Moral courage is perhaps one of the most significant gifts we can give to our community. It is, in many respects, a sharing of one’s heart which has the capacity to influence and change the character and soul of an entire population.
This past week High Point gathered to honor a remarkable man whose life has quietly epitomized courage, grace and restraint which has changed our community forever. Dr. Otis Tillman is one of High Point’s first prominent African American physicians. His vocation was healing, but his life’s passion was building bridges, loving others and restoring dignity.
I keep a framed copy of the September 19, 1994 cover of Sports Illustrated in my office. It may be one of the most subdued and hauntingly beautiful covers in the magazine’s history. The photo is a black and white study of another quiet leader, Arthur Ashe, who had just passed away. Beneath the photo is Ashe’s quote which I have tried to pattern my life after, “I know I could never forgive myself if I elected to live without humane purpose, without trying to help the poor and the unfortunate, without realizing that perhaps the purest joy in life comes with trying to help others.”
Like Dr. Tillman, Ashe was a soft-spoken man who approached life with a deep sense of spirituality and grace. When I look at that photo I think of my friend, Dr. Tillman.
Many of you who read this will never know of the indignities and challenges Dr. Tillman encountered throughout his career because of the color of his skin. These included blatant acts of cruelty like the time a white man (not from High Point) had collapsed on a golf course and Dr. Tillman revived him only to be told that, “He’d rather die than be touched by a black man.” Or the more subtle forms of racism he encountered in his quest to enhance the quality of healthcare for African Americans. Through it all he conducted himself with dignity that not only diffused the incidents but also revealed the quality of this great man’s character and faith. I have heard stories that literally brought tears to my eyes and rage to my heart and yet, I have never once heard my friend disparage those who inflicted the abuse. The closest thing you’ll ever get to a response from the good doctor is his barely audible chuckle as he slowly shakes his head and smiles at the regrettable memories.
What is it that enables a man to absorb that kind of unforgivable abuse and still approach life with joy, optimism and love? When asked this question Dr. Tillman’s response was immediate and heartfelt, it was always his faith in a God whom he knew; absolutely knew, loves every single one of us, even those who inflict the pain.
It was this enduring spirit that made my friend the man who, through the years, consistently provided the critically important bridge between our city’s white and black communities. He stood in the gap at times when events and personalities could easily have raged out of control and yet, Dr. Tillman’s “grace under pressure,” which has always been valued and respected by all sides, saved the day.
I believe we have been created to honor God in all we do and serve as living testaments for those who have run “the good race” and served as beacons of hope for all of us. Dr. Tillman is one of these folks and every one of us in this city owe a great debt of gratitude and respect to this amazing man who has taught us all how to truly value and love one another well.