My oldest son is studying the life of Rosa Parks in his 6th grade history class. “I actually met Ms. Rosa Parks once,” I say. He’s already halfway up the stairs, heading back to the sanctuary of his room. “Did I ever tell you about that?” On the cusp of his teens, he has no interest in being trapped by a pontificating mother. “Yes,” he replies. He pauses, half-turned towards me, left leg on a higher step, poised for flight. I see my opening and I take it.
In 1986, my grandfather Orville Prestholdt was recognized with an Ellis Island Medal of Honor for his contributions as a “Norwegian activist”. I was a sophomore in college and I took a Metro North train down to New York to meet my grandparents the night before for the gala event. The honorees were staying at a fancy hotel, one those midtown landmarks that is long on history but short on space in the guestrooms. As I entered the lobby, I walked straight into the sonic boom of Lee Iaccoca (chair of the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation, honorary medal recipient). If I remember correctly, I next walked straight into the back of Donald Trump (Scottish-German). Fortunately, “The Donald” was engaged in animated conversation with Mr. Iacocca and didn’t notice my faux pas.
Established in 1986 by the National Ethnic Coalition of Organizations, the Ellis Island Medals of Honor “pay tribute to the ancestry groups that comprise America’s unique cultural mosaic”. Walter Cronkite (Dutch), Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (French-Irish), Joe DiMaggio (Italian) – the Ellis Island medalists were a veritable Who’s Who of American immigration. Of course, this was back in the Reagan era when Americans still celebrated the fact that we are a nation of immigrants. The 80 inaugural Ellis Island Award winners had been selected from more than 15,000 nominations following the controversy over the Medals of Liberty. Announced in the spring of 1986, the Medals of Liberty had honored 12 naturalized citizens, including Bob Hope (English), I.M. Pei (Chinese), Irving Berlin (Russian) and Elie Wiesel (Romanian). Numerous ethnic groups had objected that they were not represented among the winners of the Medals of Liberty, however, and had threatened protests during the “Liberty Weekend” (July 4, 1986) award festivities. So the Ellis Island Medals were created more or less as a compromise.
That’s when they went looking for the lesser-knowns with more obscure national origins. People like my grandfather, who had changed his name from Olaf to Orville when he immigrated from Norway in order to “be more American”. My grandfather had charted a successful political career in the Sons of Norway, from lodge president to International Board of Directors. He got his Ellis Island Medal for his “contributions in preserving Norwegian- American culture”. Too late for “Liberty Weekend”, the Ellis Island awards were to be presented on the actual 100th anniversary of the dedication of the Statue of Liberty in late October of 1986. That date fell on a Monday, but I figured it was worth skipping one day of classes to be a small part of history.
Having finally located my grandparents among the honorees at the reception, we headed to the elevator to go up to their room to drop off my bag and change for dinner. Muhammad Ali (African-American) was in the elevator with some family members; they held the elevator door for us. Mr. Ali tapped me on the shoulder and, when I turned, began performing a magic trick with a polka-dot silk scarf. At the time, I didn’t know that he had Parkinson’s. Or maybe I had heard he had Parkinson’s, but I didn’t really know what that meant. In any event, I watched in horror as the man – who had been such an icon in the 70s when I was a kid – struggled, with trembling hands, to slowly stuff the scarf into a fake plastic thumb. That’s how I found out how they do that disappearing scarf trick. No kidding – Muhammad Ali! The fake plastic thumb was several shades different from the color of his skin and looked dangerously close to falling off his real thumb, but he was focused like a laser on making that scarf disappear. I remembered playing chase at recess on the playground at Magnolia Woods Elementary School. The one who was “it” would yell, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! I am the mighty Muhammed Ali!” As “The Greatest” slowly performed his magic trick for me, I watched the single, crystalline drop of drool that hung suspended from the corner of his mouth. I thought for sure I was going to cry.
My grandfather handled the whole thing much better than I did. Maybe he was just feeling pretty good after a couple of highballs and a chat with Victor Borge (Danish), but he clapped his hands when the scarf finally disappeared and chortled with glee. “Woo-hee-hoo-hoo!!!” He may have danced a little jig in that elevator, too – he was that kind of guy. But I can’t be sure because I had gotten really good at ignoring him when he did that kind of thing in public. At 19, I saw only the weaknesses, the frailties, the embarrassments of my elders in that elevator. Now I see that I missed the courage, the determination, the encouragement, the shared joy in the accomplishment of a difficult task.
That night, as I lay in my narrow rollaway bed listening to my grandparents snore a few feet away from me, I thought about who I might meet the next day. I hoped to see John Denver (German) and Cesar Chavez (Mexican). Maybe also Gregory Peck (English) and Andy Williams (Welsh). Bob Hope was going to be there, too, as his wife Dolores (Irish-Italian) was receiving an award. But the person I most wanted to meet was Ms. Rosa Parks (African-American).
Rosa Parks had been a larger than life figure for me growing up in the post-Jim Crow South. The East Baton Rouge Parish school system underwent court-ordered desegregation when I was in high school, so I had some sense of the courage it must have taken her to do what she did. I thought she was an American hero.
The awards ceremony was to take place on Ellis Island, so in the morning we were all bussed down to Battery Park and the chartered ferry. Most people stayed up on deck for the short ferry ride, cameras at the ready to take photos of the Statue of Liberty. About halfway through the ride, I went inside to look around. And there she was! A tiny, birdlike woman with large glasses sitting alone on a bench by the window. In my mind’s eye, she is wearing a hat, coat and gloves but I can’t be sure I haven’t borrowed that memory from other images. She sat prim and erect, her hands folded on her purse in her lap, looking straight ahead. It is exactly how I always pictured her on the bus. I walked over and asked, “Can I sit here?” She looked up at me and nodded briefly and I sat down. Then my courage failed me. I couldn’t think of what to say next. As we approached the Statue of Liberty, she turned for a better view out the window so, of course, I did, too. “She’s smaller than she looks in pictures,” remarked Rosa Parks to me. Or maybe just to herself, but I smiled and nodded anyway. Then we approached Ellis Island and her family came to collect her. I went back up on deck to look for my grandparents.
“Maybe a famous person like Rosa Parks didn’t really want to talk to you. You were a stranger,” my son speculates.
“Maybe,” I say. “But I wasn’t thinking about that. I was just sitting there, trying to think of what to say to her and how I was wasting my one chance to talk to her. It was like I was frozen. I never did say anything else to her, other than ‘Can I sit here’?”
“So what would you have wanted to ask her on the ferry?” my son wonders.
“Well, I guess I would have asked what it was like to ride that bus.”
Twenty-five years later, I realize that Rosa Parks was probably asked some variation of that question nearly every day of her long and beautiful life. She was probably asked it more times than she could count. Asked and answered; you can google it.
“I don’t recall that I felt anything great about it,” Ms. Parks remembered in an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser. “It didn’t feel like a victory, actually. There still had to be a great deal to do.”
This conversation with my son made me realize that I didn’t need to ask her anything that one time I met her. I didn’t waste my one chance to talk to Ms. Rosa Parks. It was enough to be able to sit quietly in her presence for a few minutes. An African-American and a Norwegian-American, sitting side by side on the ferry and gazing together at the Statue of Liberty.