Thirty-eight years ago, Vernon Jordan was nearly murdered here, shot in the back by a sniper with a high-powered hunting rifle.
“I seldom think about May 1980,” Jordan said in an interview last week. But he was reminded of that awful night and the subsequent days he spent in the old Parkview Hospital when he learned Dr. Alfred Stovall died in Roanoke nearly three months ago.
Jordan, then president of the National Urban League, had been a civil rights leader since the 1960s. There was worldwide reaction to the attack. President Jimmy Carter came to visit; so did U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy. But what Jordan, now 82, remembers most was the caring and competence of his doctors. He remained lifelong friends with Stovall and Dr. Jeffrey Towles, who died in 2004.
Stovall, a family-practice doctor who was a member of the local Urban League board and had attended a speech Jordan had given a few hours earlier, raced to the hospital when he learned Jordan had been shot. When he saw the extent of Jordan's injuries, he phoned Towles, one of his partners who was a trauma specialist, and asked him to lead the surgery team.
Jordan said he later learned Towles told Stovall that, according to the roster, “It's not my time.”
“But Dr. Stovall said, 'This is your time. This is Vernon Jordan.'
“I was in the hospital in Fort Wayne for 10 days, and I got about as good a service as you could get,” Jordan said. “Jeff Towles saved my life.
“The only time I've been back to Fort Wayne was when he died.”
It initially appeared a drifter named Joseph Paul Franklin decided to shoot Jordan because he saw him driving across town with a white woman. Anti-Semiticand racist, Franklin roamed the country acting out his rage. He was eventually convicted of several murders. But a 1982 trial based on circumstantial evidence failed to convict him of shooting Jordan.
In a 1996 interview with the Indianapolis Star, Franklin admitted the attack on Jordan, saying he planned the ambush at the hotel after he heard on the radio that the civil rights leader was speaking there.
Fully recovered, Jordan left the UrbanLeague the year after the shooting and pursued a law career that he's still at today, splitting his work week between a law firm in Washington, D.C., and an investment-banking firm in New York City. But the attack in Fort Wayne did not deter him from politics – he has long been a Democratic Party insider – or from his lifelong fight against racism and injustice.
This weekend, Jordan will again visit Indiana, to speak to the graduates at DePauw University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in 1957. It will be the third time he's delivered the commencement.
“I liked Greencastle and I had liked the challenge of it,” said Jordan, who was the only black in his class. Of course, he encountered some students, administrators and townspeople who were uncomfortable with his arrival. Among them were his roommates, two white Midwestern boys. “When they got to 106 Longden Hall, there I was,” Jordan recalled.
The three of them “existed” together for a couple of weeks, he said, before he came back to the dorm one night and one of them told him, “We've been talking.
“You snore,” the roommate told Jordan. “You fall asleep at your desk when you're studying. Your family sends you cookies. ... You're just like us.”
“So we stopped existing together and started living together,” Jordan said.
His experiences in bridging the racial divide in a small Indiana town taught him lessons he still puts to use. “I learned a lot,” Jordan said, “but also, by my presence, I taught a lot.”
Monday, he was still working on the remarks he's scheduled to deliver this Sunday. Always gracious and civil, Jordan no doubt will find ways to inject optimism into his message to the graduates. But he is alarmed at the turn our nation has taken. He brings up last summer's deadly racial tension in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the decision last week to break the Iran nuclear deal.
'I'm worried about (the future) like I've never been worried about it before. War, quality of life. I'm worried about poor people having an opportunity,” he said.
Having wrestled with those issues through the decades, having escaped an early silencing of his voice all those years ago outside a Fort Wayne hotel, Jordan looks to students like those graduating in Greencastle to carry on.