Libby Koontz remembered by a friend

Published 12:00 am Monday, February 6, 2012

Editor’s note: In memory of longtime reporter Rose Post, who died in October 2011, the Post is reprinting some of her stories periodically. This column was published January 15, 1989. Don’t cry,” she said. “There isn’t time.”
So I didn’t cry when I heard Libby Koontz was dying and called her, a sob sneaking into my voice.
The heavens did it for me Monday when she was buried. Neither a drizzle nor a deluge, the tears came in a slow and gentle rain that nonetheless spoke of spirit in a touch of sleet.
Like Libby, I thought, standing there on the hillside at the cemetery. Soft, gentle, healing. But steel within.
The leaves were turning on that autumn day when we talked a minute on the phone and then I headed to her house, thinking about doing a story on a woman that no newspaper story could ever touch.
Inevitably I thought about the first day I had knocked on her door, more than a quarter of a century ago, before the big civil rights push, just after the ’50s became the ’60s.
My aim then was a story about her trip to see the Berlin Wall as a representative of the National Association of Classroom Teachers.
That was while she was still teaching mentally handicapped children at Price High School, before she reached national prominence as president of the giant National Education Association or was named director of the Women’s Bureau of the U.S. Labor Department or deputy superintendent of education for North Carolina or served on United Nations commissions and boards of trustees and received honorary doctorates from major universities all over the nation.
Before all that.
Unusual working day
It was early afternoon when I got there. But the sun fell low in the sky before I left, and with shock I realized I didn’t have a story.
I hadn’t taken a note. I’d found a friend — and thrown away my working day as we talked and talked and kept on talking and created what became our private joke. Libby Koontz was easy to interview. She always had something of substance to say. But for the only time I could remember in my working life I came away with nothing.
No, everything.
We talked about each other and Salisbury and segregation and integration and being a teacher and being a mother and being black and being white and about being working women in a world now long gone into the history books.
She needed someone to help her with housework, but houseworkers were black. No, not yet black. Black was still a bad word in that place at that time. They were “colored girls” or Negroes. And they found less status, even if more money, working for a black woman than a white woman.
But Libby found more satisfaction in teaching children than in dusting. So the dust gathered, and Libby overlooked it and didn’t even apologize.
The Civil Rights Act was still several years away, but with all our barriers down — quickly, imperceptively evaporated — I asked her how she really felt about desegregation.
Ideologically, it had to be.
But practically? The experience of being women said something to both of us. Back then, women had to run twice as fast and work twice as hard to get to the starting gate — and often didn’t make it through.
The Rowan County school board, then like now, was made up of five white middle-class men. Nice guys. Dedicated to what they were doing. But none of them were mothers. Their wives had cooked for their children and wiped their noses and bought their clothes and checked on their homework and had conferences with the teachers, who were generally women, too.
But they didn’t have much input on policy.
Would blacks have to be the really exceptional, the Libby Koontzes of the world, to ever get any practice in leadership in desegregated schools?
I still remember the smile on her face.
“When you say the public is invited,” she said, “you don’t mean us. And we both know it — you and us. So we don’t read the newspaper. Why should we? It’s not our news. Or watch the news on television. That’s not our news either.
“And when something happens like Sputnik going up and teachers ask children if they know what important thing occurred, the white children raise their hands. The black children don’t. If the schools are integrated, those black children won’t want the white children to know things they don’t know, so they’ll get after Mama and Daddy to take the paper, too.”
Important trade-off
They could give up opportunity for leadership in all black schools, she said, to get a chance to be part of the real world. To be part of the public that’s invited. Even if it would take a generation — and she figured it would.
It has.
Only those who can remember react in their gut to the differences a quarter of a century has made.
Libby could. Always. And did.
As she moved onto the national stage, she used her beautiful smile and considerable skills as a speaker and as a people person and organizer and administrator to further all the issues she cared about — education, civil rights, what women could and couldn’t and should do with their lives — to make a difference in the world, to bring about change.
I was thinking all that when I rang the doorbell at her house in the fall, grieving that cancer had numbered her days, grieving that this would be a last story with Libby Koontz.
But it happened again. I didn’t get the story.
She had something else in mind.
Her makeup fresh, her smile bright, though she had to wiggle a bit to get comfortable inside her brace, she wanted to talked about the personal things first, about three Duncans saying goodbye to the world during the same year.
First last February, her sister-in-law died. Beloved Aileen, who lived next door and looked out for things when Libby was gone. And then in August her brother died. Joe, Aileen’s husband. And by then she’d received the verdict on herself.That brought her to Deedee Wright, a student at Clark University in Atlanta, who asked her to speak at a conference for black women back in the days when she headed the Women’s Bureau in Washington. She checked her calendar.
