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Long-ago choice leads to life of dreams fulfilled

John Monk with his granddaughter Kay Monk-Morgan. “He came out of Louisiana as a kid with nothing,” she says. “Now look what he’s done.” Monk will turn 100 on Jan. 9, 1916. (December 29, 2015)
John Monk with his granddaughter Kay Monk-Morgan. “He came out of Louisiana as a kid with nothing,” she says. “Now look what he’s done.” Monk will turn 100 on Jan. 9, 1916. (December 29, 2015) The Wichita Eagle

On a cold night in Virginia during World War II, a U.S. Army private named John Monk tried to travel back to his company after taking a seven-day leave.

He tried to ride a bus to get there.

Bus drivers in the Jim Crow South back then made black people like him ride in the back — even if they were soldiers. And they’d pull a curtain down on those back seats so white people would not be offended by looking at black people.

Monk didn’t mind. It was cold outside; the bus would be warm.

But on this night, while Monk stood shivering, the first bus that rolled up filled immediately with white soldiers and other people — every seat.

It happened again with the next bus. And the next.

There were bathrooms nearby, and restaurants. But they were whites-only.

He watched buses roll away for hours.

John Monk could have gone into a rage.

But because of what he did instead, he will smoke one cigar next week in his home on North Minneapolis. He will take two drinks of whiskey. And he will celebrate his 100th birthday as a man whose wishes all came true.

What he decided at the bus depot changed everything.

‘You fight over scraps’

On the farm where he grew up, Monk’s dad made him pick cotton and loaned him out to white cotton farmers. He stayed overnight at those farms, but not in the houses with the white people.

In Louisiana in the 1920s and ’30s, the whites made him sleep in barns, in chicken coops, or on the ground, including when it rained.

“And if you got wet, you got wet,” Monk said.

“The animals lived better. I worked with mules sometimes. And for days all I had to talk to was that mule.”

That was Jim Crow time.

On the trains, after he joined the Army in 1942, the German prisoners of war who fought for the Nazis got to eat in the dining cars. But he and other black U.S. Army soldiers had to stay in the front car, the car that took in all the heat and exhaust smoke from the train engine.

“If you were lucky, on a long train ride, somebody threw you a cold sandwich. Like you was a dog.”

All that hate from all those white people turned some black people on each other, Monk would later say. When you’ve got nothing, you fight over scraps.

So on the farm, his father had always taken all his money when he came home from working for white farmers. Monk didn’t like that. All his life, even then, he appreciated nice clothes.

One day, when Monk got paid $10 for weeks of cotton picking, he went directly to town and bought a suit.

“Dad asked where was the money. And I said I bought a suit. And he hit me like this.” Monk swung an open right hand, a vicious, hooking slap into empty air. The slap jolted his head, staggered him backward.

“My mamma asked how I was.

“I told her I would never talk to that son of a bitch again.

“And I never did.”

‘It could destroy me’

On the bus platform on that cold night in Virginia in 1942, even with the anger boiling, Monk had a thought.

Just a little thought. It may have saved him.

“I cannot hate white people.”

He’d known good ones.

And in the heat of that rage he felt now, he saw that hate scared him.

Hate won’t destroy white people, he thought. “But it could destroy me.”

So he made a choice, decisive, sudden and silent. He said to himself:

“If I can find a damned bus back to my company, I’m gonna become the best damned soldier in the United States Army.

“And that is what I did.”

‘Saving myself’

He did three things after rejoining his outfit:

He stopped hating white people.

He stopped hating the U.S. Army.

He changed his mind about why he served.

He had been drafted — against his will.

Most people back then joined up to save the world from the Nazis and the Japanese. Now he joined them heart and soul.

“I decided right then that I was there to serve my country.”

They hardly ever let black soldiers fight in that war. Most black soldiers were relegated to non-combat roles: stacking supplies, moving equipment, cooking meals.

So there would be no fighting for Monk in that war.

But Monk’s change startled his sergeants. By his own account, he was one of the worst privates in the Army before that night at the bus depot. Now he became a good soldier.

They soon made him a drill sergeant.

