Monday, September 28, 2020

Julius Randall's Life Mattered


Since the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police last May, countless companies and organizations have announced their condemnation of racism and their commitment to its abolishment.  Time will tell how effective these commitments are.  Rather than pen a bland general statement, I would rather tell a story.  It's a true story.


There was once a young engineering student named Julius Randall at a small college in South Carolina.  The college was so small that it had no bookstore, and so the engineering students had to go to the nearby Woolworth's to buy their supplies.  Julius was black, and although the Woolworth's would sell him graph paper and pencils, it wouldn't let him sit at the lunch counter.


This was the 1960s, and one day Martin Luther King Jr. showed up in the area and found out about the Woolworth's policy of no Blacks at the lunch counter.  Rev. King caused a picket line to be organized, and for the next few weeks no student of any color bought any supplies at that Woolworth's.  The worst violence that resulted was that somebody threw an egg at the store.  Soon the owners capitulated, and now Julius and his friends could sit at the lunch counter in Woolworth's after buying their supplies.


Julius went on to graduate and got an engineering job in the New Jersey area.  He then moved into higher education, and at Stevens Institute of Technology, for seven or eight years he ran the co-op program that allowed students to work and get an education at the same time.  Then he was hired by the University of Massachusetts Amherst in their new Minority Engineering Program (MEP), which is where I met him. 


Around that time, Julius contracted a kidney disease that prevented him from driving, and so one day he asked us where we went to church, and could he have a ride there?  It was the beginning of a personal as well as a professional relationship that gave me a close-up view of one of the most saintly persons, of any color, that I have ever known.


Julius knew that an engineering education could be the path from poverty to success as it had been for him, which was why he left industry to devote his life to bringing the blessings of engineering education to minority students.  But his work was not without obstacles.  One obstacle at the time was our dean of engineering, who barely tolerated the MEP and repeatedly refused Julius opportunities for promotion when they arose.  Another obstacle was his chronic illness, which would attack him with nausea and vomiting, whereupon he would simply excuse himself from a meeting and deal with it without complaining.  He eventually had to begin a type of home-based dialysis that involved hooking himself up to a complicated machine every night. 


But he didn't let that slow him down from his professional work, or from volunteering to organize and run worthy events at church.  During a service he would get up and smile a thousand-watt smile and say, "Good morning, saints!" and then encourage us to join the painting crew or the tee-shirt sale or whatever worthy cause was on the menu that day. 


He had been married before, but was divorced before we met him.  Around 1997, he fell in love with a woman and they decided to get married.  Julius did me the honor of asking me to be one of his groomsmen, and we went down to New Jersey in July of 1998 and saw him and Lynn tie the knot.  They honeymooned in Hawaii, and after another year or so at UMass, he found a job closer to his new bride's family in New Jersey, and we saw him off from UMass at a going-away party.


In 1999, I left UMass myself for Texas, but we kept in touch with people who knew Julius, and soon we heard a sad story.  It seemed that his wife took on the notion that Julius no longer needed his dialysis machine, so somehow she persuaded him to quit using it to see what would happen.  Ever the loving husband, he tried it, and the result was that he landed in a hospital in a coma. 


I learned this shortly before I was due to make a trip from Texas to the New York City area on business, so I found out where the hospital was and made a special side trip to see him.  He was in an ICU surrounded by beeping machinery, and while he seemed unresponsive, I knew that sometimes the last sense to go is hearing.  So I told him I was here, and that my wife and I were praying for him.  I'm not sure, but I think I saw his lips move a little in response.  A few weeks later we heard that he had died.


God only knows how many lives Julius Randall touched for the better during his relatively brief time on this planet.  He was always finding people who needed help and figuring out how to help them with jobs, money, a place to stay, a way of doing things, a plan, a word of encouragement, or just a listening ear. 


But he did all this in a way that let you know he was human, and "holier than thou" never applied to him.  Once in a blue moon, I even heard him complain.  One day I was driving him back to his apartment and we had to drive through the UMass campus.  He was in the front seat beside me, and I was obeying the speed limit.  Suddenly I saw the lights of a campus police car behind me, so I pulled over.  I forget what reason the officer gave for wanting to pull me over, but it didn't make a lot of sense at the time.  The officer finally let us go, and as I was driving away Julius said, "Man, I get tired of that sometimes."  It wasn't the first time he'd been pulled over for DWB:  Driving While Black.  But it was the first time I experienced just a tiny sliver of what it was like to live in supposedly enlightened Massachusetts as a Black man, whose life certainly mattered.

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