The giant with the Tiger ball cap – Remembering Charles Redd

Charles Redd
Charles Redd

I was going to say that his life proves that any person can change the world. But then I realized that I was so wrong. My old friend Charles Redd wasn’t any person. I’d say he was one of the most extraordinary people I’ve ever known.

As he lay dying at his home on Fort Wayne southeast side, he wondered aloud to wife Jackie
whether his life had made a difference to anyone. She climbed to the attic to retrieve his many plaques and other awards and then displayed them on the wall.

As humble a man as you’d ever meet, he nevertheless enjoyed the display, which he christened “the gallery.” Jackie told a reporter he invited visitors to take notice.

Of course, even a thousand plaques couldn’t begin to tell the whole story of this African-American’s story. I knew him when he first came to Fort Wayne to head the local Urban League. He used the director’s position not only to develop education, health and welfare programs to serve the poor. He naturally assumed the role of advocate.

Throughout the community, he talked up the need for jobs, health care services and voter education drives. He was a voice for justice on behalf of inner-city black kids, stuck in
segregated and inferior schools.

He helped organize the school boycott in the late 1960s. He counseled parents and kept black ministers focused on the call for equal opportunity. When he confronted school leaders, he was courteous and reasonable. Yet he insisted that officials not offer excuses or point to white opposition. “Let’s just do the right thing,” he would say, often with his
trademark smile.

I’m sure white officials didn’t know what to think of this soft-spoken black man with his Afro tell them how to run the schools.

I didn’t have to twist his arm to write op.ed. columns for the paper. The pieces read the way he talked. So they sounded fair-minded, respectful but clear about the changes in the schools that were called for.

When he joined the City Council, representing the 1st District, he brought that spirit to the position. And he proved to be the same champion for the poor and the downtrodden he’d been at the Urban League.

No wonder when the Metropolitan Human Relations Commission fell into internal squabbling, they tapped Charles to serve as interim director, setting things right. He would identify a need and quickly enlist others to join him. He deserved a lot of credit for creating the Voter Information Center. I’m positive that center has boosted the black vote ever since.

I also knew Charles through the Unitarian Church in Fort Wayne. He had served as a board member, a congregational president and representative to the state and national Unitarian Universalist organizations. It was no surprise to me that people easily recognized his leadership qualities.

After Sunday services, he could always be found chatting with an old friend or a visitor. He had a knack for making a person feel welcome and special. When I spoke for the service, he would compliment me warmly. I never heard him speak a hurtful thing about another member.

When I visited him a week or so before he died, he struggled to speak, just barely above a whisper. But even at 82, he was curious about the world. He wanted to know what I thought of the prospects for gun control. As a councilman, he had introduced a tough, local ordinance himself.

He was proud that he could see President Obama take the oath of office for the second term.

Before he was confined to his home, I would see him at church or at Kroger’s. He originally was from Detroit and showed his loyalties with his Detroit Tiger cap. He wore that all summer long. In the winter, he wore a Greek fisherman’s style hat.

I didn’t make it to the funeral. I was sick with a sore throat and fever. The service was held at Turner Chapel, Jackie’s home church where Charles also kept a membership. But I joined my wife Toni for the calling at the funeral home the evening before the service. It was mostly black people who had their own memories, their own stories of this special man.

I gave Jackie and a daughter a hug. I expressed my sympathies to Charles’ sons. I struggled to hold back the tears. I felt such a bond with them all, as we said goodbye to a sweet man who had made a difference.

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