Sunday, December 17, 2017
Simeon Booker was a pebble. When he dropped himself into 1950s America, he created ripples that helped change a generation and a country.
Those ripples reached me four years ago and have been among the most rewarding in my life.
Simeon died last weekend at age 99.
The outpouring has been immense for the South Side lad who grew up to become a national civil-rights ramrod.
The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune and more. Even my hometown paper printed a large story about which my mom called: “Hey – your guy is in the Buffalo News.”
My favorite Simeon reflection piece was penned by W. Ralph Eubanks for The New Yorker (find it online). Here’s a key line:
“It’s hard to imagine the reporting of one man leaving such a huge stamp on the culture. But Simeon Booker paved the way for the great variety of perspectives on African-American lives that we see in print and online today.”
Life has seen countless examples of heroes who altered mankind forever. In their time, they were not heroes. They were just humans – some more regular than others – holding onto a hope, a dream, a possibility. They typically did so under immense scrutiny, hate and objection – even without social media. Challenged and contested in life, history eventually cloaks them as a hero or “the right person at the right place and time.”
Count Simeon among them.
The civil rights had Martin Luther King. It had Lyndon Johnson. It had Selma. It had Washington, D.C. It had the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and the Black Panthers. It had so many people and groups.
But before them all was this thirtysomething guy from Myrtle Avenue, Youngstown, Ohio, U.S.A.
His writing was their fuel, their why. I wrote here in 2013 when I first was introduced to Simeon that if we’re to rave as Youngstowners about feats tied to names such as Rogers, Mancini, Tressel, Meshel, O’Neill and more, then we must have Booker with them, if not above them.
I cherish that his pebble’s ripples reached me while he was alive and allowed some of us to create some tributes with him amongst us.
I went back to my files and those first 2013 moments. It started with Simeon’s autobiography coming out, “Shocking the Conscience.”
Tim Seman is a quiet genius working at the Public Library of Youngstown and Mahoning County, and ...
“One of my habits for any [new library] book is to go straight to the index and browse the headings. When I saw ‘Youngstown, Ohio,’ I thought to myself, ‘What does this guy have to do with Ytown?’ In reading the book, though, I found a charming reference that Simeon shared about his first published piece of writing: a poem in the Vindicator. He wrote that he couldn’t recall the poem. I thought that I could try to find the lost poem.”
About that same time, I learned of Simeon by a press release for the book. By some serendipitous miracle, Tim emailed me at the same time – sharing Simeon’s book and the lost poem. He had found it.
“Spring is coming, this I know, for the robin told me so. Flowers and grass are going to grow. Winter goes with ice and snow.”
Our work enjoined.
Those, too, were pebbles that led to ripples that engaged groups such as Youngstown State University, Mahoning Valley Sojourn to the Past, Third Baptist Church, the Jewish Federation and more. It includes a list of individuals long enough to make for another story. Simeon’s work was a treasure to be rediscovered; a dusty heirloom in the corner of an attic.
Over time and starts and restarts:
Simeon received an honorary doctorate from YSU in 2013 and served as commencement speaker.
The Simeon Booker Award for Courage and a scholarship in his name were created at YSU.
Congressman Tim Ryan launched a Congressional Gold Medal effort.
The Ohio Associated Press Society made Simeon the first inductee into its Hall of Fame.
I was able to visit Simeon and his wife, Carol, at their Maryland home a couple of years back.
Waters from the Chesapeake Bay gently rolled onto the rocky shoreline. Equally gentle was Simeon as we sat on a deck 50 yards away from the waters. The tabletop between us held dominoes and glasses of 7Up. My oldest son wandered the shore collecting horseshoe crab shells. He could have wandered the shore for miles – unfearing, unchallenged and uncontested.
The setting and Simeon were glacial contrasts to the hatred in America that he attacked and the revolution in America he helped facilitate.
I left behind that day a windbreaker vest that Carol still teases about. It gets use today by son Teddy.
Simeon left behind something, too.
It’s a coarse track of our history, parts of which would not have been written without his courage and heroism.
His ripples need to roll in America for years to come.
Todd Franko is editor of The Vindicator. He likes emails about stories and our newspaper. Email him at tfranko@Vindy.com. He blogs, too, on Vindy.com. Tweet him, too, at @tfranko.