Every once in a while someone enters your life for a day or two leaving a lasting impact. This morning while still lying in bed I was trying to think of those who I met for a day, but impacted me for a life. Wilbur Cotton came into my mind. I don’t know much about him; don’t know if he is still alive, but he made such an impact on me that this morning, some forty-seven years after I met him, he is the one of whom I thought.
I went to college from 1967-1971 at a small loosely Methodist-affiliated college in northwest Arkansas. How did a Pennsylvania boy end up in college in Arkansas? Easy, it was a combination of scholarships: some academic, some music, and some in the athletic department. I was not a jock, but I managed the schools track and cross-country teams and ran sprints when the fast guys were hurt or absent. When I got the letter offering such assistance, my dad told that was where God wanted me to go, so off I went.
I think it was my junior year (probably 1969) when I was called into the head of the music department’s office. I was a music minor and sang bass, played the guitar, and preached for the “Harmonaires,” the school “gospel team.” We traveled all over singing and representing the university to prospective students. It was fun and I got a half scholarship to boot!
She had a favor to ask me. Would I take one of the university cars and drive over to the Tulsa airport to pick up the performer for the next night’s performing arts series concert? It was about a ninety mile drive each way. I asked if I could take Jeanne along on the trip. Jeanne and I were engaged and I knew it would be a lot more fun if she went along. She said OK, so off we went. We were to pick up the performer, drop him off at his motel and then the music faculty would take over the next day when he would do a master class and perform that night.
As a music student I was supposed to go to the performing arts concerts. I never told Dr. Oisen that I had no idea who was performing and probably wasn’t planning on attending. That wouldn’t have gone over well. I left the meeting and went down the hall where I found my voice professor. I asked him with the most innocent expression I could muster about the next night’s concert. He explained it was to be a classical guitar performance by a well-known performer. Being an accomplished (not!) guitar player myself I was secretly glad I was not getting roped into a bassoon or harp concert.
A few hours later we had the university credit card (wow!) and were heading west on Highway 59 towards Tulsa. I had a flight number and a time, and now a name. I don’t remember the trip to Tulsa, but I am sure we had fun while passing through Leach, Kansas (a town), Dripping Springs, and Locust Grove. We made up a sign with big letters – WILBUR COTTON, took it into the airport, and waited. Being on an academic scholarship as well I had figured out that it would be easy to recognize Mr. Cotton – he would probably be carrying a guitar! Now you know why I had that scholarship!
I don’t remember where the flight was coming from, but I vividly remember a smiling gentleman coming in with a small bag in one hand, a hanging bag over his shoulder and . . . yes, a guitar in his other hand. He appeared to be relieved when he saw Jeanne’s elementary teacher - perfect rendition of his name on our sign and came right up to us. He was delightful; not stuffy or snooty at all, like I half way expected a professional classical guitarist to be. I offered to carry his guitar for him; he handed me his hanging bag. I offered to put his guitar in the back of the station wagon; he put it on the back seat next to him. I quickly got the idea that guitar was pretty special to him. It was when I opened the back door for him that I noticed his right hand. His fingers were long, thin, and had nails that were immaculately manicured to finely honed points on the tips. Wow, I had never seen anything like that on a guy. I was impressed and immediately stuck my hand in my pockets.
We drove back through the rural Oklahoma countryside. Mr. Cotton asked us lots of questions, teased us about getting married, and told us about his life and love for the guitar. He was relaxed, friendly, and very nice; I am not sure what I had expected, but probably someone who was more into Bach than into finding out about two young strangers taking him to his next concert. By the time we got back to Siloam Springs (the name of the town where our school was) it was dark, but Mr. Cotton knew all about us and we knew quite a bit about him too. I was glad Dr. Oisen picked me to go get him.
We pulled into the national chain hotel parking lot where the music department had made his room reservation. It was very strange. Wilbur and I went in while Jeanne waited in the car. Unfortunately they were full and couldn’t find his reservation. They recommended we go to a motel on the by-pass around town. I apologized to him. He smiled and assured me it was OK. We went off to the recommended motel. They were full too. I wondered what might be going on in town that weekend that all the motels were full. There were only a few motels in town so I began to be worried. The nice man behind the counter suggested we try another place. Off we went. This third place was not really very nice. It was behind a truck stop restaurant that we liked to eat at sometimes, but it was not the quality of the others. I was very hesitant. Wilbur smiled and said it was good enough for him if they had a room. We went in and sure enough they had a room. I used the university credit card and checked him in. I offered to buy him dinner. He said he was tired and hoped we didn’t mind if he just went on to sleep.
I still was a bit embarrassed. It wasn’t a very nice place and he was the guest of the university. I was mad at whoever was supposed to have made the reservation at the big nice national chain motel. I got in the car, looked at Jeanne and a light dawned in my mind. It was not a bright pretty light; but an ugly garish kind of a light. You see, Wilbur Cotton was African-American. He was a black man in northwest Arkansas looking for a motel room in 1969. There was nothing going on in town that weekend. There was simply no room for a black man, regardless of his personal life accomplishment. For the first time in my life (I was probably 20) I knowingly came face to face with the smiling “we don’t have any room for him” face of prejudice. I was mad. I was embarrassed. For the first time in three years I was ashamed of where I went to college.
That next day the music faculty took care of Mr. Cotton. I didn’t see him all day. I made it a point to talk with him before the concert and I blurted out profuse apologies. He smiled that same smile. I wondered how many times in his life he had to smile it. He thanked me and assured me that he had a good night’s sleep. That night Jeanne and I went to the concert. At the beginning he looked at us and thanked us for being his hosts. In fact, he smiled and thanked Jeanne and Phil Stover – oh my! Wilbur Cotton was the first man to pronounce us husband and wife, almost a year before my preacher father did so! That felt really good. That night Wilbur played rock and Bach, jazz and a whole host of music. I never heard anyone play a guitar like that either before or after. We sat up front; I watched his hands; they were amazing.
I knew Wilbur Cotton for about thirty hours in my life. He has remained tucked away in the inner creases of my mind ever since. This morning I thought of him again. I hope and pray that at some time in his life he no longer had to smile that smile that said “its ok . . . don’t worry about it.” I’ve never had to smile that same smile in the same way; maybe that is what my privilege is all about.
If he is still alive, he is probably in his eighties. He most likely doesn’t remember that concert that night long ago in a small college town in Arkansas. I am writing this as a way to thank him, probably years too late, not for just a great concert, but for the life’s lesson I learned from him and from those who wouldn’t give him a room. May I never forget that night, that man, or the smiling face of prejudice.