Tuesdays were fried chicken night at our house in Itasca, Illinois. Carrie Fowler, the African-American clone of my second grade teacher, Mrs. Melvin—short, rotund, early sixties, bright eyes, gray hair pulled back tight in a bun—helped my mother with the house every Tuesday. She came on the train from Elgin, about 15 miles west of Itasca. My grandfather Vern Case’s company, Case Foundation, was headquartered in Keeneyville, about halfway between Elgin and Itasca (as pictured in the cover photo around 1952). My father and uncle, Stan, also worked for Vern’s company.
Carrie was a devout Christian and I always looked forward to when she would invariably pull me aside during a break in the laundry room in our basement and tell me stories from the Bible. The last thing she would do before my mother would drive her to the Milwaukee Railroad station in town was make the best fried chicken I’ve ever tasted. She’d make enough for dinner that night and leftovers for Wednesday.
One of Carrie’s relatives from Elgin, Russell “Russ” Allen, also worked for Case as a chauffeur for my grandfather, dad and other Case executives. Once on a drive into Chicago in the back of the company’s 1956, deep green, Cadillac limousine I asked
“Gramps, why do you ride in limousines?”
“Because, you can’t think big in a small car.”
That actually made sense to this seven year old.
In the late summer of 1957, a few weeks before I started the second grade, my parents threw a big party at our house that Russ bartended. I liked Russ a lot. He was a philosopher, like Carrie a deeply religious person, and he always went out of his way to be kind to me. At some point during the party my father asked Russ if he would drive to the store and get more ice.
I offered to go with him and as we got in the car I said,
“OK, boy, drive us to the store.”
Russ turned off the engine and sat quietly for several moments staring at his deep brown hands that clenched the steering wheel. He then turned to me and, in his signature soft-spoken voice measured his reply.
“Casey, we are all men, and although our skin color may be different, we may not have the same economic circumstances, and even though I work for your grandfather and father, we all deserve the same respect and the same consideration.
“When you call a Negro ‘boy,’ it is disrespectful and hurtful. I know you don’t mean to hurt or disrespect me. But you can’t say that even in jest, even if you don’t mean it. Do you understand? I hope you remember that.”
He restarted the car and we drove off. I was ashamed and horrified that with one word I had crushed the feelings of a man fifty years my senior. I humbly offered and he accepted my apology.
I have no idea where I came up with that disparaging remark. Although I didn’t think of my folks as prejudiced, I suppose I must have heard it from them. Or maybe I heard it from that new box that had recently come out—the television.
A few weeks later I was at Vern and Henrietta’s house in Keeneyville adjacent to the Case Foundation offices, equipment yard and machine shop. Russ was in the driveway waxing the Green machine. When he saw me he stopped polishing and with a warm smile reached into his shirt pocket and handed me a sheet of paper. On it he had typed in all capital letters the following:
TEN COMMANDMENTS TO A GOOD BASEBALL PLAYER
I A GOOD CITIZEN
II A GOOD HONEST PERSON
III A GOOD BRAVE PERSON
IV A GOOD SPORTSMAN
V A GOOD LISTENER
VI A GOOD LEADER
VII A GOOD BELIEVER IN FAIRNESS
VIII A GOOD SCHOLAR
IX A GOOD HARD WORKER
X A GOOD BASEBALL PLAYER
ALL AMERICAN BASEBALL PLAYER
[The following was hand printed by Russ]
I, Casey Gauntt, swear that I will follow these 10 Rules, and will continue them all the time.
Sworn this day of August 25, 1957, before my grandfather and Russ.
As I finished reading, my grandfather came out of the house and the three of us signed the paper.
It was a very powerful moment and one I have never forgotten.
Ever since that day I’ve tried my best to live my life in accordance with Russ’s rules/commandments— certainly the first nine. I couldn’t have been much of a baseball player in 1957, but of course this had nothing to do with baseball. It was all about being a good man, no matter how old you are, what your skin color is, or whether you’re the boss or the employee. All good men follow the same creed.
I will always have an abundance of respect and gratitude for Russell Allen and the life lessons he delivered to me in Itasca and Keeneyville. As far as I know, he never told my grandfather or father that I had called him ‘boy.’ I suspect he knew I had already punished myself enough and had learned a very valuable lesson that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.