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A Life Well-Lived

Jan. 20, 2003
Jan. 20, 2003

Table of Contents
Jan. 20, 2003

A Life Well-Lived

Last week, while traveling in the desert, I met a wise man--a
prophet--and asked him the secret to a long, successful life.
"Good genes," was all he said.

This is an article from the Jan. 20, 2003 issue Original Layout

His hair was white and his face was mahogany, calling pleasantly
to mind a pint of Guinness. "I'm 91 years old," he continued,
then pressed his fingertips to unlined cheeks, which shone like
polished apples. "Good black don't crack."

I thanked him and prepared to take my leave--rising halfway from
my seat, like a bluffing panelist on To Tell the Truth--when he
said softly, "There is one other thing."

I sat back down, and he said, "I never fill my stomach. My mother
was a great cook, but my father told me, 'She's only filling your
stomach so another woman never gets to. She's just trying to hold
on to you.' Ever since, I can eat more, but I never do."

We were seated in a hotel lobby in Scottsdale, Ariz., and
presently, as so many have done before, I drew my chair closer to
Buck O'Neil, the Negro leagues star, the first African-American
coach in the big leagues (with the Chicago Cubs in 1962) and, as
a Cubs scout, the man who signed Lou Brock. O'Neil became known
to a nationwide audience in 1994, when he entrancingly recounted
his experiences in Ken Burns's PBS documentary Baseball. "He's
the classiest man I ever met in all my years in baseball," Bill
Buckner had been telling me an hour earlier, at the conclusion of
the Eddie Robinson Celebrity Golf Challenge. "When I played in
Kansas City, Buck would come to the park, always dressed to the
nines, and I'd make a point to find him, sit down and just
listen."

That might explain Buckner's Gandhi-like forbearance toward those
feebleminded Red Sox fans whose hatred--in the 16 years since his
World Series error--he has never reciprocated. "They've given him
such a hard time," said O'Neil. "And he has handled himself so
well."

What is the secret to a life well-lived? Here was another hint.
"Don't hate another human being," said O'Neil, whose father was
the son of a slave. "Hate cancer. Cancer took my mother, took my
wife four years ago. Hate what happened on September 11. But
don't hate another human being. God made man."

But God made men who denied you, at various times, a toilet, a
hotel room, an education, a living, your very humanity. "My
parents always told me most people are good," replied O'Neil.
"Even when I was young"--in Carrabelle, Fla.--"most people were
good. The thing was, good people sometimes let the bad people
have their way. But who wrapped their arms around Jackie Robinson
in his time of need? Pee Wee Reese of Louisville, Kentucky, did.
The commissioner of baseball in 1947 [Happy Chandler] was a man
from Kentucky."

At this his left hand grabbed my forearm, and his right fist
rapped on his own breastbone as if it were a door. "It comes from
in here," said O'Neil. "Doing the right thing. It takes somebody
to change something. My grandfather was a slave. And God saw it
wasn't right, so he sent Abraham Lincoln. And Abraham Lincoln
joined hands with Frederick Douglass who joined hands with
Sojourner Truth who joined hands with Harriet Tubman. And so on."
Human progress, in O'Neil's view, is a chain of paper dolls,
linked at the wrist and leading to you.

The lobby floor gleamed like a silver serving tray, reflecting an
army of bellmen. "Right here in Phoenix," O'Neil said, "in the
richest country in the world, people are going hungry. That
shouldn't be. But if I have it all, there's not enough to go
around." Talk of human hunger called to mind another injustice.
"It's like Steinbrenner," said O'Neil. "He's got more ballplayers
than anyone else, so there aren't enough to go around."

O'Neil paused to suck a Tootsie Pop, which he'd plucked from a
passing housekeeper's cart. "This is the greatest country on
Earth," he continued, "but we can be better. That is going to be
your job." He held my forearm like a banister. "In my day we
changed some things. Now it's your turn to change things. And
you'll do it. I know you will."

When I confessed that it wasn't in me, or in my generation, to
change our channels manually, much less to change the world, he
invoked the memory of his grandfather Julius, born into slavery
in South Carolina and owned by a man with the surname O'Neil.

"Grandpa used to tell me he loved Mr. O'Neil," he said. "And I
would ask him, 'Grandpa, how could you love a man who kept you as
his slave?' And Grandpa said, 'He never sold off a mother from
her children, he never sold off a husband from his wife.' And
Grandpa--this is before all the doctors and all the medicine we
have today--lived to be 102 years old."

Was this good genes, I wondered, or something greater? I had come
seeking the secret of a life well-lived and felt I was getting
closer. So I asked. And when the old man, once again, took my arm
in his hand, I felt physically linked in that paper-doll chain to
all who had gone before me.

"Love," he half-whispered, as if sharing a confidence. "Love,
man. This is the whole thing."

B/W PHOTO: JEFFERY A. SALTER
Human progress, in O'Neil's view, is a chain of paper dolls,
linked at the wrist and leading to you.