Written in the Harrisburg Patriot-News newsroom December 6, 1984.
When I read recently that a Virginia man had closed his restaurant rather than serve four black women, I had two reactions.
The first was I couldn't believe this could happen in 1984 in the United States. The second was of Rudy Featherstone '56. Remembering Rudy took me back more than 30 years, to my college days.
The early 1950s were a relatively calm time in this country. The Korean Conflict was on, but it was far away, although we remembered that some classmates had quit school as freshmen when the war broke out. Eisenhower was president. Jackie Robinson had broken baseball's color line a few years before, but there was some opposition among white fans to him and the new, talented black ballplayers coming into the majors. They were called Negroes then. Roy Campanella, Larry Doby, Don Newcombe, Willie Mays were among them.
Rudy Featherstone was the Jackie Robinson of Gettysburg College. He was the first black to study there. He played on the freshman basketball team and he was a good player; quick, a good shot and he could jump pretty well.
The thing about Rudy that impressed all of us, though, was his carefree sense of humor. It was never out of place. He studied hard and seriously, but when work was done, Rudy knew how to have fun. Many dorm conversations became punctuated with Rudy's quick wit and infectious laughter.
As a sophomore, he was on the jayvees and wore No. 10. The year before, a hard-driving, high scoring 5-11 guard by the name of Bob Pizolato had worn No. 10. Pizolato, knows as "Piz," was one of the sparkplugs of the team.
But he had graduated, and Rudy, who was about the same size, was given his number. "Look at me," he chortled, pointing to the number on his uniform shirt. "Technicolor ‘Piz.'" Then his laughter echoed around the old Eddie Plank gym at Gettysburg.
That was Rudy Featherstone. In a black accent, we called him "Featherbones" and he took the kidding in the good-natured spirit it was delivered.
My involvement with Featherstone took a different turn one late fall Saturday. A bunch of us set off for Annapolis, where Gettysburg's varsity had an afternoon basketball game with Navy. I don't remember if Rudy had been cut from the JV squad by then or if there was no JV game that day, but he was part of the five young college students, me included, that headed south in my car.
We got as far as Reisterstown, Md., and thought we'd make a halfway rest stop and get a bite to eat. The first likely place we saw was a small luncheonette, not much wider than its door and picture window, on the left-hand side of the street. Probably good enough to get some cheeseburgers and fries, we thought. So we parked the car, slugged the meter, and crossed the street to the front door.
The place wasn't much. I remember a long glass counter, like in a delicatessen, on the left. We saw some tables and chairs to the rear, so we headed that way.
"Whaddaya want?" the proprietor asked gruffly when we reached the back. He had a dirty white apron on.
"We thought we'd have some lunch," I said. "Maybe some cheeseburgers and something to drink."
"I can't serve you," he muttered.
"Well, I can serve you guys, but I won't serve him," he declared, pointing to Rudy, who was standing behind me. There was no doubt in my mind that Rudy heard him, but his expression gave no indication that he had.
"But he's with us," I heard myself saying.
"Doesn't matter. I'm not going to serve him."
"Well if you won't serve him, you won't serve us," I said flatly. "C'mon, let's go."
We didn't waste any time in leaving. I remember being thankful that the five of us, to a man, turned quickly on the heel and marched toward the door. I remember being acutely embarrassed, however, ashamed that I was white, because it was a white man who had demonstrated this prejudice. I also wondered what thoughts and feelings were going through Rudy's head. Did he resent us, too, his white companions? Had he experienced this sort of thing before?
I know I hadn't. So that's what it feels like, I thought. As we walked past the long glass counter, the five of us were outcasts, second-class citizens somehow, not good enough to even deserve a chance to buy some food. We weren't "free, white and almost 21" anymore. For those steps past the counter, out the door and across the street, we were five black men.
"We'll go someplace else," I said as we piled into the car. By the time we came upon a diner a little farther down the street, I was afraid the incident might be repeated. After all, we were south of the Mason-Dixon Line. No matter, I thought ironically, that we were students from the college whose very name meant victory in the battle to free the slaves. Hate sometimes takes a long time to die.
"We'll get something to take out," I suggested. Two of us went in and ordered (Rudy stayed in the car), and we had no trouble. As we were munching away in the car, the cloud of uneasiness that had been over us disappeared as Rudy's sunny disposition broke through.
He never again mentioned the long, dark luncheonette or the white man with the grimy apron. We were just five college kids who were equals and who were on their way to a basketball game. But I'll never forget the feeling I had and I'll always remember the grace with which Rudy handled a difficult situation.
Thanks, Rudy, for helping us to understand, and to overcome.
(Today, the Rev. Rudolph C. Featherstone is a Lutheran pastor in Columbus, Ohio.)
Al Gregson lives in York, Pa., and writes occasionally for golf publications.
Students serve and learn around the world
From working with migrant populations in Gettysburg to providing laptops to children in South Africa, Gettysburg College students have spent their summers serving communities locally and around the world.
The college's Center for Public Service (CPS) has expanded the Heston Summer Experience to include 16 students who worked on community development in Gettysburg, an Apache Reservation in San Carlos, Az., Uganda, and Nicaragua. Some students worked with migrant children in Gettysburg or trained youth to become peer health educators in Nicaragua.
The program, also known as Communities In Action/Comunidades en Acción, is made possible by a gift from 1970 Gettysburg College graduate James Heston.
It provides opportunities to culturally inquisitive students who cannot afford to take an unpaid internship.
CPS also supported six students who implemented service learning projects in Ethiopia, Nepal, and South Africa through grants from the Karl Mattson Fund, Davis Projects for Peace, and One Laptop Per Child.