Thursday, June 29, 2017

Big George

Yesterday, I learned of the death of a friend and former colleague.  George Austin was a big man.  A social science teacher and football coach, he taught and mentored thousands of young people over a long career.  Although George was not elderly, he had recently retired, but never lived to enjoy the rest he deserved.  That often happens. He'd recently had knee surgery and to the best of my knowledge some of the complications of subsequent surgeries took his life.  George was the kind of teacher who could easily put his students needs first.  He took the time to do that.  His priorities were solidly in order.

About 20 years ago, we were roommates for a week at a National Writing Project conference in Princeton, New Jersey.  I really got to know George that week.  Aside from the intensive work we participated in regarding teacher research, there was time for some relaxation free time.
One morning, George asked me to accompany him on a search for clothing.  He knew about a store for large men somewhere on the New Jersey turnpike and had rented a car for the purpose of going there and later to New York.  So here we are, two California guys trying to deal with the toll roads on the East coast and  starkly unfamiliar territory.  When we found the place, George was able to benefit from the current sales and managed to find a few things.  As I perused the inventory of this specialty shop, I was amazed at some of the sizes available.  I never knew of the existence of Triple X and beyond sizes.  Some of the garments made big George look small.
Later that week, the teachers at this conference decided to have a talent show and one evening before the show, George and I cooked up an idea.  We'd spent some free time walking on the Princeton campus and generally comparing the environment of the school and the town to the milieu of UC Berkeley.  We were struck by the fact that the lack of diversity and homeless people was striking.  We'd shared that idea with some of our east coast colleagues.  So that evening we hatched a plan.  I would go on stage with my harmonica pretending that I'd play a few tunes as my contribution to the talent show.  But suddenly I'd announce that while walking around the town I ran into a famous bluesman.  George would take the role of "Big George" an important and well known figure in Blues circles.  I told the audience that invited him to perform tonight and them introduced him to the crowd.  Out walks George, with appropriate pork pie hat and a bluesy disposition.  We then performed a revised version of Muddy Water's "I'm a Man."  I think a few folks were momentarily fooled, or at least confused.  Great fun.
Later that week, George and our new friend Marsha from Philly went over to the then Philadelphia Park  racetrack where, in the rain, I introduced them to the concept of mud breeding and we managed to hit a nice exacta before returning to the evening session of the conference.  Great day.
While those memories of George will stay strong, I'll never forget the day after Bill Clinton was elected to his first term.  Winning the Presidency after years and years of Reagan and Bush, we were all ready for the future.  That Wednesday morning, as I walked down the hallway of the main building of our school, George approached me from the other direction smiling broadly.  He motioned me over and whispered in my ear, "The money be flown' now," he said.

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