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A legacy of dignity

June 4, 2015

I had planned on writing a fiery diatribe about the attacks on Pamela Geller by the Muslim savages who were killed after they fired on the gathering of patriots in Garland, Texas, the subsequent misdirected abuse heaped on Pamela by members of the media such as Geraldo Rivera, Bill O’Reilly and Juan Williams and the diatribe by the execrable and arrogant Donald J. Trump. The title of the column was to be:  “I Support the First Amendment … But” The point was to support the right of Geller to speak her mind with no “buts” appended and, further, to support the substance of Pamela Geller’s efforts. She provokes the hive to bring out the bees before they can destroy us. I know Pamela well. We have worked together on numerous projects. We have argued with each other about numerous projects. I will say unequivocally that I support her and laud her valor.


As I said, that was to be the subject of this column and it was going to be filled with fury and bile. But then I attended a funeral that changed everything. Miss Sara Jane Wiley died this May at the age of 89 years. Miss Sara had been employed by the Hyman family for 55 years. She was a dominant presence in the life of every member of the household, from the first day she came to them until the day she died. The entire family was devoted to her. Miss Sara raised the four Hyman children. Eli (the proprietor of Hyman’s Seafood) and Aaron still live in Charleston and they were able to see her frequently. But Josh and Jolie moved to Israel, so one year Aaron took Miss Sara over there for a family visit. It was Eli’s practice to visit her home once or twice a week to check on her, as any son would do for his mom. They would listen to gospel music on her porch or in the kitchen and she would share her wisdom with Eli.


I came to know Miss Sara because she came to Hyman’s Seafood Restaurant every Sunday after church and on Wednesdays before Bible study (I have the great good fortune of being Hyman’s Sunday “greeter” — the resident nuisance who goes from table to table welcoming patrons). I came to eagerly anticipate seeing Miss Sara. Her most striking quality was her quiet dignity. She had a beautiful smile, which she bestowed graciously on all within her gaze. One particular instance stands out for me as emblematic of the relationship between Eli and Miss Sara. Miss Sara loved gospel music and for many years had been a member of the choir of The New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church. It turned out that on this particular Sunday, the members of a church choir who were visiting Charleston happened to come to eat at Hyman’s. When Eli Hyman learned that they were gospel singers, he asked a favor of them which they readily granted. Eli brought Miss Sara upstairs and told her he had a surprise for her. He sat her in the center of the dining room where the choir was seated, at which point the members of the choir got up and proceeded to serenade Miss Sara with a spectacular rendition of gospel music, to which Miss Sara clapped and sang along. Her enjoyment was obvious, her smiling face wonderful to behold and we who were there knew that we were present at a very special moment.


Another moment that stands out for me was the 2013 Charleston Christmas Parade. I was given the honor of driving Eli’s prized 1941 Lincoln convertible in the parade and Miss Sara sat regally on (not in, but on) the back of the car, waving like a queen at the spectators. I and my colleague, “Cousin Martin” Yaschik, riding in the front passenger seat, were concerned that she would fall backwards off the car. Ignoring our entreaties, she refused to sit down on the back seat, but continued waving and smiling beatifically at the crowds with Martin frantically holding on to her ankle!


The last time that I saw Miss Sara in the restaurant, she stood up and gave me a huge hug, which makes me smile with pleasure with every recollection.


I had the honor of attending Miss Sara’s funeral. I had never been to a black church service, much less been present at funeral services. The swaying of the choir as they sang the marvelous music, the oratory of the pastor and the heartfelt celebration of Miss Sara’s life was a powerful experience for me to see. There was strength, dignity and community there and the contrast between that quiet strength and the horror of what was happening in Baltimore, Ferguson and other venues across the country is fixed in my mind.


It is from that perspective that I view the respect in which Miss Sara was held by all who knew her, black and white. It was from that perspective that I was so moved by her funeral. It strikes me that all that is good, strong, positive and holy about the American experience was contained in the life of Miss Sara Jane Wiley and in the community that came together to bid her a dignified farewell. It is a lesson and a memory that will remain with me. As a Northerner who became a Southerner late in life (but as soon as I could), I have become acutely conscious of the significant difference between the North and the South in the interaction among the races.


In general terms, I have noticed that up North, people of color are respected in the aggregate, as a group, with broad liberal brush strokes, but in reality, most white people have very little interaction with individual black people. In the South, there is far more interaction between the races and people generally deal with each other as individuals without the baggage that attaches to race relations up North. It is only this kind of interaction that will begin to bridge the racial abyss that we face in this country. It is the strength of the modern South and it was well exemplified by the life of Miss Sara; may she rest in peace.


Stuart Kaufman is a retired lawyer, investment banker and businessman. He relocated from New York to Mount Pleasant in 2012. A friend recently told him that he has been a South Carolinian all of his life ... but he just didn’t know it.


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