John Hope Franklin, who died Wednesday at the age of 94, was a great teacher, and a family friend. He was a friend of my stepfather, Ralph Newman, who owned the Abraham Lincoln Bookshop in Chicago, during all the years that John Hope taught at the University of Chicago, and they shared a love of history, Lincoln—and baseball.
The last was as important as the first. Ralph nursed an idea for years that John H. Johnson, the great Chicago publisher of Ebony and other magazines, should buy the Chicago White Sox (President Obama's favorite team), hire Jackie Robinson as the manager, and give John Hope just enough shares to allow him to go into the locker room.
And, John Hope had a singular love of orchids. Through the fiercest Chicago winters, he would grow the most beautiful orchids. When he and his wife, Aurelia, came to dinner at my mother's apartment, he would always bring her one splendid orchid.
John Hope had more honorary degrees than most men have pairs of socks, and I've thought about this story often during the last few years:
John Hope made a same-day trip to collect one degree and give a speech (Boston or maybe New York is my recollection). He arrived early at the airport for the return trip, and decided to go in the airline club of which he was a member. They asked for his club card, but it was in another wallet. He showed them his driver's license, Marshall Field's credit card, U of C faculty card (this was in the days before every record in the world was on a computer terminal), but nothing that met their requirements. He was carrying his honorary degree under his arm, and finally showed them that. He said that the airline gatekeeper brightened and said, "What can I get you to drink, Dr. Franklin?"
"Only honorary degree that ever did me a damn bit of good," he told us, laughing.
I used John Hope Franklin—shamelessly—as the model for a character, Taber John Palmer, who is glimpsed from a distance in my novel, "Windy City," and I'm glad that he lived to see that small salute. And, I'm glad that he lived to see the 2008 election. The last time I saw him was at the Texas Book Festival, where he put our daughter, Elise, into his lap. A friend told me that when loved ones hold our children in our laps, the memory of them somehow endures even longer. I hope so.