About Jerr

Jerr BoscheeJerr Boschee (jerr@orbis.net) has been an advisor to social entrepreneurs in the United States and elsewhere for more than 30 years.  He has delivered keynote speeches or conducted master classes in 43 states and 20 countries, is the author or editor of six books about social enterprise, and is one of the six co-founders of the Social Enterprise Alliance.
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They matter...

Posted on March 26, 2015 in Jerr's Journal

It seemed like such a simple idea.  Pick ten pop songs that inspire people who are seeking social justice.

Right.

Then I started scrolling through my iTunes cache, asking friends for suggestions, jotting down song titles, and chasing after performances on YouTube.

Ten? Are you kidding me?

So this is my list. Forty songs, not ten, listed chronologically by their release dates. Some will be on your list as well -- and many will not. But they all have one thing in common: They matter. They quicken the blood. They unleash our emotions, our hopes, our dreams for a better world. When we lie awake at night, we hear their lyrics, feel their rhythms. When we sleep, they invade our dreams. So many of us are seeking social justice in so many different ways -- it’s folly to imagine a list of ten pop songs that would satisfy us all.

Each of the songs on my list has touched me personally at important moments in my life. I’ve included the names of the performers who caught my attention, excerpts from the lyrics, and URLs for the songs themselves. I hope you listen to them again (you know most of them) and let them play upon your heart whenever you need them.

As I winnowed my choices from more than 100 possibilities, it became increasingly clear that each generation builds its own social justice playlist. Not surprisingly, most of the titles on mine were released before the mid-‘70s -- songs I heard during the first 30 years of my life that have stayed with me since.

If I’ve left out one or more of your favorites, feel free to roll your eyes. But please don’t stop there. Send me a note and tell me about them!
 

1. Where Have All the Flowers Gone (The Kingston Trio, 1961)
And where have all the soldiers gone, long time passing?
Where have all the soldiers gone, a long long time ago?
Where have all the soldiers gone?
Gone to graveyards, every one
When will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?

2. Stand By Me (Ben E. King, 1961)
When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we'll see
No, I won't be afraid
Oh, I won't be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me

3. Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream (The Chad Mitchell Trio, 1962)
Last night I had the strangest dream
I never dreamed before
I dreamed the world had all agreed
To put an end to war

4. If I Had a Hammer (Peter, Paul and Mary, 1962)
It's the hammer of justice
It's the bell of freedom
It's a song about love between my brothers and my sisters
all over this land

5. Tobacco Road (Lou Rawls, 1963)
Save my money and get rich I know
And bring it back to Tobacco Road
Bring dynamite and a crane
Blow it up and start all over again

6. Blowin’ in the Wind (Bob Dylan, 1963)
Yes, an' how many years can some people exist
Before they're allowed to be free?
Yes, an' how many times must a man turn his head
An' pretend that he just doesn't see?

7. Little Boxes (Pete Seeger, 1963)
There's a green one and a pink one
And a blue one and a yellow one
And they're all made out of ticky tacky
And they all look just the same

8. Keep Your Eyes on the Prize (Pete Seeger, 1963)
Well, the only chains that we can stand
Are the chains of hand in hand
Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on

9. A Change is Gonna Come (Sam Cooke, 1964)
I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running ev'r since
It's been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

10. The Times They Are a Changin’ (Bob Dylan, 1964)
You better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'

11.You’ll Never Walk Alone (The Righteous Brothers, 1965)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pNJY2uut_fI

Walk on, walk on, with hope in your heart
And you'll never walk alone
You'll never walk alone

12. The Impossible Dream (Richard Kiley, 1965)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YGzqbEeVWhs
This is my quest, to follow that star ...
No matter how hopeless, no matter how far ...
To fight for the right, without question or pause ...
To be willing to march into Hell, for a Heavenly cause ...
And the world will be better for this:
That one man, scorned and covered with scars,
Still strove, with his last ounce of courage,
To reach ... the unreachable star ...

13. Climb Every Mountain (Peggy Wood, The Sound of Music, 1965):  
Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
'Till you find your dream.
A dream that will need
All the love you can give,
Every day of your life
For as long as you live.

