Louis Armstrong. That’s what Kenneth’s voice reminded me of— though I never heard him sing.
I always heard him laugh.
Until Monday. That’s the day he passed away. August 1, 2011.
Long before Kenneth was my co-worker, he was an incredible football player–first at Dunjee High School in Spencer, OK and then at Langston University. He was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 6th round of the 1974 NFL draft (first pick). He played four seasons with Green Bay and two more with the Philadelphia Eagles.
Kenneth possessed a gift of aligning himself with people. He didn’t put himself above anyone; he didn’t put himself beneathe anyone. He had a special way of simply being eye-to-eye. He was humbleness, personified.
Most people at work didn’t know a thing about his professional football career.
It wasn’t that he didn’t talk about his glory days. You see, his glory days came much later in life when his name changed to Papa and he found himself surrounded by the grandchildren who insisted on being at his house everyday. They totalled 18 in number. “All ages and shades of skin and eye colors,” he told me, pride shining larger-than-life from his eyes.
Monday, August first, was somber. Quiet. There were whispers of disbelief and the slow, sorrowful shaking of heads. There was no unique melody of laughter in the air.
I had the privilege of working alongside Kenneth multiple times in the course of a night shift. I’m trying to remember if we ever had a conversation that did not include those grandchildren —or puppies.
He’d talk about all those kids coming over to swim everyday. How much they wore him out. How each day they’d say to him, “Papa…we’re going to stay and spend the night with you.” …and he’d answer back in his gravelly voice, “No! You all got to go home! You got to GO!”
He’d laugh his hearty laugh and go about his work. He didn’t fool me. He couldn’t wait to see them again.
His eyes twinkled orneriness like the most mischievous boy you could imagine. His body moved and worked like that of a much younger man. Only a bit of gray in his close-cropped hair betrayed him.
Once upon a New Orleans afternoon, I watched a Gospel choir perform along the levee of the Mighty Mississippi. Rain fell from a thick, dark canopy of clouds overhead. Still, they sang their praises.
I’ve heard it said that when people sing God’s praises, the angels join right in.
I believe that. I do.
While the rain fell, the people in the audience got up and second-lined. Some had umbrellas. Others did not. All I know is that while those people sang and danced their praises, the clouds overhead parted like the Red Sea. With no previous warning, the sun made a glorious appearance and all of that rain stopped.
That’s what Tuesday was like at work.
Unlike Monday, Kenneth’s closest co-workers visited a little more. They spoke a little louder. They laughed a great deal more—as if by some unspoken acknowledgment, they understood that he wasn’t really gone for good.
Only from this place.
The moments didn’t seem to weigh so heavy, knowing we’d see him again. Someday. And when we get there, it won’t be hard at all to find him. If that gravelly laughter doesn’t give him up right away, I’ll just look for the man with all those grandkids not so far behind…
…and when I reach for a coffee cup in the morning, I’ll bypass my favorite New Orleans cup and go for the Green Bay Packer’s mug.
Just this once.
Thank you for the laughter, Kenneth. There is only one musician outside of Louis Armstrong who could sing and play a song lively enough to remind me of you.
I’ll see you—someday—at the Gospel Tent.