— Albert Schweitzer
As Black History Month winds down, I am mindful — and thankful — of the good that it has brought into the lives of many people across America, and within our own community.
I include myself, a tired, cranky, old white guy whose life was blessed, if only for a few minutes one busy Monday morning here at the newspaper office, by a brief reunion with an old friend and coworker with whom I hadn’t talked in 12 years.
Her name is Mattie Benton.
In the church sector, she needs no introduction. At Pleasant Grove Baptist Church, I’m pretty sure she’s a household word. And in the black community, she’s a leader, an inspiration and a role model for youngsters — whether they’re black, white, brown, red, yellow or other.
Truth is, the way I remember it, color of skin isn’t that big a deal with her. To me, she always seemed more concerned with size of heart and not the shade of its outer cover. When I knew her, Mattie was always a people person who enjoyed a laugh and shared a smile with anyone in her path. She was a stranger to none and pretty much a friend to all.
Back in the late ‘90s and a little beyond, we worked together at the former Maytag Cleveland Cooking Products, the immediate predecessor to Whirlpool Cleveland Division. We both served in the Human Resources Department. She was in training. I was in communications.
Our offices were in separate buildings and that manufacturing complex covered 90 acres, yet our paths crossed just about every day. And we collaborated on more than a few employee projects. Several were video assignments, most of which were used for employee safety, training and company awareness.
But one was for simple amusement for the benefit of the workforce. It was a Christmas video featuring nothing more than 20 minutes of clips from the production floor showing lots of employee faces and smiles. Our plant manager — Tom Briatico — had the only talking role, and the rest was just working footage edited together under the tune of a couple of lively Mariah Carey holiday hits.
Mariah was my idea. Mattie had another suggestion, but as project lead I had the final say. So I indelicately nixed her suggestion although — looking back a decade later — it would have been a nice touch.
Mattie wanted to use as a musical backdrop some of the classic, “Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer.” I joked that I was against it for two reasons. One, it gave reindeer a bad image. And two, it brought too much attention to grandma’s drinking problem.
So we stuck with Mariah and still enjoyed plenty of laughs in the process.
Another laugher in our working years came during an innocent conversation with a handful of coworkers when, while trying to repeat a joke, Mattie became tongue-twisted. Truly, it was a verbal snafu of epic proportion. On an embarrassment scale of 1 to 10, it was an easy 20. I am told my laughter could be heard in other Maytag buildings ... some as far away as Newton, Iowa, the company’s corporate headquarters.
In our understood, friends-til-the-end way, I told Mattie I had never seen a black person turn so red. Her laughter rose another decibel, as did mine.
While reminiscing the other day in our Monday morning encounter, she reminded me of another episode of which I had forgotten. It involved having lunch together and cheeseburgers were the fare of the day. Apparently a small bit of cheese had escaped and dribbled its way down her chin ... and stuck. She claims I peered across the table in ungentlemanly fashion and asked, “Are you wearing your cheeseburger?”
It was apparently one of those “you had to be there” moments.
Our careers parted ways in 2001, and our paths hadn’t crossed since; at least, not until a couple of weeks ago.
In keeping with our newspaper’s observance of Black History Month, Lifestyles editor William Wright wrote a “Personality Profile” feature on Mattie. It will appear on our front page in Monday’s edition. Given William’s uncanny writing talent, and Mattie’s flare for finding the good in life, I suspect it will be an entertaining and heartwarming piece.
During her visit to the newspaper on that recent morning, Mattie dropped by my office. It wasn’t a surprise. William had said she just wanted to drop in, and that she hoped to get a photograph taken of the two of us together ... for old time’s sake.
We sat. We talked. We laughed. We talked some more. And we laughed even louder. The newsroom staffers outside were probably wondering what had gotten into me. William even told me later he had not heard me laugh that loud in the last three years since my return to newspaper work.
Mattie and I caught up on more than a decade of living in about 15 minutes. I guess it’s true what some people say, “Your old friends are your best friends.”
As Mattie was leaving, I told her, “Hey, let’s do lunch sometime.”
Her smile lit the room. “OK,” she agreed. “We’ll have cheeseburgers!”
I’m not sure which was warmer on this day — Mattie’s smile or the deep hug she gave me as we parted. Both were much appreciated. Each was sorely needed.
Some friendships will last a lifetime.
I hope ours is one.