of a “colored” person’s likely ladder of life. Paul rejected the first position offered by Union Carbide and forced the company to offer instead a position befitting his training and education. He never again had to demand respect. Paul earned respect wherever he went.
Professional success aside, Paul’s greatest gift in life wash is gratefulness, especially for the women in his life, starting with his mother, who affectionately called him “Buddy,” and his aunts, who, collectively, raised him in the streets of Harlem in the 1930s. Paul often recounted that he was surrounded by love as a child. He knew that he mattered. Their love launched him into life with an irrepressible sense of self-worth.
But he adored no one more than Patti, his devoted wife of nearly 50 years. As a career librarian at TRW, Patti allowed Paul—ever the curious critical thinker and mentor—to be Paul. She was his loving curator. She shared him with the world. Without Patti, Paul often said that he was incapable of being. Together, however, they inspired everyone. A romantic renaissance man and an equally gifted woman for the ages, they were an interracial couple when too few had the audacity to be color blind. She lived for him, and he lived for her. I can only imagine her loss.
I will forever miss Buddy. Patti, be strong. Let me help carry your burden. I promised Paul—you are my buddy now.