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/ The Sweetest Man Who Ever Lived

The Sweetest Man Who Ever Lived

by Meredith Sue Willis

My grandmother told me this story the summer after my junior year of college. I was getting over a break-up and deciding about the rest of my life, in particular whether to apply to law school. I was helping her go through boxes, because she had already made her decision. She was moving into assisted living–not a nursing home, as she explained over and over. 

In one of the boxes I found a smaller box, cardboard, about four inches in all dimensions. In her fine schoolteacher’s handwriting, she had penciled “Pop” on the lid.   This was what everyone called my grandmother’s father.  I never met him.  He had been nearly fifty when she was born, so even my mother barely knew him. My grandmother spoke of him often, though.  She always said that Pop was the sweetest man who ever lived.  

My mother agreed, but her memory was that the sweetness was from the smell of  chewing tobacco. He had beautiful white hair, they both told me, that stood up like a field of thick grass. He had rheumatism in his hands from his years in the mines, and he treated it by carrying buckeye nuts in his pockets to rub when his hands hurt. 

Two buckeyes were what I found first in the box. Below them, wrapped in fragile tissue paper, were a silver pocket watch and a bone handled folding knife. I held each object, feeling a link to three centuries.  Pop had been born in the 1870’s, impossibly long ago, and my grandmother had been born just after the end of the First World War.  She had my mother late too,  after the Second World War, and I wasn’t born till 1986.  Now it was the twenty-first century, and Obama was president.  Maybe, I thought, I wanted to study history, not law.

My grandmother’s given name, Lewellen, was a combination of her mother’s name Ellen and Pop’s name Lewis.  Her mother died when she was an infant, of the influenza.  She always told this in a cheerful, musical voice.  She told all her stories in that voice of a teacher at story hour, and indeed, that was what she had been, a first grade teacher for forty-five years.  She used that voice equally for funny stories and sad stories. It was her story voice.

She had lived her whole life in the little town on the West Fork River in north central West Virginia.  She grew up there, commuted to Fairmont State, when it was a college not a university.  She taught at the grade school, married, had my mother, became a widow early, and finally retired.

I was about to put the box away when I noticed something else wrapped in the tissue at the bottom.  I almost missed it, because it was flat. It was a badge of the type scouts wear sewn to their sashes. The red was bright, and it had a thick white cross in the middle outlined in black.  In the center of the cross was a little red spot with a tail, like a teardrop or possibly blood. 

I took it into the kitchen.  My grandmother was making tuna salad for lunch.  She had a spoon poised over the pickle relish, and when she saw the patch, she said, “I can’t believe Pop kept that thing.  I’m not even sure it was his.  I think he got it from someone else, as a souvenir.”

“What is it?”

She continued without answering. “He wasn’t a joiner. I don’t think he even officially joined the church.”

“It’s some kind of church insignia?”

She shook her head.  “He just went to a few meetings.”

“The Masonic Lodge?”

It was very strange, really, her reaction. The way she put the spoon back in the jar and folded her hands in front of her as if for a recital. She said. “You have to understand, Pop was the sweetest man who ever lived. He was a country boy, and country boys worked, they never even went to high school.  It wasn’t shameful, to be ignorant of things going on in the world.  Not back then. He was born in the nineteenth century!”

I knew all that. “So what is this?”

“They even pretended to be a civic organization. Pop would never ever have got involved in something that hurt anyone. He couldn’t even wring a chicken’s neck, my sister told me our grandmother always did that.” 

I kept it extended toward her, waiting. 

She said something softly, then repeated it.  “Klan,” she said. “Klan with a K.”

“No,” I said.  “Pop wasn’t in the Ku Klux Klan?”

She waved her hand as if I had it all wrong.  “No no no. I mean, maybe for ten minutes. It was in the nineteen twenties.  I was a baby, and I only know what my sister told me.  All of a sudden, there was this secret group, and all the men were joining.  It was the popular thing to do,  men getting together.  Like a social club.”

I said, “The Ku Klux Klan was never a social club, Grandma.  They formed up in the eighteen seventies when Reconstruction was getting too successful. They formed to terrorize the formerly enslaved people.”

“Well, this was a different Klan,” she said. “This was long after slavery. They didn’t do anything but march. They pretended to be ghosts to scare people.”

“Ghosts of Confederate soldiers! It was supposed to scare black people.” I had taken a class in the Reconstruction period.

