Eileen and Walter Levi in Hiroshima in the 1990s.
One can only imagine what Eileen Cummins Levi might have been thinking that night in Florida when a white police officer pulled over the family car and made her husband, Walter, step outside. He was at the wheel of their Lincoln Continental Mark IV with Eileen next to him. Their three boys -- Kevin, Neville and Travis -- were content in the back seat (having fought earlier over who would sit in the middle) as the family traveled the long, dark highway.
It was 1970; Walter and Eileen, both black, understood the tense racial climate and preferred driving when the light of day provided a semblance of safety. So it was unusual that they hadn't yet stopped somewhere to spend the night.Perhaps it was a particularly lovely night. Perhaps Eileen, the consummate educator, was pointing out the stars and shape of the moon to her family, and they just lost track of time.
Eileen loved traveling this way. She'd share the driving, play word games with the boys, point out the historical sights they'd read about in the many books crowding the shelves of their Montgomery County home.
During those years, the family drove to California twice, visiting Yosemite Park, the Grand Canyon, the Alamo and journeying up the Pacific Coast to Carmel. They also cruised to scenic islands such as Barbados, and flew to countries including France, Italy, Norway and Denmark, places Walter had visited as a college exchange student.
"They gave us the world," youngest son Travis, 44, a Realtor for Fairfax Realty, says of his parents.
Eileen, who grew up in New York, was one of few black women at Fordham University when she graduated. Her white male counterparts had mostly ignored her, but she developed a strong rapport with her Jesuit instructors. She met Walter in graduate school at Atlanta University in 1952. The couple eventually became active in the civil rights movement, even marching with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. When they married and had children, they taught the boys that race was never to be used as an excuse not to achieve.
In the early 1970s, when the country club near their home in Potomac didn't welcome black children to its pool, Eileen and Walter built one in their own back yard. One of the mantras they taught their sons was that there are no limits on black lives.The family's reality "was Obama before Obama existed," Travis said. "Because of our exposure to black professionals, as a young person, when I thought of successful people, I thought of black people."
Everything Eileen did in her career as a teacher, social worker, public school administrator and, finally, executive director of Montgomery County Head Start for close to 20 years -- every word of praise she gave to employees, every funding request she wrote, every parent she encouraged to return to school and later hired -- was done because, ultimately, it benefited the ones who captured her heart beyond measure: the children. Always the children.
And so, maybe that is why, as frightened as Eileen must have been on that dark Florida highway, she stepped from the car with her three boys and led them to stand quietly beside her husband. Surely, if the cop saw the children, she thought, he wouldn't hurt their father in front of them.
But the officer's words stunned them all: "If you don't put those children back in the car, I'll shoot your husband," Eileen's middle son, Neville, recalls.
The cop let them go, and the family remained silent for a long while. Neville, about 10 then, later asked his mother whether the officer was serious about shooting his father. "Yes, he was," Eileen said.
However much that incident may have shaken her spirit, Eileen just recalibrated, committed to doing the best she could for her family and on her job. She and Walter made time to go on dates and participate in club activities, and they kept each other laughing. Her trademark smile revealed a small front gap between her teeth, which slightly embarrassed her. "But it was beautiful and unforgettable," Neville recalls.
Until her retirement, she fought to give all children of Montgomery County, regardless of their families' incomes, what her own children had: limitless opportunities to thrive.
The later years brought major losses for Eileen: Her oldest son, Kevin, died suddenly of a heart attack in 2003, just six months before her beloved husband, a Department of Health and Human Services executive. And when her own health began to fail, she had to leave her family home for assisted living.
But until her death on Oct. 4 , at 80, from congestive heart failure, Eileen remained determined to embrace joy. She filled her apartment with favorite works of art, and continued traveling, playing bridge and participating in Delta Sigma Theta sorority and Emerald Club activities. For their mother's final Caribbean cruise, Travis and Neville sent along an adult scooter because of her reduced mobility. But one of her traveling companions told them the scooter stayed parked. Instead, she took her time and walked everywhere. And at the disco, when she couldn't move her legs, her arms swayed along with the music and the disco lights.
Patricia Elam teaches at Howard University and is the author of the novel, "Breathing Room." She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
PHOTOS: Courtesy Levi family