By Tino Mantella
TLG President & CEO
The world lost many people of significant reputation this past month. My writing will highlight Cicely Tyson, Hank Aaron, and John Chaney. Each lived long and rich lives – Tyson (96), Aaron (89), and Chaney (89). Age, their respective professions, and even race are not my compelling reason to recognize them. My motivation is to reflect on how each changed the world and the courage and integrity they displayed in doing it.
Cicely Tyson passed away shortly after her memoir was released. “Just as I Am”. I haven’t read the book yet, but I did find a few meaningful passages that capture the essence of the women she was. “My art had to both mirror the times and propel them forward”. “I was determined to do all I could to alter the narrative about Black people — to change the way Black women in particular were perceived, by reflecting our dignity.” She, for example, refused to play parts that would portray African American women in 1970’s and 80’s in stereotypical roles….”no hookers or servants…”, she said. This was her commitment and her sacrifice to change perceptions at the time, and for the greater good. Her career spanned over seven decades. In 2013 she won a Tony Award for the role she played a sharecropper’s wife in “Sounder”.
At 88, she delivered a masterful performance in “The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitman”. Tyson once said, “I am very selective, as I have been my whole career. Unfortunately, I’m not the kind of person who only works for money. I have to have some real substance for me to do it”. President Obama awarded Tyson the Medal of Freedom in 2016. He said, in presenting her recognition, “She took pride in knowing that whenever her face was on camera, she would be playing a character who was a human being – flawed but resilient; perfect, not despite but because of their imperfections”.
Hank Aaron will be remembered in part for dethroning Babe Ruth. Hamerrin’Hank” hit 755 home runs over his career and also held a batting average of over .300 over his time in professional baseball. He was one of the greatest baseball players of all time.
Although I got to meet Mr. Aaron a couple times, I can’t say I knew him, but I did come to understand the man from those that did know him and from reading about him. The consensus is that he was a man of grace and dignity. As a youth, growing up in Alabama, he experienced poverty, segregation, and racism. Despite the accolades bestowed on him as a professional ball player, he experienced his share of racism. As a man of stature, he had a bully pulpit to share his thoughts, particularly after his playing days were over. It’s said that he wasn’t bitter, but he was bold in addressing issues with the utmost integrity. Aaron didn’t limit himself to race and he wasn’t shy.
He took on issues like the lack of black Managers in his sport and lobbying to keep Pete Rose out of the Baseball Hall of Fame. Aaron was active to the end. In fact, he joined other civil rights leaders in getting his Covid shot, publicly, just a couple weeks before his death. Even at that point he was interested in sharing with the black community that the vaccine was safe. Aaron gave back in so many ways. For, example, according to a February 6th article in the AJC, Aaron, and his wife Billye, contributed over $2 million dollars to Atlanta Technology Colleges to support student scholarships. Again, I would like to quote President Obama here, he said regarding Aaron, “he never missed an opportunity to lead” and that he was an “unassuming man who set a towering example”. President Carter called Aaron, “his personal hero”.
As a Temple University grad, the final person I want to recognize is Temple’s long time Hall of Fame basketball coach, John Chaney. He was a legendary leader on the courts. The team’s record speaks for itself – Chaney spent 24 seasons at Temple, beginning in 1982-83 — the only season his Owls failed to reach the NCAA tournament or NIT. He went to the Elite Eight on five occasions, and Temple was ranked No. 1 for a stretch during the 1987-88 season, when the Owls finished 32-2 and went 18-0 in Atlantic 10 play.
The best sports coaches are the ones whose personal mission extends well beyond the court, field, or track. Whether in the youth leagues, college, or the pros, they care about the development of the people. Afterall, less than 2% of college athletes go pro. So, the best gifts a coach can give is to develop life skills. Things that stay with athletes.
Here is one example of Coach Chaney’s impact, from Antywan Robinson.
“People often asked why I continue to get up early in the morning to start my day and I always say because my college coach instilled a message that you always want to be the dream and not just dream it. Of course, he said it with other choice words mixed in there but that stuck with me from the first time I arrived on campus in the great city of Philadelphia. I truly will be forever thankful and grateful for the life lessons you taught me through the game of basketball, and I am proud to say you changed and impacted my life in more ways than one can imagine. I have had the honor to play for you and speak these same words to you but here on this platform I would like to say thank you again for your knowledge and the way you approached life because you inspired so many and taught so many through the game of basketball. Thank you for giving a kid from Charlotte, NC an opportunity to become a man in so many different ways by showing me the true definition of tough love.”
Chaney was particularly interested in finding, coaching, and teaching underprivileged black youth, from the Philadelphia area. He was all about giving young men a chance for an education and a way to excel as a person of integrity, beyond college. He was a man of many quotes and was much quoted. Sometimes it was for outbursts but most often it was about his philosophy. Here is a particular favorite of mine. Above all else John Chaney was a motivator and a teacher:
“I always say to my guys, the most important day of your life is today. This very minute is the most important minute of your life. You must win the minute. You must win the day. And tomorrow will take care of itself”.
As I wrap up this writing, I am reflecting on why I addressed this particular topic. As a white male, I hesitate to be confident that I am finding a place of respect. I am never certain as to what’s appropriate to be honest.
In the end, I appreciated the opportunity to say a little about three people that received individual accolades for excelling at their craft. Yet, all good people want to go beyond personal achievement. For Cicely, Hank, and John I would suggest that they may not be remembered as much for what they did outside of their area of expertise, yet that’s what makes them the real heroes.
Finally, reflecting on my own journey, I am extremely thankful that my parents, who loved their kids as much as any parents can, encouraged us to go away to college. We were the first generation to go beyond high school. Leaving the homogeneous confines of little Homer NY to attend school in Philadelphia, and live on Diamond Street, was one of the best experiences of my life. The other was taking the job as the head of the Chicago YMCA. It was not only the largest Y in the world, but it was also one of the most diverse, and it was most definitely the most socially oriented. Our programs included but were not limited to housing, foster care, infant mortality prevention, gang intervention, and senior care.
So even though I am a white male with what is now termed “privilege”, I got to be in amazing situations breaking bread in some of the most diverse environments in the USA. So, what did I learn? At the end of the day, it’s what I always knew, that people are people. There are some good and some not so good. Some, with opportunities that are there for the taking while others have to fight for every step. I know this isn’t earth shattering information for anyone reading this. I am just wanting to articulate my thanks to my parents, Temple University, and the Chicago YMCA for giving me the opportunities to grow.