Southern Change – One Man’s Journey (2011)

Bill Dufford, or “Doc”, as he is affectionately known by friends and former students, is a physical embodiment of the complexities and contradictions that are the American South. At once the prototypical Southern Gentleman and a defiantly vocal Southern liberal of the most passionate variety, he is equal parts Atticus Finch and Malcolm X. Athletic and tall, Bill possesses a healthy, energetic vitality, a booming voice and an infectious laugh. Though in his eighties now, subtly softened by time and with a thick shock of white hair, he could still whip me in racquetball as recently as ten years ago – more a testament to his enduring vigor than my ineptitude in the sport.

A life-long bachelor, he is a son of an older, meaner South. Bill came of age in a time of now unthinkable cultural dualities and cruelty toward blacks. A white son of the privileged class, he accepted the status quo of Jim Crow laws and the oppressive racist climate they propagated.

Things began to change in the South though, and with Bill, following the integration of Beaufort (S.C.) High School, where he had been comfortably ensconced as principal in the mid-1960’s. Following integration, Bill left Beaufort and his native state to pursue a PhD at the University of Florida. He came back a different man.

Working for peaceful desegregation with the passion of a convert, he dedicated himself to the cause of educating all of South Carolina’s children. This ruffled a lot of feathers within the establishment at a time when the Confederate Battle Flag had been recently raised atop the Statehouse dome in Columbia. Early on, at least one school board invited him not to return for a second year. Undeterred, he pressed on, both in the classroom, and as assistant director of the Desegregation Center of South Carolina. This was a holy war, and Bill was in full battle dress.

I came to know him decades later, in 1991. His last teaching post, prior to retirement was at Lower Richland High School in Columbia. A number of my college friends had graduated from L.R.H.S. and one of them regularly house-sat for Bill on the weekends. I instantly liked Bill, and despite our age difference, we became fast friends.

He was opinionated, but never over-bearing. He possessed liberal political views that could only be described as the polar opposite of my equally opinionated, though staunchly conservative father. I was fascinated by his passion and challenged to develop my own views of issues, rather than offering mindless regurgitations of my father’s stances.

I would visit him from time to time at his home in Columbia’s venerable Rose Hill neighborhood, where we would discuss the issues of the day. Though his was a beautiful home – an early 20th Century brick bungalow typical of the neighborhood, it’s décor was what one might expect from a life-long bachelor and educator. Stacks of thick, important books, framed black & white photos of classes taught and football teams coached, trophies earned and various other accumulated stacks of paper, all covered by a layer of dust. Bill ate out nearly every meal, so predictably the smallest and least-used room in the house was the kitchen, built off to the side like some shriveled appendage.

During one of my visits, Pat Conroy called, just to chat. Conroy was a student at Beaufort high school during the years Bill was principal there, and was one of my favorite authors. Before I dove into Conroy’s “Beach Music” a few years prior, I rarely read for pleasure. His florid prose changed the way I viewed the the written word, and I devoured his works. He turned me into a reader, and inspired me to consider writing. As I sat in Bill’s living room on Heyward Street, Doc spoke with casual familiarity and deep tenderness to a man that I revered. I saw Bill in a new light.

I have tremendous respect for Bill and the journey he’s taken. Though I don’t see him as much these days, I still call him from time to time, just to chat about politics among other things. We don’t always agree, but as with all great teachers, even in when our opinions diverge, I never fail to learn from him. That speaks to me of a life well lived.

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