By DR. J.W. WILEY
---- — I recently received a phone call from Tabatha Finnegan, granddaughter of one of the North Country’s most active citizens, Harold Brohinsky.
She informed me that this founder of the region’s Human Rights Commission and long-time local business owner was deathly ill and requesting a conversation with me. I immediately rearranged my schedule.
Sitting with Harold in his hospital room, he talked about how he wanted certain people to not hear from others that he was dying/dead. I was quite flattered that our mutual commitment to human rights had designated me as one of those people. I had admired his passion for engaging present-day issues in his point-counterpoint series in the Press-Republican with retired professor John Middleton.
I often embraced the eloquent ways he would challenge perspectives that he felt were dysfunctional and apt to create unfair policies. Harold never lost his voice when it came to social justice. Quite often, Harold made me feel as if I wasn’t alone in publicly challenging people that seemed to be preoccupied with entrenching their often unearned advantages over others. Regrettably, I never made an effort to thank him, commiserate with him and/or at least break bread with him. I never opened myself up to being mentored by this new-age abolitionist.
Considering all of this, with this gravely ill man staring me deep in my eyes, I had to fight back emotion and manage my shame. Sometimes it takes so little to make the greatest statements. I realized then that I was being given a second chance.
He then shared with me that he wanted to finish a book he started years ago titled, “I Pray Alone.” I remember thinking, that depends on what you must be praying for Harold, because I can imagine we must have been praying for similar things at similar times.
I did let him know how honored I was that he desired to chat with me in what may be his last days. His response was that he was honored we were on the same side. He also mentioned that local human-rights advocate, Jackie Archer, was someone he greatly respected. Harold stated that she and I were amongst the people he had ties to that he felt had figured a few things out.
He told me “It ain’t what you do; it’s the way that you do it.” I sat and thought about how applicable his personal mantra was to my life and the lives of many invested in trying to advocate for the disenfranchised. He smiled broadly when he shared with me that he thoroughly enjoyed challenging people to speak “truth to power.” This man who originated from Brooklyn had unrelentingly fought the good fight.
Harold mentioned that he measured the advance of civilization by how “people treated people.” He believed that we had failed mightily in fully embracing the concept of “All men are created equal.” When I suggested perhaps we failed in fully implementing that concept because it was flawed from its inception by not speaking to personhood instead of an overgeneralized manhood, this 84-year-old man gave me his all-too-familiar grin. That was so cool.
He spoke about the pride he had in the role he played in the demise of a controversial black university president. He acknowledged he avoided being considered racist by most because of his reputation for advocacy. He even told me that while he always knew I was younger looking, he needed to admit to me that I was better looking. This dying societal servant had me blushing.
This man who loved 1930s jazz told me he was now ready to go because he doesn’t feel incomplete. Then, contradictorily, he told me that in choosing to not exist on life support he felt he had quit the larger struggle. I reassured him that he was just fatigued and necessarily eased his burden.
Others he inspired who hadn’t done their share yet or felt there was more to do would pick up his burden and continue to work diligently to advance it.
Just as Jackie Archer lived on in Harold Brohinsky, he will live on in me, and others, who are committed to human rights.
J.W. Wiley is director of the Center for Diversity, Inclusion and Pluralism at Plattsburgh State and gives community lectures about diversity issues.