On days like today, I think of my friend Ezell

December 20, 2014

Race relations appear to be at a longtime low.

A majority of Americans now say that race relations in the United States are bad, according to the latest NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll, which showed the most pessimistic assessment of racial issues in almost two decades.

Today, two New York City cops—one Hispanic, one Asian—were shot by a disgruntled black man who believed he was avenging the death of a black man who’d been placed in a modified choke hold by New York cops.

More than ever I think of my late friend Ezell Ware Jr., about (and for) whom I wrote a book. If I’ve ever known a better man in my life, using the connotation of better by which we’d all like to be judged, I can’t think of one.

This is saying something, too, given what Ezell endured in his life. Born in 1941 in Magee, 40 miles south of Jackson, the heart of KKK-Jim Crow Mississippi, he was raised by his sharecropping grandparents in a cabin without electricity or water, enduring the kind of racism that is, thank God, just a distant memory—racism that NO ONE (sorry for shouting and for repeating: NO ONE) endures in this country anymore.

Despite having no reason to believe the world would be friendly to his dreams, he grew up with two of them. One was to be a pilot and the other was to be a general. At the time and in the place, for a young black to have those dreams was equivalent, in today’s world, to a young white whose ambition is to ride a unicorn in the Kentucky Derby.

Yet Ezell accomplished both of those goals (how he did is described in the book, which these days is best found on eBay). He did it by attitude and will: “I don’t care how many obstacles you put in my way,” he said. “I’m going to go over, under, around, or through them to get what I want, because I only have one life, and I’m either going to get what I want or I’m going to die trying.”

I am delighted to say that he got what he wanted before he died, though he died way too soon, at age 68, about five and a half years ago. Doctors said his lung cancer was caused by the Agent Orange to which he was exposed both as a helicopter gunship pilot during his two tours of duty in Vietnam, and his three weeks in the jungle trying to evade the Viet Cong and NVA with his white racist captain after being shot down on a secret mission.

He used to say that every day you don’t improve yourself is a day you got worse. He used to say that no matter how humble your surroundings are, you clean them every day. He used to say that you can complain all you want only if you’re doing something to change your situation, but if you’re really doing something to change it, you probably don’t have time to complain. He used to say a lot of wise and wonderful things, all of them learned by experience.

The world is a sadder, poorer place without him—as is proven every day. Especially days like today.

R.I.P., Ezell.

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

LukeHandCool December 21, 2014 at 10:11 am

If only you could teach character.

Well, you can. Just not in the public school system.

Parents can. Parents must.

I was immediately reminded of the following story. Such character seems vanished from today’s world:

http://www.nbclosangeles.com/news/local/Joseph-Clara-Gantt-Korean-War-Veteran-Remains-Returned-LAX-236717671.html

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Claudine May 17, 2015 at 2:29 am

He was the world to me. I miss him everyday. Thank you for sharing your story with us Joel, I.know he is so proud of you.

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Rhonda Johnson (Francis) November 21, 2016 at 6:54 am

I knew Brig. Gen. Ezell Ware. I worked his program IMPACT. He was a wonderful and brilliant man. After his retirement we chatted a lot on AOL!
This is to the writer Joel Engel, I went to Findagrave.com I am a member and I looked up where zezell was buried. The stone on his grave says Col. Ezell Ware Jr how does that happen? Can you contact the Military about why his headstone is terribly incorrect and disrespectful to Brig. Gen. Ezell Ware Jr. I posted a picture of Ezell on his burial page. Can you please get that corrected? He was a proud man and gave 100% to all who knew him well or casually. I want him to RIP full honors and his correct rank for eternity.

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