When I was in junior high school at Burton Junior High School — that is, grades seven and eight — Mr Leroy Herron was a very important man in my life. He was a school counselor, and a coach for the basketball team. He was also the sponsor of the Human Relations Club, a club created to get black kids and white kids like me to learn more about what I now might call anti-racism, but then we mostly called non-discrimination. If I remember correctly, there were two white boys — Alan Kulevicz and me, and about a half dozen black girls. The school itself had a strong majority of white kids. I remember Mr Herron talking about how his son self-identified as “black,” while Mr Herron felt more comfortable, at that time, calling himself a Negro. If I recall correctly, African American, or Afro-American were also coming into vogue.
We once did a field trip to a school in Detroit where the students were all (or almost all) African American. I remember asking the principal how many of his staff were black, and how many were white. He had to stop and think, and he said that he didn’t primarily think of the teachers in racial terms. Since knowing whether someone was black or white was very important in my family, this came as a shock, and a new way of thinking.
Mr Herron loved sports, and he loved coaching. I wish I had been a decent ball player, but instead I just acted as the team’s manager. I don’t remember much about this experience, except I was at one point asked to keep score for the number of times players in the game showed “hustle,” and I had no idea how to do this, so I got razzed about it. I really was not a good manager — not as bad as I was a baseball umpire, but that’s another story.
One time, I left school crying. I don’t know why now — I was probably being bullied for being smart and weak and unpopular in some way. We lived about a mile away from the school, and I usually walked. And Mr Herron left the school looking for me, and drove until he found me. I think that I refused his help then, but his act of looking out for me is something I remember forty years later.
The Macomb Daily (the local county paper) reported back in February of 2009 that Mr Herron died in a house fire at the age of 75. My youngest brother Steve mentioned this to me over the phone. Mr Herron eventually became an assistant superintendent of the Roseville schools. I assume that he brought his love for students, for sports, and for racial equality to that job as well.
I never caught his love for sports, but he began to open my eyes to the experiences of African Americans, and he began to turn me into a man, for which I will always be grateful.