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Commentary - Alexandria and diversity

By Tom Obert, Alexandria, MN

Some 70 years ago, my father was a student at North High in Minneapolis. Dad recalled the student population at North then to be about one-third white, one-third Jewish (the other whites?), and one-third black. And nobody thought much about it, one way or another.

About 55 years ago, Murray Warmath, a gentleman from Tennessee, the Old South, changed the fortunes of the University of Minnesota football program by recruiting black players from the East and South. Sandy Stephens came from Uniontown, Pennsylvania, and was a quarterback. Until then, black players were assumed to be "incapable" of playing the leadership positions of quarterback and middle linebacker. I still remember as a teenager watching the Gophers dismantle UCLA in their second Rose Bowl appearance. The announcers kept saying Stephens was calling a perfect game (in those days, quarterbacks literally did call all the plays).

By then my father had become editor of the Park Region Echo in Alexandria, the town where I grew up. Alex was all white. There was a family in town who invited the black Gopher football players up occasionally for a little lake country recreation. These players usually couldn't afford to go home during the summer and stayed in the Cities to work. My dad, as the newspaper guy, thought his readership would enjoy a story about the Gophers in town. So, he wrote about, and published photos of, the players golfing at the local club. To this day, though I never have been an autograph seeker, I cherish a menu I have from the Alexandria Golf Club signed by Stephens, Bill Munsey and Bobby Bell.

Dad's story didn't receive kudos. He got hate phone calls. How dare "they" play on our golf course, how dare you put pictures of "them" in the newspaper. I vividly remember to this day Dad slamming the phone down on a caller by shouting, "As long as there are people like you in the world, no I wouldn't!" The caller had asked if he would want his daughter to marry one of "them."

My sister did. It was almost as if it was destined from Dad's confrontation 30 years before. She has been married for over 20 years and lives in Washington, D.C. We do not worry about her husband there. He's a graduate of the University of South Carolina and speaks six languages. But if he wore a hoodie in many parts of the country, we would have concerns. He would merely be seen as a black guy in a hoodie. As an old white guy, I can pretty much walk anywhere with impunity wearing a hoodie, and I have several of them.

Chris Rock once remarked during a performance that there wasn't a single white person in the audience who would change places with him. And he added, "And I'm rich!" Unfortunately, he's probably right.

But there is hope. After 35 years away, I returned home to Alexandria to retire. I was encouraged to discover that many of the people I grew up with here now have racial diversity in their families, from in-laws to grandchildren. And the president has noted, his daughters' generation is much more comfortable with ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity than all previous generations. It can't come fast enough.