August 7, 2019 – Dick Gregory died two years ago this month in a Washington, D.C. hospital. He was 84.
The anniversary of his passing – especially at a time in our history when we sorely miss his prophetic voice – brings back happy memories. I wrote these observations shortly after he died:
Dick Gregory was a lean, mean running machine in 1974 when he came to the first annual Communication Center at Green Lake, Wis.
The Center was a week-long seminar on interfaith communication planned by the American Baptist Division of Communication, then headed by Norman R. De Puy. The speakers who addressed the conference that week were stellar in their own rights, including editor Norman Cousins, pop-anthropologist Ashley Montague, George Gerbner, legendary chair of the communications department at the University of Pennsylvania, and NAACP head Benjamin Hooks.
All of these luminaries stayed in the Green Lake Center’s elegant but rickety Roger Williams Inn, where the ancient elevator doors clunked open with (in Montague’s words) “the thud of an atomic bomb.” Montague, an elegant Brit who was famous for occasional appearances on the Johnny Carson show, exposed his bony white knees between the hem of his yellow Bermuda shorts and black knee socks, and he was a pain in the neck to the Center organizers. He was an avowed Unitarian who hated the Roman Catholic Church and frowned condescendingly at the Protestant Christians who came to the Center, “The only time I hear Jesus Christ’s name in my church,” he proclaimed in his opening lecture, “is when the janitor falls down stairs.”
Cousins and Hooks, fortunately, were charming and accessible to all attenders. Gerbner cheerfully accepted the uneven surface of the Green Lake tennis courts, saying they were useful lessons for life: “You never know where the ball will bounce.”
But it was comedian and social activist Dick Gregory whose presence was remembered by most. In the summer of 1974, Dick was running from coast to coast to express his opposition to the Vietnam War. He agreed to come to Green Lake if the organizers would allow him to run when he wasn’t making speeches, and that’s how I remember him: brief glimpses of a skinny, sweating, bearded man running quickly through crowds, often accompanied by teen-ager Scott Waterston, the son of one of the Baptist organizers.
But Gregory never refused to stop and talk with people, and he was generous with his autographs. His humor was always present and occasionally cutting. One day the staff was meeting in the canteen, a small snack shop at the rear of the Roger Williams Inn, and Gregory walked in to ask for water. He had removed his running shoes, which created a dilemma for the young woman at the cash register. “I’m sorry,” she said with adolescent firmness, “you can’t come in here without shoes.”
“What?” Gregory said, stifling a smile.
“You can’t come in here without shoes.”
Gregory quickly surveyed the small crowd in the canteen and raised his voice. “JESUS wouldn’t be allowed in here,” he announced loudly. But he stepped outside obediently and slipped into his shoes.
Dick Gregory’s keynote address was brilliant and full of famous lines from his public appearances. “I was told, ‘We don’t serve Negroes in here,’ and I said, ‘That’s okay, I don’t eat Negroes.’” And, “These big white guys surrounded my table and said, whatever you do to that chicken, we goin’ to do you. So I kissed it.”
Not everything Gregory said was scientifically substantiated, including his assertion that feeding cows milk to human babies was the underlying cause of sudden infant death syndrome. But his social observations were usually insightful and always wise.
During the question and answer session following his evening speech, Dick asked for water and sipped from a cup while responding thoughtfully and humorously to each question. As the hour grew late, Division of Communication staffer Milt Ryder, who was presiding over the session, announced there would be time for one more question. The question came, Gregory answered it thoughtfully, and turned to Milt for the adjournment.
But before Milt could get to the microphone, Phil English, an African American pastor, stood to be recognized. Milt looked awkwardly from English to Gregory and back to English.
After a few seconds of enjoying the awkwardness, Gregory intervened.
“Don’t worry, Brother,” he told English. “No way these folks will dare tell you to sit down.”
There were other communications centers at Green Lake, and later gatherings in Mississauga, Ontario, and Valley Forge, Pa. None of them quite matched the power and eloquence of the first one in 1974.
Years later I ran into Dick Gregory by chance, some time in the early nineties. He and I found ourselves on the same commuter plane, probably en route to Philadelphia. His beard was longer and almost white, but he was still lean and his eyes still studied his surroundings in search of irony. As we were shuffling off the plane, he noticed I had recognized him.
Twenty years earlier we had been in daily contact for a week at Green Lake, and he seemed to be studying my face. Perhaps, I thought, he might actually recognize me.
Whether he did or not, he smiled and nodded. “Hello, bro-ther,” he said.
I smiled back and grasped his hand.
That was the last I saw of Dick, but the impression I had of him during these fleeting encounters never dimmed.
He was a great and a good man, and he will be missed.