Courtney Elliott: A Legacy of Service - Mark's Essay contribution to the upcoming book, "Farewelling Our Fathers" by Phillip Culbertson
A Legacy of Service
Dr. C. Courtney Elliott
August 28, 1941, Chickasha, Oklahoma – September 13, 2014, Nashville, Tennessee
Born in the middle of a prairie wind in the shadow of oil and Indians, Oklahoma 1941. My father was the quintessential native son of a most dichotomous state. Oklahoma, a land, rich in oil fields and Midwest values, has also been a land laid bare with the scars of displaced souls. Would-be reservation roads spread out among dustbowl vestiges with an all-too-common, intersecting thread of poverty. Those social, economic and cultural clashes would, in the end, form the backbone of my father’s values, passions, and life’s work. His own, modest upbringing further imbued him with a dogmatic reverence for the poor and a penchant for picking fights on behalf of social justice issues that seemed orphaned by more powerful interests.
The son of Franklin and Bernadine Elliott, full-time shop owners and part-time singers, dad, worked hard and played hard. With friends from his side of the tracks and from the further outskirts of town, he loaded boxcars after school and raised his fair share of innocent hell after the sun went down. He loved sports. He played football, basketball, and baseball for the Chickasha High School Fighting Chicks and his devotion to those sports, especially college basketball, never waned. He grew up Baptist, but with a healthy mistrust of organized religion and eventually, a thorough disgust at its propensity for hypocrisy.
Dad loved cars, and he was lucky to have come of age in mid-1950. In that era, cars were beautifully unique from one another, and car companies released automobiles every year with significant design changes and stylish idiosyncrasies. It was easy back then to distinguish the make and model years of cars, just by looking at their body curves, and whether they had a tail fin or not. Push button gearshifts, rollout triangular aviator windows, and the less common air conditioner were other characteristics that denoted a specific make, model, and year. The Elliott family was a Chrysler family. Back then, that meant Chrysler, DeSoto, Dodge, and Plymouth.
Dad initially attended the University of Oklahoma. However, after a successful semester attending more fraternity parties than classes, as well as a summer spent in Europe working on potato farms during the day and carousing with German women at night, his time as a collegiate Sooner was over. He ultimately received his Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Central State University in Edmond, Oklahoma in 1963. After graduating, he began what would become a lifelong passion for and pursuit of social justice and equality issues. He started in the forgotten corners of Oklahoma, taking his grassroots, community organizing talents to the dirt floors of Native American communities as a Bureau of Indian Affairs social worker. That window into a life of seemingly endless, unmitigated poverty and inequality, especially for native children, lit a fire in my father. That fire raged with passionate indignation across five more decades, dying only when his beating heart did.
Eager to make an impact beyond his home state, dad set his sights on New Orleans, Louisiana, and a Master of Social Work degree from Tulane University. New Orleans, with its famed French Quarter, was worlds away from the boom and bust fields of Chickasha. Love, jazz, poetry, parties, hurricanes, and activism were the callings of the day. Phyllis Tanner was also at Tulane University, in the same social work program, dad was enrolled in. They fell in love and lived in a small upstairs apartment overlooking the trolley tracks of Saint Charles Avenue and Audubon Park.
They frequented the now famous hot spots like the Camellia Grille and Commander’s Palace, where one could find everything from the best greasy hamburgers, fries, pies and bottled beer to peel and eat shrimp, jambalaya, bread pudding, and great scotch. In stark juxtaposition, they performed much of their fieldwork, on behalf of foster children in the city’s toughest neighborhoods of the famed lower ninth ward.
Midway through their degree, their studies, along with the entire region, were interrupted by Hurricane Betsy. Betsy was a bitch of a storm, powerful, dangerous and erratic. She caught communities up and down the gulf coast unprepared. The equivalent Category 4 storm, with winds up to 155 miles per hour, came ashore in September 1965 near Grand Isle, Louisiana. Slow to weaken and lasting three full days, the destruction added up to well over one billion dollars. My parents recalled watching a fire burn slowly and steadily up the electric line from the street pole to the terminus just outside their second-floor kitchen window. Once the fire found their fuse box, they, like most of New Orleans, went without power for nearly two weeks. They spent some time in the air-conditioned coolness of the only movie theater that still had electricity, and at night, cooked soon-to-spoil steaks with their fellow graduate students. However, they spent much of their time on base at the Algiers Naval Air Station, where they helped to run the largest shelter in the city. They provided meals, lodging, and medical care for over 20,000 displaced citizens.
