Sunday, January 9, 2011

RIP, Kindell Stephens (1942-2008)

My friend Kindell Stephens died January 2, 2008.

Hundreds – maybe thousands -- of others in Middle Tennessee, and elsewhere, can say this very thing. Kindell had more friends than anyone I’ve ever met. Not acquaintances – friends.

Establishing a friendship typically calls for one party to take the initiative. Kindell was determined to be my friend. We met while playing on-on-one basketball at the Y. Kindell was a great player – he had a cup of coffee with the Lakers – and he was surprised – and pleased – that I wasn’t intimidated by him. Whenever he saw the glimmer of pride, the spark of competitive fire, he embraced it.

Kindell cultivated the seeds of self-reliance in dozens of kids down through the years. A young man who spoke at his funeral thanked Kindell for “seeing something in me when nobody else saw anything.”

Kindell saw something in me, as well. Maybe it was a curiosity about him and his culture. I’d been to college and played basketball, but my education hadn’t included becoming real friends with any African Americans. The ones I’d known were as wary of me as I was of them.

Kindell came to Nashville in the mid-‘60s, when segregation was yet in full flower. He went to Fisk, starred in basketball, had that stint in the pros, and came back to Nashville. He counseled young athletes, first at Fisk, later at Tennessee State, where he was sports information director and the “Voice of the Tigers” on radio broadcasts.

After Kindell and I met, he asked me to play on a basketball team with him. I was the only white on a team of blacks – I got an inkling of what it was like to be a minority. Kindell helped me feel at ease.

The more I got to know Kindell, the more I learned about empathy – not the refined and ethereal kind of empathy the philosophers recommend, but empathy in action. I seldom saw Kindell without several charges in tow – the kids whose causes he took up and made his own. As Howard Gentry, a longtime friend and broadcast associate of Kindell’s, said at a memorial tribute attended by hundreds: “If you knew Kindell, chances are that he helped you in some way.” Gentry also said, “Kindell brought me out of myself.”

As pastor Darrell Drumright said in his splendid and stirring eulogy, and as the dozen or more illustrious speakers echoed at the memorial celebration: Kindell Stephens was a facilitator, an ambassador, an encourager. He brought people together…

Why did he do it? Kindell’s brother Leonard, speaking at the tribute, recounted Kindell’s happy childhood. He wasn’t a former waif himself, on a mission to return good for evil. He was simply a good man.

We are all strangers to one another. Our hearts are restless, St. Augustine said, because earth is not our true home.

Kindell has gone home.