14. For What It’s Worth (Buffalo Springfield, 1966):
There’s somethin’ happenin’ here
What it is ain’t exactly clear
There’s a man with a gun, over there
Tellin’ me I got to beware
(I think it’s time we)
Stop, children, what’s that sound?
Everybody look – what’s goin’ down?

15. Abraham, Martin & John (Dion DiMucci, 1968)
Anybody here seen my old friend Martin?
Can you tell me where he’s gone?
He freed a lot of people,
But it seems the good they die young.
I just looked ‘round and he’s gone.

16. Revolution (The Beatles, 1968)
You say you want a revolution
Well, you know we all want to change the world
You tell me that it's evolution
Well, you know we all want to change the world
But when you talk about destruction
Don't you know that you can count me out

17. Those Were the Days (Mary Hopkin, 1968)
Those were the days my friend
We thought they'd never end
We'd sing and dance forever and a day
We'd live the life we choose
We'd fight and never lose
For we were young and sure to have our way

18. And When I Die (Blood, Sweat & Tears, featuring David Clayton Thomas, 1968)
And when I die, and when I'm gone
There'll be one child born
In this world to carry on, to carry on

19. Sing a Simple Song of Freedom (Bobby Darin, 1969)
Seven hundred million are you listening?
Most of what you read is made of lies
But speaking one to one, ain't it everybody's sun
To wake to in the morning when we rise?

20. Everybody’s Talkin’ At Me (Harry Nilsson, 1969)
I'm going where the sun keeps shining
Through the pouring rain …
Banking off the north east wind
Sailing on summer breeze
And skipping over the ocean like a stone

21. Please, Don’t Pass Me By (Leonard Cohen, 1970)
Oh, please don't pass me by,
For I am blind, yes I am blind, oh but you can see,
Yes, I've been blinded totally,
Oh, please don't pass me by.

22. Teach Your Children (Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, 1970) 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2vnYKRacKQc
Teach your children well . . .
And feed them on your dreams
The one they pick’s, the one you’ll know by
Don’t you ever ask them why
If they told you, you would cry
So just look at them and sigh
And know they love you

23. Bridge Over Troubled Waters (Simon & Garfunkel, 1970)
When you're down and out
When you're on the street,
When evening falls so hard
Well, I will comfort you

24. Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell, 1970)
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone?
They paved paradise
Put up a parking lot

25. Imagine (John Lennon, 1971)
You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you will join us
And the world will be as one

26. What’s Going On (Marvin Gaye, 1971)
Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying

27. You’ve Got a Friend (James Taylor, 1971)
You just call out my name, and you know where ever I am
I'll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer, or fall, all you’ve got to do is call and I'll be there, yeah, yeah, now
you've got a friend.

28. American Pie (Don McLean, 1971)
And in the streets the children screamed
The lovers cried, and the poets dreamed
But not a word was spoken
The church bells all were broken …
And the three men I admire most
The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost
They caught the last train for the coast

29. Won’t Get Fooled Again (The Who, 1971)
I'll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play, just like yesterday
Then I'll get on my knees and pray
We don't get fooled again

30. Lean on Me (Bill Withers, 1972)
Lean on me when you're not strong
And I'll be your friend, I'll help you carry on
For it won't be long
'Til I'm gonna need somebody to lean on

31. Dream Weaver (Gary Wright, 1972)
I have just closed my eyes again
Climbed aboard the Dream Weaver train
Driver take away my worries of today
And leave tomorrow behind
Dream Weaver, I believe you can get me through the night
Dream Weaver, I believe we can reach the morning light

32. Song Sung Blue (Neil Diamond, 1972)
Me and you are subject to the blues now and then
But when you take the blues and make a song
You sing ‘em out again . . .
Funny thing, but you can sing it with a cry in your voice
And before you know it get to feelin’ good
You simply got no choice

33. Garden Party (Rick Nelson and the Stone Canyon Band, 1972)
When I got to the garden party, they all knew my name
No one recognized me, I didn’t look the same
But it's all right now, I learned my lesson well
You see, ya can't please everyone, so ya got to please yourself

34. Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin, 1974)
And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon
Little boy blue and the man in the moon
When you comin' home son?
I don't know when, but we'll get together then son
You know we'll have a good time then

35. Take it to the Limit (The Eagles, 1975)
And when you're looking for your freedom
(Nobody seems to care)
And you can't find the door
(Can't find it anywhere)
When there's nothing to believe in
Still you're coming back, you're running back
You're coming back for more
So put me on a highway
And show me a sign
And take it to the limit
One more time

36. Another Brick in the Wall (Pink Floyd, 1979)
We don't need no education
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasms in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
Hey! teachers! leave the kids alone!
All in all you're just another brick in the wall.

37. Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen, 1984)
And even though it all went wrong
I'll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah

38. Everybody Hurts (Joe Cocker, 2004)
When the day is long and the night, the night is yours alone
When you’re sure you’ve had enough of this life, well hang on
Don’t let yourself go, ‘cos everybody cries
And everybody hurts sometimes

39. I Will Rise Up / Ain’t No More Cane (Lyle Lovett, 2007)
In the darkest hour
In the dead of night
As the storm clouds are gathered
And the lightin’ strikes
And the thunder rolls
And the cold rain goes
The future it holds what God only knows (what God only knows)
And I will rise up and I will rise up
Though I be a dead man, I said, yes and amen
And I will stand tall and I will stand tall
Until I meet my end, until I meet my end

40. Don’t You Wish it Was True (John Fogerty, 2007)
He said, "The world's gonna change
And it's starting today
There'll be no more armies
No more hate"
Don’t you wish it was true,
Lord, don’t you wish it was true


And one bonus track, just for entrepreneurs:

The Roses of Success (Anton Rodgers, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, 2002)
Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you'll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!
 

Tags:

The Moment of Truth...

Posted on February 19, 2015 in Jerr's Journal

You start your social enterprise with $1,000 of your own money. You’re 33, living in a garage with no bathroom and no heat, earning less than $10,000 a year.

Eight years later you’re a few minutes away from selling the company. The buyers are waiting in the next room, the documents have been vetted, your partner’s ready to celebrate.

And why not? You and your partner will each receive $60 million.

* * * * *

You spend two years developing the pilot. CBS likes it and orders 13 episodes.

The network knows this will be a TV series like none before, but the new Vice President of Programming is trying to shake things up. You cast the show and tape the first episodes. The series will debut Tuesday night.

Monday morning the network’s in-house censor asks you to cut one line from the pilot.

* * * * *

The Tonight Show calls. The Tonight Show!

You’ve been dreaming about this for years! You’ve practiced for hours in front of the mirror after the show signed off each night, imagining how you’d handle yourself.

Now the moment is here.

. . . but one of the most popular singers in the country pulled you aside not long ago, started cursing The Tonight Show host, and told you why you should never go on his show.

* * * * *

So what do you do?

Gary Erickson decided not to sell Clif Bar. Norman Lear refused to slice even a single line from the opening episode of All in the Family. Dick Gregory spurned The Tonight Show.

It happens to each of us. At some point in our personal or business lives -- often more than once -- we’re faced with a moment of truth. Will we compromise? Or will we risk the consequences?

* * * * *

Erickson’s story begins in 1990 during a day-long, 175-mile bicycle ride with a friend. In his book Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business, he recalls “gnawing on some ‘other’ energy bars all day. Suddenly, I couldn’t take another bite, despite being famished and needing to eat to keep going. It came to me: ‘I could make a better bar than this.’”

Two years later, after hours of experimenting in his mother’s kitchen, he had a recipe he liked. By the time he almost sold the company in 2000, Clif Bar Inc. had $40 million in annual sales. “I loved Clif Bar,” he wrote, “the product, the people, the spirit of the company. I felt that there was more ahead for Clif Bar, yet . . . I nearly sold the company. Why?”

One of the main reasons is that selling seemed to be the logical exit strategy. “The story went -- and still goes -- like this. You’re an entrepreneur. Your company grows and begins to feel too big for you. You’re tired, stressed out, and working really hard. You become convinced that you can’t compete against larger companies. You also become convinced that you can sell and maintain the company’s -- and your own -- integrity. An offer comes along. The money is appealing. You sell the company.”

Erickson had watched bigger corporations such as Nestle and Kraft gobble up two of his biggest competitors. “It seemed like selling was the natural path, the normal culmination to starting a small but successful company.”

