By Ken Hamilton
Niagara Gazette — With a country as vast as our own, and a world as diverse as it, I have long discovered the value of having most of my heroes being local.
Most are; and here is why.
Attached to this golden band, the treasure of blessings that is our region, there spangled are the tiny diamonds that we see, but we fail to realize their worth.
Three such gems glitter among the blue diamonds of our Niagara Falls Police Department. They are Kevin Henderson, Tommy Caldwell and Joel Smith; the latter two being of special significance to me.
Let me digress for a moment to bring clarity to the reason why these men are heroes of mine.
African-Americans, who are the age of my Aunt Charlie Gainer, struggled through the heartaches of the racism that once had its rusting iron fist tightly gripping the throat of this nation. She was born a mere three months after, and a three-hour drive, from the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King. She experienced much of the struggle against which King fought.
As a toddler, our family moved from Alabama to Harlan County, KY — the poorest county in America. After her dad, my grandfather, had attempted to form a black coalminers union, and had been beaten and left for dead, the family hurriedly packed and moved to McDowell County, WV — the second poorest county in America.
Theirs was a world of segregation. Those like her would look towards the dark, western faces of the coal-filled hills at their corner of Coretta, and they would pray for a rising, golden, eastern sun that would shower favor upon them and loosen the grips of prejudice.
For those West Virginians and others, our family later moved to Niagara Falls; and for that generation, King was the brightest of the glowing, golden rays that shimmered hope atop the ridges that announced the coming of their rising sun. In the dimming days of their lives, they would perceive that sun to be the nation’s first black president, Barack Obama.
I can understand my aunt’s generation feeling as they did; but, for me, not having the Alabama, Kentucky or West Virginian experience, my hope was in those who shared my community.
Many years ago, I read Russell Conwell’s book called “Acres of Diamonds,” where within a man packed up and traveled the world to find riches far greater than what he already had, only to have those whom he left behind to find those same riches in the place where he once stood. The traveler died a broken man in his quest to find that which he already had beneath his feet.
In the late 1970s upon my return from the Navy, I became involved in my community. Thereafter, along with a newly minted, African-American, Niagara Falls Police Officer, Lamar Cain, we determined ourselves to find others, like him, who would serve their community in law enforcement.
Lamar and I went knocking door-to-door in hopes of finding some who would. As we stood talking to the men who would answer their doors, oftentimes, I saw the eyes of diapered, baby boys, curiously peeping from their semi-hiding places, and wondering what was going on. That was some thirty years ago.
Lamar is now gone, and his son Carl has both replaced and exceeded him. I cannot remember the doors upon which we knocked, the fathers to whom we spoke, or the changed faces of those diapered boys.
However, I have seen the first, spring crop of a half-dozen or more who have worked with Cain, and those who have followed him onto the force. My heart is exceedingly glad to see that the seeds of their successes have found fertile ground, and there rises in the souls of Henderson, Caldwell and Smith, the summer fruits of their predecessor’s efforts.
I suspect that there will be many more to follow that will one day join the now multi-cultured, multi-gendered police force that diligently serves our citizens.
I cannot say that it was Lamar’s, mine and the efforts of others like us that encouraged the men and women, who look like Lamar, to have donned the uniform; but I also cannot know that it was not so.
I do know two other things: one is that those officers have taken the racial risk of joining — and yes, that exists. And each time that I have seen any one of them — especially Caldwell, whom I likely knew as a boy; and Smith, whom I did know as a baby, the proud poundings of my heart are only the echoes of the painful knocking that Lamar Cain and I once did upon the doors of our community, some thirty years ago.
The other is that the following generations, not having our experiences, as we didn’t have those of our southern predecessors, will soon look upon such as being nothing but normal. Hopefully, it will be the ‘normality’ upon which they will build their ‘something better.’ Jesse Jackson, while here in Niagara Falls, once told my nephew that the key to success was to, “… stay in school and get a good education, don’t use alcohol, stay away from drugs; and, the job that you are looking for may not exist — you may have to create it yourself.”
So then, why do we now look for the heroes that others have helped create from afar, instead of helping to create for ourselves the heroes that fill our buried acres of diamonds?Contact Ken Hamilton at firstname.lastname@example.org.