The excitement was the kind of excitement you only feel a few times in your life- an anticipation cocktail that was part nerves, part energy, and an imbalanced mix of hubris. The first day of my last year of High School.
Indianapolis North Central High School, August, 1990.
There was a lot of uncertainty to life at North Central at that time. An idyllic educational
experience began to present the social challenges I’d later come to cherish as the most important ingredient of my upbringing. Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” had been released a year earlier, and music such as Public Enemy, X Clan and N.W.A. were giving my African American classmates a voice of empowerment they’d not previously heard. A discomfort was growing amongst some of the sector of Washington Township. Thus, it was no surprise that the hire of a new principal- a black man from Fort Wayne- was met with apprehension and uncertainty, in the weeks before the start of my Senior year.
“Dr. Eugene Black”, is how he was introduced at a public meeting shortly after his hire. “I am black, but my name is Dr. White”, he told the assembled audience that night.
Dr. Eugene White. The man who was about to enter my life.
“I NEED A GUY.”
He set up post in the High School student center and sat on his throne. It was just a plastic chair from the cafeteria, but the former Alabama A&M basketball star filled it as he did any room in which he walked. We loved him immediately. He’d taken the time to study the yearbooks. He knew students by name. Knew of their siblings. Knew of their interests and activities. The “Big Daddy” I dubbed him. And everyone agreed.
Shortly into that first week, Dr. White pulled me aside. “You might have heard, I’m new around here”, he said. “What I need is a guy. A guy that can help me reach kids. A guy who reaches all the groups. You be my guy, and I’ll be yours.”
And, so I was. Funny thing is, Dr. White didn’t need a hype man. He had a presence and charisma unlike anyone I’d ever seen, a magnetism I’ve seldom seen since. In a school
of nearly 4,000 kids from nearly as many backgrounds, he unified us all. His methods were honest, deliberate – and polarizing to some outside our building. But they weren’t to us.
Perhaps that was part of his magic. He was a giant in the community, and at times a misunderstood one. But, he was OUR giant. Collectively, we loved him. Black, White, Asian, Hispanic, Jewish, Christian- none of it mattered. We were all kids of Dr. White.
And, each time he had an idea, or a message, or a plan, I was there to help, as I could. That was my job, easy as it may have been, as his guy.
Life isn’t always easy as a High School Senior, though, and when I struggled, Dr. White was there to lift me. One afternoon, after perhaps a date rejection or being wait listed on a college application, I reached a breaking point and had a near breakdown at school. No one saw it. No one but Dr. White. He pulled me into his office, cleared his hour, and listened to me. Heard what was on my mind. Then, in his patented lisp with that Big Daddy drawl, he talked. He told me of his life at 18. He told me about growing up with a speech impediment as a young black man in the deep south. He recounted the challenges of his youth in Phenix City, Alabama. About a life void of a father. Told me about playing basketball for Alabama A&M, and bypassing a professional basketball opportunity to pursue his true way out: his education.
He have me confidence He gave me hope. He gave me perspective.
I was afforded many of the things life had deprived a young Eugene White- I had a stable 2 parent house, excellent schools, a community of support. I did not, however, have the things that had lifted him: focus, humility, discipline. Traits he recognized as void in my life. There we sat- me in my principal’s office, with a man with whom I shared so little in common.
Yet, as we’d learn over a symbiotic lifetime, a man with which I shared so much.
I left for my Freshman year of college, and the things about which Dr. White warned me began to haunt me. Taking my college shot at the University of Kansas, my immaturity and arrogance smacked me into reality within my first month 550 miles from home. I was away, alone, ashamed, and afraid. One consistency for me? The encouragement I received in letters from Dr. White.
In December of that year, I was home on break and mired in a private, clinical depression. I was driving past North Central one night and saw the full parking lot indicative of a late after school activity. I shamefully entered the halls, lost in the place in which I’d always been so at home. There, in a haze of horror, I found refuge in the one place I could always find it.
“You be my guy, and I’ll be yours.”
Dr. White ascended far beyond those halls throughout his career, but never strayed from the words he first uttered to me, within them. Throughout my career, he has always had time for an interview, always taken my calls. Always had time.
In the Spring of 2020, I received a letter I’d been selected for the North Central Alumni Hall of Fame. I was slightly embarrassed and incredulous over the recognition- I’m well aware of its lack of justification. It is however, an honor of highest regard to me because of the origin of the Hall of Fame. The award was a 1991 creation by North Central’s principal: Dr. Eugene G. White.
For that reason, he was the first call I made after opening my letter. I wanted him there for my induction. Shortly thereafter, Covid arrived, and the ceremony was thrice rescheduled.
Needless to say, I was stunned to walk in for my induction, to see a familiar face awaiting me. Not even a pandemic mask could hide the grin- that of the man who’d taken his time to listen and talk with me, some 30 years and 200 yards away.
“How did you know to be here?”, I asked, knowing of the delays and postponements.
“You asked me to be here”, he told me. “It’s the first time I’ve been in the building since I left.”
We caught up, and I commented that Dr. White looked amazing. “I lost 100 pounds, Jake. I had bypass surgery, weeks after your heart attack.”
Then, the Big Daddy said something I’ll never forget. “I think we’ve always known. We come from different places, but we’ve always had the same heart.”
3 weeks ago, I walked into a North Side bar and into my surprise 50th birthday. Front and center when I walked in: the man to whom I bee- lined and grasped for all I was worth- my guy. Who’d never missed a milestone of my life.
As he was leaving that night, pulled in Dr. White. “I’m 50 now”, I told the man who recently retired as the President of Martin University. “I’m relieving you of your duties. For all you’ve done, please know you don’t need to feel obligated to always answer.”
“You know what happens, now”, he told me. “It’s your turn Jake. It’s your time. Find a guy that needs a guy.”
That’s when I truly realized what I’d likely always known. Dr. White never actually needed me. He just knew I needed him.
Find your Dr. White.
Then find someone else who needs one.
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