I’m at the American Atheists convention and I have a blog queue that is about to bubble over. There have been great speakers, big laughs, a costume party, old friends, and I have every intention of posting about all those things.
However, something happened last night that bumped all that down the list. I met Earl Smith.
This American Atheist convention is the 50th anniversary of its founding, and it’s being held in Austin, Texas, where Madalyn Murray O’Hare began the organization in 1963, after the landmark ruling of removing prayer in public schools. It’s 4 days of activism, socializing, speakers – all the usual that go along with conventions. We’re meeting and staying at the Hyatt in Austin, which is one of the subjects I want to post on. I have been astounded at the job they have done in accommodating us is so far beyond what is usually expected. I have tried to express my gratitude to the waiters, check-in staff, and security as the opportunity presents.
Earl Smith is the director of security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin, Texas. He’s a tall, snowy-haired, good-natured African American, and we (Eliott and I) warmed to him immediately. Last night, he shared the following story with us.
Earl was drafted in 1966, and served with the 173rd Airborne brigade. That unit sustained losses of over 10,000 American lives, and Earl returned home weary and lost at 22 years old. He struggled to find his way, and was sent to prison a year later for a 5-year sentence for robbery. He was given clemency in 1977, and when he was released, he set about rebuilding his life at age 25, with a war, a prison term, a broken marriage, and the racism of the south in his past.
Earl started with the Marriott in Chicago, and began working his way through the hospitality industry, finally taking the job as the head of hotel security at the Hyatt hotel in Austin in 1998. In 2008, as you may remember, the final debate of the Democratic primary was held at UT Austin. In a stroke of logistic hilarity, or maybe staff ineptitude, both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and their respective debate teams stayed at the Hyatt in Austin. When Earl was telling this story, he couldn’t stop chuckling relating the efforts the hotel staff went through to keep distance and peace between the groups in the hotel.
Earl found himself on an elevator with then-senator Obama. In Earl’s pocket was his military patch from the 173rd Airborne, which he had carried in that pocket for 40 years. Earl asked Mr. Obama if he could give him something, and of course Mr. Obama said he could. Earl handed him the worn, frayed patch, and told him that he wanted to offer it to him on behalf of the American people. When Earl told me this part of the story, using hand gestures that spoke even more than his words, he said, “I just felt so relieved to give it to him”.
The story now has to take a leap through time, to January of 2013. One morning, when Earl arrived at his office, his staff was all atwitter about a phone call he had received – from the White House! President Obama’s assistant chatted with Earl on the phone and via email over the next few days and arranged for him to come to Washington DC for the inauguration. Earl was delighted, and set about arranging his budget and time schedule in order to go. Earl’s employer, surprise surprise!, arranged for him to have a room in the packed and expensive Hyatt Hotel within walking distance of the Washington Mall. When his tickets to the inauguration were delivered to his room, they came with a little more news: President Obama wanted Earl to visit him at the White House the following day. The question was also asked: What else did Earl want to do while he was in our nation’s capitol?
Here was Earl’s list: he wanted to go to the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial, and the brand new Dr. King Memorial. On a cold January day, Earl Smith attended the second inauguration of the first black president. He said he loved every freezing minute of it. Then the former Army private visited the memorials. In telling this story full of emotional highs, at this point Earl became emotional, describing the feeling he experienced walking that sloping sidewalk, along that cold, reflecting granite, far too full of names. 40 years vanished, he said, and those names and faces came right back to him, reminding him of where he had come from, why he was where he was, who he had lost. When Earl then visited the Dr. King memorial, he said moments from the past – JFK’s assassination, the war, the civil rights struggle – all came to him as he stood there, taking in the monument. But there was still one more highlight.
It was time to go the White House. Earl found himself sitting in a chair in a hallway, not really sure what was in store for him. He said after he returned from a nervous trip to the bathroom, his escort was nowhere to be seen, so he just took a seat in the chair, and just then, walking down the hall, was a tall, thin, African American man extending his hand saying, “I’m so glad to see you again, Earl.” Then, at the end of that hall, Earl walked in to the Oval Office, that iconic rug on the floor, the desk, all of it. Earl and his President chatted for a bit, 20 minutes in fact, and Earl repeated to him the purpose of the patch; that he wanted the president to have it on behalf of the American people.
Please take the time to visit the link and watch the video. What an honor and privilege it was to have met Earl and hear his story. He’s a lovely, kind, gentle man, and if you are ever in Austin, go out of your way, even if you don’t stay here, to visit the Hyatt and ask to meet Earl.
Thanks for reading!