After graduating with a master’s degree in Social Work in the spring of 1966, dad returned home to Chickasha with his new wife, taking a job as the Executive Director of the Grady County Community Action Agency. The CAA was part of President Lyndon Johnson’s Office of Economic Opportunity. Dad recalled with great pride the changes he effected in his old hometown and his early role in the Johnson-era War on Poverty. Dad’s local work even earned him a private meeting with Sargent Shriver, the inaugural Director of the Peace Corp.
1967 ushered in two new, distinct jobs, one of which would last him a lifetime. My dad found himself the father of a confounding, redheaded, firebrand version of himself when mom gave birth to me on May 30, 1967. He also began a new chapter of community organizing as the lead training specialist for the Community Aid and Multi-Purpose Center at the University of Oklahoma, a 15-state regional training center for Head Start and Neighborhood Aid projects. This job was a new, more proactive and sometimes-controversial role. It further fanned the flames inside him, pushing him toward the power of direct action, political organizing, and general muckraking, on behalf of all those in our society left on the outside looking in.
In the spring of 1968, academia once again found itself front and center in my dad’s world. He was offered an assistant professor position in the school of social work at West Virginia University in Morgantown, West Virginia. He taught master’s level courses on social welfare policy and community organizing, later serving as Dean of Admissions for the school of social work. West Virginia and the country for that matter, was in turmoil. Labor relations and union politics were never far from my dad’s day-to-day organizing activities. He worked on countless community action projects throughout West Virginia. In keeping with what was quickly becoming his calling, these projects centered around the issues of rural poverty, healthcare and children’s rights. Most of the heavy lifting occurred in rural Appalachian mountain communities and company mining towns. My dad, like most community organizers in the region, was forced to hold many of his organizing meetings in railroad tunnels, caves, and old mines, far from the eyes of those less interested in the rights of workers, women, and children.
In 1975, dad moved to Tallahassee, Florida to pursue his Ph.D. in Social Work at Florida State University. My mom and I stayed behind to sell the house in West Virginia and joined dad early the next year. In addition to pursuing his degree at Florida State, he also served as Executive Director of the Florida chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, spearheading one of the state’s most vocal anti-capital punishment advocacy groups.
Mom constantly traveled in her capacity as a human service consultant, so dad’s primary role in Tallahassee, beyond those of school and advocacy, was that of Mr. Mom. In between cleaning the fish that I caught and refused to eat, blasting Judy Collins from our living room stereo, and watching Bobby Bowden turn the Seminole football program into a dynasty, dad often drove my friends and me around in our 1972 VW bus. I would later dub that magic ride as the “Eight Track with an Engine in Back.”
By June of 1980, mom changed jobs, and we moved to Falls Church, Virginia – just outside of Washington, D.C. Dad accepted the position of assistant professor of social work at the Catholic University of America in northwest D.C.
During his time in Washington, dad became a heralded advocate, researcher, and agitator for the changes he believed in most. Along with his doctoral thesis, the first National Exploratory Study of Parental Kidnapping (known as Child Snatching), dad published more than 40 articles, papers, speeches and research findings. Among the most notable were the multiple federal reports on child abuse and neglect, the Kellogg Foundation research study on the state of foster care and adoption across the country, and the early study of AIDS in state mental institutions nationwide. He also served on countless boards, advisory panels, and high-profile task forces. He was a national board member for Wider Opportunities for Women and the United Way. He was a member of the state planning committee for the White House Conference on Families, a consultant to the American Bar Association’s Institute for Judicial Administration, and in one of his more passionate posts, a member of the WRMA team that helped to develop the National Child Abuse Data System.
