Van F. White has the gregarious air of a politician (which he is) and the look of an ex-football lineman who kept himself in decent shape. When I met him a couple of years ago, this first black member of the Minneapolis city council had a similarly massive young man in tow.
It wouldn't have been easy to forget this imposing pair of black guys -- such obvious standouts in that mostly white gathering -- even if we'd spent our short time together making small talk.
But what sticks in my mind is something he said. I had asked about the young man, assuming that it was White's son.
No relation at all, he told me, but a prote'ge'. "I'm grooming my replacement. It's something we need to think about doing."
White, defeated for reelection a year ago, after 10 years on the city council, explained that he had had to learn his politics through trial and error. "I made a lot of mistakes along the way, but I learned. This young man won't have to learn the hard way like I did. I take him around with me wherever I go: to citizens meetings, to political rallies, to downtown affairs like this. I'm giving him the chance to learn politics without having to repeat the mistakes I made. It should be a lot easier for him than it was for me."
I don't know whether the young man, a college student at the time, ever developed an interest in elective office. But I like White's notion that those of us who have achieved some success ought to think about grooming our replacements.
Young blacks, particularly those whose families have not been able to ease their paths to professional success, often have to overcome not just racism but also self-doubt. Even the ambitious ones may find themselves making so many false steps, headed down so many blind alleys, that they give up.
The 66-year-old White is determined to save at least a few Twin Cities blacks the discouragement of needless failure. What he has in mind goes beyond the usual notion of role models and mentors. He's talking of nuts-and-bolts training and attitude development that successful parents often provide for their sons and daughters.
A lifelong Democrat, he has even shared interns with white Republican colleagues "so they can learn politics from both sides of the aisle."
White, whose interns have included high school seniors and college students, says his goal is to teach not just the specifics of politics but the values that produce success.
"I'm trying to instill the ethic of work, commitment, respect," he told me. "I'm trying to motivate them, to help them understand that nothing happens overnight, that you have to keep reaching. I tell them that they have to think about contributing to the general welfare, that they can't just do for themselves only. And I always try to pick one as my special prote'ge'. I don't know whether this young man will go into politics; that's not important. The important thing is that the skills he's learning from me will stand him in good stead whatever career he decides to pursue.
"I keep stressing that you have to keep reaching. It doesn't take any effort to be on the bottom, which is why it's so crowded down there. Keep reaching, I tell them. Even if you don't fully grasp what you reach for, you are likely to come so close that it doesn't matter."
It's wonderful advice. So many of us think we've done our duty when we do our jobs well. We show up at the career-day activities, allow ourselves to be touted as role models: as proof that black people can succeed.
But the disabling doubt that infects so many of our youngsters has nothing to do with whether black people can succeed. They see black success every day, no matter how much -- or how accurately -- we complain that the media supply an overabundance of negative images. They don't doubt that blacks can succeed. They doubt that they can succeed. We need to find ways to convince them that they can.
One way to do that is to work at grooming our own replacements: spotting likely youngsters, cultivating their ambition and, yes, picking that special one as our prospective replacement.
As a matter of fact, it might be a good idea to choose several prospects who evince an interest in our profession: say, an elementary school youngster, a high schooler and a college student. Nor is it necessary that professional and prote'ge' be of the same race or gender, though White is convinced that successful blacks have a special obligation to their own troubled group.
"I don't think what I'm doing is anything all that special," he insists. "I didn't get where I am by myself. I'm just trying to hand on what others have given to me."