Translating Big Daddy

Rules for Life & the Campaign Trail

*This is a piece I wrote several years ago. It was an attempt for me to remember, honor and pay respect to my father, Big Daddy, after his passing years earlier. Today, I read where Donald Trump says men caring for their children are acting like wives. And, he would never change a diaper or take the time to be present and active in the life of a child. Well, I wish Big Daddy were around and Trump said those things to his face. Because, if it’s a man Trump wants, he would quickly meet a man with Big Daddy. And, he’d be given plenty to whine and cower about, as are his “manly” traits.

Big Daddy was present and active in my life. It made all the difference in every possible way: learning, trusting, loyalty, respect, joy and happiness, etc. I share, below, the life I had with Big Daddy and the lessons I learned.

Grenada, Mississippi sits on the hills overlooking the great Delta. My folks, one can say, have put down roots there. Both sides of my family have called Grenada home for more than 160 years. We’ve been farming the creek bottoms and running for county office the whole time.

We’re from the Pea Ridge community, live on Strider Road and do our shopping at Bloodworth’s General Store (our cousins). The people of Pea Ridge work hard, play hard and pray hard. Families with names like Ingram, Ross, Winter, Mitchell, Lane, Burt, Rounsaville, Thomason, Mormon, Bloodworth, Williamson and Strider have been there forever. Their farms and home places are as much a part of them as their next of kin.

I am one of the community’s prodigal sons having lived, in my mid-twenties, in China and now for over a decade in Washington, DC. I was a Baptist youth minister in Hong Kong in the mid-90’s. I would have fish-n-chips at Harry Ramsden’s restaurant on Sunday’s with the Cameron’s and giant Chinese family dinners on Tuesday night’s with the Tan’s. On Saturday mornings I’d join some of my Pakistani contemporaries at their flat in the Wan Chai neighborhood for food and fun. We’d sit on the floor and eat curries and other dishes with our hands. The meals would be so hot I’d break out in a sweat. It was like someone had taped a water hose to the top of my head and turned it on.

They’d talk about the game of cricket and Pakistani players who were hot or cold just like my friends and me sitting in a rib shack down in Starkville, MS, drinking sweet tea and talking SEC football. I didn’t know cricket, they didn’t know SEC football but we knew the value of a good game. We knew the difference between work horses and show horses on the battlefield of sports.

Today, I live and work in Washington. I’m raising, along with my wife, Karen, two nearly perfect little boys — my little old aunts and other relatives back home pray every night I’ll get those boys home to Mississippi where they can be raised right. Sometimes I can see their point. But I love Washington and am glad to be here. The fact, though, is that Mississippi is home and Truman Capote once remarked that Southerners go home sooner or later, even if it’s in a box. That is indeed true.

There is one constant that stands out, one continuous thread of continuity and perspective thru all the miles and years that helps bring connectivity and meaning to my life and my work — my father and the examples he provided and the lessons he taught. This old cotton farmer and politician, God rest his soul, had as strong an impact on people as anyone I’ve ever met. Possibly the strongest impact was on me.

He was known as Big Daddy by nearly everyone in Mississippi. He stood at 6'7", weighed in at over 330 pounds and wore a suit, cowboy hat and cowboy boots 7 days a week. Jesse A. “Big Daddy” Strider was Sheriff of Grenada County for 24 years. My uncle has since been sheriff and now my oldest brother is sheriff. When my father died in the late 1980’s the Governor appointed my mom to finish the last months of his 5th term. I’m pretty sure that’s when I decided to move out of Grenada County. By no means did I desire to be in a county where my mom had the legal authority to carry a side arm, badge and arrest me.

We, and it is a family affair, have to get elected every four years. With my brother currently in the Sheriff’s office we’re still getting elected — he was up this year and I took my two boys and we went down to hand out cards and ask folks to support him. And the voters of Grenada honored us with their votes and trust yet again.

I spent my entire life since birth going door to door asking for votes. I love teaching Will and Pete the art of door to door politicking. Done right one can garner homemade ice cream every three or four doors. Honestly, showcasing the appropriate level of being “worn out” from all the walking makes it possible to receive an entire meal of fried chicken and mashed potatoes. It takes work and practice. And, my 7 and 9 year-old, DC-raised boys are being taught this technique well when home in Mississippi.

Really, though, such door to door reunions are about community and neighbors, respect and memory. It’s about home folks who know you and still love you!

By the time I was a teenager I knew everyone in Grenada. I knew who was kin and who had marriage plans. Heck, I knew those getting divorced and usually why. That’s what happens when you sit each morning at the breakfast table of the county Sheriff. You know things.

