KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The man was up ahead of me on the sidewalk, shuffling along behind a four-wheeled walker. I was returning from an early-morning walk in Kansas City, where my wife and I had traveled for a wedding.
The sidewalk where the man and I were both walking was about half a block from a senior-citizens’ home, and I guessed the man might live there.
He was a black man, short in stature and compact in build. He was dressed impeccably — black slacks, a finely checked black-and-white sportcoat, jaunty snap-cap and dress shoes. My first thought was, “He must be hot in all those clothes.” It was a typical June morning in Kansas, already 75 degrees and steamy with humidity.
He was moving along well if not fast, but I could see I was going to overtake him soon and didn’t want to crowd him with his walker on the sidewalk. I dropped into the street and kept moving.
When I was somewhat past the gentleman, he called out to me.
“Why you walkin’ in the street?” he hollered.
I stopped walking and turned to look at him.
“I just didn’t want to crowd you on the sidewalk,” I said.
I walked over to him and offered him a handshake.
“I’m Sam,” I said. “I’m down here from Minnesota to attend a wedding.”
“I’m Jesse,” he said.
His handshake was firm.
“I’ve lived in Topeka and Lawrence,” he told me. “Now I’m living here.”
He nodded toward the senior citizens’ residence, several stories tall with an expansive lawn. He was almost 92, he would tell me later.
“I go for a walk out here after every meal,” he said.
I told him I’d once lived in Topeka, too, and that I’d graduated from the University of Kansas in Lawrence, just 40 miles down the road. With that, we were off into a 15-minute conversation.
He spoke with humility as he recounted snippets of a career in education and activism. The more he said, the more questions I asked. Later, I would confirm what he told me through my own research — and a visit to his apartment.
After graduating from then-all-black Sumner High School in Kansas City, Jesse Milan had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of Kansas in Lawrence. Shortly after the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, he was offered a teaching job in Lawrence. The year was 1954.
“I was the first black man hired to teach white students there,” he told me. “The Douglas County Ku Klux Klan was after me. They were trying to kill me. But the mothers of the students protected me.”
He went on to become the first African-American professor at Baker University in nearby Baldwin City, Kan., where he taught from 1970 to 2000. In 2001, the university honored him with an honorary doctor of education degree.
His apartment walls are decorated with plaques recognizing his work in fair housing, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Optimist International and other organizations. A track athlete in his youth, he ran legs of the Olympic Torch Relay in 1996 and 2002, according to University of Kansas archives.
I’m not sure why Jesse had hailed me when I gave him a wide berth during my walk that morning. But I suspect he had his reasons. He doesn’t seem to be the kind of man who acts without intention.
I considered myself quite fortunate to have come across Jesse Milan that morning. The serendipitous experience reminded me, once again, that remarkable people are in our midst, but we often don’t know it unless we have the occasion and curiosity to hear their stories.