Remembering Mr. Tiller
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.
Really enjoyed this piece. Thanks for sharing.
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Thank you. As you can tell, he made a strong impression on me.
Great story of a brief encounter that had a lasting impression.
My rural early life was about as un-diverse as can be, most everyone I knew was either a Dutch immigrant or first generation Dutch-Canadian. When I was 12 we moved to town, and my elementary school principal was Bernie Custis who had been the CFL’s first black quarterback.
He was the most dignified man I’d ever met.
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You raise an interesting point. A hundred years ago when America was “a melting pot”, every major American city was a collection of ethic neighborhoods. In my own city there are still the old Catholic church parishes that still carry a little of their old character of being “the Irish parish” or “the Italian parish” or “the German” parish and so on. Folks who grew up in those close-knit neighborhoods didn’t experience a lot of diversity then either, certainly up through 8th grade of their local parish school.
That reminds me of the fellow who was a quarterback of the Tiger Cats in the CFL who was black – Chuck Ealey. He later became a person in a position of authority in a financial institution in Mississauga and I had an opportunity to meet him. As well spoken a gentleman as there is, and he unwound a complicated situation that those around him were having difficulty with. It was an honour meeting him.
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That’s interesting Doug. I have blogged about my Dutch grandparents, under Dutch Inheritance last year. My mother grew up in a Dutch immigrant community, but moved once she married, (to an Irishman!) so I never had that experience.
A terrific story.
To some extent, many of us likely have our Mr. Tillers. The school were I went K-12 had been consolidated in 1968, emptying many smaller schools in the area. The final resulting student body was around 35% students of African descent, a new concept for many of the other 65%. Mr. Russell, a physically imposing principal for the high school students, was within that 35% and had to work through a lot of the problems that would have erupted for such a situation in 1968 America. Despite his premature death to cancer in the late 1980s, his legacy and reputation remains there today. He was that great of a positive influence on many.
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You remind me of my high school gym teacher, Mr. Gurnell. He was the football coach, but was much softer-spoken than most football coaches of my experience. I hated gym class, but I never had anything bad to say about him. I still remember when we all had to run a mile around a cinder track. As I huffed and puffed around that final turn and across the finish, Mr. Gurnell got a little smile on his face and said “is this the first time you’ve ever run a mile?” I wanted to be sarcastic and say “how did you ever guess” but he said it with zero snark and with a tone of encouragement, so that all I could do was smile and go “yeah.”
“Giving people a fair opportunity” is central to the American dream. That attitude made the United States one of the least racist societies in the world, at least prior to our current obsession with bean-counting about group representation.
Racism remains a problem for two reasons. First, it’s biologically hard-wired: we (and other biological creatures) evolved to trust and cooperate with those we perceive as our genetic relatives, and to regard with suspicion those we perceive as genetic competitors. Race is a clearly visible marker of genetic difference, so that aspect of the problem will never go away. We can only be aware of it and try to think our way around it. I talk about that aspect of racism in my book, “Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things.”
The second reason is tragic: people who see America as fundamentally evil have turned accusations of “racism” into an all-purpose political weapon against anyone or anything with which they disagree. Because their complaints have almost no merit, they can never be satisfied, and America can never “prove itself innocent.” That’s my opinion.
That’s interesting, I don’t know any people who think America is fundamentally evil, but then again I’m a Canadian. How many do you know?
I think that what counts as racism has changed over the decades. But that aside, another problem is separating “the racial” from “the political”. In the US the African-American vote has been locked into the Democratic party for decades, so that race has been co-opted more than a few times by politicians who have an interest in there being something to get that voter demographic wound up and to the polls. It would be interesting if the African-American population started spreading between the political parties the way other formerly one-party demographics have (and I’m thinking of Catholics).
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This was a great story JP and something you recall with great detail after all these years.
I must tell you that we moved from Oakville, Ontario to SE Michigan in the Summer of 1966. I was ten years old. In Canada, my playmates and our neighbors were Negroes and referred to as such. My parents read the “Toronto Star” from cover to cover and surely they knew of race relations in the States before we moved over here, but I recall them reading “The Detroit News” about simmering race relations problems shortly after we moved here and speaking in hushed tones about the different attitudes. The following year, in the Summer of ’67, were the race riots in Detroit. They were bloody, brutal and are counted among the most-violent and destructive riots in this nation’s history. Relatives and friends called over after seeing accounts of the riots on the news and were anxious if we were okay … my parents fretted that we ever moved here as we never saw any animosity between Black and White people in Canada. It was a rude awakening. There are still many parts of Detroit where there are empty, burned-out shells of buildings that are a bitter reminder of those days. Since I was only 11, I did not know the whole impact, but heard it at the dinner table every night and discussions while my parents read the paper. When the 50-year anniversary of the riots took place a few years ago, there were articles and videos galore and only then did I realize what shocked and horrified my parents so long ago.
That was indeed an ugly time, one that I remember mostly from seeing on the television news. Fort Wayne never saw anything like that, but I knew some adults who were fearful that we would. Thankfully that never happened. Sadly, I think that was the sort of thing that is bound to happen when “race” comes down to a group v. group thing. And we have to be honest that there was a whole lot of mistreatment of folks that went on back then. Mistreatment that, sadly, has become less frequent but has not gone away.
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Yes it was an ugly time JP. My parents were pretty shocked as we never had race relations issues then – they were ready to return to Canada. It was a different era for sure. Yes, sadly that mistreatment is never going to stop.
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“Yes, sadly that mistreatment is never going to stop.”
