MTA service employee, Arthur Winston, in March 2006. (Photo by John Lazar, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)
When President Gerald Ford officially named February as Black History Month in 1976, he urged all Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor.”
Fast forward 47 years and the theme of Black History Month this year is “Black Resistance.” How we got from honoring often-neglected accomplishments to Black resistance is a complex journey for historians and other assorted heavy thinkers to take. It’s way above my pay grade.
I’m just Mister Rogers putting on his sweater again and trying to lower the heat, which isn’t a bad idea these days. What was your gas bill last month, neighbor?
I’d like to seize that opportunity President Ford was talking about and reintroduce you to a Black gentleman I wrote a column about in 2006 — the honorable bus maintenance man, Mr. Arthur Winston.
His 15 minutes of fame wasn’t enough. I realize that now. Sometimes we get lost in all the fame and fortune success stories of Black Americans — the Oprah Winfrey’s and Michael Jordan’s, and yes, the daddy of them all for this generation, President Barack Obama.
But President Ford said accomplishments in “every area of endeavor.” Often, you have to leave the penthouse and take the service elevator down to the ground floor to find them.
I met Arthur a couple of days before his 100th birthday in 2006 as he was coming off his last shift at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority Division 5 Bus Yard in the South Bay. Yes, he was still working.
He had spent the last 73 years as a maintenance man cleaning buses and washing them down so they’d be ready to hit the streets in the morning, nice and clean.
It was a bittersweet day for Arthur. He was finally retiring. In all those years — including four he spent cleaning streetcars in the early 1920s for 41 cents an hour — he was never late to work once, and had taken only one sick day, MTA personnel records showed.
His wife, Frances, had died on a Saturday in 1988, and Arthur called in sick on Monday to bury her.
His record was so exemplary the United States Department of Labor named him the most reliable employee in the United States, and President Bill Clinton awarded him a citation as the “Employee of the Century.”
He earned every accolade, every minute of his fame, but it only lasted 15 minutes before he picked up his broom and dust pan, and got back to work.
From age 10 to 100, he had never gone a day when he didn’t have a paying job. From picking cotton in Oklahoma as a boy to picking up bus trash in Los Angeles as a man.
As we talked, co-workers stopped by to tell Arthur how much they were going to miss him, and how it was an honor to know him. He was a bit uncomfortable with the praise. Arthur would rather give it, then get it.
“Ain’t it something, all this attention?” he said. “Amazing. I’m no doctor or lawyer. I’m just an old bus maintenance man. Nothin’ special.”
A president of the United States and the Department of Labor had honored him, his co-workers loved him, and he was still punching a clock everyday at 99 — no, nothing special, at all.
His boss, Dana Coffey, an African American herself, called Arthur her adopted father, and said not a day went by that someone on the staff didn’t ask Arthur for advice on something.
“Whenever someone complains the work is too hard, the hours too long, I tell them to go see Arthur,” she said. “No one remembers him ever complaining. His destiny was to work here for 73 years and be an inspiration to everyone who has ever met him.”
Arthur had only one regret. He never got to drive one of those public buses he spent most of his life cleaning. Black men weren’t hired for choice jobs like that in the 1920s. That would come decades later, too late for Arthur Winston.
He even took the high road on his one regret. “Look around, do you see any 100-year-old bus drivers?” Arthur asked. “They all had to retire 30 years ago.”
That was Arthur. The glass was always half full.
If there was any doubt he wasn’t pulling his weight on the job at 99, Coffey quickly put it to rest. “Arthur’s here to work, not just show up. He’s part of the team. No, scratch that. Arthur is the team.”
It was getting late and I could tell he was getting tired. I had one last question before we shook hands. He had been working since he was 10 and now that was about to end at 100. What was he going to do to fill all those hours not working any more.
He smiled and told me he had a cousin with a fishing hole in Tennessee he was thinking of visiting, but after giving it some thought, he decided against it.
“Too much sitting down fishin’,” the most reliable worker in the United States said. “I’ll go walking.”
I wish I could tell you he did, but less than a month after retiring, Arthur died of heart failure, in his sleep on April 13, 2006, at home less than a mile from MTA Division 5 — renamed the Arthur Winston Bus Yard in his honor.
Winston is buried at Inglewood Park Cemetery in Inglewood.
He was a proud, dedicated man of accomplishment — the very best of Black History Month.
Dennis McCarthy’s column runs on Sunday. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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