Me and Barack.

Hey, We’ve Got a Lot in Common: We Were Both Community Organizers!

Or so I thought when I heard him use that term.  Further study enlightened me to the fact that he was trying to ignite a revolution, Alinsky style, whereas I was just trying to help some kids.

I grew up in the white-bread town of Holland Michigan, and I do mean white. There were 1,000 kids in my high school and exactly one black.  And even he didn’t actually live in the district. For some reason he  trekked all the way across the county to our school every day.  Maybe it was because his name was Van Marshall, and  when they saw his name on paper they assumed he was just another Dutch boy that belonged with all the other “Vans.”  In our school, the sports teams  were nicknamed the “Big Dutch” and we had surnames  from Vander Aa to Vander Zee.  I am not making this up.

In college I hung out with a fullback by the name of Nate Bowles, who hailed from Newark, New Jersey.  I was a January graduate with a low draft number and knew Uncle Sam would snag me before the end of the year. That put a serious crimp in the job-hunting scenario.  So Nate suggested I join up with an organization called Crosscounter that needed someone to organize kids clubs with some churches in his hometown of  Newark.  It paid $125 a month plus free ghetto housing.

Now that was an education.

I worked with Ronnie Steltzer, a Division One hoops star with Davidson, getting Rutgers University/Newark to agree to let us use their gym 5 mornings a week for a sort of christian basketball camp.  We were pretty disorganized in that we didn’t even have a real name.  It was just “Basketball Camp.  At the Gym.” Ronnie did the instructing, mainly because the kids already knew more basketball than I did.  My sense of timing was never that good.  I handled the reffing, the daily Bible story, transportation, paperwork, and breaking up fights in the locker room.

I struggled to get the Beacon Street Bucks going, meeting at the A.M.E. Church on Beacon Street ( for you extra-white people, AME stands for “African Methodist Episcopal” ).  I did better with the junior high kids than the high-schoolers, but we managed quite a few camping trips and visits to New York and a really big block party.  My biggest disappointment was when James G______, one of my younger club members, and a pretty versatile member of our Beacon Street Tumbling Team, managed to get shot in the stomach at the age of 13.

Sundays I hung out at the Essex County Youth House, the local “jail-for-kids,”  teaching Sunday School and playing cards.  Others in our organization taught in the Youth House School for little or no money.

We managed our transportation with a donated 1959 blue-over-white VW bus, crippled by a starter that didn’t work.  Fortunately, Newark is pretty hilly, so I could jump-start  it by rolling  downhill, or recruit a bunch of kids off the street to give me a push.  We kept the thing operating for the whole summer before getting together time and money for a new starter.  I loved that bus. I wish I could buy it back.

The biggest struggle was working for Roseville Presbyterian, which was right on the line between the “black” and “white” parts of town.  We started clubs with the idea that they would be integrated, but the resistance to that was incredibly strong, and for me , extremely disappointing.  If the black kids came. the white kids would disappear.  And vice versa.

Greetings from President Nixon blew in at the end of October, informing me of my neighbors’ desire that I be inducted into the Armed Forces, and of my “new opportunity” to see the world.  So I hitch-hiked back to Michigan for a little time with Mom and Dad before getting on the Army’s bus on December 1st.  Seven days later, with my head shaved, my stiff new boots biting my toes, and a little map of Vietnam in my pocket, the President announced the end of the draft.

Like I said, my sense of timing was never that good.


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