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Learning to respect and navigate the differences with other people is a crucial life skill. In that respect I was lucky, because I got help from the crossing guard on Webster Avenue.
I grew up in New Rochelle, just a few miles north of New York City. Founded in 1688 by French Huguenots as a New World refuge from Old World religious persecution, New Rochelle is much like Evanston – only with more hills and more history. Both are vibrant cities adjacent to a great metropolis. Both are equivalent in size and population. Both sit on major waterways, Evanston astride Lake Michigan and New Rochelle along Long Island Sound. Both have first-rate public school systems and colleges.
But from the perspective of a youngster in mid-20th century America, the most important thing they had in common was diversity. Throughout my childhood, starting in 1950 at Daniel Webster grade school and finishing up in 1963 at New Rochelle High School, I rubbed shoulders with kids of every color, religion and social class.
That is how one learned tolerance of and appreciation for personal differences. Long before Martin Luther King exhorted us, my father taught by lecture and example that first and foremost you needed to respect the content of a person’s character, not judge them by the color of their skin. My classes at Daniel Webster included a number of Black kids. There was the ineffably cheery Irving Weekes, the quiet and dignified Donald Pearman and the handsome and sweet Ruben Dixon. (Ruben came to my third grade birthday party, at which a handful of my classmates and I trekked to the Pelham Theater to see the original “War of the Worlds.” I have a vivid memory of us kids sitting in the front row until the action on the screen got too scary. Then with some embarrassment we ducked back to sit with my dad.)
But the most important influence in my introduction to people of color was the street crossing guard. Mr. Arnelle was a giant of a man, tall and broad, with a handsome, caring face. You felt comfortable and secure in his presence. I saw him daily for many years when I crossed Webster Avenue to take the bus home. When I was short the nickel fare, which was often, he’d “loan” me the money. I can still remember his gigantic gloved hand from which I gingerly extracted the coin. I remember looking up at his smiling face. I hope I remembered to say thank you.
I valued Mr. Arnelle’s warmth, friendliness and constancy and, in some childhood fashion, absorbed from him the value and dignity of hard work.
My Daniel Webster classmate Don Pearman remembers him the same way. “He always had a big smile,” Don recalled recently. “He was very friendly, very warm. I missed him when he wasn’t there.”
Mr. Arnelle had three sons, the youngest of whom, Jesse, was a star high school athlete in New Rochelle and went on to become an All-American basketball player at Penn State, played professionally in the NBA, founded one of the nation’s first minority law firms and was the first African American trustee at Penn State, where he served for almost 50 years and was president of the board for two terms.
Several years ago I spoke by phone with Jesse. It seemed important somehow to tell him what his father meant in my life, to complete some kind of loop, to effect some kind of closure, to repay a childhood debt – all those nickels – I had incurred almost 70 years earlier. Jesse lived in San Francisco, I learned, and, with some apprehension, I dialed his number. After all, I was a complete stranger and this might sound like a prank call or worse. But after I explained my strange quest, he was pleased to hear about my fond memories of his father.
He pointed out one thing about his dad: Due to New Rochelle’s segregated police hiring practices, Mr. Arnelle never moved up from school crossing guard to police officer.
As I wrote to him afterward, “I’m so thrilled I caught up with you. If it weren’t for the pandemic I’d love to hop a plane and come visit you! I suspect there’s a great deal I could learn talking with you. I hope your health improves and you enjoy many more years of sunny retirement.”
Unfortunately his health did not improve. Jesse died Oct. 21, 2020, at the age of 86. It was only a month or two after our second phone call.
Recently I talked with his wife, Carolyn Arnelle. She told me her husband had a deep and warm relationship with his father, and valued his strong work ethic, religious beliefs and optimism. “Jess’s father had a strong sense of family and a strong belief in the value of education,” she told me.
I wasn’t surprised to hear this. Mr. Arnelle was a strong influence on me and generations of New Rochelle school kids. In his quiet, steady way, he imparted valuable life lessons. He taught us about the content of a person’s character. Perhaps that is the most profound lesson a kid can learn.