Mostly, I learned respect for folks. I learned about listening to people and taking them seriously. Big Daddy took people seriously. No one failed to meet the importance test in his book. Everyone was valid. Everyone mattered. Everyone had intrinsic value. And he expected no less from the family he raised, the deputies he employed and the county and state he helped lead.

David Hampton, a current editor at the Clarion Ledger, Mississippi’s statewide daily, came out of Ole Miss journalism school in the 70’s and got his start at the daily newspaper in my hometown. He said this, a few years back in a column, about Big Daddy, “I worked in Grenada as a cub reporter and was given some lessons in Mississippi politics by Sheriff Strider. While he looked every bit the stereotypical Southern sheriff, he was one of the most progressive, open-minded and smart politicians I have ever known.

When I think about Big Daddy’s greatness I realize that is a word he would have never applied to himself. He was, though, very good at bringing out and recognizing the greatness in others, be it the cashier at the little grocery at Gore Springs, the guys who cut the grass along the highway, the waitresses at the Hill Top Restaurant, the people serving a little time in his jail or the retired farming couple at Hardy Station he saw their greatness, their ability to love, and smile and give to others. And he celebrated that greatness with laughs, and hugs and prayers on front porches and praising the homemade pies and cakes he never turned down.

Big Daddy taught me a lot. I realize sometimes, at strange moments, how universal his lessons were. I’ve come to recognize this amazing progressive streak that he played out in his politics and everyday life that impacted so many people. He knew what he was doing. He held a Mississippi county together in the post- civil rights movement. But he also moved it forward. It wasn’t about keeping the old lines drawn as a way to maintain peace, it was about getting the new integrated schools up and running, getting everyone registered to vote, bringing everyone together at the Chamber of Commerce, running the Klan out of the county.

It was also about joining in all community celebrations such as the annual NAACP Freedom Banquet. I always went with him to that banquet as I grew up. I didn’t know at the time that we were breaking new ground by being there — doesn’t that seem ridiculous in 2011? I just knew I looked forward being hugged by Dr. Willie Mae Latham Taylor and, at the end of the evening, standing, joining hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” I have today 4 versions on my Ipod. My love for that song and what it means to my homeland has everything to do with that Yella Dog Democratic Sheriff taking me to the county Freedom Banquets.

Big Daddy lived out and taught a progressive brand of politics that was about doing instead of talking. It was about taking the right reality and putting it into action. And you know what? When I worked for Nancy Pelosi, I saw my father’s politics in her politics all the time. I certainly saw it in Jim Clyburn’s. And when Secretary Clinton says that the best rule of politics is following the Golden Rule then I hear Big Daddy all over again.

A San Francisco Italian American, a South Carolina African American, a U.S. Secretary of State with mid-west sensibilities and a Mississippi Sheriff born in the 1920’s all getting elected while embodying the same hope and vision and progressive principles about our nation and world is a thread of continuity and commonality our nation needs to embrace.

When partisanship takes the place of progress and ideology becomes an obstacle instead of a table to sit around we’ve lost our way. Our nation needs hope and vision and know-how. We need doers, not talkers. We need to stand on that common ground, there’s room for everyone, where Californians, New Yorkers, South Carolinians and Mississippians can all agree and then agree to find solutions where we don’t agree.

We also need good politics. That’s how we choose our leaders and set our course. We need good politics where people engage, and not leave it up to others. We need politics that are tough and fair, strong and caring, competitive and contemplative, about winning and coming together.

I campaigned all the time with Big Daddy. I learned mainly by watching but he also had some favorite sayings that are worth sharing, but they must be translated or explained for full impact. He loved a good political race, he played hardball, and the homeruns he hit were always fair.

So, here it is, translating Big Daddy, rules for life and the campaign trail:

“A pick-up truck beats a Cadillac every day of the week out here in real America.”

TRANSLATION: Don’t get fancy. Don’t get fancy with your words, with your plan or with your attitude. Folks are looking for one of them to lead.

“Every tub has got to sit on its own bottom.”

TRANSLATION: In the final analysis the candidate has to carry the day. The candidate is who the voters want to hear from. Only the candidate can ultimately speak for the candidate.

“If you’re driving down the highway and see a car coming toward you in your lane then you’re going to change lanes.”

TRANSLATION: Don’t get in the way of your friends. Stay out of other people’s races. Stay in your lane and don’t bring undue criticism and opposition by being nosy or getting involved where you shouldn’t.

“If you come up on an old yella mangy dog and that dog is barking the word “God” then let him bark.

TRANSLATION: Don’t challenge, denigrate or dismiss the faith of anyone. A person’s faith represents the core, the essence of who they are. It’s one of their most personal choices. You tear that person down if you tear down their faith. Hell, join them. It can probably do you some good.

