LIANE HANSEN, host:
As head of the United Negro College Fund, Arthur Fletcher coined the phrase `A mind is a terrible thing to waste.' Art Fletcher died this past week at the age of 80. His long public career included jobs in the administrations of four presidents. And as Phyllis Fletcher, of member station KUOW recalls, her grandfather worked hard to craft his legacy.
My grandfather said he was born in a car accident. He came out kicking and never stopped. When Grandpa played football, sportswriters said tackles bounced off him like dried peas off a tin roof.
Grandpa wanted to be remembered. He had a knack of it. He could take his life and slice it up into bite-size morsels of stories, anecdotes and legends, like this one: Grandpa was a big shot in the Ford administration. One day a white guy stopped him the hallway, `Boy,' the guy said, `can you tell me where Art Fletcher's office is?' Grandpa did his best shuck and jive and told the guy to (imitates her grandfather) `Take the elevator to the sixth floor, suh.' Then Grandpa ran up six flights of stairs. He wiped the sweat off his brow and slid behind his desk just in time to see panic on the guy's face when he read `Arthur Fletcher' on the nameplate and saw Grandpa smiling behind it. The guy was there for a job interview.
Or there was the time when Grandpa was in eighth grade the great civil rights leader, Mary McLeod Bethune, visited his class at school. She told them one day someone who was in that very room would have the ear of the president. Or there was the time in high school when he found out his picture would be in the back of the yearbook with all the black kids. That was the day he organized his first civil rights protest. Grandpa told all these stories to his friends, family and reporters. The stories end up in newspapers and online bios. The moral is always the same: Art Fletcher did something good for black people, something that belongs in the history books.
Grandpa hit the lecture circuit near the end of his life. He reminded people it was he who had coined the term `A mind is a terrible thing to waste' for the United Negro College Fund. He handed out red, white and blue T-shirts. The shirts proclaimed him the father of affirmative action in bold letters. Grandpa gave me one of the T-shirts, too. `Oh, someone printed these up for me,' he said. `I thought you should have one.' I said, `Thank you,' and told him it was really neat. But I felt bad for him, too. I knew he was frustrated people didn't know his name like Martin Luther King or Malcolm X.
It's no wonder Grandpa felt entitled to a legacy. He was born into a life that didn't make sense. He had to fight for everything, even his spot in the yearbook. But he wasn't alone, and history books make room for only so many heroes. The T-shirts, I'm sure they're headed for Goodwill, but, with any luck, somebody will see one and get curious. They'll find a computer and they'll look up the father of affirmative action. And they'll find the stories that made his life so frustrating and so meaningful.
HANSEN: Phyllis Fletcher is the granddaughter of Arthur Fletcher, who died this past Tuesday.
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