For nearly four years I have kept a set of hair-cutting tools in my car.
That way they’d be there on my monthly trips to St. Louis, where I cut my dad’s hair. He adored having my partner Bette do his nails. Dad had been so fiercely independent that he did all of that and more until his memory failed in June 2011.
For his safety and others’, my siblings and I had Dad evaluated against his protests, and then admitted to a nursing home. We failed to act similarly with our mom, who had Alzheimer’s disease. She walked away from the family home on July 17, 1994. Her body was found days later in the Mississippi River. She was 62.
Dad in 2011 was 94. His dementia was from being beaten unconscious and robbed Aug. 5, 2006, inside his chemical company by a Hurricane Katrina evacuee. Dad was trying to help the man with a job at his chemical company doing some painting. Brain surgery followed. Miraculously Dad survived.
But stubbornness prevented him from returning to have some remaining fluid removed from his brain. He went back to his life, the company he founded in 1947 and his work. Dad had a love for science, growing up in the heyday of Thomas Edison, Lewis Latimer, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and Garrett Morgan. It drove him to work harder than anyone I’ve ever known.
He graduated magna cum laude from West Virginia State College in 1938. It was there that he heard lectures from George Washington Carver, who saved American agriculture, and Carter G. Woodson, who started Negro History Week in 1926, which became Black History Month in 1976.
At Cornell University, Dad got his master’s in 1939. From 1939 to 1943 he was the head of the chemistry department at AM&N College in Pine Bluff, Ark., and worked at the Pine Bluff Arsenal during World War II. He returned to Cornell University in 1945, getting his PhD and did post-doctorate studies, developing a plasticizing agent from jet fuel. If you love plastic, credit Dad. But because no one would hire a black chemist, Dad in 1947 left to start his own company, working with his dad and brothers to convert a large animal hospital into a black business.
He taught chemistry and physical science for nearly four decades at Stowe Teachers College before integration, and after at Harris-Stowe State University and Washington University. He ran his company, maintained rental property, did cancer research, microanalytical work, consulting, advised Veterans Affairs in research and annually presented scientific papers at the American Chemical Society. Dad worked from 7 a.m. to 1 a.m. He’d go home, get dinner, grade papers, sleep for four hours tops and charge again at each new day. As kids, we worked at the company, keeping Dad’s hours and pace. He also loved to play golf. Dad won numerous honors and awards.
At a court hearing in 2011, where my sister Renee became Dad’s guardian, the judge asked, “I’ll bet that all of your life you were the smartest man in the room?” The judge was right. But Dad couldn’t remember that he had seven grandchildren. When asked what year it was he said, “1950-something.”
He had been in the nursing home since, where I’ve cut his hair, using the skills he taught me. Bette cut and filed his nails, and we’d chat about Tiger Woods, President Barack Obama, race relations and work — things Dad adored.
The nursing home became like a hotel to him after his initial hatred faded in a dementia fog. At a family reunion last year he shocked everyone, saying his end was near.
Bette and I were to go to St. Louis on Friday to get Dad dolled up for his 98th birthday. But my brother Vincent in St. Louis texted us Jan. 27, saying Dad had died. He had gotten the flu and pneumonia.
So the family will gather Saturday for Dad’s memorial service with many of his former students and boys (now men) whom he pulled from the street into his company for jobs and careers in the sciences.
We’ll celebrate Dad’s incredible life and how this grandson of slaves enriched us all.