“Be careful what you say about someone, you’re probably talking to their cousin.”

TRANSLATION: You’re probably talking to their cousin.

“In politics if you take a swing at someone you better be prepared to take one right back.”

TRANSLATION: I actually learned this one from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. I share it with candidates and young political operatives all the time as I travel the country. It’s a great way to remind yourself to be prepared because it’s true and it helps you think through an action. It helps you think down the road to where your decisions are taking you. I also know that Big Daddy was very aware of this principle too.

“Preach it three times. Before you do it, when you’re doing it and after you do it.”

TRANSLATION: It’s not just enough to believe it or even do it. People must know where you stand on an issue. They must know your actions. Just doing something without getting the news out is a waste of good time. I run across people running for office all the time who have done good things but no one knows. They’re even indignant that others don’t know of their good work. Well, they lose no matter how much time they waste being indignant. Tell your story and tell it often.

“No one ever had to apologize for something they did not say!”

TRANSLATION: Don’t talk if you don’t have too. If it doesn’t help you, remain quite. If you’re unsure if it helps you keep your mouth shut. You must know for certain what you’re saying and why. Don’t take chances saying something you likely can’t fix.

“The person with the khaki pants, sweaty shirt and straw hat, driving the old farm truck is probably on the local Bank Board. The slick guy with the pin stripped suit, silk tie, tasseled shoes and new car probably charged his clothes and is, more than likely, a couple of payments behind on his car.”

TRANSLATION: Big Daddy was never impressed with those who put on airs. He had a lot of things to say about it. Being flashy was artificial to him. He wasn’t against spending money and living good but he was against anyone who seemed to take pleasure in using material items to show off or feel superior to others. We all know that flashiness is a waste of time in politics.

“Take the blame. Be responsible.”

TRANSLATION: Don’t pass the buck. Never, NEVER pass the buck. Stand up and take it when things go bad.

“Spread the credit”

TRANSLATION: And when things go good, let people know who all was involved. Share the wealth and it will be returned to you over and over again.

“The Golden Rule is the best rule to follow in politics.”

TRANSLATION: I recently heard Senator Clinton say this. It stopped me in my tracks. Treat others as you would like to be treated — that’s the rule, isn’t it? Just imagine if that rule was applied prior to every action, statement and decision in a political campaign. Big Daddy preached to golden rule all the time. He lived it.

“The world would rather see a sermon than hear one.”

TRANSLATION: Now this is about doing instead of talking. This is from Congressman Jim Clyburn who relates a beautiful story about being in college and deciding, against his father’s dreams, he was not going into the ministry. When we took the long drive home and told his preacher father there was a long pause then his father said, “Well, son, the world would rather see a sermon than hear one.” That’s powerful. St. Francis of Assisi said preach often, sometimes use words. Our political system would be much stronger with more action and less talking. Big Daddy was all about doing and not talking.

“Don’t kick a person when they’re down.”

TRANSLATION: When people are at their lowest, no matter what they did, no matter how bad, it is not the time to pile on. Show them attention, love and support. Let them know they matter. This was Big Daddy’s philosophy not just in politics but for how the inmates were to be treated at his jail. Not your normal take on how a Mississippi Sheriff may run things. And he kept running his jail and Sheriff’s department because his county would give him 70 — 75% of the vote nearly every time he was on the ballot.

“Remember Your Raising.”

TRANSLATION: I heard that Big Daddy said this once. Cissy Ross Pierce was getting ready to move to Korea with her soldier husband who was being stationed there. There was a big going away party on our farm with all the families of Pea Ridge in attendance. At the end of the party, Big Daddy hugged Cissy and simply said “You remember your raising while you’re over there.” I was a little boy at the time and wasn’t there. But I’ve heard this story a hundred times by Cissy Pierce Ross who did indeed live in Korea then she and her family returned home to Mississippi and rejoined our community. I think it would bode well for all of us if we took time every now and then to remember our raising.

There you have it — Big Daddy translated along with a peppering of Clinton, Pelosi and Clyburn. Those old Mississippi sayings have impact. They matter in 2011. I seriously doubt Big Daddy considered himself a post-modern philosopher, but what he taught and lived is relevant today.

Up, out of Pea Ridge, from deep in rural America, echoing back to the 20th Century the voice of a county Sheriff lives on. I hope I embody, to some degree, what he believed and what I find so evident in those I work for and with here in Washington.

I pray I pass along these lessons of life and the campaign trail to Will and Pete. And, I hope they keep practicing the art of door to door politicking and reunions long after I’ve had to settle for sitting on the front porch.

We are one nation, but only when we take the time to consider the power of our values and ideas and how they connect us rather than divide us.

Remember your raising.