For Toney

This morning I told my class the story of how I met Toney. I told them about the day he took a chance on me and hired me for my first job in education. I told them about how he motivated me, pushed me, cared for me, mentored me, befriended me and loved me.

And then I told them that he died this week.

For the first time – and hopefully the last – I cried in front of my students. I asked them to tell me what a mentor was. What perseverance meant. What it means to push themselves to learn. We came up with a word cloud and it made us happy.

Toney was the first person to ever tell me that he recognized something in me I didn’t know I had. He was tough, stubborn as shit and was harder on me – personally and professionally – than anyone I’ve ever known.

TBHe was born in 1960 in rural North Carolina to a very poor, uneducated family. He was the baby and knew he would have to fight harder than his siblings if he wanted a better life for himself. He could fail out of high school (and almost did) or he could graduate and go into the Air Force where he knew he’d be taken care of. He graduated from the Community College of the Air Force, then got a bachelor’s degree and retired at 40.

Education found him nearly the same way it found me. He was retired military but had administrative experience which put him at an advantage for jobs his peers wouldn’t qualify for. Like me, Toney needed a job and found one that just happened to be in adult education. He had a wife, a stepdaughter and a son on the way, so he went back to school on the weekends and earned a master’s degree. He moved further and further up the ladder until he was in higher education administration.

That’s when he met me.

I came to his office prepared to just introduce myself but instead he had an interview committee lined up, and there I was in casual clothes with my car keys in my hand. He asked me a dozen or so questions and then wanted to know why I was interested in working for him. I told him I wanted the job – which, truthfully, I knew nothing about and wasn’t remotely qualified for. Toney knew it and hired me anyway.

We worked together for 8 years. I got engaged, got married, bought a house and started a graduate degree. He got divorced, raised his son alone and kept moving up the administrative ladder. We had long talks over cigarettes, or in our offices, or over lunch. We listened to the O’Jays in his car on the way to conferences. We made jokes about how we must look at the lunch table: he, the short black man in a suit, and me, the young white girl with wide eyes.

In 2008 he was hired as vice president at a nearby college. We emailed and phoned each other, and saw one another every couple of months. He loved Brian – who loved him back – and was always so keenly interested in Brian’s career. Did he like his job? Were they nice to him? How was his MBA coming? What advice could he give Brian? Fourteen years apart in age, Toney and Brian grew up in the same corner of the state just miles away from each other. They knew the same people, the same chicken joints, the same terrain.

He called in December to tell me that he had cancer. He’d been through chemo and radiation, and the prognosis, he said, was good.

Over the past few days I have come to discover that he wasn’t telling the truth. His cancer was terminal and he spent most of December calling his friends to catch up, and making us promise not tell anyone he was sick.

When I heard the news of his death I collapsed in my office chair and sobbed. I left work early and crawled into my bed, where I cried myself to a fitful sleep.

Saturday morning we’ll travel to his hometown for the funeral. A local minister we’ve all known for years will preach the eulogy. While we’re there we’ll visit Brian’s father’s grave and those of his grandparents. And on Saturday, when it’s forecasted to be cloudy and cold, I will remember my friend, who gave so much light and warmth to my life.

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