I offer, not argument to the contrary, but encomium to honor a figure of my past and my first real-life hero. After World War II, my family moved from our wartime rental to a big house in a nice suburb. Mr. Lyons was our mailman. He delivered the mail twice a day weekdays, once on Saturday. He drove no truck from one rack of mailboxes to another; instead, he carried his large leather pouch to deliver the mail to each house at the side door. I remember that it took him, an old, tall, thin, black man, a long time to climb the driveway to our mailbox outside the kitchen door. He walked slowly, almost shuffling, like Satchel Page, a famous pitcher in the Negro Leagues and, as a pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, one of the first black players in the major leagues.
I know almost nothing about Mr. Lyons's life. I have always assumed and have no reason to doubt that he and his wife lived in a humble black neighborhood on Cleveland's East Side. I imagine that his wife took public transportation--buses or streetcars or both--to the suburbs, where she cleaned the homes of white families rich enough to hire domestic help. He and his wife had three children.
Shortly before Christmas, every Christmas from 1945 to 1970, my mother invited Mr. Lyons in for a hot toddy or two--the farther back in time, the more likely snow had fallen or was falling--, a little small-talk, a Christmas card with "something" in it, and thanks for his dependable and considerate service.
I was there in December 1970 for this seasonal ritual. At it close, Mr. Lyons thanked my mother for her kindnesses over the years and then announced that he was retiring at the end of the year. We were both stunned; he was part of the comfortable and familiar routine of our lives. My mother recovered quickly to say that he would be greatly missed. Then she added that he had done such a good job, he must have liked it to have worked so long, hard, and diligently at it.
Then came the real shocker. No, he said, he had hated every minute of it. But, as he explained in our silence, he and his wife had three children, two boys, once girl. They were now grown and gone, two lawyers, one doctor. My mother said a few words of congratulation. We exchanged season's greetings, farewells, and best wishes. Then he left, and his last day in December came and went.
What Mr. and Mrs. Lyons achieved for their children in a segregated Northern city, starting at least 10 years before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus, is the stuff of an even quieter heroism. The Lyonses are not typical, of course; instead, they are the realization of ideals: sacrifice and betterment. But they point the way for others in similar situations. Today, as then, the culture of poverty can be escaped, perhaps in a second generation. To those who despair that they cannot improve their lives or the lives of their children, Mr. and Mrs. Lyons give the lie.