She made a little noise of disapproval.  “I don’t think it was about black people at all.  My sister said they were mostly against Catholics and foreigners. It had to do with preserving the country. It was just something a lot of the men did back those days. They didn’t have television and computer games, so they played secret society.  All kinds of people, bankers and lawyers.”

“But they called it the Ku Klux Klan.”

“I don’t even like to hear the words. I’m not saying it wasn’t bad, I’m just saying up here in West Virginia, whatever they did down south, up here it petered out.  It was just ignorant men fooling around.”

“I thought you said it was bankers and lawyers.”  All these flashes seemed to be going off in my mind, the lectures in class, pictures from some horrible archive of post cards. I said, “I can’t believe this. I can’t believe my own great-grandfather was a member of the Ku Klux Klan.”

“Well don’t go telling people, because if he did join, it was only till he figured out better.  Maybe just one meeting.”

“He kept the insignia. It must have meant something to him.”

“I should have destroyed it.”

I said, “I’m glad to know. It’s important to know the truth.” 

She looked alarmed. “You aren’t going to tell people, are you?  You aren’t going to write a Facebook, are you?  You didn’t know Pop.  He couldn’t tell one person from another.”

“Because they had sheets on.”

“I don’t mean the KKKs! I mean skin color!  He was better than most for his times.  And now we have a black president!”

If it had been my mother, I would have given a speech at this point, but it was my grandmother, so I pressed my lips together and let her talk.

“You never knew him. Pop was always the same to everybody. That’s why he was such a terrible boss. When the mines starting hiring again at the end of the Depression, they put him outside to oversee loading the coal, because he was an American instead of an Italian. But he always ended up doing the work himself instead of telling someone else to do it. Do you see?”

I said, “They decided he should be a boss just because of the color of his skin.”

“It wasn’t color, it was because Italians were considered foreigners.” She closed the pickle relish.  “I’m going to tell you a story about Pop.  A story that shows you what he was really like.  I’ll finish the tuna salad later.  Let’s have tiffin. Do you know what tiffin is? It’s a morning tea party. Now you put that thing away.”

I took the patch back into the living room and returned it to its box. I started to put the box in the Keep pile, but instead slipped it into my bag so she wouldn’t try to throw it out. Then I went back to the kitchen, and we had tea and date nut bread.  

She had her story-hour voice on.  The story started indirectly, the way stories from West Virginia usually do. It started with the Depression and how she had to earn her own money for  college.  It started with her job at the drug store.

I had just seen a photo of the drug store earlier that morning. It had been a professional photo, wide and sharp, of the people who worked there. Lewellen wearing a neat A-line skirt that showed off her flat stomach.  She had an appealing smile and sturdy shoes with short heels.  There was a display of Whitman’s Sampler boxed candy in the foreground, and the soda fountain had a Coke sign and lots of mirrors and stacks of glass sundae bowls.

I told her I had seen it, that the date written on the back was 1938.

“Yes,” said my grandmother, “that sounds about right. You keep that in mind too, this was years after that KKK nonsense in the twenties.  I was already eighteen or nineteen years old.  This was when I’d been working full time for three years and I almost had enough in my bank account to start college.” Then she smiled.  “People were always kind when I was trying to earn for college.  People liked to help out.  Dr. Janes gave me little bonuses, and Mildred, who managed the front of the store, gave me blouses and stockings. And those were silk stockings. Nylon stockings didn’t come in till after the Second World War.”

I said, “Is that the Mildred who had the affair with Dr. Janes for twenty years?”

“How did you know that?”

“You told me.”

“Well, Mildred was more his wife that his legal wife ever was.  Dr. Janes’s wife was– ” she lowered her voice here– “a secret drinker.  He loved Mildred before he got married and he never stopped loving her. I didn’t know about it for years.  People were circumspect in those days. Mildred treated me like a daughter. We have to forgive.”

I said, “You’re telling me I have to forgive Pop for joining the Klan.”

She waved me away.  This story about Pop, she told me, took place much later, at the drug store in mid-afternoon of a hot summer day not so much different from today only there was no air conditioning then.  Mildred had gone to the bank, and there were no customers. Lewellen was pasting labels on bottles in the storage room in the back.

Dr. Janes called her from his place behind the drug counter.  He gestured almost angrily for her to come closer to him, and she wondered if she’d forgotten to clean the milkshake machine. He whispered, “You go out front and do something about this, Lewellen.”

She had no idea what he was talking about.

“It’s your father,” he hissed.  “It’s Lewis.”

