My mentor, my friend

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Farewell, Doc

Every so often, I’d like to tell y’all about some of the folks who’ve influenced me over the years, people who sparked the interest in the Negro Leagues that have driven me to promote the rich blackball heritage. These are the guiding lights in my life, my career and my passion …

The first pillar of my faith was undoubtedly Dr. William Wiggins Jr., the longtime fixture in the African-American Studies Department at Indiana University; he was even a founding member of the department’s faculty and eventually spent a lengthy tenure as its chairman. He arrived in Bloomington in 1969 and became the first African American to earn a PhD in folklore.

Doc Wiggins, as he was affectionately known to his peers and his students — and there were thousands of them over his tenure — taught numerous classes at IU over the years, but his most enduring and popular ones were the Black Church in America, and Sports and the Afro-American Experience. (His pursuit of the former class sprang from his own experience as an ordained minister and holder of a bachelor’s degree in divinity.)

It was the latter in which I enrolled during my sophomore (or maybe it was my junior) year at IU. Being a lifelong sports fan and a beat writer — I covered football, track and legendary Little 500 bike race (made famous by the movie, “Breaking Away”) on the sports desk at the Indiana Daily Student — athletics was my thang. (Well, along with listening to and learning about music, a love I pursued by taking two rock ‘n’ roll history classes taught by Glenn Gass and Andy Hollinden, but that’s another tale for another day.)

So taking Doc Wiggins’ sports class was, well, a no-brainer. We gathered at Woodburn Hall, one of the older buildings on the IU campus, and I quickly learned that my classmates included track triple jumper Jack Sullivan, with whom I’d become friends by covering the tack squad, and Calbert Cheaney, who earned the Wooden Award during his senior season playing under Bobby Knight. (Insert chair throwing joke here.)

And it was that class that opened up the world of sports history to me and fed my mind with both knowledge and passion. We learned about boxing icons Jack Johnson and Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber was one of Doc’s research specialties), Olympic trailblazers Jesse Owens and Wilma Rudolph, path-clearing net luminaries like the great Althea Gibson and and influential activist Arthur Ashe, and, of course, Jackie Robinson.

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Joe Louis

But in addition to soaking up the events and characters that made the history of black sports legendary, the course went deeper, exploring the social, political and economic ramifications of the challenges, trials and tribulations faced by African-American athletes. And not just the stars in the black sports firmament, but the average Joe and Jane who used sports to escape dismal childhood situations and attempt to become somebody in the world.

We traced the development and evolution of African-American activism in athletics and learned about the figures who helped show people that sports wasn’t just games, but a vital thread in the fabric of American society. We started in the 1960s with Muhammad Ali, Bill Russell, Jim Brown and others.

Perhaps most importantly, at least in terms of influencing my worldview, were the efforts and determination of Dr. Harry Edwards, who spearheaded the black athletes’ consciousness movement in the latter part of the decade, a drive that culminated with the Olympic Project for Human Rights and the famous, hand-raised protest made by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal stand for the 200 meters event in Mexico City in 1968.

I then read Edwards’ seminal tome, “The Revolt of the Black Athlete,” which proved to be one of the most eye-opening books I’ve ever read. (Hopefully more on that in an ensuing post.)

The class then dived into the way collegiate athletics — especially high-profile sports like football and men’s basketball — often mouthed false promises and lip service to starry eyed players who were led to believe that they had a chance to become a well paid professional in the NFL or NBA. Countless athletes, however, eventually learned the were simply and cynically be used and chewed up by “The System,” a process that included the downplaying and outright discouragement of academics, which left them unemployed and without a college degree by the time the machine had spit them out.

The course also delved into one of the key issues (one that is often alluded to in popular discourse but rarely broached candidly and honestly) of African-American sports stardom — why black athletes seem to succeed in certain roles in certain sports like football, baseball and basketball, i.e. are they simply just genetically disposed to be better than whites at running, jumping and catching?

It’s a topic famously (or infamously) raised by football prognosticater Jimmy the Greek in the 1980s, one that got the sportscaster fired in disgrace — not, I think, because his comments weren’t explicitly racist or bigoted, but because American society continues to be so squeamish when it comes to facing up to such challenging, uncomfortable topics that we avoid them at all costs. In the class, our discussion of this tricky subject revolved around the excellent examination by John Hoberman, “Darwin’s Athletes.”

