By John Woodford / Ann Arbor, Mich.
I was in the sixth grade in 1951, so there were still three years to go before Eddie Fisher’s version of “Oh! My Papa”–a Swiss-German song written “over there” in 1939, at the onset of World. War 11–began its 26-week run as No. 1 on the U.S. hit parade.
But my own papa was all those things cited in Fisher’s rendition. Those lyrics, by a British writer named Geoffrey Parsons, differed greatly from the original version written for a song by Paul Burkhard, a Swiss composer who’d created the piece for his 1939 musical The Black Pike (Der schwarze Hecht).
After WW II the musical was turned into the 1950 film Fireworks (Das Feuerwerk). The German-Jewish actress and writer Lilli Palmer, born Lilli Marie Peiser, sang Oh, Mein Papa. The original lyrics expressed the nostalgic love of a young woman for her father, who’d worked as a clown.
Eddie (Edwin Jack) Fisher’s 1954 version swept around the globe. According to online biographical entries, Fisher’s Jewish parents, Joseph Tisch and Gitte Kathrine Minicker, had immigrated in the early 1900s to Philadelphia from somewhere in the Russian Empire. They changed their name to Fisher sometime before the 1940 census. Perhaps Palmer’s and Fisher’s origins account for the song’s classification as an example of Jewish or Yiddish music, but clearly it’s a rich and complicated amalgam.
But I began this Father’s Day reminiscence in 1951 as a way to begin my much-belated homage to my own father, Hackley Elbridge Woodford, who was born in Kalamazoo, Mich., in 1914.
My father went to college at Western Michigan University in his hometown. After getting his M.D. at Howard University in June 1940, he married my mother on their mutual graduation day after she received her B.A. They moved to Chicago and he began an internship at Provident Hospital, the “Black folks’ hospital” on the South Side. When WWII broke out, he wound up in the U.S. Army not long after my twin sister Peggy and I were born in September 1941.
First, the Army assigned my father to a base in North Carolina as a medical officer, so he had to leave my mother and us twins with his parents in Kalamazoo. But the Army brass had assumed from his name and birthplace that he was White. Upon discovering their mistake, they told him that obviously they couldn’t house him with his White peers, so they assigned him to an unheated, barren, otherwise uninhabited structure, where he soon got pneumonia.
The Army found a place for him by spring, the Tuskegee Air Base, where he became a non-pilot, medical adjunct of some sort, which ultimately qualified him to be a Tuskegee Airman, a designation of which he was quite proud. He admitted to my sisters and me, however, that after his North Carolina experience, he was glad he had not had to serve anywhere near a battle. His patriotism remained both staunch and wavering, subject to great fluctuations depending upon an array of daily factors ranging from international to local.
After the war, my father took over the practice of an older Afro-American doctor in Benton Harbor, Mich., across the lake from Chicago. He had not grown up wealthy, so he was used to the travails of his multiethnic but predominantly Black and poor patients. Making house calls and delivering babies at all hours was his routine for about 25 years, until he and my mother moved to California, where he joined Kaiser Permanente, relieving him of the managerial ordeals of the family medical practitioner.
An essay from The Herald-Palladium Time Capsule: Air Force space surgeon Col. Vance Marchbanks Jr. uses a globe to show Dr. Hackley Woodford the planned orbit of a Mercury capsule in September 1960. The photo was taken at Woodford's Benton Township house when the two graduates of the Howard University College of Medicine and their wives, also Howard alums, got together. Woodford launched his Benton Harbor family practice in 1942, served in the Army Air Corps during World War II, and became the Memorial Hospital chief of staff in 1968. He left Benton Harbor in 1970 to join the Kaiser Permanante system in Pasadena, Calif. He died at age 90 in 2005 in San Diego. The Los Angeles Times obituary noted Woodford's fight to end the segregation of patients at Mercy Memorial in Benton Harbor. "I believed my Black patients must have the same treatment and courtesy as my White patients," he said in a essay cited in the obit.
Politically, my father was a “Lincoln Republican” for most of his life, as were my grandfathers (my maternal grandmother died before I was born and my dad’s mother in 1949). But he was a staunch and effective foe of racism and discrimination and was the prime mover behind the scene in ending Jim Crow traditions in both hospitals of our Twin Cities, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph.
His patients admired and loved him, and he also enjoyed the respect of his colleagues, all of whom were White. He was voted as chief of staff for at least one term in Memorial Hospital in the then almost lily-white town of St. Joseph.
And now, I’ll segue back to 1951 for some “Game On” moments. At the end each school year, the six elementary schools in our town of 18,000 or so held a field day at which two boys from each school competed in three track events.
(Back in those days, it pains me to say–because we all thought it was “natural”–our school system provided virtually no athletic opportunities for girls — even in high school. They could play sports during recess, which perhaps two or three “tom boys” might do, and a select few could get some exercise as band majorettes and/or cheerleaders. Other than that, there was only “girl’s gym,” a class that required limited physical exertion by participants.)