This is the idea that troubles me the most. And I think the current “group vs. group” emphasis is going to perpetuate things rather than make them better. If this statement is really true, then the whole thing will never end. One group is perpetually going to be at odds with another group over whether “we’re getting our fair share” or “we’re getting the respect we deserve.” If there is massive demographic change over the next century, do we just end up with the sizes of the groups reversed, with the new victors chortling “how do you like it now that someone else is the majority?” That doesn’t seem healthy for the same reason that our historical situation has not been healthy. I fear that Dr. MLK’s emphasis on respect for each individual has been all but drowned out.
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Because you/I are not prejudiced and are fair-minded individuals, we will worry what is coming down the pike. I am 13 miles from downtown Detroit, just about three miles to the border of Detroit and Lincoln Park. where I live What is worrisome to me, however, as to groups, is we now have gang violence here in our city which was non-existent until about a dozen years ago. The gang violence stems from people formerly from Southwest Detroit (Hispanic population) and they now make up a large portion of our city. The grocery store where I shop has all store signs in English/Spanish. I estimate they soon will become the majority in our city which has seen a troubled dozen years, going into receivership, hiring no new first responders and putting half the existing first responders onto a part-time basis. Much crime ensued at this time and thereafter, coupled with the recession, so soon we saw houses were abandoned, pit bulls or attack dogs were stationed in many yards. Our city is no longer in receivership and rallying back, but for the drugs and gang violence. It worries me as it was always a safe city; I like my house, a small enough property that I can take care of it and it was paid for long ago, but I cannot tell you the last time I went outside in the dark – likely when I was still working on site in 2009 and leaving for work/returning home in the dark in the Winter months. It is not fair to pin the problems solely on the new residents of the City either – I realize that. I was speaking with a Park ranger at Lake Erie Metropark a few months ago and discussing the crime and violence as he is from Lincoln Park – he told me his wife/teenaged daughters “carry” and what I read online, or in the crime forums on Facebook, just touch the surface – there is much more not reported. My comfort level is at zero now. Dr. MLK would shudder to witness what is happening these days.
That was interesting JP. My world in Canada in the 60-70’s was whiter than Wonder bread. I was in university in Toronto before I even met anyone of another race. There was a large Asian contingent in my class, but they never spoke or intermingled with the rest of us, (I suspect as their English was not good), as they were mostly from Hong Kong on foreign visas. We’re such a multi-cultural country now, it’s like a mini United Nations whenever I go into the bank – many companies and government agencies have regulated diversity policies. Not sure I totally agree with that – as I’m more inclined towards the best person for the job – and your Mr. Tiller was obviously the best person!
Fort Wayne was highly segregated back then so my world was like Wonder Bread too. I was fortunate that my father did not share the racial views of many of his generation. He was raised in a wealthy family which employed Sylvia, a domestic worker who came up from down south in the 1930s. Dad had a very difficult relationship with his mother but carried an undying love for Sylvia (that was mutual) all of his life. She was indeed a kind, lovely woman. I wish I had gotten to know her better.
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I guess we didn’t have any racial views as we didn’t know any other races, but I do remember watching American TV (the only stations we got back then) when the civil rights movement was on, so we had some idea of the issues.
I may be mistaken, but I don’t think I saw any comments here from people who know anyone who’s black as a peer/friend: the contacts cited were all with people who were on a different stratum (eg, Sylvia) or were appreciated from afar for their dignity or other fine qualities.
My friends of color have shown me a world of continual harassment and demeaning—despite their high levels of accomplishments. It’s a world where a man can be racially profiled by a policeman from a neighboring town while shoveling his own driveway, where a cab driver will tell a person “I don’t know how to get to your destination” despite the GPS sitting on his cab’s dashboard, where parents are obliged to have “the talk” with their young sons so that when they are inevitably stopped by police, they won’t run in fear or move suddenly because such actions could be fatal.
There’s no doubt we’ve made progress, but we have a much longer way to go than those of us who are white can possibly fathom. And the legacy of slavery still rears its ugly head in just about all areas of life. As just one example, Flint, Michigan residents are still
dealing with water problems and the impact the pollution has had on their children’s brains, and other black-majority areas have the same problems. These issues won’t go away until we all regard these children as of equal value to our own and demand accountability for the injustices that continue to afflict them.
I was not planning on starting the “macro discussion”, only a particular early interaction that made an early impression on me.
There is clearly much to be done. But how many people do you actually know who believe that a person of African descent is actually and fundamentally inferior to someone of European descent? That was a common view among those of my grandparents generation. I cannot think of anyone I know now (at least under age 80) who believes that, something I see as no small accomplishment.
It is true that there is much to do, but I don’t see big “group v group” things as being the engine that will get us to the next step. That is going to happen one human heart and mind at a time.
But please don’t get me started on Flint, which was a spectacular example of governmental failure in a city struggling after the decline of General Motors. It wasn’t just the black people in Flint drinking that water. Edit – I just looked it up, Flint is just over half African-American in its makeup, a bit over a third white and the rest other or mixed ethnicities. Flint had been buying water from Detroit’s system for years and was making plans for a pipeline to Lake Huron. Detroit cut them off and forced Flint to treat its own water for the first time in eons until the pipelines to the new source was ready. The heavily acidic water of the local river was inadequately treated and ate away the decades of mineral buildup inside of ancient water pipes, many of which were lead. State and local governments were in charge of every decision that got made. Lots of people want to point to places like Venezuela as why socialism doesn’t work. I think Flint Michigan’s water system is a much better example, where people are subject to a system where the people making the decisions (like the state-appointed emergency manager who argued against re-connecting to the Detroit system because of cost) are insulated from the consequences of those decisions.