In celebrating and remembering the achievements of Reginald T Gant who counted a lifetime of successful steps through life, it is natural to ask for the sake of family history, 'Was there a single quality that defined the uniqueness of his life?' Did he leave his family with a life's lesson worth remembering for generations to come?
Dad had a keen, savvy mind that he used skillfully to climb the Army's ladder until reaching in 1972 the summit, Command Sergeant Major of Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center. This was a mountaintop scaled by few if any African Americans at the time but also by few soldiers, period. Yet this accomplishment did not summarize his life Why not?
When I was 8, I remember learning that Dad had the opportunity to become a Warrant Officer, and so I asked why didn't he become one? I'll never forget his reply. He said, 'Warrant officers could never become Captains, Majors, Colonels, and Generals. They're in a purgatory of rank: neither enlisted nor officer. So why would I spend my career sitting at the end of the officers' dinner table, when as an enlisted man, I can eat at its head?' In other words, for him, the opportunity to move and to risk meant more than a career stood still in a limbo of rank.
Savvy? Yes, indeed but much more than that! He and my mother beside his every strategic step thought that the offer to become a warrant officer could mean later additional opportunities to climb the enlisted ladder, past 1st Sergeant and Sergeant Major to finally Command Sergeant Major. Reggie could see in the flickering shadows of civil rights in the late sos and early 60s opportunities to write his own script of success.
So, each day, he straightened his tie, stiffened his shoulders and packed my mother's insights to travel the unpaved unknowns of risk and opportunity. He reconnoitered with my mother this future without a map of success, for at the time none were available not only for African American soldiers but also for interracial couples.
Born to family wealth in Florida with 2 years of college and empowered both by natural leadership skills and the critical discipline in Army life to avoid crippling stumbles of vice, his career path could be strewn with opportunities, as long as he could survive the terrible wars of his era. He suffered World War II, the Korean War, 2 additional tours of Korea and a tour of Vietnam by the grace of a soldier's duty mixed with a survivor's good luck. He survived to eventually mount the summit of Command Sergeant Major and to be the top enlisted administrator at Fitzsimmons Army Medical Center in Denver. Yet even the rarity of this achievement was unsatisfying. He needed a safe space in civilian life to fully quench the thirst for risk with the peacefulness of life. But to afford this dream he would have to employ again the strategic skills that would allow him to elude the script of normal expectations.
During his tenure as the Command Sergeant Major of Fitzsimmons, he worked humbly and anonymously at night in a civilian, janitorial service. He never let anyone know, except a supervisor, of his other reality as a daytime, military chief. He relished this evening work that financially afforded the ground-breaking opportunity to be an early African American owner of both a home and an apartment building in nice communities before the once scenic Springs sprang to its present, suburban sprawl.
What then were the keys that unlocked Reggie's imagination to write and rewrite the personal story of his life with his Japanese wife, Hama? In the 1930s he grew up under the tutelage of a large, Miami, business family of aunts who collaborated as a strategic team to advance their interests. Their influence is still evident today. If you were to descend the stairs into his bedroom, on the right wall there are two, wonderfully soulful portraits of his beloved Aunts Sara and Mary. They are the great matrons of the Gant family, who in the 1920s and 30s built a local, business empire that employed and fed the families of six other aunts. Some of their businesses like construction, dining, and rentals were 'legit,' but others involved the risky, lucrative enterprises featured in the HBO series on 1930s bootlegging, Boardwalk Empire. He saw the collaboration between some of his aunts and the local, Jewish robber barons. He learned from them not to fear the risk of traveling into the unknown but to manage its course corrections. He often spoke admiringly of the verve those Jewish leaders showed in pursuing their social agenda of establishing equality through wealth. There was also another Jewish fellow in the Springs, Loren Porak, whose advice proved valuable from time-to-time.
Education, formal and informal, collaboration, risk-taking, and respect for the wisdom of others are four basic values that prepared Dad to write a personal story of individuality that was often unwritten for other African Americans and barely written for interracial families who were mostly socially invisible back then. But there was a fifth value of equal importance to the other four, an appreciation for the pleasures of life. For Dad, life could be a joyride of the imagination into the fast lanes of the future, rocketing along like the fins of his beautiful '59 Cadillac. As a family we enjoyed the ride: color TVs, 4- channel stereos, short wave radios, portable phonographs and tape recorders, a video camera and projector, trendy, modern, Asian furniture, fashionable clothing, electric trains and slot cars and life in an exotic land, Okinawa. Later would come technologically sophisticated cars and a modernistic home with trees everywhere. What is the important relationship of this technologically enriched life to the other values of education, collaboration, risk-taking, and respect for others that will be remembered forever among the Gants? For interracial families who do not belong to any single group or share completely their stories, education, collaboration, risk-taking, and respect for others are basic values that prepare us to seek opportunities along the open highways of life and to write our own individual stories of success. But to achieve success, we must be able to imagine its cities of opportunities. We must be able to see the signs in 'getting there.'
That was the real meaning for all the technological gadgets that surrounded us while growing up. Someone somewhere imagined something from nearly nothing, and their numerous creations in our wonderfully mixed, African American-Asian household were constant reminders that creating uniqueness in life, being an individual, is an achievable way of living! Any Gant can do it, just as the first interracial couple of our line, Reggie and Hama, lived theirs! They created a map of successful values that, if followed, can benefit all further generations of Gants: Education, Collaboration, Risk-taking, Respect for others, and finally Imagination. This map represents an eternal lesson of life for all interracial people that I believe defined the souls of Reginald T Gant and his wife Hama Onoda Gant. It will be carried with Dad as he ascends skywards from the sands of our time to the great, star-dusted cities of Heaven above. As an administrator at Yale once said to me, 'There passes a great man.'
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