At the end, Ralph Speas scarcely made an indentation in the hospice bed it had been confined to for the last couple weeks.
This had been coming for a while.
His atrophied legs looked like a couple of baseball bats under the sheet, and his long-lost daughter Rebecca had folded his spidery hands over his chest. His face still wore its death grimace, the top half mottled with deep purple shadows and the gape of his wide, toothless mouth swallowing his lips. His head was rocked back on the pillow, giving the impression of a long, silent moan.
At long last he had given up every bit of vitality he had possessed.
Rebecca — shocked, exhausted, sort of relieved that the last shoe had finally dropped — handed me a couple framed photographs of her father and a USPS Priority Mail envelope.
“He would have wanted you to write something,” she said.
I should have come weeks ago. I should have come every week. I should have bought lunch for Ralph Speas at least once a month from the day I met him more than 15 years ago, plumbed the depths of his experience and clocked the accumulated insights of a remarkable life. Or, really, lives.
Because I believe we all live several lives during our time on this planet — stages, chapters, acts…call them whatever you like.
And Ralph, I soon discovered, lived a good deal more than most: academic, adventurer, activist, philosopher.
In this century, Ralph was best known as the historian for the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society — he was the old guy with the camera at every blues and roots performance within 50 miles. Through his lens he caught BB King, Gatemouth Brown, Luther Allison and more.
But there’s a lot more to his story than that.
The envelope contained three stapled pages, typed, under the headline, “SUGGESTED OBITUARY FOR RALPH SPEAS,” with handwritten notes in the margin and signed in hand at the end: “Ralph R. Speas April 12, 1998.”
It is his own account of these lives he lived, in clean block paragraphs and, as per usual, drastically understated.I met Ralph when I was covering music in Greensboro for Go Triad. A vibrant blues scene had taken root in Greensboro in the late ’90s, anchored by the blues society, which by the new century had been conducting its annual festival and hosting events all year long around the city.
At one of these gigs — at the Flatiron, maybe? — as I sat with my notebook watching the band, Ralph slipped me a folded sheet of paper; on it he had written the names of everyone in the band, with correct spelling, and the instruments they played.
Do people outside of arts & entertainment journalism know how useful something like that is?
The first time I really wrote something about him, he had just lost the index finger on his left hand in a woodcutting accident in his yard. He didn’t bother looking for it.
“Hopefully some nice, small carnivore had a good meal,” he said.
We spoke in that interview about his work with the artists, but he also gave me a bunch of amazing stuff I couldn’t use: His work as a police informant, the gymnastics and wrestling, the time he killed a shark.
Ancient injuries and arthritis had conspired to create a state of constant pain for Ralph, but he told me he had trained his body to ignore it. Still, he winced when he moved every day I knew him.
But I came in very late to the story.I knew Ralph was smart. I didn’t know he was an academic.
From his obit I gathered the extent of it.
Ralph was born in Ames, Iowa in 1932; his mother died shortly thereafter and his grandparents, Quakers and farmers, took him in. His father, Richard, reclaimed him after remarrying, and brought Ralph along as he and his new bride, both teachers, worked the circuit of farming communities in the region.
After graduating high school in Delmar, Iowa, Ralph jumped from Iowa State University in Ames to the slightly more cosmopolitan State University of Iowa in Iowa City. His degree in sociology and biology earned him a teaching gig in the Chicago area in the early ’60s.
I can see Ralph Speas as a young man, newly degreed, teaching during the day and cruising Chicago blues clubs by night, trying to figure out what his life was supposed to mean.
It was during this time that he discovered SCUBA, which had been revolutionized by Jacques Cousteau’s Aqualung breathing apparatus just 20 years earlier. He quit the teaching gig and traveled the world for a couple years, teaching underwater diving to both civilian and soldiers.
Upon his return to the United States, he began accumulating degrees: a masters in family sociology from Florida State University, and one in child development and family relations from the University of Connecticut, where he also taught a human sexuality studies class.
He taught in the Merrill-Palmer Family Life Institute at Wayne State University in Detroit, and then, in 1967, was appointed as a national teaching fellow at NC A&T University, which brought him to Greensboro in the long-ago year of 1967. He was 35.
In those years he would attain more degrees and teach human sexuality everywhere in the Triad: Guilford College, Winston-Salem State University, UNCG, Greensboro College and Bennett College, where he was, for a time, interim head of the sociology department. And he taught the first human sexuality course at the University of Wisconsin.
It was later, after he had retired from academia, that he taught the first public-school human sexuality course in the history of Guilford County, at Dudley Open School in 1985.There’s an awful lot to unpack in those first two paragraphs of his obit, upon which Ralph spent perhaps 350 words.
I want to talk to him about Chicago in the ’60s, and what it was like to dive deep into the largely unexplored oceans of the world. I want to know what it was like to teach human sexuality during the years of the Sexual Revolution, through the AIDS crisis and beyond.
I want to know why he chose to move to Greensboro, and why he always came back.
More, I want to know what it was like to introduce human sexuality to Guilford County Schools in the impossibly tardy year of 1985. And I want to know why, after a decade of conversations, some of which I was taking notes at, I had been so self-absorbed that I didn’t really know any of this.A dive into the newspaper stacks fills in some color.
