My first lesson regarding physical diversity came early because my father had polio as a teenager. One of his legs had no muscle development beneath the knee, so it was stick-like and shorter than the other. He walked with a limp that produced occasional back problems. But he was one of the luckier ones as our neighbor, who also had polio, walked with crutches for the rest of her life. Playing baseball and other games was out of the question as my father had not been able to run since he was seventeen.
Another form of diversity came from my mother’s side of the family with my aunt who had severe developmental issues. A grown woman, she could neither read nor write and lived with my grandfather and another aunt. When she was a girl there were no programs to help her build on her strengths and independence. Yet, as a young woman she was the go-to babysitter for me, my siblings, and our cousins.
Attending a Michigan public high school in the late 1960s, as I did, meant racial and political diversity. With the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and the political candidate Robert Kennedy, and the ongoing Vietnam War, even high school students were sensitive to the broader issues. Twice, the high school closed due to “race riots,” college students participated in anti-war campus “sit ins,” and we all watched the video of Kent State University students being killed by National Guardsmen on the lawn. The ferment for civil rights and anti-Vietnam War sentiment played on the evening news literally for years during that period.
So, at the age of seventeen I joined the United States Coast Guard (USCG), where I met an even wider variety of young men. I remember one particular evening talking to a Hispanic guy from California whose migrant worker parents followed the picking seasons, family in tow, up and down the state. Consequently, he had attended a large number of different schools by the time he graduated from high school. I remember thinking that must have been challenging both academically and in terms of trying to make friends.
Assigned to the high endurance USCG Cutter Mellon stationed in Honolulu, Hawaii, I met yet a new group of guys, some much older with careers in the USCG and others who, like me, wanted to serve our country but were not terribly interested in serving in an increasingly unpopular and under-supported war. The nice young lady I began dating when we both worked at a hospital while in high school eventually joined me and at nineteen I got married. Living with a wife brought a new kind of diversity into my daily life. Spending time with someone you are attracted to can bring certain emotional and physical pleasantries, but co-habitation also brings adjusting to another person’s thinking and ways of doing.
One of my friends from the ship also decided to marry young and had his girlfriend come to Hawaii. They were what was then called a “mixed race” couple—she was white and he was black—uncommon even in Hawaii at the time. In addition, neither of their families approved of the marriage. Thus, my first experience as “best man” was at a wedding that neither family would attend. The bride had her friend as the “maid of honor.” Though in legal terms we each were simply witnesses in a civil ceremony before a judge in Honolulu. Later that day we celebrated with ham sandwiches and cheap champagne.
Attending college (finally) exposed me to even more young people and professors from different backgrounds, including different countries. One of my professors talked about being trained in Japan to be a suicide pilot (Kamikaze) toward the end of WWII but was never called to actually make that one-way flight. One had been a confidant of Diem, President of South Vietnam, and an advisor to President Johnson. And another had been an early member of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), an anti-war student activist group whose radical wing developed in the notorious Weathermen (of which my professor wanted no part).
Becoming a professor meant joining a truly global community of teachers and scholars, some within my area of marketing and many in other academic specialties. Exposure to international colleagues meant learning about cultural issues well beyond our disciplines. I remember watching a colleague’s mother, dressed in a traditional, colorful sari, sitting on our living room floor helping her granddaughter cut out a pumpkin for Halloween. It was the visiting grandmother’s first Halloween in the United States. Another time our sons had the opportunity to have dinner with a group of faculty visiting from Kazakhstan, all of whom had to speak to us through an interpreter.
Naturally, along the way I worked with colleagues and taught students whose sexual orientation differed from mine. Though there is research literature on marketing to the gay community, that is not my specialty area. Still, as a teacher, advisor, and colleague I spent time with people who did not fit traditional gender roles. That became most apparent to me when as at Quinnipiac University (QU) I was assigned to share an office with a gay colleague, Dr. James Marshall. Over the next few years my wife Susan and I had dinner with James and his partner Stephen numerous times, including a dinner at our house just days before Stephen entered hospice with full blown AIDS. Less than two years later James died of an HIV-related illness. Susan and I joined colleagues to fund a scholarship at QU in his name.
The path I took with my wife was not intentionally one to learn more about diversity or develop a more diverse group of friends, but that is precisely what happened. Then, diversity came even closer as our son married a very pleasant, smart young lady from Texas whose parents emigrated from Taiwan. We now have quite possibly the cutest grandson in the world who is part Asian and part Western European.
I am very proud of my English/Irish ancestry (23andMe says 69% British & Irish, 100% European) and proud to have served our country. I am equally proud to have rejected, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, any form of tribalism that fails to value the humanity and contributions of those who have different views and different life experiences. During the current period of heightened sensitivity, I think it important for young people to know that issues of diversity in its many forms are issues personally familiar to some of us whose gray hair may suggest otherwise.