“If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
“If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you, But make allowance for their doubting too”.
Rudyard Kipling used this verse in his poem “If” to introduce himself to me in Barbara O’Berry’s Literature Class at Suffolk High School.
The poem took my breath away. Never thought I’d ever meet a man like Kipling’s description until I met Dr. William E. Ward, Chesapeake’s longest serving Mayor. Never thought someone could live the poem, could be the fulfillment of that “If”. “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim”. Dr. Ward was Kipling’s living “If”, the conjunction at the heart of a conditional clause that challenged each of us to make “The pursuit of happiness” possible for so many in Chesapeake and throughout the region.
On Last Saturday neighbors, friends, co workers and collaborators said goodbye to Dr. Ward. Truth is none among us really wanted to part company with the retired History Professor and Department Chair at Norfolk State University. How do you let go of a mentor and friend, the guiding voice from the passenger seat of so many lives?
Seems the poet had him in mind when he wrote “If you can walk with Kings, nor lose the common touch”. A touch that endeared Dr. Ward to Republicans, Democrats, Corporate Executives and Grass Roots Community Organizers, all with often opposing views.
He and Rose, his wife and princess, embraced me after one of the worst periods in my life. Put me to work in The Chesapeake Men for Progress, included me in gatherings of family and friends when they didn’t have to. Both shared gentle reminders that others have been where I was. The only difference, she said, is they’ve outlived the memory. I guess there are some things in life we simply have to outlive. That’s how the Kipling in them surfaced. You could almost hear them say “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”.
Perhaps I didn’t realize it until now, didn’t know why I was drawn to Dr. Ward, why losing him is like losing a parent all over again. My father, Leroy T. Edwards, Sr. died when I was four years old. Since Dr. Ward left us, I’ve come to realize that I saw so much of my Dad in him. They were about the same height, build and presence. Perhaps in him I imagined what my father would have been like had he lived. Wish I’d told Dr. Ward. Just didn’t come to the realization till after he was gone. Goes to show, doesn’t it, how we should think through the value of our relationships while people are with us? Yet somehow I think he knew and knows.
Kipling goes on to say, “If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew to serve your turn long after they are gone, And so hold on when there is nothing in you except the will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’”.
The line reads like a description of Dr. Ward’s later days. Declining moments when illness was at its cruelest. When his living “If” challenged us all to do something we don’t always want to do, keep going even when our bodies can’t cooperate.
Yes, Kipling’s Prince has run his race, finished his course. My sense is he’s more than worthy of the crown promised in the precincts of heaven and the accolade written from the poets pen.
“If you can fill the unforgiving minute with sixty seconds’ worth of distance run. Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it” said Kipling, “And—which is more—you’ll be a Man my Son”.
Dennis Edwards is an Emmy Award Winning Television Journalist as well as an Interim Pastor. He’s a graduate of Virginia Union University and its Samuel Dewitt Proctor School of Theology.