Gordon Parks: No Excuses and Gordon Parks: Grit and Grace
Gordon Parks didn’t let his black skin or his lack of education stop him from becoming famous over and over again.
After the No Excuses book was published, I kept writing about Gordon because I think his story fits today as well as it did when he lived it. We don’t have the Great Depression now, but we do have homelessness and joblessness like he faced. With all Gordon’s problems— racism and prejudice, beatings and rejections—he could have chosen to be angry and resentful, much like the civil rights activists Stokely Carmichael and Malcolm X he had written about in his Life magazine features. He could have given up, like the DaSilvas in Brazil or the Fontenelles in Harlem, families he profiled for Life. Instead, he ignored limits others wanted to put on him and became successful at whatever he tried, even semi-pro basketball and tennis. He took the high road every time and followed his mother’s words: “If a white boy can do it, you can too.”
This is how I started: After reading about Gordon’s gift of photographs and poems to his home town’s—Fort Scott, Kansas—new health center in 2003 and his long list of accomplishments, I wanted to know about this then-91-year-old Kansan. Why didn’t every boy and girl know his name, and how had he been able to forgive Fort Scott for the way it treated him? I read his three autobiographies and visited folks in Fort Scott who knew him. I learned about his ragged, poverty-ridden childhood, his becoming the first black photographer for Life magazine, a best-selling writer of more than twenty books, maker of ten films, and a music composer.
I sent a letter. “May I interview you by phone or in person in your home in New York City?” I asked. Three days later, he called. “When are you coming?”
What a thrill it was to meet him. So friendly and welcoming. In his comfortably cluttered apartment, I learned how he survived threats, broke through obstacles, and still clung to his Kansas ways of trust and friendliness. He appreciated recognition and awards—including more than fifty honorary doctorates from colleges and universities around the world—but he didn’t need them to live a full life. Becoming well-known was not one of his goals. He wanted others to learn from his courage.
My new biography, Gordon Parks: Grit and Grace, for middle-grade readers tells his life from being born dead to a full life of 93 years.
Coach Tex Winter: Triangle Basketball
Coach Tex Winter coached basketball longer than any other coach—more than sixty-one years! His ideas helped the Chicago Bulls win six National NBA Championships and the Los Angeles Lakers win four National NBA Championships.
In colorful scrapbook style, readers learn how Tex Winter directed Michael Jordan’s and Dennis Rodman’s roles with the Chicago Bulls during six NBA championships and coached Kobe Bryant and Shaq O’Neal for three Los Angeles Lakers NBA championships plus one more with Kobe in 2010. Every page has all-color photographs, news clippings, and quotes from Tex and his players.
Tex’s ideas about basketball and teamwork began at age ten when his family pulled together following his father’s death during the Great Depression. Landing fighter planes on carrier ships during World War II helped his ideas about teamwork, too. He was an outstanding basketball player and Olympic-level pole vaulter at both USC and in the Navy.
Tex became Kansas State University’s first full-time assistant basketball coach and soon took the head coach job. He filled several more head coach college positions before joining the Chicago Bulls in 1985. Following their six NBA championships, Tex and head coach Phil Jackson moved to the Los Angeles Lakers for four more championships.
Tex completed sixty-two consecutive season of coaching the world’s best players. He is credited with changing the game of basketball into an organized effort with his triple-post-triangle team method of basketball offense. There were no “stars” on Tex’s seven college teams, his Houston Rockets team, or with the Chicago Bulls or the Los Angeles Lakers. He set up his famous Triangle /Triple Post system where team players depend on each other to form three corners and pass around for the best shot. Tex changed the game permanently and has ten NBA championship rings to show for it.
World War II veterans paired with high school students to tell their war stories. Students made notes, scanned pictures, and keyed-in the stories until we have three fascinating, nice-looking books for sale. A fourth book tells Korean War veteran stories.
Four different projects, I’ve watched students come through the door for the first time, looking around for their new veteran partner. It’s a little scary for the students, knowing that seventy, sometimes eighty years of age separates them from their veteran-partner. What do you say? How do you introduce yourself? Do you have to talk loudly, in case they don’t hear well? What if your partner doesn’t like teenagers?
The veterans are anxious too. Will these teenagers be disorderly or bored or disrespectful? How could they be interested in stories from so long ago? They might talk so fast we can’t understand them.
Soon, fears disappear. The room becomes noisy as getting acquainted becomes fun. In fact, students say they can’t wait for the next weekly meeting. They want to know if their veteran-partner likes the way they are writing the stories. What do they want to change? And what will they add? Respect and good will build. Both students and veterans are proud of what they accomplish.
A secret that comes out later is this: Many veterans tell students a war experience or two they’ve never told anyone before. Ever. Students are amazed.
The stories are prepared for publishing. The books are sold to libraries, museums, bookstores, and gift shops. It’s not over, though. Students and veterans stay in touch after the project is completed. They go to lunch together, send each other notes and cards, and attend each other’s important events. Students have written their own history book. And the veterans’ stories are not lost, but tucked inside a treasured book for safe-keeping.