And … most pertinent to this here blog is that Sports and the Afro-American Experience became my first exposure to the Negro Leagues — when Doc began discussing Jackie Robinson’s life and career, he revealed to us and to me the overlooked but extremely crucial role blackball played in American sports history. By learning about Jackie, we also took in the Negro League team that launched his professional career — the one and only Kansas City Monarchs.

The floodgates open at that point … Satchel. Cool Papa. Buck (Leonard and O’Neil). Rube. Effa, Monte and Ray. It was only the beginning for me.

As part of the curriculum, we read Rob Ruck’s detailed, delightful book, “Sandlot Seasons: Sport in Black Pittsburgh,” which, of course, included whole chapters about the Homestead Grays and Pittsburgh Crawfords.

That pretty much clinched things for me. Doc Wiggins had created a thirst in me that continues to this day.

During my senior year, I received an honors grant to research none other than Josh Gibson, a project that led me to read Mark Ribowsky’s bio of the Black Bade, “The Power and the Darkness,” as well as William Brashler’s popular novel, “The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings.”

But there was more, much more … Upon graduation, I moved to Rocky Mount, N.C., the hometown and lifelong residence of Buck Leonard. It was an opportunity I naturally couldn’t pass up, and I visited Buck at his home, a pursuit that instantly became one of the greatest moments of my life. (More on that encounter coming soon.)

While working for The Daily Southerner newspaper in Tarboro, N.C., I wrote an article about the induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1996 of pitcher Bill Foster, who lived in Tarboro for several years and hurled for semipro teams based across the Tar River in the historic town of Princeville.

Life progressed after that, and I shifted around the country, moving from North Carolina to Massachusetts to my hometown of Rochester, N.Y. But I kept in touch with ol’ Doc Wiggins, even writing a profile about him for Indiana Alumni Magazine.

The article focused another way Doc remained dedicated to the student body at IU — for decades, he served as a mentor and father figure for dozens, if not hundreds, of student-athletes, helping to guide them through the challenges of balancing the field and the classroom and keeping them on the straight and narrow toward earning a degree and becoming functional, productive and happy members of society as a whole.

In the process, Doc became a valued and trusted advisor and confidante to several IU sports coaches, including none other than Bobby Knight, but also football coach Bill Mallory (the greatest pigskin pilot in IU history) and revered track/cross country coach Sam Bell, who died last year at 88.

When I interviewed Doc for my story, we met in the stands at Memorial Stadium in April as he eyed the football team going through spring practice. It was an overcast, drizzly day. Doc sat leaning on his cane, clad in a plaid wool jacket and dispensing wisdom earned over a lifetime of challenges and successes.

Doc again actively entered my life in 2001, when I returned to Bloomington to attend grad school, an experience that including being a student and TA in both the School of Journalism and the African-American Studies department, the latter of which brought me close to Doc once again as a mentor and advisor. During my second year of grad school, I even served as a teaching assistant for the very same class that launched my passion — Sports and the Afro-American Experience under Doc’s watchful eye and tutelage. I remember conducting a discussion section about the importance and impact of Curt Flood’s fight for free agency.

In addition, I wrote two magazine articles for which I interviewed Doc Wiggins, one about the NCAA and the other about the Milan Miracle, the season that served as the basis for the movie, “Hoosiers.” (My article argued that the movie carried subtle racial undertones and overshadowed the more important 1955 Indiana high school champion team, all-black Crispus Attucks High School, feature a young Oscar Robertson. Actually, harkening back to Doc Wiggins, I read the book, “But They Can’t Beat Us,” by Randy Roberts for his class.)

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The Big O

Over my four years of grad school, Doc and I became close friends, and his sage advice and insightful wisdom guided me through my own life challenges. And, through it all, Doc never changed … his bald head fringed by crops of graying hair, eye glasses shifting from his nose to the hands, his eyes closing when deep in thought and conversion, his sly chuckles when making a point, his lumbering gait, his dry wit, his vast storehouse of knowledge … He also had a hip replacement while I was on campus, which made him more mobile and put a spark in his step as he approached 70.

When I had mostly completed my master’s degree coursework, my neighbors and family threw a graduation party and picnic for me, and, naturally, Doc attended, and he was ebullient and proud of my accomplishments and determination. As a graduation gift, he gave me a copy of Toni Morrison‘s, “Love,” a novel that’s still on my bookshelf today.

