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 I met for a day but impa
cted me for 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 university 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 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 me that God wanted me to go there, 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 performing arts concerts. I never told the department head 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, 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 headed 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, 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 do not 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 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 halfway 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 station wagon's back; he put it on the back seat next to him. I quickly got the idea that guitar was pretty unique 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 immaculately manicured nails 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 pocket.
We drove back through the rural Oklahoma countryside. Mr. Cotton asked us many questions, teased us about getting married, and told us about his life and love for the guitar. He was relaxed, friendly, and very lovely; 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 our campus town, it was dark, but Mr. Cotton knew all about us, and we knew quite a bit about him too. I was glad the department head picked me to get him.
We pulled into the national chain hotel parking lot where the music department had made his room reservation. It was bizarre. Wilbur and I went in while Jeanne waited in the car. Unfortunately, they were full and could not 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 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 did not mind if he just went on to sleep.
I still was a bit embarrassed. It wasn’t a very nice place, and Mr. Cotton 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 on my mind. It was not a bright pretty light, but an ugly, garish kind of light. You see, Wilbur Cotton was African-American. He was a black man in northwest Arkansas looking for a motel room in 1969. Nothing was going on in town that weekend. There was simply no room for a black man, regardless of his life accomplishment. For the first time in my life (I was probably 20), I knowingly came face to face with the smiling “we do not 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 did not 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 like that. He thanked me and assured me that he had a good night’s sleep. That night Jeanne and I went to the concert. In 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, months before my preacher father did so! That felt good. That night Wilbur played rock and Bach, jazz, and a whole host of music. I never heard anyone play the guitar like that either before or after. We sat upfront; I watched his hands; they were amazing.
I have known 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, “it is ok . . . don’t worry about it.” I have never had to smile that same smile in the same way; perhaps that is what my privilege is all about.
If he is still alive, he is probably in his eighties. He most likely does not 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 lesson I learned from him and from those who would not give him a room. I have never forgotten that night, that man, or the sad, smile of one who knew the ugly face of prejudice.