Saw a news piece yesterday about how the University of Minnesota moved a man’s graduation up so that his father could watch him graduate as the father was dying. It was a beautiful story and made me cry as I thought of my own father. My father never made it out of high school but all four of his children had multiple degrees and one a Ph.D. My father made it to every college graduation of his five grandchildren—he was so proud of them. Dad had a long life as he was born just after the beginning of WWI. When WWII began Dad sold war bonds and then enlisted as a private and quickly became Captain Wiggins of the Quartermaster Corps. He was assigned to Fort Warren, Wyoming, where I was born (just outside of Cheyenne). He served overseas and came home after the war was over and I was about one year old. Once when I was walking home from the first grade in 1952 in Dallas, I found him waiting for me to take me to the movies. I will never forget that. It was an Abbott and Costello and cost me nine cents to get in (he paid and bought me a pickle once inside). We went fishing together and played golf together until I became good enough to beat him. Frank Wiggins was a wonderful man who was loved by all who knew him, especially his grandchildren, siblings, and nieces and nephews. The picture at the right is one of my favorites with him sitting on the deck in Heber Springs, Arkansas, just a couple of months before he died. Almost all of the good things I am that I like about myself are things that I learned by seeing him doing them. He was tough and went through physical problems that would have left others whining and complaining for years, but he just did what had to be done and never talked about it afterward. When he was within two weeks of dying (he had leukemia at the age of 89) he got a phone call from his eye doctor. Dad knew he only had weeks to live. He listened for a little bit and then started laughing as he hung up the phone. We were all staring at him and he said that the doc had told him he would be blind in three years. “That’s a bullet I dodged,” he laughed.
He believed very strongly in doing what was right and when he was moved to be the manager of the Sears, Roebuck store in Alexandria, Louisiana, in 1963, he was shocked to find “white only” and “colored only” water fountains and restrooms. He immediately removed the signs and redid the bathrooms. He hired the first two African-Americans to work in sales inside the store and for that we got our yard burned and my mother had her car forced into a ditch. A huge white backlash and boycott was expected, but instead, so many African-Americans began to shop at Sears that in just two years every Sears store in the South had done the same. I recently came across a letter he wrote that was attached to some letters from an attorney for the NAACP and the Congress of Racial Equality who worked with Dad. Dad wrote, “Keep these letters so that after I am long gone, my heirs will know that their grandfather was a compassionate person and not a bigot even though he was born and raised in the South.” The attorney, Louis Berry, wrote Dad when he learned that Dad was being transferred to Corpus Christi after three years of working to help desegregate Alexandria. Mr Berry says, “I sincerely feel that because of your leaving this community will suffer an irreparable loss, but because of you we have a foundation to build a new system of fair and equitable employment procedures. Working with you was one of the most pleasant experiences I have ever had in my life. May God bless you and your family.” I had known some of this, but the three letters from the NAACP and CORE attorney were new to me.
My father never pushed us to be like him, but the way he lived his life spoke volumes and taught us much. With a severely limited education, he was still one of the smartest men I ever knew. I am so proud of him for who he was and what he did with his life. He once wrote that he was proudest of our being named the Methodist Family of the Year in 1963 when we lived in Midland, Texas. I still think of him every day and am so happy that all three of my sons got to know him well and love him. He used to barbecue chicken every Sunday after church, but the chicken livers that I loved never made it to the table. He would always say they fell through the grill. When I started barbecuing chicken for my family, those livers still never made it to the table. Dad and I know why.