“I told them I did not want to be a drill sergeant. But I was tall and ugly, and I had a fine voice — so they made me a drill sergeant.”

He taught other black soldiers to march, to fight, to fire the M1 infantry rifle and the 105-millimeter howitzer. He did everything now as though he meant it.

Black soldiers asked why he worked so hard.

“ ‘Hey, my family lives in this country,’ ” he told them. “ ‘I figure I’m saving my country, saving myself, saving my family.’ ”

He paid in cash

The Army first made him a buck sergeant, then platoon sergeant, then second sergeant (running two platoons), then first field sergeant.

World War II ended. Monk stayed in the Army. He was a black man with a job. He began saving money, pennies and quarters at a time.

They sent him to the Korean War. He never fought.

He served in quartermaster supply units. He served in a bath unit that gave hot showers and clean clothes to exhausted soldiers who had just staggered out of the foxholes up front.

But by the time his third war came around, Vietnam, the Army was mostly integrated, and he was a master sergeant. And as anyone in the Army knows, the master sergeants run everything.

He retired in 1962 with a pension and $11,000 saved. He owned a house he had bought in Wichita five years before; he chose Wichita because he’d visited a brother here. He made the down payment in cash.

In Wichita he married his first wife, Grace, who died, and his second wife, Wilma — a white woman.

Wilma’s first husband left her after their neighborhood changed — the customers at their dry cleaners were now mostly black. The man did not like black people, so he left, and Wilma ran the business: Terrie’s Cleaners, on the corner of 17th and Poplar.

One day, when Monk realized she needed help, he just walked in and started helping her. He later married her and helped her run the dry cleaners for years.

That’s where Orlando and Kaye Monk, brother and sister, learned to work. That’s where they learned to hang clothes and help clean up

And that is where Kaye and Orlando came to believe that their grandfather was a superhero.

‘Be a man’

He made them work, and drilled them again and again about the importance of work, saving money, taking care of family.

He made them save the first quarters they ever earned. One day, when Kaye had saved $5 in quarters, he gave her $5 more.

“That’s interest,” he told her. “Now save that, too.”

He had saved and earned so much in the Army and in subsequent jobs that he drove a Cadillac and bought a 40-acre farm near Severy. At his home, the one he bought with the cash down payment, he would sit down in the evening and light up one Dutch Masters cigar. Just one.

And he would pour two Crown Royal whiskeys. No more than two. And he’d smoke and drink as a happy man in his home.

He would load up Kaye and Orlando and many other kids, sometimes six or eight at a time, and take them the hour and a half east to the farm, where he would cook breakfast at 6 a.m. and put them to work; digging, gardening, fishing, hunting, cleaning up.

For Kaye he made a tiny island in the creek. He made a teeter-totter out of old lumber and two old metal tractor seats and stuck it in the island. He even put up a sign: “Kaye’s Fantasy Island.”

The effect the trips had on the brains of his grandchildren was dramatic, Kaye said. Her later career in education would teach her that what Monk did with those trips was calculated.

The master sergeant knew how to train. He yanked those kids out of their little worlds and thrust them into dirt and work and nature.

They saw the world was bigger than Wichita — that there were small towns and farms and crops and natural beauty and fish and things they could make with their hands. And there was Monk, telling stories, making them work and laugh.

Never hold grudges, he said. “Always take care of your family.”

Always be a good man, Monk told Orlando. “Treating people right always pays off.”

One day, when Orlando was still a boy, Monk told him about a long bus trip on a cold night in 1942 Virginia. He made it known there was a point to the story.

“Be a real man,” he told Orlando.

“Be a stand-up man.”

‘I will take you.’

In 1989, Kaye was living poor, in spite of Monk’s constant efforts to help his children and grandchildren out of poverty.

But Kaye was doing so well at North High School that people were urging her to apply for a $32,000 Gore scholarship at Wichita State University.

It seemed impossible to Kaye. Out of reach. Four hundred applicants.

She had good grades. But then she found out she would have to make multiple trips to the WSU campus over multiple weekends to take part in competitions. The scholarship people needed to winnow down the 400 applicants

Her mother did not have a car. To people in poverty this can seem insurmountable. Her Mom asked a lot of people for rides. No one could help.