So the due diligence began and the process of selling the company gained momentum. Erickson and his partner promised employees their jobs were safe, that they would continue to manage the company after the sale, that doing so “was a non-negotiable criterion.”

But shortly before the scheduled day of the sale, Erickson and his partner were told new management would take over within three or four months and company headquarters would move from California to the Midwest. All current employees would lose their jobs. “I now tell people who plan to sell their companies to watch the process carefully,” he wrote four years later. “It often begins with a soft sell. At first you hear, ‘We love you guys. We think you are the greatest company. You are fantastic. We want you to continue with the company.’ The sales job is full on, and they say everything you want to hear. As time goes on you commit to the process itself and start to focus on the finish line and the money. Soon you’ve gone so far down the road that it seems irreversible, and you begin to give up on the promises you’ve made.”

Erickson had seen it happen with some of his peers in the food industry, who later told him they felt manipulated and would do it differently if they had the chance. “You come to believe that in the end, when you see that fat check, the rest won’t matter. Keeping the employees, maintaining the integrity of your products, running the company won’t seem that important. The knowledge that a lot of money will be wired into your account looms larger and larger and you say, ‘Well, I can live with that.’ You detach. By the end of the process I was feeling ‘Let’s just get this done.’”

But, underneath it all, Erickson’s gut was screaming at him. “I didn’t listen. I detached from the process. I remember thinking, ‘You feel sick to your stomach, and you are not sleeping because that is what anyone would be doing in this situation. You are selling the company you started, and you don’t have a choice (or so I thought). Of course you feel bad. You wonder what will happen to the employees, to the products you have created, to the company.’”

His wife Kit and a few of his friends thought he was crazy to sell. He couldn’t hear them -- but he felt nauseated constantly and hadn’t slept well in weeks.

Here’s how he describes the scene on the day of his decision:

Attorneys from Clif Bar and Company X had worked feverishly all weekend. Head honchos flew in from the Midwest to finalize the details. Finally it was late Monday morning, and I stood in the office waiting to go out and sign the contract. Out of nowhere I started to shake and couldn’t breathe. I’d climbed big mountains, raced bicycles, played horn in jazz concerts: I handled pressure well, so this first-ever anxiety attack took me by surprise. I told my partner that I needed to walk around the block. Outside, as I started across the parking lot, I began to weep, overwhelmed. “How did I get here? Why am I doing this?” I kept walking. Halfway around the block I stopped dead in my tracks, hit by an epiphany. I felt in my gut, “I’m not done,” and then “I don’t have to do this.” I began to laugh, feeling free, instantly. I turned around, went back to the office and told my partner, “Send them home. I can’t sell the company.”

Most people thought he was nuts. Investment bankers predicted Clif Bar would go under within six months. His partner demanded he buy her out.

But four years later he wrote “Business has a purpose beyond money. We look for meaning in our lives. Business has meaning too. Walking around the block forced me to ask again, ‘What is Clif Bar’s meaning?’”

The answer led him to re-define his own values as an entrepreneur and the concept of shareholder value. He rejected the idea that financial return on investment is the only true measure. Profit “is not the reason we exist. Profit enables Clif Bar to remain healthy and to do good over the long haul.” He and his colleagues now insist upon including “product integrity, our people, the community, and the earth in the balance sheets” and in their definition of shareholder value.

* * * * *

“So, you’d lose an entire series for one stupid line?”

That’s CBS President Bob Wood speaking, as quoted in Norman Lear’s 2014 autobiography Even This I Get to Experience.

The adventure began months earlier when Fred Silverman, the incoming Vice President of Programming, grew tired of the rural comedies that had driven CBS for years: The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction. He wanted to change the network’s brand.

Wood agreed and, according to Lear, thought his show “would do the trick, but he asked me to rewrite the pilot. I said I wouldn’t do that.” Nor would he agree to create a different first episode. “It was deliberately based on the slightest of stories,” he wrote, “which gave me the opportunity to present 360 degrees of everyone, but especially Archie -- his attitudes on race, religion, politics, sex, and family, holding nothing back.”

Wood deliberated for a while before ordering 13 episodes, but the trouble started almost immediately. The CBS censor came to Lear with a long list of script changes the network wanted him to make. “There were pages of such requests,” Lear recalled, and they turned into “warnings and occasionally to threats.” He initially wrote lengthy letters of clarification and reasoning, “but rarely was I able to avoid the ultimate confrontation: ‘Remove that and I go, too.’”

