Chet the Jet: a bridge over troubled waters

December 26, 2003|By C. Fraser Smith

HE WAS, formally, an instructor in religion, director of religious activities at the Johns Hopkins University and director of the YMCA that then owned a building on the university's Homewood campus.

Pretty soon, though, chaplain Chester Wickwire acquired other unofficial titles.

Prodding conscience: It was the 1960s, and Mr. Wickwire took it upon himself to guide students -- and various institutions -- toward honest confrontations with the issues of the time, from racism to war.

"Chester," says Hopkins alumnus and Sun Perspective writer Michael Hill, "was the soul of Hopkins. It wasn't a very warm and nurturing place then."

Impresario: This man of God ministered in the language of the '60s.

He brought a coffeehouse and movies to the campus. He booked an array of jazz and folk groups -- from Duke Ellington to Peter, Paul and Mary. He took these groups and their audiences into performance halls where blacks and whites didn't mix.

He became a stabilizing, daring and inspirational force in a turbulent time.

So Mr. Hill and 50 or so others turned out on a rainy cold Sunday recently to wish him a happy 90th birthday.

White frosting on the chocolate cake spelled out, "Chet the Jet. 90 down. 90 to go. Keep on truckin'."

"You're the only person who could get me out on a day like today," said Heidi Rodriguez as she walked into Levering Hall on the Hopkins campus. In the late 1980s, she said, Mr. Wickwire persuaded a group of ministers to let her travel with him and them to Latin America on a fact-finding trip. A native of Guatemala City, she wanted to participate in some way in the liberation of besieged countries. Mr. Wickwire's continuing pursuit of values they shared inspired and inspires her.

"He has never been cowed by anyone," she said. "He has always spoken up for justice regardless of the consequences."

A member of Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski's staff now, Ms. Rodriguez was just one of the birthday celebrants who said their lives had been shaped by Mr. Wickwire.

Housing activist and educator Ralph Moore, another Hopkins graduate, said Mr. Wickwire's spirit endeared him to his colleagues in the black clergy.

When Gov. Spiro T. Agnew berated black ministers for failing to control rioters after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Mr. Wickwire and others attempted to put an advertisement in The Sun demanding an apology from the governor. The Sun, Mr. Wickwire says, refused to print the ad.

Later, members of the Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance welcomed him as their new president when the incumbent died.

"He was a brother among the brothers and sisters. They felt and still feel genuine love and affection for him," Mr. Moore said.

Trust, if not affection, led members of the Black Panther Party to surrender to Mr. Wickwire, and only to him, after Panthers were killed by police in Chicago. "Here was this mild-mannered guy with polio who walks with a cane. And the Black Panthers said, `We will surrender to Chester Wickwire. That's who we trust.' They knew he would make sure they weren't shot," Mr. Hill said.

He was the progenitor of a tutoring program designed, along with many other Wickwire initiatives, to push an aloof Hopkins into the surrounding community.

"The school was segregated then," Mr. Wickwire said. "No blacks, no women, Jews on a quota. The place was kind of a desert, and the city, too, in many ways."

In a sense, he said to Baltimore and Hopkins, "Loosen up."

Who could resist? Chet the Jet managed to get Nina Simone, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Ravi Shankar, Simon and Garfunkel, the Mamas and the Papas, Odetta, Pete Seeger to perform all over the city. Letters were written in advance clearing Hopkins and the Y of blame for the race riots many assumed would occur. There were no riots.

"After the Vietnam days," says Mr. Hill, "we graduated, we didn't get drafted and we left." For many, the days of protest were over.

Not for Chet the Jet. Not then or now.

"Chester was off to Central America at the height of the conflicts there. He's still carrying the torch."

Still truckin'.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column usually appears Sundays.

Columnist Thomas L. Friedman is on vacation.

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