Don Booth

Providence, Rhode Island.  Late 1940s.  A city plagued by racial tension and discrimination.  A young white man walks through the railway station, and sees an older white man holding a young black boy tightly by the lapels.  The boy cries and fights to loosen the grip, crying that he’s done nothing wrong.  The young white man approaches and quickly asks, “What’s the matter?” to which the older man replies, “That’s none of your business.”  The young man stands his ground, telling the man “It’s every citizen’s business.”  A passerby — drunk, by the sound of it — heckles the young man, but he stands his ground.  Then people start to gather- first a few, but before long, dozens of onlookers are watching this strange scene with curiosity.  The police drive into the station and demand to know what’s going on.  Petty theft, according to the older man, who’s still holding the boy, and points an angry finger at the young man.  “This guy here stuck in his nose…”  The police grab the young man shove him into the car along with the boy, and when the young man tries to explain yourself, the officer tells him to shut up or he’ll use his gun.  At the station, the young man is denied a phone call home and spends the night in jail — all because he cared about a black boy he’d never met.

Those of you who’ve heard this story will recognize Don, my grandfather, as the young man who stuck up for a black boy in the 1940s.  It has a special meaning to me now, since I moved to Providence exactly one month ago today.  But it’s also an inspiring story of moral courage that I feel illustrates some of the best qualities of Don.

I was blessed with 23 years with Don as my grandfather.  When I look back on that time — most of which I spent growing up down the street from his Canterbury home — I can’t help but feel an incredible sense of gratitude.  And while 23 years gives me only a small window in his 94-year life, I do feel qualified to share some lessons that I will always cherish — lessons that can guide all of our lives.

“I have had for a long time the feeling that I’m preparing myself for something…  I am quite certain that I can be or do anything.  But there’s one main problem one which all the other’s hinge: Do I want to live for myself, or for others?”

Those aren’t my words, but those of one 18-year-old Don Booth.  Seventy-six years later and I believe we can all agree that he did in fact overcome that problem.  That’s lesson number one:  Live with purpose.  But not just any purpose.  Define a high and noble purpose in life, and live it, every day.

As he wrote in his journals, “The world is too far from being ideal for me to look forward to being as uncreatively and irresponsibly safe as most men want to be.”  His sense of purpose gave meaning to his life, and it allowed him to see everything through the lens of his highest values.  It made him unique.  It allowed him to resist social pressures.  It put him ahead of the curve.  It aroused in him a rare courage, and I quote: “To compromise so fundamental a principle as that of brotherhood and equality because of fear for ourselves seems to me a terrible weakness and cowardice.”  He was the original beatnik.  The original hippie.  And yet, ever defiant of labels, he was none of these things.

Socrates once said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”  Well, to that I think Don would add that “the purposeless life is not worth living.”  If each of us could live with even a fraction of the purpose Don lived with every day, what a better world this would be.

Lesson number two:  Influence by example.  I never found Don to be pushy with his beliefs.  He had strong opinions, for certain, but he understood that fighting his opponent — physically or verbally — wasn’t going to win over his opponent’s hearts.  Instead, he opted for an approach that was honest, kind, and respectful — if not downright loving.  With that same loving manner, I would bet that Don directly or indirectly touched the lives of everyone in this room.   

You can’t drive downtown on a freezing winter day, only to see your grandfather standing serenely with his sign, framed against the backdrop of the statehouse building, and not be moved by resolve.  You can’t have such a fervent activist as a grandfather and remain oblivious to what’s going on in the world.  Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure it’s his doing that I majored in political science. 

What’s most amazing to me is how loudly Don could speak without using any words at all.  He wasn’t afraid to take the kind of action that would speak louder than any words — whether at the state house, the picket line, or in a senator’s office.  Only brave action — straight from the heart — can do that.

The problem — as I imagine that Don saw it — is that most of us think our action doesn’t matter.  We think no one is watching us.  But someone is always watching us.  Most people ignore this fact.  Don took it as a challenge.  And he taught me that when you act according to your own highest values, you begin to live for something greater than yourself.

Lesson number three:  Love unconditionally.  I believe this was Don’s greatest secret of all, and it might be the most valuable takeaway from his entire legacy.  Don was so full of love that he could light up your whole day — heck, your whole week — with a single smile.  He could see something beautiful in everyone even when they couldn’t see it in themselves.  Yes, Don was so full of love that he couldn’t help but express it and pass it on to others.  And as a result, it came back to him tenfold.  Whether or not Don literally loved unconditionally, I can’t say.  But I know that he worked harder at it than anyone I’ve ever met. 

It was that very love that led him to his quest for peace and justice — a quest that remains undone.  But still we should not be without a sense of hope.  As Don once wrote me in a letter, “My experience has made me an optimist for the whole world.”  So why shouldn’t you and I be optimistic, too?  We owe him that, I think.


So let’s all carry on Don’s legacy.  Let’s have the conviction to live with purpose, the courage to influence by example, and the endurance to love unconditionally.  These are the traits of character the human race needs to survive and thrive in these times.  May we all remember, even in our lowest of lows, that great big smile that Don so often graced us with, and the beautiful way he inspired us all.  As Sara Smith said the Sunday after his passing, “Don didn’t live in the light.  He was the light.”  And none of us who knew him will ever forget it.

— Travis Webster-Booth