Born in a sharecropper's shack in Georgia, Ernest Holsendolph migrated to Cleveland during the Depression. His family was his bedrock. And at key points in his youth, caring teachers opened up new worlds. He recounts the people who shaped his life and ste
February 14, 2010 10:00 AM
Holsendolph's parents, Wallace and Ethel
Holsendolph with Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Barbara Reynolds.
Holsendolph with Ethel Kennedy.
By Ernest Holsendolph
One of the benefits of being blessed to live three score and ten, and then some, is you get a chance to look back, and examine a lot of steps along the way. And in looking back , to notice how far you came, and appreciate those who helped you.
For me there were young teachers like Ralph Loewe and Frances Barjansky. A dear grandpa Lucius Rogers, who for me defined generosity and gave me faith. And an adoring family that put up with my ways and encouraged me.
I needed all that help, and more, to make it from a sharecroppers cabin in the midst of the 1930s Depression in south Georgia, to a 40-year-career in journalism. Along the way I served publications like The New York Times and Fortune, and assignments like editing and editorial writing -- at a time when there were few other African-Americans in the industry.
More than anybody else, my strong, religious and quiet-spoken father, Wallace Holsendolph, was my inspiration.
An uneducated man by today's standards, Wallace Holsendolph set his own course. He taught steadiness and dependability, staying married to my mother Ethel for 60 years.
He showed grit, working more than 25 years for Ford's Brook Park, Ohio, foundry and never missed a day, and was always on time. We lived 20 often snowy and icy miles away from his steamy workplace, but he clocked in at 7 a.m. every day. And before he left on his treacherous trip on a winter day, he shoveled the snow and started the fire in the old coal stove so we would be warm when we got up.
On such sturdy, loving supports -- mostly unseen, seldom heralded, sometimes forgotten -- rest the foundations that made me and my sisters steady. They were the kind of blessings that surround many of us, but need to be appreciated for their unique value. I applaud my inspirational figures.
For me those special people entered my consciousness in the 1930s, in the sharecropper's shack where I was born and first peeped out at the world. It was where as a toddler I learned to mimic. My favorite target was the preacher, and I "did" him with gusto, marching about orating, waving the Bible, shouting "hallelujah!" posturing on one knee and beseeching the flock.
A most unlikely observer thought I was a gem. He was Harvey Jordan, the field boss on the sharecropper plantation, who would demand to see my performance when he came by to visit my father.
"Wallace, don't that child beat all!," he shouted. Gleefully, he then put me in his truck and took me about to let other families see my bravura performance. And then I really laid it on heavy.
I was 4 and I still remember it, and the crazy self-confidence the recognition engendered. The fearlessness that made me unafraid to speak up and to challenge -- sometimes to a fault. I've never known stage fright. The experience taught me that being me was OK, that I had a talent.
In Cleveland, where we migrated in 1940, we lived in the racially mixed Buckeye-Woodland area off East 86th Street. My younger sisters and I attended Washington Irving School, on East 83rd, where Principal Bertha Fennell greeted us on the street each morning as we arrived at school. Obviously she cared about us. She greeted us by name, and believe me, there were no sagging pants in those parts!
What happened inside the school, however, was what made Washington Irving School a world apart.
Miss Hanson, my music teacher, did something that helped set my life's course. An immigrant from Germany, she sang lieder to us. We youngsters, more blacks than whites, sat entertained, but often befuddled, by the classical German art songs. For some reason I was captivated by this alien stuff. And I listened attentively to the old scratchy 78 rpm records of chamber music and concertos. I was attracted mostly, I think, by the passionate love Miss Hanson showed for the music. Where kids are concerned, passion often counts for more than half the interest in subject matter -- hands down.
My sisters and their friends grooved on Ruth Brown's R&B vocalizing, but I closed my door and settled into my classical music. Mom and dad and Ann and Betty and Dot put up with me. "Ernest is kind of strange like that," they told their friends.
I was, and remain, fascinated by Classical Era composers. But my appreciation of the classics led me to find reward in many kinds of music. My collection contains stuff ranging from my first record, Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, to Miles to Ella and Ellington to BB King to spirituals to the country ballads of Brooks & Dunn to the latest a cappella sounds of Naturally 7. Classical got me started, thanks to Miss Hanson, and definitely shaped my taste but did not determine it.
The bigger lesson is that there are no boundaries that seal us from the influence of caring, passionate people, who practice being just themselves -- often with spellbinding effect. And those passions reach across race and income and color and time.
My father, who died in 1995 at 89, was a Church of Christ elder, and a shining light of inspiration, and in many ways. In the midst of the Depression he took a 1930s federal "stimulus" job of the day working on restoring a dangerous old bridge. He took his year's earnings, the first cash we ever had, and spent it on train tickets for our family of six to get to Cleveland.