CBS finally gave Lear a few days’ notice that All in the Family would debut Tuesday, January 12, 1971, at 9:30 p.m. (right after The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres and Hee-Haw). Lear “alerted everyone in my world.” Then, the morning before the air date, the censor “paid me a visit and -- hold everything -- asked me to make one trim” in the first episode.

Lear refused and the censor replied: “Then we’ll cut it. Either way it won’t be in the broadcast.”

Silverman called later that day. “You’ve got a great show, Norm. What does one line matter?”

But Lear knew how much it did matter. “I told him the line had to stay in,” he wrote, “and he said I could talk myself blue in the face but ‘the boys upstairs’ had drawn a line. Somehow I knew that far more than differing opinions over one line was at stake here. As tiny as this issue was, much of the program content of the series depended on our relationship with (the censor), and that would be determined right here and now.”

At 5 p.m. Los Angeles time, an hour and a half before the show was scheduled to go on the air in New York, Bob Wood called. “He had a terrific compromise idea and felt sure I’d have no problem with it,” wrote Lear. “‘Listen, you’ll love it, we’re gonna run the second episode first,’ he said. ‘Then next week we’ll run the show intended for tonight. We won’t change a word and you’ve saved your precious line. Done?’

“‘No,’ I said. We weren’t done, and the rest of the conversation was like drowning in the dark, legs pumping to keep head above water, hands grasping for something, anything, to hold on to.

“‘The point is that we can’t keep giving in . . .’

“‘But we’re still talking one line . . .’

“‘Yes, but after that, trust me, I know where this is going.’

“‘So, you’d lose an entire series for one stupid line?’

“‘It isn’t the line, it’s the decision.’

“‘So you’d lose the series for one stupid decision? Is that what you’re telling me? We got twenty-five minutes to airtime, is that what you’re telling me?’

“‘I’m sorry, Bob. . . .I want the pilot to air first and the line of dialogue to remain as taped.’

“‘And if not?’

“‘Don’t expect me back.’

The show ran without the cut. “Thirty minutes later America had been introduced to the subversive mind of Norman Lear, and not a single state seceded from the Union.” The series lasted for nine years.

Lear was unaware how much his life would change -- “and how much the establishment would come to believe that TV and the American culture had been ‘radicalized’ overnight.” Within five years, he had seven series on the air (including Maude, Good Times and The Jeffersons) that were viewed by more than 120 million people each week.

* * * * *

Long before Dave Chapelle, Chris Rock, Eddie Murphy, Richard Pryor and other in-your-face black comedians, there was Richard Claxton “Dick” Gregory.

In their 2013 book about Pryor, authors David and Joe Henry write that Gregory belonged to a new generation of black comedians who rejected “the deferential buffoonery of vaudeville or minstrelsy. Gregory . . . did not flinch from skewering white audiences on issues of race . . . . Perched on a stool in a three-button Brooks Brothers suit, (Gregory) possessed an unflappable cool, taking long, contemplative drags on his cigarette and exhaling well-timed streams of smoke into the spotlight before delivering his punch lines. Not even the inevitable catcalls of ‘nigger’ could rock his composure. ‘According to my contract,’ he replied to one such heckler, ‘the management pays me fifty dollars every time someone calls me that. So will you all do me a favor? Everybody in the room please stand up and yell ‘nigger.’”

But breaking into the national comedy scene (read: white) had been all but impossible for blacks. Gregory usually performed at small clubs for mostly black audiences, earning an average of five dollars a night, and worked as a postal employee during the day.

Then, in January 1961, everything changed. The Playboy Club called him at the last minute to replace a comedian who’d canceled his performance. Gregory missed his bus, sprinted 20 blocks -- and discovered there’d been a mistake . . . the nightclub was filled with a convention of white executives from the South. The room manager offered Gregory $50, told him to go home and said they’d try to book him again sometime soon. “But I was cold and mad,” he told the Henry brothers, “and I had run twenty blocks. I didn’t care if (they) had a lynch mob in there, I was going on.”

