I had a framed photo hanging prominently in the entrance of my apartment.
Most people recognized that the photo was taken in the Oval Office of the White House. They also recognized the two old, white, jovial men flanking the black man in the middle as George Bush Sr. and Ronald Reagan. But then, “Is that…” They took a closer look at the man in the middle, “Is that your dad?!”
My dad wore many hats: politician, social justice warrior, social worker, worst dad ever (which looking back at it now, was a little dramatic, considering I only called him that because he took a foster kid to see Inspector Gadget in theaters and didn’t take me).
He was our biggest fan. I played basketball growing up and my brothers, who aren’t his biological children, played baseball and football. We always knew he was there. Literally–he was the only person you could hear. Quiet, boring, baseball games and my brother would get up to bat and all you would hear was Dad screaming, “WAAAATCH THAT BALL AND POP IT! WAAAATCH THAT BALL AND MEET IT!”
He was embarrassing.
That’s an understatement. He was literally the most embarrassing person ever. He liked to call hip hop people “popcorn cooties”. The one time he got on TV for something other than politics, he made air guns with his hands. A lot. But the most embarrassing thing he ever did? He gave me the survey he’d give foster children when they got their periods and stared at me as I filled it out, “If you have any questions, I’m right here.”
Dad was Santa, he was Kleenex, he was our hero, he was Superman.
When I was 12, he died, and I was convinced everything was ending: my entire life, my world, everything.
First of all, 12, is like the absolute worst age. Everyone sucks. Everything sucks. All my nails were black. All my emotions were dictated by Avril Lavigne. Also: boys.
Put my Dad’s death on top of that. Then, 9/11 happened 19 days after he died. It was all too much for my 12-year-old brain, which was like, “Why is this happening to meeee?!!”
My dad died the summer before 7th grade, which was a summer I was dreading. The next year my brother would be going to college, leaving just me and my mom at home. Sidebar, my dad also died on my mother’s birthday. It was almost too terrible.
The day started off really weird. My brother went out the night before and he lost my mother’s credit card. Instead of coming home, he spent the entire night looking for it. I remember my mom waking up around 3AM, horrified that she couldn’t find my brother. For some reason I said, “We should call dad, maybe he’ll come help us look” and my mom told me not to. We’d later find out my dad’s time of death was 3:15AM.
That day, we woke up and the plan was to go to lunch with my mom and I was going to pay! We actually had a really good day. When we got back home, though, my brother told my mom that her job called, which was weird, considering she had taken a vacation day. When she called back, they told my mom she’d gotten a call from the coroner.
I will never forget the look on her face. She looked terrified, yet so sad. All I remember was her putting the receiver down, saying something, and noticing my brother’s sweat shirt go from dry gray to sopping wet black.
The rest of that day was a blur, but I remember crying with both of my siblings.
My dad wasn’t their dad, but he might as well have been. He gave my mom support for both of my brothers, he went to every single important event in their lives, gave them fatherly advice and all around treated them like his own. My mom still has the handkerchief my dad gave her when my oldest brother graduated from high school; it’s the same one we all used at his funeral.
Recently, I paid for a one-day online membership to The Plain Dealer, just so I could read about my dad. I knew that he had a pretty solid political career, but I discovered that between that and college he volunteered at a methadone clinic in the basement of Metro Health, handing out medication to recovering addicts. He did everything in his power, including not getting paid, to make sure the clinic stayed open because he was dedicated to trying to stop the drug epidemic that was engulfing his community.
During his stint at Metro he started his political career, and eventually ran against Louis Stokes, the most beloved black man in the history of Cleveland–not once, not twice, but three times. Obviously, he lost. But, he caught the attention of President Reagan and Vice President Bush. They were obsessed with my dad. They loved this hulking, ex-football player who, instead of responding to his NFL draft letters, went to Yale Law School, dropped out, and moved back to Cleveland to serve his community.
Politics didn’t go too well, considering he was a black Republican from Cleveland rubbing elbows with Ron and Nan, so what did my dad do? He became a social worker. Up until the day he died, my dad was dedicated to helping children find families. He would tell me, not every kid is lucky enough to have a mommy and daddy and that’s why he was there for them. But when he said that, all I heard was “I’m taking this kid to see Inspector Gadget.”
My dad was one of 15. He went to college. He was one of the most successful of his siblings; he took care of all of them. He would, no joke, give them the shirt off his back.
It took me 15 years to wake up out of the fatherless daze, and by then my father’s face and voice had become a little hazy. But he’d laid the groundwork for us to continue in his absence — I can’t forget the values my father instilled in me. He taught me the importance of education, the importance of saying “I don’t know,” of learning from someone with different experiences and back grounds. He taught me to be selfless by example. He would bring us around foster kids, foster families, and to the Berea Children’s Home and the Center for Families and Children, where he taught us that not everyone is born into a great family. He taught me how to walk in someone else’s shoes, how to put others before myself.
Recently, I’ve realized my passions are in bettering my community and helping people. I can’t help it. It’s literally all I want to do. I think I love the city of Cleveland just as much as he did. In the past couple of months, a group of friends and I have started a dinner club where we get together once a month, decide on a local organization to help and hold a donation drive for that organization. We’ve collected sanitary napkins and toiletries for The City Mission, women’s business clothing for Dress for Success and, this month, we’re organizing a book drive to distribute to the Cleveland School District. This work in my community feels like a continuation of what he started.
He was a superhero. I will never, ever in my life, forget the time my father, on New Year’s Eve, at the corner of Richmond and Mayfield, literally picked up a car off of an old woman who had just been hit by a drunk driver in front of her entire family. Right where the Amy Joy Donuts used to be, he picked up a car.
We witnessed the entire thing.
We were stopped at an intersection and noticed there was a man asleep at the wheel of an idling car. Another car filled with an elderly woman, her son, his wife and two other family members pulled over, and they were surrounded the car, checking on the man. After trying to wake him, the elderly woman’s son went to the driver’s side of the car, knocking on the window, and as he did this the little old lady wandered to the front of the car. In an instant, the man in the driver’s seat snapped awake, looked out his driver’s window and, for some reason, hit the gas so hard he knocked the woman down. Within seconds, she was under the frame of the car. My dad jumped out of our car and, before I knew it, he was lifting up the frame of the car while this woman’s family slid her from under it.
I told my mom about the incident that evening and she didn’t believe me.
The next day my mother called, she said, “Josie! There’s a woman on the news looking for her Black Superman. She said he picked a car up off of her and just drove away.”
This is correct. After lifting the car my dad jogged back to us, no information exchanged. We were going to be late to the movies.
Josie Woodall is a Cleveland blogger and travel writer. An East Side native, Josie migrated to the West in 2013 and resides in Brooklyn Center. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan University in 2011 with a BA in English Literature and a concentration in non-fiction writing. When not conjuring up ideas to write about or slangin’ industrial supplies at her day job, you can find Josie cheering (probably too loud) for the Cavs.
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