That party in May 2005 would be the final time I saw Dr. William Hawthorne Wiggins. Since finishing my master’s I’ve regretfully only returned to Bloomington once, and I sadly failed to keep in adequate touch with Doc over the years. I was lazy and self-absorbed, and I know regret and rue my apathy and inertia.

Late last year, another figure who proved vital to my development as a writer and critical thinker, John McCluskey (from whom I took a grad level class about literature in the Harlem Renaissance), emailed me to tell me that Doc wasn’t doing well health wise, a slow decline now accelerating as 2016 came to a close. He urged me to call Doc’s family, but with the holidays coming up, I shamefully neglected to do so.

Doc Wiggins died on Dec. 24, 2016, at the age of 82.

Tributes to the Indiana University fixture immediately poured forth, including comments posted to his obituary on Legacy.com. One former teaching assistant of his opined:

“I am saddened beyond belief by the loss of ‘Doc,’ who took me in as part of the flock he watched over when I moved to Bloomington. I remember his fondness for all things IU, especially the basketball team. I was one of his teaching assistants for his Intro to African American studies course one year, and I learned lessons that I carry with me today, almost 20 years later. The IU and Bloomington communities have lost one of its great ambassadors and the world is a little darker …”

Penned a fellow faculty member:

“Bill was a truly wonderful individual who always brought a smile from those around him. He made an enormous difference in the lives of so many students, staff and fellow faculty at IUB. He was a big man with a big and open soul. I will miss his smile and warmth, but will keep his spirit always.”

Several students also brought forth and verbalized their sadness. One wrote that Doc “made a huge impact in my student life at IU and continued to be a source for advice and inspiration even after my years at IU. No matter what you may have been going through he was always there for encouragement and had a joke to go along with it to make you smile.”

Another student stated that Doc “encouraged me beyond belief, one of my favorite professors at Indiana University. My deepest sympathies to his family,” while another said with bittersweet fondness:

Yet another pupil said:

“Dr. Wiggins will be deeply missed. He made a huge impact in my student life at IU and continued to be a source for advice and inspiration even after my years at IU. No matter what you may have been going through, he was always there for encouragement and had a joke to go along with it to make you smile. My prayers and support are extended to [his wife] and the family.”

Possibly the most eloquent, heartfelt elegy came from Dr. Fernando Orejuela, a faculty peer in Indiana’s Department of Folklore (Doc was an adjunct professor in folklore, possessing his PhD in that subject), who highlighted Doc’s impact on minority students and staff and on the IUB administration, which often followed Doc’s lead in making IU a more welcoming place for black and other students:

“For many of us who partnered with him as students, he was more than a great teacher. He was a very necessary mentor, and his mere presence and gentle-but-enormously-firm demeanor was all we needed to get straight and keep our eyes on the prize. During the tumultuous late 1960s and early 1970s and at a time when Bloomington was very unwelcoming of Black students on campus, Bill brought his wife Janice and daughter Mary Ellyn to IU to complete his study of African-American folklore and folklife.

“Together, he and Janice vigilantly made Bloomington a good place for minority students to come study and live — often asking us protesting, minority students if there were any place in the United States that was free of racism. There was none. It was and is our duty to continue to make IU and Bloomington better for the next generation. Esteemed Professor William Wiggins Jr., professor of African American and African diaspora studies and professor of folklore, you will be deeply missed. Peace.”

After Doc’s passing, the Indiana Daily Student published an article marking his death and celebrating his incredible impact on those around him, his family, friends, peers and students. The story featured a comment from Professor McCluskey:

“He was a loyal friend, loyal colleague and loyal citizen. He was always finding the good in his students, the good in his colleagues and the good in his community.”

Doc Wiggins’ death hit me extremely hard. Not only did I experience the loss of one of my most beloved and influential mentors — and the man who introduced me to the glorious world of the Negro Leagues — but it came within days of the death of my grandmother as well.

His passing left a hole in my heart, especially because I neglected to make contact with him before it happened and thank him for what he had done for me — his encouragement and, more importantly, his faith in me as a scholar, a teacher and a human being. That will forever be one of my biggest regrets in life.

But with this commentary, I try to make up for that mistake, but bidding a tearful sullen farewell to my mentor and friend.

Goodbye, Doc, and Godspeed. Thank you.

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3 thoughts on “My mentor, my friend

  1. Ryan, good to hear you are back in the game. Great article as you reveal a powerful mentor and influence in your life. Be well!

    Like

  2. Pingback: Oh captain, my captain … | The Negro Leagues Up Close

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