She said she remembered everything looked yellow because of the translucent shades they pulled down in front. She thought vaguely that Pop had come to tell her that something bad had happened, but he was sitting comfortably at the soda fountain counter. There was another man with him, and they were both wearing their work dungarees and denim shirts, but very clean as if they’d just put them on. She recognized the other man as someone from the mines, Leon Johnson, a Negro.

Pop said, “Well here’s Lewellen! She’s my littlest one, Leon, and pretty well growed up.”

“Nice to meet you, Miss,” said Leon Johnson, smiling so wide Lewellen could see a gold tooth on the right side.

  Lewellen smiled back, facing them with Dr. Janes’s pale circle of face in the periphery of her vision. She put paper napkins in front of Pop and Leon Johnson.  She said, “Don’t you have to work this afternoon, Pop?” 

“They cancelled the shift. I ran into Leon here, and I thought I’d just give him a lift into town, and we’d have us a Coca-Cola.”

Pop was always offering people rides in his eight year old model A Ford with a passenger side door that didn’t open all the way.  He would go far out of his way to take people where they wanted to go.

My grandmother told me she didn’t understand why Dr. Janes cared. There wasn’t even anyone else in the drug store.

So she said, “Just two Cokes?” Hoping they would be quick and leave.

Her father nodded. “Make mine with the cherry flavor. What about you, Leon?”

She was fascinated by Leon Johnson’s gold tooth. In the yellow afternoon light it seemed brilliant, and he was a little bit gold colored himself.  He kept smiling, his cheek balls up so high his eyes were almost hidden. “Just a plain Coke for me, thank you,” he said.

She got out two of the special Coca Cola glasses shaped liked tulips with fat stems.

Her father said, “I’m paying, Leon. You’re my guest today.”

Leon Johnson finally dropped the too-wide smile and hesitated.  Then he said, “Why, thank you, Lewis.”

My grandmother said Leon Johnson was hesitating over Pop’s first name.

I said, “Pop called him Leon. I guess they were friends.”

My grandmother rolled her eyes, as if I were being difficult.  “First of all everyone was Pop’s friend.  That’s why he got in trouble, he was too friendly.  And second, this was a long time ago, and these things were delicate, whether something was offensive or acceptable.  A lot changed after the War.”

Lewellen made the Coke for Leon Johnson first, glancing at Dr. Janes, who had moved over to the swinging gate that separated the main store from the pharmacy. He looked like he was about to come out and do something himself. She squirted in the cherry flavoring for Pop’s Coke.

The two men were talking about the possibility of a war. Pop didn’t think there was going to be a war, and Leon Johnson did.

“Well,” said Pop, “one thing for sure, they won’t be cancelling shifts at the mines if those Germans start another war.”

“That’s the Lord’s truth,” said Leon Johnson.

Her father laid two nickels and a dime on the counter. The extra dime was for Lewellen, of course. She thought if they left now, everything would be okay. Dr. Janes would fume a little, but it would all be fine. 

Then Pop said “Hey Leon, speaking of Germans. What about your Joe Louis, huh? He got that German feller good.”

Leon Johnson smiled a small prideful smile.  “Max Schmeling,” he said. And then said it again. “Max Schmeling. He never had a chance, not against Joe Louis, the greatest fighter that ever lived.”

“Old Joe beat him fair and square, I don’t disagree with that, Leon, but Schmeling beat him the first time.”

“Shouldn’t have,” said Leon Johnson.

Dr. Janes called from the back, “Lewellen! I need you back here for a minute.”

“Afternoon, Dr. Janes!” called her father.

“Howdy do, Lewis,” called Dr. Janes. “Lewellen, I need to speak to you.”

“Better go speak to Dr. Janes, Lew,” said her father. 

Dr. Janes wasn’t a fat man, but compared to her father and Leon Johnson, he had a noticeably round belly behind his smock.  Also, compared to her father’s tan against his white hair and Leon’s Johnson’s medium brown skin with a touch of gold, Dr. Janes seemed to be the color of margarine before you put in the packet of dye. 

Dr. Janes tried to talk without moving his lips. “I told you not to serve him.”

She was pretty sure he had not said that in so many words. “They’re almost finished, Dr. Janes.”

“Well you get ’em out of here as fast as you can. White people won’t even sit on the stool if one of them sat on it. What was your dad thinking?”

I knew, she told me, I knew white people treated black people badly, but back then, everybody just thought it was the way things were.  We would tsk tsk about it, but nobody was doing anything about it.