The Henry brothers take up the story from there:

At the end of the show, the frozen-food execs gave him a standing ovation. They handed him money as he left the stage . . . . Hugh Hefner came down for the second show . . . and immediately signed Gregory to a three-year contract, beginning with a three-week run (at the Club) . . .

“And just like that,” Phillip Lutz would write in the New York Times, “with little fanfare or protest, nightclub comedy was integrated.”

Time magazine of Friday, February 17, featured a prominent article on Gregory, and the following Monday morning a call came from someone on Jack Paar’s staff inviting him to appear on The Tonight Show.

“My wife took the call and she’s so happy,” Gregory said. “I got on the phone and said, ‘No, I don’t want to do this,’ and I hung up and started cryin’ . . . .

(He’d gone) out drinking one night (not long before) with singer Billy Eckstine, who began “cussin’ Paar out to me. [He] told me, ‘Hey, man, that motherfuckin’ Jack Paar, he ain’t never let a nigger sit on the couch (after performing).’

“’I was so embarrassed, so humiliated, I never told my wife that I could not do the Paar show. It was just a personal thing.”

Fortunately, Gregory’s phone rang again . . . .

“This is Mr. Paar. How come you don’t want to work my show?”

“I just don’t want to work it.”

“Why?”

“Because the negroes never sit on the couch.”

There was a long pause and he said, “Well come on in, you can sit on the couch.”

While Paar and Gregory exchanged a few canned jokes . . . so many phone calls came in to the NBC switchboard in New York the circuits blew out. The calls, Gregory says, were coming from “white folks who were seeing a black person for the first time in a human conversation.”

Gregory had been earning $250 a week at the Playboy Club. After sitting on Jack Paar’s couch, he said, his salary jumped to $5,000. “What a country!” he would say. “Where else could I have to ride in the back of the bus, live in the worst neighborhoods, go to the worst schools, eat in the worst restaurants -- and average $5,000 a week just talking about it?”

But the money was only window-dressing. Gregory has spent the rest of his life fighting for social justice  -- and he might not have had the necessary clout if he’d said yes to Jack Paar’s staffer.

After his appearance on The Tonight Show, he became a nationally known headliner, selling out nightclubs, making numerous national television appearances, and recording popular comedy albums. He used his celebrity status to draw attention to such issues as segregation and disfranchisement, joined voter registration drives and sit-ins, participated in marches and parades to support a range of causes, including opposition to the Vietnam War, world hunger, and drug abuse. He also fasted more than 60 times to protest injustice; at one point, he weighed just 97 pounds.

Gregory published his autobiography, Nigger, in 1963 and it became the best-selling book in the country. At last count it had sold more than seven million copies.

   
SOURCES
Raising the Bar: Integrity and Passion in Life and Business, Gary Erickson, with Lois Lorentzen, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, 2004 . . . Even This I Get to Experience, Norman Lear, Penguin Press, New York, 2014 . . . Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World that Made Him, David Henry & Joe Henry, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2013
    

Tags:

Silent Night

Posted on December 18, 2014 in Jerr's Journal

I know it was my fault, not his, that we’d stayed apart for so long...

*****

My college roommate Steve Prokasky stayed in the closet until his late 20s.

We met in 1962. He was a year older, but we wound up rooming together from 1964 until I joined the Peace Corps in 1968. During his college years, Steve chaired the University of Minnesota Homecoming Committee, served as an officer for the Minnesota Student Association, and dove into every possible campus organization. We traveled together for three weeks during the summer of 1964, sleeping one night under a tree in Valley Forge and surviving Hurricane Cleo in Miami Beach. Over the years, we frequently double-dated -- and we stayed in touch during my Peace Corps tour.

But by the time I returned to the Twin Cities in 1970 he was gone.

For more than a decade he’d led a double life. I had no clue what was going on -- and I lived with him! He told me years later he once ran into one of our mutual college friends at a leather bar in downtown Minneapolis: They saw each other, but immediately shied away and never mentioned it to each other again -- it was too risky to bring their hidden lives into the open.