Here’s a mention from the Aug. 27, 1955 issue of the Daily Iowan, out of Iowa City, about a program put on by the State University of Iowa’s Dolphin Club, under the theme “Rainbow Rhapsody,” featuring the sort of “synchronized swimming and fresh water gymnastics” for which they had become known.
“Climaxing the program,” it reads, “was firediver Ralph Speas, a senior from Beamon, Iowa who dived 40 feet while flaming with fire into the field house pool.”
And here he is in August 1970, testifying in an obscenity trial in Raleigh that made the local papers. Don Gary Childs had been arrested on several counts of selling obscene and immoral literature, and one count of showing an obscene film after two visits by police.
Of the books and magazines Childs had been arrested for selling, Ralph, then an assistant professor at UNCG, said, “[T]o the best of my knowledge, these materials are available in all the major metropolitan areas in the whole world.”
As an expert witness, he cited the research indicating no connection between literature of this type and criminal behavior before an overflow crowd in the courtroom.
Still, Childs was convicted of all 14 counts, and sentenced to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine, which in 1970 dollars is equivalent to more than $6,000 today.
Here’s an old one, a photo credit in the Daily Iowan in December 1960, a shot of two cheerleaders for a story about a campaign to buy new megaphones.
And one more, a position paper filed deep in the website skeptictank.org by Alvin Rankin called “The Religious Right’s Assault on Gay Rights: A Parent’s Perspective.”
In it, Rankin describes the 10th annual convention of Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays — PFLAG — that took place in Charlotte in 1991 and the reaction of local conservative minister and radio host Rev. Joe Chambers, an acolyte of Jerry Falwell and colorful political figure in the 1970s.
“Joe went bananas when he discovered that one of the workshops would be conducted by Ralph Speas, a Humanist Counselor of the American Humanist Association,” Rankin wrote. “He talked about nothing else during his regular weekly 60-minute program on a Christian radio station the week before the convention. His rantings and ravings had become so hysterically emotional, it wasn’t clear whether he had concluded that all homosexuals are atheists, or that all atheists are homosexuals.”
From there his feud with Chambers deepened. An editorial in the September 1986 issue of the High Point College Hi-Po describes a Citizens Against Censorship concert at UNCG where Chambers was called to defend the state’s 1985 obscenity law. Ralph was there, too, poking holes in the Meese Report, a government study on pornography commissioned by President Ronald Reagan that had been released that summer.
He told the students that the Meese Commission was “not political in any normal sense of the word, but powerful, nonetheless, and very intimidating. They were the ones responsible for the removal of Playboy and Penthouse from convenience store shelves.”
Ralph’s obit lists the job titles he held during his 83 years, which paint as accurate a profile of the man as any biography can.
In addition to his teaching positions, Ralph worked as a soda jerk, farmhand, construction laborer, mill hand, truck driver, timekeeper, salesman, house painter, cement finisher and carpenter. He’d served as a surgical orderly, an EMT/ambulance driver, an underwater research diver, a lifeguard, a security guard and a photojournalist.
And it still barely scratches the surface.There’s so much more.
Ralph was a founding member and eventual president of the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. He chaired the law enforcement sessions of the first urban affairs conferences at NC A&T University and served on the citizens’ advisory committee for the NC Department of Corrections. He led encounter sessions between racial groups in churches, schools and military bases, and for the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce in the ’60s and ’70s. And he was involved in substance abuse and recovery since the earliest days of the subject in both Greensboro and Winston-Salem. He was a consultant, lecturer and debater for NC Citizens Against Censorship. And he founded the Association for the Repeal of North Carolina Abortion Laws in the late ’60s, a post which he held until 1973, when the state abortion law was, indeed repealed.
I look around my newsroom, my home, my city, and I realize that in some ways, we are all standing on Ralph Speas’ shoulders.I remember another Ralph Speas interview I conducted, back near the turn of the century when Greensboro was in the process of reconciliation from the 1979 Klan Massacre while the current police department was in the throes of a scandal that reached all the way up to the office of the chief.
“There’s a lot of connection between those days and now,” he told me. “Some of the same people are in the department.”
I had been interviewing him about a blues artist or some such thing, but pushed him on the statement. That’s when he told me he had infiltrated the Klan and other hate groups when he was younger, and informed on them to law enforcement.
Chalk up another crazy job for Ralph.
I remember coming back to the newsroom that day and thinking how strange it was that the nice old guy who takes pictures at the blues fest used to sneak around taking photos of burning crosses.
And still I did not comprehend the scope of the man.I came in at the end.
Ralph Speas was already almost 70 years old when I met him — still vibrant, to be sure, a man in full. And I had always sensed a greatness in Ralph that he seemed reluctant to talk about… or, more probably, that I never had the time or inclination to discover.
Ralph’s life ultimately stood for something more potent than the blues, though not entirely unrelated. It was about sex and power and freedom and knowledge, and I had no idea.
How do you eulogize a man you didn’t know existed? How can a life with so many elements be properly honored, or even put into perspective?
What can I say about my friend Ralph is that he may have been the greatest guy I never knew. And his legacy will long outlast his life.
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