“Well maybe white people weren’t doing anything about it,” I said.  “But black people were.”

“I’m not saying it was right. This is an example of Man’s Fallen Nature. There weren’t many black people in this part of West Virginia, anyhow–well, they had enough for the Dunbar School in Fairmont, and those children got an education just as good as the others.  But most people, black and white, were thinking about the day’s work and what’s for dinner. I said to Dr. Janes, ‘I didn’t know there was a rule.’  I was almost fresh to say that.”

She told me Dr. Janes reared back a little and said, “It’s not a written-down rule. We aren’t like the people down South,” he said. “We know how to behave. Your dad is probably embarrassing that poor Negro man by dragging him into a white drug store. That man doesn’t want to be here. Your dad should know better. Just get them out of here.”

Lewellen knew that Negroes did use the drug store, but they didn’t sit down. They went along the wall to the far right side of the drug counter and bought their prescriptions and went right back out. Dr. Janes kept a cooler back there and they could buy Coke in a bottle if they wanted to, but they didn’t use the seats at the fountain.  She said to me, “I was trying to earn money to go to college. I didn’t have time to think about race relations.”

So Lewellen went back to the soda fountain and wiped the counter while Pop and Leon Johnson continued to talk about the boxing match. Lewellen had listened to it with Pop. She would never have listened to fifteen rounds, but this particular fight only lasted a minute and a half. 

Pop said, “Well, one thing’s sure. Joe Louis is a fine fighter.”

“The best ever,” said Leon Johnson.

Pop nodded. “The newspaper said Joe’s got biceps like a wild gorilla.”

Leon Johnson frowned. “With all due respect, Lewis, the newspaper don’t know what it’s talking about. Joe is not a gorilla.”

“Well, I never said– “

“After he lost the first fight, he used his brain to figure out how to beat Schmeling. He analyzed what he had to do to win. It wasn’t muscles, it was mental strategy. Joe Louis studied what he had to do, and he beat Max Schmeling with his brains.”

“I never thought of it that way,” said Pop. 

They were silent for a moment, then Pop said, “Maybe I’ll change the spelling of my name in honor of Joe Louis. I’m a L-E-W-I-S. I think I’ll start signing L-O-U-I-S.”

Leon seemed to think it over, then grunted.  “I guess you can call yourself what you want.”

Back at the drug counter, Dr. Janes was lifting up on his tippy toes and trying to get Lewellen’s attention again.

Pop said, “Yep, the more I think about it, I’d like to name myself Louis with an O-U.”

Lewellen told me that was just like Pop, to bend over backward and go too far.

Leon Johnson said, “Your daughter makes a good Coke, Lewis.”

“The pause that refreshes,” said Pop. 

Dr. Janes came out from behind the drug counter then and walked briskly down the aisle, all the way to the door, and flipped the Open sign to Closed, then stalked back.

Pop asked Leon Johnson if he wanted another Coke, and Leon said no, he thought they’d better be leaving.

As they got up to go, Leon Johnson said, “I hear you’re saving for college, Miss. I guess I’ll leave a little something too.” And he reached down in his pants pocket and pulled out an actual quarter. That, she told me, was enough to buy a full dinner with dessert and coffee in 1938.

She thanked him for the tip, and Pop frowned and pulled out two more dimes from his pocket.  Then they both hiked up their dungarees and left.

I said, “I guess Pop couldn’t let Leon Johnson get the jump on him.  He tipped you a total of 30 cents and Leon Johnson only tipped you 25.”

“I was his daughter.”

“Did you get in trouble with Dr. Janes?

“Not really. Dr. Janes made me get out the Clorox and wipe off the stools.”

“And the glasses they drank from?”

“He made me put them in the deep sink and pour boiling water over them.”

“Pop’s glass too?”

“Oh, I suppose, I don’t remember.”

“Dr. Janes was a complete racist.”

“He was just acting like other people.”

“Other white people.”

“People didn’t stir up trouble in those days.  In New York City maybe, but not at home.”

She started picking up dishes, and I did too. I said, “So Grandma, this was a long while after Pop was in the Klan.  Do you think he had a change of heart?  Do you think he brought Mr. Johnson into the drug store on purpose? To make a point?”

She looked off into the distance. “All Pop cared about in the world was his garden and us girls. And his friends, he had a lot of friends. And the sports scores, baseball mostly. Honestly nobody paid attention to Issues like people do today. He was just a good man.”

