Wisdom is the principle thing.
Funny thing about wisdom — you never know where it will show up. My dose of wisdom showed up when I literally ran into someone under a downtown bridge where I was coming from teaching an evening ethics class at the community college.
He spotted me first; I was a solitary figure carrying books and trying to find where I had parked my car. He said he noticed the way I wore my hat, kind of tipped to the side, a sign, he said, of a "creative person." I'm not sure how creative I am, but when I bumped into Odell DuBose I stopped so we could chat for a moment, thank heavens, because I might have walked by without so much as a pleasant "good evening" and thus missed meeting a wise man.
Later we discovered we were about the same age and had grown up in the same "hood," this one in West Philadelphia. It's been a long time since I could talk about where I grew up without having to explain where Samson Street was or the name of the hospital in which I was born. And how many people had I talked to recently who knew about Wally Jones or Wayne Hightower, Overbrook high school basketball players, but not quite so famous as Wilt Chamberlain?
I had been trying to explain to the students in my ethics classes that their lives were their "textbooks," still works in progress. Everyone has a story, I would say, but seldom do we stop long enough to hear, so focused are we on our own tale. We seem always to be thinking one sentence ahead of a conversation to determine what we will say.
Odell and I hit it off right away, as if we had been friends for a long time. Who knows, maybe long ago we had bumped into each other along Spruce or Walnut Streets. But here we were again, many decades later, swapping stories of where we grew up and what had happened in the chapters of our lives. The chapters of our lives have a way of returning again so that we can remember what happened.
We recalled how the old "color lines" ruled in our neighborhood. On one side were African Americans and on the other Caucasians, the two sides seldom touching, not even on Sunday mornings when you think people should know better than judging people by the color of their skins.
Yet here we were talking as friends, the racial divide between us hardly noticed, just two friends talking about memories of growing up in West Philadelphia.
As we parted, I asked Odell if he would talk to my class in a few days about his life and wisdom. He agreed, reluctantly at first, and sure enough, as the class hour neared a few days later, Odell showed up.
We sat up front and all I managed to get out was one question: "Tell me about growing up in the old Hood?" Odell took off from there, talking about helping his family and always wishing to be a teacher but needing to stay home.
He talked about being a concert producer, remembering working with such performers as The Jacksons, James Brown, Teddy Pendergrass, and others.
He had been the CEO of Odell Debose Productions, based in West Philadelphia from 1969-1985.
"Don't give up on your dream, don't trade in your gift or principles," was his message, advice he was following himself trying to organize some shows for the new year in Philadelphia and Reading and Southern markets.
When he was done, the class applauded.
Everybody has a story to tell if we are wise enough to listen.
• John Morgan lives in Berks County. He also teaches philosophy and ethics at Reading Area Community College.