Friday, December 9, 2011

A Thursday With Mr. Doar

John Doar's senior thesis was entitled "An Analysis of Farmer Cooperatives, 1918-1946."

Last night in Dodds Auditorium at the Woodrow Wilson School, Doar was asked what effect that thesis had on his life's work.

"None at all," he said softly, drawing laughter from the crowd.

Doar spoke to the crowd for 90 minutes, or one minute for every year old he is. As he spoke, TigerBlog sat next to him, pressed into service as the moderator, and marveled at basically everything he was witnessing.

It was the same feeling he'd had seven hours earlier, when Doar spoke to a smaller group at a luncheon.

In short, TB was struck by how easily a 90-year-old man could rattle off names, dates, events, opinions - and the depth and historical significance of what was stored in the archive section of his brain.

John Doar was born and raised in the North, not the North as in the Northeast, but the North as in Minnesota and Wisconsin. He came from privilege, a family of lawyers that included the Governor of Wisconsin.

He was Princeton educated, a basketball player at that under Cappy Cappon, with a brief time to train as a bomber pilot for World War II, which ended before he could be deployed. He returned to Princeton, graduated, went to law school at Cal and then joined the family business.

And then, with all that, he set off to do something completely unforeseeable - he became one of the giants of the civil rights movement.

He changed the world.

As he spoke yesterday, at both the luncheon and his talk in the evening, he credited everyone else who had been part of it - Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, James Meredith, an army of Southerners whom few people could recognize by name, black students who had undertook great risk to help register black voters, even the legislations themselves, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Of those last two, he would say several times: "They changed the world."

And his own role? Nothing. Not a word about its impact, about the gratitude that is owed to him for playing as large a role as anyone in ending a century-old caste system that lingered long after the Civil War.

Not that TigerBlog was surprised.

Everything he knew about John Doar, going back the first time he wrote about him more than 10 years ago, suggested that he would never in 90 years - or a million years - talk about his own legacy.

Mr. Doar is a tall man, probably close to 6-6 or so, and he is in good enough shape that he stood throughout his evening talk. His hearing isn't what it used to be, and TB figured out early on that he needed to stay to Mr. Doar's left for him to be able to hear him.

Still, his mind is completely intact.

He spoke about his background at the luncheon, how he came to be involved in the movement, because between the time he had his informal conversations in the 1940s with his Southern Princeton classmates and their attitude of "there are problems, but we don't need any Yankees coming in to make it worse" and his law school and early law practice days, he'd seen no progress on the issue.

And so off he went, to Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, to make the progress himself.

At the event in the evening, he hardly mentioned the courage it took to do that. Instead, he gave almost all of the credit to Bob Owen, a member of the Class of 1952 (whose own thesis was entitled: "The Secession Movement in Texas."

Doar spoke about his old friend Bob, who had done much of the legwork in the Deep South back then.

Then it was time for a Q&A. The first question came from TigerBlog, and it asked him to talk about his most publicly notable contribution to the movement, the day in 1962 that he escorted James Meredith as he integrated the University of Mississippi.

Listening to Doar's response, it was clear that he was filled with great pride about what he had done that day, how he had helped stand up to a corrupt governor and a state that was determined, as he said, "to defend the Confederacy."

It wasn't a "look what I did" kind of pride, though. It was a pride born from knowing that what he had done had made such an impact, and it was done simply because, as he says often, "it was the right thing to do."

Eventually, about 10 questions where asked, and TB asked if there was a last one. From the back, Al Kaemmerlen's hand went up, asking what happened to Bob Owen.

Mr. Doar paused and told how his friend had died of cancer at the young age of 50, taken "long before his time," as Doar said emotionally.

That as the end of his talk, which drew as it had at the luncheon a huge, genuine ovation from the audience. There were pictures to be taken, including one with Doar and Pete Carril.

From his own view, seated next to the man all day, TB couldn't help but marvel at this man. His contributions to American history are significant and extraordinary, and yet he's as understated and humble as anyone TB has ever met.

Doar spoke from a speech that was printed out, three-hole punched and then placed into a binder. On the back side of each page were hand-written notes.

A few times during his talk, Doar paused and consulted the notes, deciding to punctuate his prepared remarks with other anecdotes or information.

As he did this, TB could see his mind churning, summoning up memories from long ago, of days spent at ground zero of the civil rights movement.

Those memories were all sitting right there, waiting for him to click on the ones he needed, when he needed them.

For a 90-year-old to have that kind of recall of the events of a lifetime is extraordinary.

For this 90 year old, it's the events themselves - as well as the mind - that are extraordinary.

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