His courage in leaving the land of his birth, and the comforting, familiar slow pace of life in the rolling hills of south Georgia, for the raucous cacophony of industrial Cleveland was sheer bravery. We loved him for his willingness to risk all for a venture he undertook with blind faith. And he did it for us.
I loved this about him maybe most of all. Dad paid attention in those weekly UAW meetings, where political action committees talked about the need for solidarity in fighting for programs that help the poor, that address discrimination, and that advanced the cause or workers. Amazingly those union leaders brought Appalachian whites and Southern blacks together for progressive causes, and that impressed me, even as a kid.
Learning his lessons well, he required all of us children to read newspapers and follow the news, and be ready to talk politics around our dinner table. I was the only kid on my block who ran home to watch political conventions, and actually knew the participants and the issues.
In his way, Dad made me a journalist.
Another pivotal person in my life was Frances Barjansky, who taught French and was my homeroom teacher at Rawlings Junior High. It was Frances who tapped me on the shoulder once, in the seventh grade, and said:
"Ernest, I love your sense of humor."
"My sense of humor, what about it?"
"You have a good sense of humor -- you laugh at my jokes!"
She went on to explain that her ironic humor was elusive to most kids our age, and she thought it bespoke a kind of intelligence.
"You know," she said, "you are smart. Maybe smart enough to go to Columbia like my brother."
Hmmm.... smart... Columbia... That was in the seventh grade.
Five years later, accumulating an 'A' average after Frances encouraged me, Barnett W. Taylor, my principal at East Technical High School, stopped me in the hallway and said, "Son, you did so well I can get you into any college you choose... what do you have in mind?"
"Columbia," I said. And Columbia it was. And even though I was one of only six or seven black boys in my freshman class on Morningside Heights in New York, I found college comfortable and challenging. And I connected socially well enough to be elected vice president of my senior class.
And I graduated from Columbia as an American history major, in 1958. I did not get all 'A's', but I did get an A in Music Humanities, the exploration of serious music from antiquity to Samuel Barber.
Miss Hanson did it. And so did Frances Barjansky.
And so did Ralph Loewe, my teacher in English and journalism.
Ralph, a young Cleveland-bred dynamo, taught such a good 10th-grade class in journalism it was the only journalism class I ever took in my life.
It was not just book learning, but his passion for inquiry, his relentless effort to go beyond easy answers, the way he challenged us to open our minds. He had us reading Max Ascoli's liberal Reporter Magazine, and writing letters to the editor of The New York Times, and getting them published. He made me editor of our school paper, The Scarab.
Best of all, he just taught us to be self-confident grown-ups.
When his wife, Beth, had trouble carrying their first child, he took a month's leave, and left me and my student editors to run our weekly newspaper. We were a rare high school paper, as a weekly, because we published in house, using student trained typesetters and printers -- who learned their crafts in their technical courses. We published every issue in Ralph's absence, without faculty help. And we did so, prompting Evan Lodge, the assistant superintendent for English instruction, to write us a personal note of congratulations.
That measure of confidence in his teaching, and in his students, reinforced our own confidence, and reverberated in our lives after school. Confidence in youth sometimes takes courage, but the dividends are incalculable.
And I went on to become a reporter for hometown weekly Call & Post, and then Cleveland Press, the Washington Evening Star, Fortune Magazine, The New York Times, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution -- 42 years of work.
In David Shribman's book, "I Remember My Teacher," Donald Rumsfeld recounts an unlikely summer, when he actually enjoyed learning some constitutional law. Referring to his teacher, the late Oliver Schroeder, he said:
"The guy came in with such energy, such excitement, such enthusiasm, that I couldn't help but pay attention. I learned some constitutional law, but I also learned that people respond in direct proportion to how much you reach out to them."
Ralph Loewe sized up his students, and pushed each to take another step to improve, and he did it with such good humor, sometimes with a hug, always with a challenging style that could not be ignored. "How do you know that? Back that up. Tell me the motivation..."
Frances Barjansky sold her special brand of caring when we first laid eyes on one another. I was new to the drab old school, Rawlings Junior High, and she saw me downcast. She engaged me and other students just right, so I not only attained self confidence, but wanted to prove the validity of her expectations.
Miss Hanson, in the long ago 1940s, planted an appreciation for musical invention that made me a student, and created a pleasure in music that lasts to this day.
All of these influences conspired to make me analytical, skeptical and persistent enough to make a living as a journalist.
Mark Van Doren, the distinguished literary critic at Columbia, once said in class, "The successful teacher reminds us of things we already know." We teens in his class did not understand what he meant. But now I do.
Truly effective teachers help us come to terms with our knowledge, our pleasures and ideals, so we can forge ahead to satisfying lives. What I was taught by teachers, a loving father and others made me successful, and grateful.
retired from journalism in 2004 and lives in Stone Mountain, Ga. (
). First Published February 14, 2010 5:00 AM