Meadville Tribune

March 27, 2014

Community salutes Douglass on 102 years of a wonderful life

By Gary DeSantis
Meadville Tribune

MEADVILLE — Editor’s note: The following story is about Meadville resident Fred Douglass III, who turned 102 years old earlier this month. Meadville Mayor Christopher Soff delivered Douglass a proclamation that states March 13, 2014, will be known as Fred Douglass Day in Meadville. Tribune columnist Gary DeSantis has known Douglass for more than 40 years, formally meeting him at his business, DeSantis Solutions.

A couple of years ago I did a column on Fred Douglass III. At the time, he was turning 100 years old. The amazing thing then was that he had all of his marbles, was living alone and managing his household, and was driving his car. He had given up his part-time job reluctantly at 98 years old. By any measurement, this was an incredible example of how to live one’s life with energy and dignity.

In case you missed that column, let me explain that Fred was a role model before the term existed. He worked his entire adult life and actually before that as a teen. He worked at two or three jobs at a time, got married, bought a house, car, raised a family, and lived through the most exciting century of American history. His eyes have marked the events that both shaped and were shaped by the American experience.

He was witness to Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, the atomic bomb, the Cold War, the Civil Rights movement and the election of the first African-American president. Like most people, he was carried along the wave of history but through his hard work and persistence he made his mark on those around him and his community.

I knew of Mr. Douglass but was formally introduced to him in 1973 or 1974. My father and I had moved our sanitary supply business to Race Street in Fifth Ward, and Mr. Douglass was responsible for maintaining the building of a local oil supply company and some of their other commercial buildings. He came in to purchase some cleaning product and, as I offered it to him, I began a long and tiresome sales spiel about its features and benefits. Midway through what I thought was an impressive presentation, he raised his huge hands to stop me and he said, “I don’t need to know that stuff. I’m here because you’re here.” Stunned, I blurted out, “Oh, because we’re a local supplier and you want to keep the business local.” He smiled broadly and replied, “No, that’s not it. If the damn stuff doesn’t work, I know where you are and can get a hold of you real easy.”

Needless, to say I was always very careful about what I sold him. I’m proud to say also that in the 50 or so years we did business, he “never had to get a hold of me.”

A couple of years have passed and I was fortunate to be invited to Mr. Douglass’ 102nd birthday. I really didn’t know what I was going to find. What I found is an amazing tribute to human existence. He hadn’t changed one bit from the Mr. Douglass I knew for all those years.

Of course, he doesn’t get around like he used to, but his mind is completely intact. His eyes, the ones that bore witness to more than 100 years of our history, still shone and more importantly, recognized people (me). He was as witty and with it as ever and was quick to make me laugh. Those big hands, the ones that worked hard at really tough jobs, are a little arthritic but strong as ever. He still lives alone, and with a little assistance, is fiercely independent. I felt privileged to witness this milestone and it is one that I won’t forget.

As I was leaving, Fred told me someone would be coming to my store to get some carpet shampoo because his carpets were getting dirty and he needed to clean them up. Time moves on, but some things never change. I’m still supplying Fred’s cleaning needs and he is still working.

Oh, there is one difference; this time my friend is going to get something for nothing. For no other reason than he is my friend and I have had the privilege of knowing him. Thanks Fred.

Gary DeSantis is a Meadville resident and author of a recently published book titled “The 6th Floor.”