“Who joined the Klan.” 

“I still don’t believe he ever really joined up, and once he realized what it was, he quit.  He wasn’t like them. He thought everyone was the same. You young people today, you think too much about differences. You should think about how we’re all the same.”

I asked if I could take Pop’s box home with me, and she just shrugged. After that, for a while, she would ask in a wry tone how Pop’s box was, but instead of waiting for an answer, she’d start telling another story about Pop: how he splinted up a stray cat’s broken leg, and how once he literally gave the shirt off his back to a tramp and went home in his undershirt.

She settled in at the assisted living place, changing her hairstyle to the short curly one the part-time hairdresser gave everyone.  She stopped asking about the box.  We played Scrabble when I came down from the University to visit.

I decided against law school and took a Master’s in Southern and Appalachian history.  I did my thesis on the Klan in West Virginia and Southern Ohio.  I also continued the family tradition of teaching. Every once in a while I’d try a little mini-lecture on her, about the Klan or Reconstruction.  She usually just smiled and bobbed the white curls and commented on how much I knew, and how her generation was so ignorant of things like that.

Once, after she had begun to spend most of her time in a wheelchair, I told her that there was a branch of the NAACP in West Virginia in the nineteen thirties. “Right around when Mr. Johnson came into the drug store with Pop.”  I said.

We were playing Scrabble again.

She said. “Do you still have that patch with the K’s?”

I said, “It doesn’t have any K’s, you know.  It has a drop of blood.  And yes, I still have it.”

“What about his buckeyes and knife?  Bring that box over sometime,” she said.  “I want to look at it. I’ll tell you a story about how he liked to show off that pocket watch..”

I said I would, and we went back to our game.

After a while, she said, “So much evil.  Sometimes I just feel like crying over how bad we are,” she said.

“Stay away from the T.V. news.” 

“We never know how we would act if we were in the other person’s shoes.  We need to forgive.”  When I didn’t say anything, she went on. “He may have fallen in with the crowd sometimes, but he was the sweetest man. We have to trust we’ll be forgiven for our mistakes.”  It was her turn, but she kept looking at me.  “There was a little colored boy who came to my school when I was about seven. He didn’t stay long, I don’t think he was allowed to, or maybe his family moved.  But we weren’t as nice to him as we should have been.  I knew better too, ” she said.  “I wasn’t strong enough to stand up to the others.  We didn’t hurt him, of course, it was just name calling.  It was that insidious thing of going along with the crowd.  I hope you don’t go along with the crowd.”

It made me uncomfortable to think of what I might have done or said. “Racism affects all of us, you know. Not just the victims.”

Abruptly, she said, “I’m too tired to finish this game.  Take me out in the courtyard for a while, and if I nap, you just go ahead and leave.”

I rolled her out into the pretty central courtyard with walks and trees and high flower beds.  

Her eyes were closed before I put on her brakes.

I went back inside to sign-out.  Near the dining room I saw Mrs. Johnson, who was, as far as I knew, the only black person in the facility. She had been a school teacher too, and like my grandmother, was in a wheelchair.  She had the same hairdo as my grandmother, except that Mrs. Johnson’s curls were iron gray. She always smiled pleasantly, and I would ask her how she was, and she’d say fine, and she hoped I’d had a good visit with my grandmother. 

As I left, I wondered as I had before if she were related to Leon Johnson from the drug store.  Of course Johnson was a common name, but she was the right age to be his daughter or, say, his niece or his niece by marriage.  I almost turned back to ask her, but it seemed too personal.  It would have been embarrassing if she didn’t want to tell me. If I asked the wrong way and sounded entitled.

Maybe I’d try on my next visit.

Meredith Sue Willis

About Meredith Sue Willis

Meredith Sue Willis (she, her) was born in Harrison County, WV. Her father’s family followed store keeping jobs with Consolidation Coal from Pound, VA, to Jenkins, KY, to Owings, WV.  Her mother’s mother was a mining camp midwife, and her mother’s father witnessed the Great Monongah (WV) mine explosion of 1908. Both her parents and their siblings were teachers.

Willis has lived much of her adult life in the New York City area, working in writers-in-the-schools programs and teaching novel writing at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. She has published 24 books: novels, short story collections, stories for children, and books about the writing process.

She has also worked for nearly thirty years in an integration organization in the inner ring suburbs of Newark, NJ, as well as chairing the Social Action Committee of her local Ethical Culture Society.

For more information, please see her web page at

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