DAYS OF ASHE AND GRACE

Raymond B. Wallace, Jr.

Arthur Ashe would be almost 70 years old this summer – actually 69, July, 2012.

What brought this to mind is RTD Publisher Tom Silvestri – his reportage expressing apprehension over the anxiety of “history people”. These traditional Richmonders see “this persistent chatter about Richmond being a creative and innovative region” as exclusionary.  The anxiety: new innovation-branding will render Richmond’s history, past public servants, irrelevant.

Erasing future references about Richmond history seems unwise. Consider a limited list of Richmond 20th century leadership: Thomas C. Boushall, Grace E. Arents, Eleanor P. Sheppard, Vernard W. Henley, James C. Wheat, Jr., Clarence L. Townes, Sr., Rev. R. Cary Montague, Judge Lewis T. Booker…..and yes, Arthur Robert Ashe, Jr. Sifting through their community gifts summons admiration.

Rhapsodizing about Richmonder Arthur Ashe conjures up exhausting appreciation. By-passing his tennis celebrity, Ashe’s goal was to empower local student achievement – reconciling the irreconcilable. He modeled pure integrity to Richmond’s struggling black and white youth.

Days of Grace, a life-reflecting autobiography, revealed the key.

Growing up black – barred from playing tennis in segregated public parks, Ashe improvised. Learning to play from Ron Charity at age 7 years, then from Dr. Robert “Whirlwind” Johnson at tennis camp in Lynchburg, VA, he plunged into poised citizenship.

Graduating from segregated Maggie Walker High School; receiving UCLA tennis scholarship, this solemn-eyed student blended career with growing personal dignity. Ashe catapulted into national celebrity with tennis achievements (818 wins – 260 loses) until exhaustion indicated a predisposition to heart disease in 1979; Richmond’s champion endured the early era of open heart surgery….strength and faith abide.

Ironically, a tainted blood transfusion intervened, passing on infectious HIV / AIDS virus; this would hound him into a death sentence – bitterness purged.

Five years my junior, our connection was remote. As a public school teacher, I met him twice – for purposes of honoring top high school academic achievers, public and private – at Holiday Inn 3200. Obviously ill, ever resilient, Ashe buoyed rapturous teen audiences, courageously shaking hands, autographing automatically, enduring the energy of adolescent honorees – his mentoring reigned.

Posthumously, Days of Grace, arrived in February, 1993, to strong reviews – required reading in Wallace U.S. History classes. His untraditional memoir exhibited a penchant for seeking truth: ethics, race, patriotism, sports, an obligation to family and fellow man….all empowering.

Serenely, Ashe wrote that “being black is the greatest burden I’ve had to bear”….oppression begets strength.

“Of all my possessions, my reputation means most to me”, he wrote. He tried to live up to rules set by disciplinarian father, Arthur Ashe, Sr. “Don’t do anything you couldn’t tell your mother about”, dad would chide. Amid the perceived quaintness, hamstrung with an ever coarsening culture, Ashe didn’t flinch – his behavioral code remained rock strong.

As U.S. Davis Cup team captain, Ashe viewed personal conduct and behavior an ultimate responsibility. Lamenting Jimmy Connors refusal to participate in Cup rounds; observing John McEnroe’s bratty exhibitionism sullying America’s reputation, he was mortified.

Days of Grace cites deep disappointment in both basketball greats, Earvin Johnson (Ashe thought it demeaning to call him “Magic”), and Wilt Chamberlain. When they publically bragged of their sexual conquests, he ruminated, “what does this say to youth who idolize them?”

Political liberalism spoke to his personal values: activist government, endorsement of abortion rights, marching in protest movements against South African apartheid – exhibiting near-worship of Nelson Mandela. He traced black American challenges to slavery and discrimination – then quickly, would admonish: “this history of oppression not be used as excuse for anti-social behavior, black chauvinism, or bogus appeals to racial solidarity.”

Ashe’s bold views on America’s racial storms reside in Days of Grace. Passing by his Monument Ave. statue, Richmonders remains proud of his citizenry…and other leaders as well.

Raymond B. Wallace, Jr. is a former business CEO, retired A.P. teacher at Mills Godwin High School in Henrico County. Contact him at rbwallace01@verizon.net.