Racism. We hear a lot about it today and it continues to be a problem. How can it be overcome? I have no sweeping answer, but believe that the only real chance we have for progress is at the level where one person interacts with another. Which makes me think of Mr. Tiller.
I grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. I lived in a suburban neighborhood where the houses were about as old as I was. Fort Wayne was like a lot of Midwestern cities then – everyone who was black lived, well, somewhere else.
This story is from a time a couple of years before my school system began an active desegregation program which brought black kids to our suburban schools, a program that did not always go as smoothly as might have been hoped. Until that time I lived much as a city kid would have lived in the 1940’s, walking the few blocks to my neighborhood school which was populated by kids from my neighborhood. As the kids with divorced parents, my sister and I were what passed for diversity then.
It was during the summer of probably 1970 when my mother went to Sears and ordered “Venetian blinds” for the three windows across the back of the house, windows assaulted daily by the hot afternoon sun. An installer was scheduled to come to our home.
My divorced mother worked as a nurse, for a company that performed physical exams for insurance applicants. In the summertime she would hire teenagers to watch us during her weekday working hours when she was not at home. These girls were there to keep us from hurting ourselves or each other (and largely succeeded). As “the man of the house” while Mom was at work, eleven-year-old me took on the job of showing the installer where the blinds were to go on the day of his arrival.
I vaguely remember the man, a dark-haired middle aged guy. I used to like to watch tradesmen do their work and watched, hoping to understand how blinds were hung. He was not very friendly. I was also unimpressed. I remember the electric screwdriver, the first time I had ever seen such a thing. He seemed to have trouble controlling it. Even at that young age I knew you were not supposed to crack the window trim when you drove a screw into it. It became clear that he was not all that skilled and he seemed more interested in getting finished than in doing the job right.
That evening Mom came home from work, excited to see her new blinds. She became disappointed when one seemed to be hanging a little unevenly. Her mood did not improve when she went to the one over the kitchen sink and pulled on the drawstring to raise the blind. Instead of going up, the whole thing came down, grazing her on the head before it clattered into the kitchen sink.
My mother had a temper and I saw it on display right then. She was the daughter of a German Farmer and expected that things are supposed to be done “right.” And while she was not at all Irish, you couldn’t tell it when she got mad. She got on the telephone and called the Sears store and gave the salesman an earful. After finally getting a chance to speak, the person on the other end of the line told her that “Mr. Tiller” would be sent the next day to take a look at the situation. We didn’t know who “Mr. Tiller” was, but he seemed important.
A man rang the doorbell the next day, as promised. Perhaps my eyes displayed my surprise as I opened the door. In a scene I remember vividly to this day, there was a tall black man, probably in his early forties. He wore a pale yellow short-sleeve dress shirt and a dark tie. He introduced himself and asked if we had experienced a problem with some blinds. My mother, who had taken the day off work, led him to the kitchen and showed him the situation. He no doubt picked up that she was still extremely hot about the botch that had been made of her kitchen windows.
As he spoke with my mother I saw a man of authority. His voice was quiet but businesslike. I had no trouble at all accepting him at full value as a manager for Sears, Roebuck & Co. And to her credit, neither did my mother.
He quietly looked over everything and expressed surprise that their installer would have done the job this way. He clearly saw the problem, then asked me if the installer had been a man with red hair. I felt important, as the witness who could provide crucial facts. “Oh no,” I replied, and described the dark-haired guy who had been to our house. I could see from Mr. Tiller’s face that things made sense.
I watched him calmly acknowledge to my mother that that the job had clearly been fouled up and that her anger was understandable. He promised to send his best installer so that the blinds could be re-installed, properly and to her satisfaction.
When my mother was upset, she was not an easy person to calm down. It was not lost on me that Mr. Tiller did so expertly. He conveyed a combination of calmness and gravitas, and we somehow knew that we could trust him to make things right. The issue was indeed resolved when the red-headed installer came and rehung the blinds that would remain in those windows until my mother retired and sold the house over twenty-five years later. And he did not use an electric screwdriver even once.
As should be obvious by now, I have never forgotten Mr. Tiller. I never saw or heard of him again and have occasionally wondered about his story. I only know that he was given a position of authority with Sears at a time when this would not yet have been common, and on that day at our house he did his job with a combination of competence and professionalism I have seen equaled but never surpassed.
It now strikes me that had the situation been reversed, – an incompetent installer who was black and a good manager who was white, all kinds of stereotypes would have been perpetuated. Fortunately, that day was different.
There was a lot of racial strife going on in the world in 1970. But that day in our house there were people – a man representing a business and an unhappy customer. There were people of different races, but filling roles that went against the old unwritten rules we had all grown up with.
I watched my mother react to Mr. Tiller in ways I had not completely expected. After all, she had become an adult under those old ways and was, as many of her generation, more than a little wary of the changes that were happening where race was involved. But she accepted his authority and gave him a fair opportunity to do his job. She may have been a little bit surprised at the beginning of their interaction, but she was certainly not disappointed by the end of it.
Younger people may find this story hard to understand. Those of my childrens’ generation have always lived in a world where he person you deal with at a store, at a bank, at the doctor’s office or as your neighbor can be any combination of race, sex, nationality and any other identifying characteristic you can think of. And most people in the world I inhabit (certainly those under about eighty) consider this as nothing other than everyday normal.
It is not my intent to draw any lessons from this long-ago interaction, only to remember a man who came into our home for no purpose but to resolve a customer complaint. He had no way of knowing that he did so much more than that for a young kid who was trying to make sense of the world.