“Fine,” she said. “I’m free.”
But Deedee had a confession. She had no money for an honorarium.
“I’ll come for nothing,” Libby told her. It was exactly the kind of conference she wanted to promote.
And another confession.
She didn’t even have the money, Deedee said, to cover Libby’s expenses.
Libby laughed.
She’d cover her own, she said.
That meeting was just the beginning. Deedee became another Duncan in a family accustomed to sharing their lives permanently, the way grandparents stretch the house at Christmas.
“I seemed to be the missing button from the coat and fitted right in,” she says. She came to Salisbury between semesters at Clark, between undergraduate school and her master’s degree at the University of Missouri, on vacation when she was a psychiatric social worker in Florida — and when Libby got sick.
She was the child Libby Koontz never had — and quit her job when Libby needed her to look after her, love her, make her comfortable, to be ready when sleep didn’t come.
Maybe that’s what gave Libby the idea, all that talking they did in the middle of the night.
Oral history
What she wanted, she told me, wasn’t a newspaper story, but oral history, a legacy from the perspective of a black child born on unpaved South Horah Street just after World War I ended and played her hand as well as she could until she was within shouting distance of the 21st century.
“We can’t waste any time,” she said.
So we talked and kept on talking as the tape recorder rolled and Libby remembered and the yellow and red leaves fell outside her window, exposing the black strength of the bare branches reaching toward heaven.
She talked about growing up with five older brothers who called her Bibby and taught her to play tennis and were always there, even on stage when she was installed as the first black president of the National Education Association in Dallas in 1968.
Dallas, 1968 …
Dallas, the city where Kennedy was shot. June 1968, two months after Martin Luther King was shot.
Usually the family didn’t go to the big events. Everyone was busy, and everyone knew the others were proud. But the baby sister was going to Dallas in 1968, and oldest brother Sam said they had to go.
So they went. Husband Harry, of course. And Alvia, another “adopted” Duncan sister living in California. And Joe, who was always there for Libby. And Sam, president of Livingstone, sick, though nobody realized how sick or that he’d live only two more weeks.
They made sure they were placed on stage, an unmarked secret service surrounding Libby. If they heard anything, saw anything they shouldn’t see or hear, they were ready to shield her with their bodies.
Years come alive
The tape recorder rolled and Libby talked and the years that were ending came to life.
The early years when she rode the train to her first job down in Dunn and got fired — thank goodness! — because she asked too many questions. That sent her to graduate school for her master’s degree.
The middle years when she taught mentally handicapped boys and girls at an all-black school and knew firsthand that people could be misjudged and mislabeled and gloried in the ability she uncovered and the handicapped students she sent to college. And over and over reminded people that slow learners learn slowly but they learn from teachers with patience and love.
And the later years when Libby learned and taught on a larger stage and traveled and touched people across all the barriers of race and sex and age and politics and geography.
And counted among her friends not only the teachers and principals and school administrators of her first and last professional worlds but all those others — the nurse, the caterer, the plumber, the yardman, the student.
And the people whose names are already in the history books — John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Richard Nixon, George Schultz, Martin Luther King, Norman Cousins, John Kenneth Galbraith, James Michener, David Rockefeller, Whitney Young, Linda Lavin, Jean Stapleton, Bill Friday, Esther Rolle, Andrew Young, Craig Phillips, John Lucas, Bella Abzug, Pat Schroeder, Gloria Steinam, Betty Friedan, Roy Wilkins …
We didn’t finish.
There were so many people to talk about, so many places, so many dreams come true, so many yet to dream.
“Let’s begin,” she’d say when I got there on a sun-shining day and wanted her to go outside and see the beauty of the world. “We’ve got to hurry.”
So we’d turn on the recorder and she’d talk — and hope that someday Louise Rountree could set up a real archive at Livingstone College where her papers and pictures and records that are the history of a changed 20th century could be treasured and used and built on for more change.
But first Deedee will use it all to put her portion of life and history into a book.
“I know what the title’s going to be,” Deedee says. “Libby had so many illnesses no one ever knew about. She had every type of itis and ectomy people can have. Name it and she had it. Her mother used to tell her, ‘Bibby, I guess you’re just made from the scraps.’ That’s going to be the title, ‘Made from the Scraps.’ They turned into such a beautiful quilt.”
A good book title, I thought. Quilts keep on giving comfort — and warmth — down through the generations.
But comfort and warmth aren’t Libby’s whole story. It needs steady rain on a hillside. And the sting of sleet.
It needs the everlasting promise that seeds well tended will always sprout and spring will bring new green to the stark trees of winter.