Of ‘Ike girls’ and blackballed quarterbacks

Colin Kaepernick (7) and fellow San Francisco 49er Eric Reid (35) protested racial injustice by taking a knee during the National Anthem prior to an NFL game last season.
Colin Kaepernick (7) and fellow San Francisco 49er Eric Reid (35) protested racial injustice by taking a knee during the National Anthem prior to an NFL game last season. Associated Press

1955. Seeking a second term, Republican incumbent Dwight D. Eisenhower and his “I Like Ike” campaign were headed to Lexington. Several high-school girls were asked to be “Ike Girls” and parade from Main Street to Memorial Coliseum, wearing red, white and blue dresses that matched the “I Like Ike” buttons we would distribute to the crowd.

Gen. Eisenhower was one of the American heroes whose service to the country had been made real through the new medium of television. The invitation to be an “Ike Girl” seemed an invitation to a bit part in that history.

My father was the head football coach at the University of Kentucky — a lifelong Democrat employed in a very public position by a university with a Democratic administration under a Democratic governor. I assumed a family talk was in order about whether the coach’s daughter could take a public stand for the opposition party.

That was not my Dad’s agenda. What did I think about each presidential candidate? Why was it important to me to be an “Ike girl?” What did I hope to accomplish? Were there any downsides to a “yes” answer?

My words are long forgotten, my father’s remain. He was proud of me for caring enough to stand up for what I believed, whether my position agreed with his or not, whatever the subject. He talked about the cost and the promise of speaking out; he wanted me to be aware that costs could be steep, promises not guaranteed.

Living in the fishbowl of public life meant being more vulnerable to public reaction — a truth we knew all too well. But my right to express my own beliefs was not something he was willing to limit.

That conversation has been replaying in my mind, as the divisions in our already divided country deepen with disagreements about whether or not Colin Kaepernick chose the right platform to protest police brutality, and whether the NFL is right or wrong as teams appear to bypass if not blackball the quarterback.

Equally fierce and divided statements about civil war statues, charter schools, the threat of nuclear war and more assault us every day, words thrown at each other like verbal grenades, making it impossible to rationally assess each situation.

We reel in horror and assign assumed meanings to the words of others without noticing our own detritus.

I can’t know what my dad would say to Colin Kaepernick if he were an NFL coach today. He spoke truth to power when his Browns were scheduled to play the Dallas Cowboys the Sunday after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. His “no” lost to the owners’ “yes.”

But I think about his words to me. And about Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa after apartheid. People worked to hear each other’s truth, even if it was different from their own. Not to criticize it, or defend their own, but to hear and honor others’ truth — open to the possibility of learning from what was heard.

It sounds so simple and is so hard. Often, someone’s lived truth shines a light on a darkness that it’s been convenient to ignore, an effective cover for rules or behaviors that serve a few people well, and leave too many others underserved, or simply unseen. The cost to those who turn the light on the darkness in any system can be very high — like losing the right to use one’s talents and training to play football, or the right to lead an organization.

The promise — a possibility — although these days, it seems pretty small — that each time truth is spoken, light shined on the darkness, more voices will be empowered to speak up, there can be greater hope for moving forward together.

The “Ike Girl” was momentary. The experience of owning my truth, and acting on it,in the face of differences with someone I dearly loved, as well as unnamed “others” who might not be as respectful, still matter a great deal.

It was thoughtful; mindful. And that still matters.

Kay Collier McLaughlin is an author and leadership consultant who lives in Nicholas County. Reach her at kcollierm@gmail.com.