Although his impact on the social ills of the nation was driven later in life by convincing research and policy advocacy, his roots in the direct-action efforts of the 1960’s was always a part of his ethos. I can remember the day that he and my mom came to me, while barely a junior in high school, with a question and a proposal. They asked if I would like to take part in a direct-action campaign aimed at influencing the United States Congress to divest in the economy and government of South Africa. When they received an exuberant and un-thought-out “Yes” from me, they made me wait a week and then explain to them why I thought it would make a difference. Before the month was out, I was in the back of a police van with my parents, in handcuffs, after being arrested with Randall Robinson and a group from Trans Africa, running the civil disobedience actions at the South African embassy. It would take the next two years of public pressure, but Congress finally divested our country’s interest in the hateful machinery known as Apartheid.
One of my father’s proudest achievements and one that harkened back to his days as a frontline organizer in West Virginia was his creation of the progressive think tank, and advocacy group at Catholic University called the Institute for Social Justice. ISJ worked on national and international projects related to homelessness, AIDS, refugees, international development, and child advocacy.
Through a Fulbright visiting professor grant in 1989, dad taught community organizing and economic development at the Catholic University of Chile, in Santiago. During that time, the plebiscite referendum to decide the fate of the fascist dictator Augusto Pinochet was in full swing. Dad served as an election monitor and as an advisor to the mainly widowed women- driven independence movement there. I remember being in-country with him and mom during some of that time and photographing an eerie array of hastily spray-painted in-the-dead-of-night “No’s” and officially-sanctioned, beautifully-stenciled “Yes’s” across the country. We were quite fortunate to have been front door witnesses to the end of that nation’s cruelest era.
As dad’s professional career ended after years of being a professor, a community organizer, researcher, and lecturer, he took on the role most needed and appreciated by me. He was the principal strategist, lobbyist, and point man for my dreams, especially my dream of making music. Both of my parents showed ridiculous amounts of patience, perseverance, and optimism when it came to my insistence on living a life in the arts. They drank the obligatory amounts of alcohol and ate the required meals at every bar that dared hire their 14-year-old son to sing. And they did so much more.
My career ups and downs were already a decade old when my parents moved to Nashville to be with me, and a part of the music my friends and I were making. Along with the help of my mom, dad was the chief booking agent, publisher, editor, financier, and devil’s advocate for all the most critical crossroads in my musical journey. He was so often the first person I had a conversation with after a show, an industry meeting, or during the initial sparks of every hair-brained scheme, I tried putting into action. We debated, argued, dreamed up, and forced through countless efforts at creating success and happiness in a field so wrought with emotional hazard. In that sense, the music business was not an uncommon battleground for him. And it was a battle in which I think he took great pleasure in fighting alongside me.
A few years before my father’s death, he and I traveled back to our old hometown. We attended his 50th. Chickasha High School reunion. We went to a Fighting Chicks football game and walked the halls of the old high school. We visited the former offices of the Community Action Agency and drove past the Bureau of Indian Affairs office in Anadarko. Both places proved to be the first stepping-stones in a life dedicated to the service of others. We crossed the century-old railroad tracks, past the grown-over fields that once housed the WWII German prisoner of war camp and walked up the cracked concrete sidewalk to 302 South 16th. Street, his boyhood home. The house was in serious disrepair with an unfamiliar quality, like a brittle and broken black and white picture. We visited the graves of his parents, the ones most likely responsible for the DNA portion of my musical talents. Then we ate BBQ at a picnic table in Borden Park where sixty years earlier he rode his horse June through open fields. We smiled in recognition of the awesome arc of our lives, laughed at the ridiculousness of it all, and got back to scheming the next move in the master plan of me becoming famous.
My father’s path took him far from the red clay hills of Oklahoma. And decades later, those pastures of plenty were hardly recognizable to him or me. Boomtowns bust and grow old. Friends, once hell raising and trailblazing grow old. I suppose that even fathers and sons grow old. Fortunately, though, their dreams do not.
- Mark Elliott Sept. 2015