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Rest In Peace

Remembering Perry Wallace, who broke the color barrier in SEC basketball

A memorial service at Vanderbilt celebrates his life on court and off

A memorial service will be held Monday at Vanderbilt University for Perry Wallace, the first African-American basketball player in the Southeastern Conference. Wallace, who died in December at age 69, played at Vanderbilt from 1966-70 and graduated with an engineering degree. He went on to earn a law degree from Columbia University and became an attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice. He was a professor of law at American University at the time of his death. Andrew Maraniss, a fellow Vanderbilt grad, who wrote Strong Inside, a best-selling biography of Wallace and his experience integrating SEC basketball, shared the remarks he prepared for Monday’s service.

If you think there’s some pressure writing a biography of the most brilliant man you’ve ever met, just try eulogizing him.

I loved Perry Wallace like an older brother, a father figure, a favorite professor. I had the privilege of interviewing him for the first time when I was 19 years old for a history class here at Vanderbilt. By the time he died nearly 30 years later he knew my young children and they screamed so loudly and tugged so hard at his legs the first time they met him that Perry turned to me within five minutes, laughing, and asked if I had any Advil.

I’ve thought a lot about how Perry’s life will be interpreted now that he’s no longer with us. I would caution all of us, even in our love and admiration for Perry and what he stood for, not to attempt to speak for him in the years to come.

First, he could say anything more eloquently than we could. Perry was an engineer, but he was truly a poet.

Second, we might get it wrong. Perry was the best kind of intellectual: an independent thinker, not an ideologue. He used to talk about the importance of finding time to get away and reflect on what you truly believe inside, even if it doesn’t precisely match the checklist provided by your favorite cable news network.

So while I would never attempt to speak for Perry, one thing I am confident in saying is that Perry Wallace would use today’s Celebration of Life — the celebration of his life — for the benefit of other people, just as he always did when the spotlight shined on him. He always turned that light around and expanded its glow.

Perry would use an occasion like this to do three things: to celebrate, yes, but also to encourage. And to challenge.

We should celebrate the coming together of a remarkable man and a special university. As difficult as Perry’s experience was at Vanderbilt, I heard him say many times that all you have to do is look around and see all the people and institutions that do not step up to do the right thing — who in fact work hard to resist progress — to celebrate the fact it was Vanderbilt that was the first in the SEC to desegregate and more recently played its part in a real, honest reconciliation with Wallace after a painful parting. We should celebrate leaders who step beyond the comforts of the status quo. After all, what’s the alternative?

More importantly, today we celebrate a man who over the course of his entire life had the courage, strength and simple decency to be a Good Man, capital G and capital M, even when the many people who denigrated him denied his very humanity.

It sounds like such a simple command, to be a Good Man. Why would we not want to make the right, ethical choices, to act honestly and treat people well?

And yet we look around us, or scan Twitter, or watch the TV news, and it seems that these days there aren’t even a few good men, as the movie boasts. There are very few good men.

Of course, we are all imperfect. Even Perry didn’t make all his shots. But do we only give lip service to character traits such as honesty, respectfulness, humility and grace? Far too often it seems that’s the case, especially for those born with privilege or elevated to positions of power.

It sounds like such a simple command, to be a Good Man.

Spotting this rare figure, the Good Man, becomes a profound reminder of the best within any of us. We celebrate Perry Wallace for allowing us to witness a Good Man in action.

And that’s where encouragement comes in. Perry wouldn’t write any of us off as irredeemable. And he never expected everyone to be a superhero. He only asked that we make an honest effort at progress. I imagine he would look at the Vanderbilt of today — one that just admitted its most diverse and most academically accomplished first-year class in history — and encourage the university to stay on the course of justice. He would encourage us to seek more opportunities to bring Nashvillians from different walks of life together, as we’ve done today. This scene didn’t exist in the Nashville he grew up in.

And that’s where he would challenge us, to work harder to ensure our actions align with what we say is important. Who among us wouldn’t say that ethics and honesty and class are the values we admire at our very core? And yet we continue to look past or even punish some people who live their lives this way, and reward others who don’t.

Perry, of course, had a brilliant way of describing how we deceive ourselves, professing to reward people who work hard and play by the rules — and yet diminish such people because of their race, religion, gender, sexual orientation or any other dividing line. Being black in America, Wallace said, meant understanding how “insane and inane the world can be, in that a lot of the rules are not what they’re said to be.” He quoted Shakespeare, a line from Othello, where Iago says, “I am not what I am.” And Perry said that was his experience. He was a high school valedictorian, Vanderbilt graduate, Columbia Law graduate, Justice Department attorney, law school professor, great father and husband — and yet, to some people, none of that mattered. He was not who he was.

Being black in America, Wallace said, meant understanding how “insane and inane the world can be, in that a lot of the rules are not what they’re said to be.”

And yet it was obvious who Perry Wallace was. Perry’s sister Jessie told me she learned all she needed to know about her brother when he was in kindergarten. One day she arrived at school to pick him up and found the teacher had left the classroom. All the kids were going berserk, except one. Perry sat quietly at his desk doing his work. When the world went crazy around him in the decades to come, he always kept his head, always did the right thing.

Recently, I learned about a group of students in Cleveland, Ohio, who read Perry’s biography and related to his story in a special way. These are young men and women with Down syndrome and Asperger’s and other exceptionalities. Their teacher says that when her students encounter difficulties at home or at school, they stop and ask themselves: What would Perry Wallace do?

It becomes the challenge they issue to themselves when they’re scared, angry or nervous, when they’re being mistreated or misunderstood, or need to make an important decision.

It’s easier said than done, but it was the choice he made every single day of a remarkable life.

Perry Wallace, the students say, would remain strong inside.

Andrew Maraniss is the author of the bestseller "Strong Inside: Perry Wallace and the Collision of Race and Sports in the South," which received the Lillian Smith Book Award and RFK Book Awards’ Special Recognition prize.