The call came from my son on Thanksgiving Day. My father had died suddenly. Even though I thought I’d always be prepared for such a call, it still left me a bit numb. I couldn’t cry. (I still haven’t.) I was thousands of miles away from my family. Even though I’m the eldest of my siblings, I was in no position to “take charge,” as I was used to doing in times of crises.
Coming home for the funeral was not a practical option because I was still teaching, and we were near the end of the semester. In many families, the oldest children are typically used to taking control of situations. I had been groomed to be the responsible one. In this case, however, there was not a lot I could do.
I made sure that my kids were OK. I spoke with my brother Sylvester often. He handled the arrangements beautifully. I offered to write Dad’s obituary. It was the least I could do, I thought, and it gave me something to do. My father’s story came to me quickly and smoothly.
My dad, Sidney L. Caldwell, was born in Forrest City, Ark., on July 29, 1929. He was raised in St. Joseph, Mo. My father had two sisters; he was the middle child.
At the time, the Korean War was ending, and President Harry Truman had issued an executive order to integrate the armed forces. My father served in an integrated unit, starting as a mechanic.
Dad was told that he tested well enough to qualify for officer’s training school, but as the Air Force began to integrate, there was no room for a “colored” man in those ranks. According to the tests my father took, he had the aptitude to train as an attorney.
Another man might have been angry when he learned that he wouldn’t be allowed to go to officer’s training school. However, my dad was not that kind of man. He decided that he would become the best airplane mechanic he could be. His hard work paid off. He quickly earned the nickname “Boy Wonder.” By the time he turned 21, he had earned the titles staff sergeant and crew chief. He was the youngest man in his unit and the only African-American.
While he was in the service, Dad began to date the woman who would become his wife and my mother, Mary Louise Freeman of St. Louis. My parents married on February 10, 1952. They lived in San Antonio, Texas, where my father was stationed. After Daddy was honorably discharged from the service, my parents returned to St. Louis, where they started a family. (My parents had planned to remain in Texas after my father left the service, but they returned to St. Louis because my maternal grandmother missed her only daughter.)
Four children were born. Sadly, the first died when she was eight months old. I made my grand entrance three months later. My brothers followed, three and six years later.
Our parents were our first teachers. My father was very hands-on. By the time I went to kindergarten, I could read, count to 100, and enunciate my words.
That early training in elocution would serve me later when I began a career in broadcasting at age 18. My brothers became mobile DJs (disc jockeys) in high school; one has been working in radio for years. When we were small, my dad would play around with the tape player, pretending to be the super-cool host of “Big Sid’s Jazz Show.” My father had no idea that his children would “follow” his lead.
Mom stayed at home and raised us kids. As a young parent, Daddy worked at International Shoe Company, Combustion Engineering, and Union Pacific Railroad. He then changed careers and began working in real estate. By the time he retired, he had put in 30 years as an operations chief. In his free time, he indulged his hobby, amateur photography. He built a dark room in our basement.
For most of his adult life, Dad held two jobs. He worked 20 years as an inspector and administrator for the St. Louis County Health Department. He was one of the first African-Americans to be hired as a housing inspector. During his tenure with the health department, my father also served as a restaurant inspector, coordinated the County’s lead poisoning prevention program, and worked on the hazmat team in Times Beach, Mo., the site of dioxin contamination in the 1980s. While with the County, Dad also completed specialized training at a technical college. He grew up poor in a family that valued education, so he was really proud of his diploma.
My father retired from St. Louis County and his real estate position in 1991. However, true retirement did not happen for a few years. Dad served as building commissioner for a County municipality in the 1990s. Eventually, he would fully retire and pursue his love of travel.
We were fortunate to have my father for 83 years. We know that he’s in heaven now with my mother, grandparents, and other family members. The first Sidney in our family was my grandfather; my father came next. Dad leaves more Sidneys to carry on the name, including my brother and a nephew. My daughter’s son, age six, is the youngest Sidney.
My son and daughter represented me at the funeral and kept me posted on the details. Many family members have been left behind to recount many warm memories of my father.