Kaye almost gave up. Then Monk found out what was up.

He got mad.

“Why did you not call me?”

She told him the competitions were on weekends. He always worked on his farm on weekends. She had not wanted to bother him.

That steamed him.

“I will take you. And you will go.”

She argued.

“Don’t argue. You will go.”

He drove her to the campus on multiple weekends.

Kaye won the scholarship.

‘You will not run’

Orlando at the age of 17 fathered a child with a girl he liked.

He felt shock and fear. What should he do?

Many other young men he knew, in this position, not wanting to be tied down, would run away.

Monk looked him in the eye.

“You screwed up,” the old man said. “But you will not run. You will be a stand-up guy.

“You will support your child, which is yours as much as hers. You will work. You will provide. Do you understand?”

That was nearly 25 years ago.

Orlando is now the general manager of Mike Steven Volkswagen and can rattle off facts about how big the business is: Mike Steven is the number one Volkswagen dealership in Wichita, Orlando says. And in the state of Kansas, he says. One of the top 100 in the nation, he says.

At age 41, Orlando says he is the only minority general manager of a big car dealership in Wichita.

Every day at work with customers, Orlando says, he hears the voice of Master Sgt. John Monk in his head, telling him to treat people right.

Orlando is the father of five children. And he is married to the same girl he took a liking to nearly 25 years before.

His wife happens to be a white woman. This worried him at first.

Orlando had grown up knowing that white women who love black men might spend a lifetime getting disrespected by both white and black people.

So he asked how it would go. And Monk, who had loved and married a white woman, told him to be a man, stick up for his wife — and ignore what people say.

“Let it go.”

‘She doesn’t need a co-signer”

Months after she won that scholarship, Kaye called Monk to say she could buy a car if she had a co-signer on the loan.

Her family, in spite of poverty, was about to send one of their own to college. They were all in shock. But she needed a car to go to campus.

Monk showed up at the car dealership. He was blunt with the dealer.

To Kaye’s amusement and dismay, he opened his wallet and pulled out a folded-up newspaper article about her winning the Gore scholarship. He showed it to the dealer.

“Do you even know who you are even talking to here?” he asked.

“This is Kaye Monk.

“She’s a big deal.

“She won the Gore scholarship.”

“She doesn’t need a co-signer on a loan.”

The dealer sold Kaye the car.

Kaye earned an undergraduate degree and then a master’s degree in public administration at WSU and now is director of the TRIO Upward Bound Math Science Center based there. She has helped hundreds of high schoolers in Kansas aspire to and prepare for college.

One cigar, two Crown Royals

On Tuesday at his house on North Minneapolis, Monk tells funny stories until he gets to the one about the bus ride.

He tells that one, then leans over and sobs, a 99-year-old man shaking and groaning with sobs.

Beside him is an ash tray holding the butt end of the one Dutch Masters cigar he had smoked earlier that day. He sits up now and apologizes for crying.

On many days, he sits with Eugene Anderson, the former state representative who has been like a son to him for decades. Anderson is sitting with him now. He smokes cigars with him, calls him “Master Sgt. Monk.”

On his birthday Jan. 9, Monk says, besides the cigar and whiskey, “there might be ribs.”

“And beans!” Monk says. He grins at Anderson, who grins and shakes his head.

His wives are long gone.

All his friends of his age — gone.

“And I’m scared about turning 100.”

But Anderson looks in on him every day. His daughter, Shirley, Orlando and Kaye’s mom, takes care of him. And there are four grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

Orlando thinks about Monk’s teachings every day.

“I wish everybody in the world had a man like him in their lives,” he says.

‘All my wishes’

At his home on Tuesday, Kaye sits on the arm of Monk’s chair beside him. When she had walked into his house a few minutes before, she called out, “Hi, Sexy.”

And then she had watched, ashen-faced, as he broke down in sobs again, telling how his father slapped him 79 years ago. He brightens up again now.

“So here’s how to get to 100,” he says.

“One cigar.

“Two Crown Royals. Just two.

“Live by the Golden Rule.”

“Take care of your family. Always.”

“I did all that.

“And all my wishes came true.”

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