In the summer of 1941, I was 9. A year earlier, I was diagnosed with congenital cataracts on both eyes. An eye surgeon in Boston, Mass., agreed to operate to give me better vision. The cataracts would still be there, but I could see around them.
When the day came for my operation, the staff at the hospital tried to allay my fears. They assured me that I would not feel anything. When I woke up after the operation, I had bandages on my eyes. It was the practice at that time to keep people in the hospital for at least a week after this surgery. But my bandages came off after several days.
Hurray, I could see, but it took awhile for my eyes to adjust to the light. In fact, even today, light hurts my eyes. I was allowed to walk a little ways, even into the hall.
A gentleman in the next room had also had an eye operation, but his bandages were still on. He seemed to need some help moving around the room, so I offered to help him. Soon I was leading him around.
I was discharged from the hospital before his bandages came off, so he had no idea what I looked like. My parents asked him his name and address, so that they might send him my picture. His name was William Heathman and he lived in Providence, R.I.
At Christmas, my parents sent him my picture, and he sent me a letter calling me, “My little Good Samaritan.”
When I graduated from high school, we sent another photo, and Mr. Heathman sent a thank you note for the picture. My parents encouraged me to keep corresponding with Mr. Heathman. When I graduated from college, I sent him my college photo, and I received a letter in return. Every letter was typed, but very personal.
In one letter, he apologized that he could not find a picture to send to me, but he enclosed two newspaper clippings that had his picture. In March 1949, he was presented a “certificate of recognition” from the National Urban League. He was being recognized for completing 50 years of law practice before Rhode Island courts. Mr. Heathman had graduated from Boston University Law School, and was a practicing lawyer in Providence. Finally, he did find a photograph taken in 1919, which he sent to me.
When I started seminary in Philadelphia, he happened to be there on business and we were able to meet face to face. This was the first time he had seen me.
When I got married, he was invited to the wedding, but was unable to attend. When our first child was born, Mr. Heathman and his wife sent us an engraved silver cup. My wife and I were able to make a trip to Providence to show my friend our daughter.
The last letter I received from Mr. Heathman was dated Jan. 16, 1964. He wrote that because of failing eyesight, he had to close his law office. He also stated that “old age” had caught up with him at 91.
Several years later, I received a call from his wife saying that my friend had died. She asked me to come and take part in the funeral. Of course, I traveled to Providence to say “goodbye” to my dear friend. I was honored to be the clergyman at the service.
How did my parents teach me about race relations? This friend was an African-American. I am a Caucasian, and it was my parents who urged me to keep in touch with him. They gave me the gift of not seeing color but a friend.
The Rev. CharlesA. Deacon, an Episcopal priest since 1963, is priest associate at St. John’s-Grace Episcopal Church on Colonial Circle.