To select contestants for the boys’ field day, each school conducted its own trials. My father was quite surprised when I told him that I would represent our school in all three events: a 50-yard dash, the high jump and the broad jump. It was the grade-school equivalent of being a decathlete! I urged him to attend the event if he could, and he said he would try to make it but it would take place during his office hours.
It had not occurred to me that the reason I had done so well in qualifying was that, at the instigation of the sort of parents who do this sort of thing, school officials had succumbed to complaints that too many “older” boys were dominating grade school sports.
I don’t remember what the cutoff date was, but most of us sixth graders were 11 or barely 12 years old. Apparently, however, some of us were either 12 or even almost 13, thanks to their parents wisely holding some boys out of kindergarten till they were 6 and to the schools’ policy of ejecting kindergarten boys who behaved immaturely (which would have been my fate had I not had a twin sister, separation from whom my mother thought could be psychologically damaging to me).
The upshot was, Jim Boone, Wrennie Davis, Richie Ellis, and perhaps as many more whose names I’ve forgotten, were disqualified. Any of them could easily have beaten me at any of the events.
The day of the game broke bright and clear, as they used to write in the sports fiction for boys. We contestants thronged the high-school field and began the contests on the cinder track. We’d run on grass at the trials, but this was the real, scrunchy intimidating thing: cinders. If you fell on them, you knew you were doomed to some serious scrapes.
As we toed the line, I can still remember Steve Palmert, whom I knew only as the younger brother of one of the older and highly accomplished piano students of our teacher, Alice Baran Hatch. I’d seen Steve in their family car when they dropped Mary Ann off. He was always quite big, even if he was a legitimate 11-year-old, and a fine athlete.
“Look out for that colored kid,” Steve warned the other contestants, nodding toward me. My hometown is now about 88% Black with a population of almost 10,000. But back then, the population of 18,000 was well under 10 percent Black, and most Black families still lived outside the segregated city limits, and attended Bard elementary, which was outside the city limits and therefore not permitted to participate in the field day.
Steve no doubt had encountered several speedy “colored kids” in the parks where kids of all kinds played. But I was not one of those kids. I didn’t fall on the track, praise the Lord, but I did seem to do a lot of skidding when the gun went off. At least I wasn’t last. Next came the high jump and broad jump. I didn’t do as well as I had in our trials, but even if I had, I wouldn’t have won a blue, red or white ribbon.
I scanned the small crowd for my father and for my uncle, Windsor Whiteside, who was my dad’s lab man. Sometimes he sent Windsor to represent his office, as it were, when I played church basketball. But from the tactful way my father asked me how I’d done at dinner that evening, I’ve always suspected that one of them might have witnessed my performance from a hidden spot in the stands.
My father placed very little import on jock achievements anyway. He was much more eager to hear me play Chopin well. Plus, he knew how modest my abilities were. A few years later, he saw me play on the ninth grade football team, when I had to tackle big Jon McCoy in a process that went on for almost 10 yards. And once he brought an old friend who’d been an outstanding college athlete and amateur boxing referee to see me play baseball. I got on base by being unable to get out of the way of a fastball that hit my hand so silently that I could prove I had earned a walk only by showing my knuckle, bashed in until this day.
There must be some sort of Oedipal calculus that results in sons like me forming sharp serpent’s teeth in direct proportion to how generous, supportive and kind their fathers are. It’s similar to the socioeconomic process in which it takes an exploitive bourgeoisie that has amassed surplus wealth to form a proletarian underclass that seeks to overthrow it.
In any event, through the years I got along very well with my father over the phone or by mail, but in his presence, I usually degenerated into unrestrainable argumentativeness. I even caused him considerable tsuris on his deathbed in 2005. He’d summoned me, my thee sisters, our spouses and various grandchildren to California, saying he knew from his “numbers,” that he’d die quite soon. He’d made such pronouncements several times before over his last decades, but this time I could tell he was being quite objective.
A White male nurse offered my father his pills and capsules in bare hands, and Dad flared up and scolded him for not wearing gloves. “How can you present medication to a doctor with your bare hands?” he said sternly — and I knew he meant “a Black doctor.” But I was concerned that we family members might not always be around, and that a resentful nurse could become unhelpful or worse. So to ease the atmosphere I said to the nurse, “Oh, he’s always been something of a hypochondriac.”
If looks could kill, my father’s glare would have done me in on the spot. I can still see his eyes. Less than 24 hours later, he was dead.
But as the song says: “to me he was so wonderful . . I miss him to this day.”
"Oh! My Papa"
Oh, my Papa, to me he was so wonderful,
Oh, my Papa, to me he was so good.
No one could be so gentle and so lovable,
Oh, my Papa, he always understood.
Oh, my Papa, so funny, so adorable,
Always the clown so funny in his way.
Oh, my Papa, to me he was so wonderful,
Deep in my heart I miss him so today.
Gone are the days when he would take me on his knee
And with a smile he'd change my tears to laughter!
John Woodford lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he retired after two decades as the executive editor of Michigan Today, a University of Michigan alumni/ae publication. His career in journalism includes editing and/or reporting duties for Ebony magazine, Muhammad Speaks newspaper, the Chicago Sun-Times, the New Haven Register, the New York Times and Ford Motor company publications.