Steve moved to the Castro District in San Francisco while I taught English to village boys in India. He came out and found a home, found people who loved him for the man he was, and became a leading gay rights activist. But even that wasn’t an easy thing to do in the early 1970s. The 1969 riot by gay men at The Stonewall Inn in Manhattan’s West Village had jump-started the modern gay rights movement only a few years before. Steve, being Steve, threw himself into community affairs in San Francisco and eventually wrote a recurring column for the still-thriving Bay Area Reporter, “serving the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender communities since 1971.” In 1978 he was one of the initial members of The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, the world’s first openly gay chorale, and sang at the memorial service for the assassinated Harvey Milk less than a month later. In 1981 he traveled with the Chorus on a national performing tour that included his home town of Minneapolis.

He did return to the Twin Cities on his own for a few days in 1975 and spent an afternoon in my apartment telling me about his life in San Francisco. I still choke up when I remember him describing the man he loved: “Jerr,” he laughed delightedly, “I finally found somebody who made me want to put the cap back on the toothpaste tube!”

To my shame, I didn’t actively stay in touch. I went on cheering for him, but I didn’t understand his world, and I was busy raising a family. But those are just excuses . . .

Despite occasionally thinking I should try to see him again, I didn’t do so until his older brother Tom called me in 1993.

Steve had AIDS.

A few weeks later we met for dinner in San Francisco. I arrived first, watched him move slowly across the room toward me, gripping the backs of chairs to keep his balance, his body so thin I was shocked.

We talked for two hours. I like to think we were each trying to make up for lost time, but I know it was my fault, not his, that we’d stayed apart for so long.

I have no idea what Steve thought about his chances of surviving, but I knew he’d never stop fighting. That much I remembered about my old roommate.

We parted . . . and Steve died November 18, 1993, mourned by so many who loved him. Still mourned by me. What I missed by not knowing him during those lost years -- by not loving him -- is impossible to say, but I’m the lesser for it.

Which is one of the reasons I have such an emotional reaction each time I read about another teenager who’s summoned the courage to come out and been supported by his parents and other family members, as I did this month when I saw the revised birth announcement Kai Bogert’s parents sent to their friends: "A retraction . . . In 1995 we announced the arrival of our sprogget, Elizabeth Anne, as a daughter. He informs us that we were mistaken. Oops! Our bad. We would now like to present, our wonderful son -- Kai Bogert. Loving you is the easiest thing in the world. Tidy your room."

Yes, Steve, we’ve come a long, long way in the past 50 years. I wish you were here to see it.

And it’s one of the reasons my wife and I attended a Christmas concert by the members of a social enterprise two years ago in Dallas . . .

I wrote what follows the next day, then shared it with family members and a few friends . . .

* * * * *

I do not have the skill to fully convey the emotional impact of what happened last night . . . but I’ll try . . .

Join us. Linda and I are in one of the finest performing arts centers in the nation during the final moments of a Christmas concert by the Turtle Creek Chorale, a world-renowned gay men’s chorus. The auditorium is completely dark except for the spotlight on a tall, gray-haired man in formal dress standing quietly at the front of the stage. Silence abides for a few moments until the first piano strains of “Silent Night, Holy Night” drift across the room -- and the man in the spotlight raises his arms. We expect the members of the chorus to begin singing, but they remain silent -- and we realize the man is performing a poetic interpretation of the song entirely in sign language.

We’re spell-bound, the words of the song whispering through our minds.

When he finishes, he turns and steps silently onto a podium, facing the members of the chorus. The piano falls silent, the spotlight widens, and we wait for an a capella version from the singers . . .

Instead, all 140 men begin performing the sign language translation together, without the piano . . . 280 hands and arms waving and fluttering and drawing every one of us into their midst. We can “hear” the music and we are silently singing the words to ourselves -- and I am not the only one in the audience crying.

Once their hands and arms become still, we are all invited to join in for one more verse as the chorus begins to sing aloud -- and as we approach the final words I am suddenly back in my boyhood home by the Christmas tree as my father teaches us the German songs he learned as a child himself . . . and without even knowing how it happens I’m singing with him again in German as the closing words “Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!” (“Sleep in heavenly peace”) fall unbidden from my lips and I dissolve once more into tears.

Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht,
Alles schläft; einsam wacht
Nur das traute hochheilige Paar.
Holder Knabe im lockigen Haar,
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!


Silent night, holy night
All is calm, all is bright
'Round yon virgin, mother and child
Holy infant so tender and mild
Sleep in heavenly peace!
Sleep in heavenly peace!

 

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