John Gwaltney

My friend Wendell Mott sent me the following account of an unusual man both of us had met at different times. He writes:

The rule is: "three strikes and you're out," but not for John Gwaltney. He had three strikes against him and he was still swinging. One strike was his poverty. Another was his blindness. A third, he was black and bore scars of discrimination from childhood.

I don't know how he afforded classes at Columbia University. Perhaps he had a scholarship. If so, it didn't help with his transportation problem.

The rest of us lived on campus, a few steps from class. Not John. He lived in New Jersey. His itinerary every day included a bus ride from his home to the terminal on the Jersey side of the Hudson. Transfer to the train under the Hudson River to the Port Authority Terminal on the Manhattan side. Find his way through the labyrinth of this massive terminal to the subway station. Take the express train on the IRT line to 96th Street. Cross the platform to the local train to 116th Street. This put him just outside the gate to the Columbia campus. Cross the campus and up the steps near Low Library, across another plaza to Schermerhorn Hall. Then down several floors to our classroom in the basement.

John did this in utter darkness, without the benefit of eyesight. Going home, he reversed the sequence.

We sat next to each other in Professor Bowles class on the anthropology of India. Occasionally, John would be late.

"I fell off the subway platform at 96th Street," he explained one morning.

Once he had scratch marks on his arms and face. He laughed. "You know how the campus is almost completely paved over. Well, I found one of the few places where it wasn't, a bed of roses!" In climbing the stairs near Low he went too far and fell six feet over the side of the stairs into a flowerbed.

Once, we were talking about Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal.

"You know, Wendell, I've got to tell you a story about his wife, Eleanor. I was a small kid. It was the 1930s and the middle of the Depression. My mom wanted something or other from Social Services and she got the run-around."

"You know what my mom did? She whipped off a letter to Eleanor Roosevelt. And do you know what happened? She got a letter back! And what's more, Social Services called up and said to come in and pick up the thing my mom wanted!"

Maybe that's where John got his moxie. Not once did he ever imply that he was a victim. Not even with three strikes against him. He was a doer and a mover.

Our paths went separate directions after Columbia. However, I heard that Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist at Columbia, took him under her wing. She may have given him a boost. But he did the rest.

Like his mother, whatever John did, he did under his own power.

The last I heard, John was a full professor at an Ivy League school, Cornell.

I did not meet him during my six years (1960-66) at Cornell. He would have come there after my time. But what a coincidence, we had met in 1961 in New York City. Both of us were attending the American Anthropological Association annual meetings held at a city hotel.

I vividly remember our meeting. With a couple of friends I entered a big hall where the inaugural lecture of the conference was to be delivered by the president of the Association. We found a good area and sat down. A friend came over and said, “Come I will introduce you to a remarkable man you will remember for the rest of your life.” It was John Gwaltney. We chatted for half a minute. The meeting was to begin. John invited us to a get-together at his apartment soon after the meeting. Both my friend and I accepted the invitation.

It was a tiny dwelling on the fifth floor of an old brick building. John had bought some food. He served it most gracefully with help from one of his guests. Everything was done elegant and snacks were simple yet delicious. We talked trivia as in most such parties.

I remember two things to this day. One person asked John if he remembered where each person sat in the room. He said, “Yes, of course. If you call a name I can put my hand on the person’s head straight out without fumbling. Every single one of you in the room I can shoot if I had a gun and wanted to kill.”

Another person asked, “This is an old building prone to fire. Do you know what to do if it happens?”

“Yes,” said John “There is a fire escape at one end. It is a bit rickety, but still usable if everyone didn’t get on it at the same time. I have checked it out by going down on it once. This is more than what most residents have done. I know my way very well and would be the first to use it in an emergency. This is a poor area don’t forget. Here only a few buildings have fire escapes. We have it, but I must admit, repair and maintenance is not as it should be.”

Fifty years have passed but I still remember John Gwaltney and our little party. ‘What a man!’ I said then and I say the same now.

Partap Aggarwal
March 6, 2010

Thanks Wendell for the wonderful rich reply. I vividly remember visiting with John Gwaltney. We were both at an Anthropological meeting in NYC. He said many memorable things. One of them was: you know I can place you so well that if I had a gun and wanted to shoot, I could get every one of you. This was when someone asked if he could find his way down the fire escape from fifth floor. I am glad Cornell hired him. For it I give my alma mater a high grade.