Frank Pacosa in memory of Bill Dow

[Story contributed by Frank Pacosa, March 2017]

Heartfelt memories of my SHC days rumble through

Bill was the seminal influence. Never met a man who could say more with so few words. His admonition to always question and look deeper for motives, especially when dealing with people in power, was a class you could not find in any university catalog, but Bill taught it, lived it, and breathed it. All he asked for tuition was that you follow him into the mountains and see what he saw in the lives of “po’ folk.”

Bill Dow, the primary student organizer of the project.
Bill Dow, the primary student organizer of the project.

You could walk away but could never forget: the poverty of gnarled hands, black lung, polluted streams, and leveled mountaintops. The stolid indomitable strength of their leaders who were never much for show or many words but you always listened. Music that at once infused the people’s spirit and contained it, because no matter how lively the sound, there was always an underlying restraint that created a dynamic tension. That tension reflected the peoples’ lives. Proud but retrained. We urban chatter heads almost didn’t know how to talk to them. But we learned to sit long on porches, talk slow with lots of empty spaces. And when you got up to go after a couple of hours there was always “What’s your hurry? Stay awhile.”

And it always came back to Bill as the every man explaining the people and their ways. I remember when we talked after his mother’s death and he told me that a southern tradition was to dig your parent’s grave. I shook then as I do now writing this. Even though I’ve been a hospice volunteer and was present when a 5-year-old patient of mine died, lifting her hands up as if to a light that only she could see. To dig your parent’s grave? He dug for his mother’s death and didn’t bat an eye telling me. But the shockwave of his grief weakened my knees and almost toppled me.

How can you ever begin to tell anyone about what the SHC was and who Bill Dow was?

The SHC experience started a crack in my personal protective armor that years later would open.