HANOVER, Ind. – They burned a cross on my grandfather’s yard.
It happened long ago, in the days after World War II. My grandfather was a school principal in this small Southern Indiana college town overlooking the Ohio River.
I don’t know the why of the cross burning. My grandfather never talked about it. My mother and my aunt — who were young girls at the time — only could speculate about the reason.
Some speculation suggested that there were people in the community upset about something involving the athletic program. Another guess was that there was a controversy regarding what then was known as the “Negro school,” which my grandfather also oversaw in those days of segregation.
But a guess is all it is. We don’t know and all the people who did know are dead and gone.
What I do know is that it was painful.
Late in his life, when he faced death and as I approached manhood, I asked my grandfather about the cross burning. He said he didn’t want to discuss it.
That was unusual. Grandpa was not a reticent man. He liked to talk in almost all circumstances, but then even more than most times. As he neared the end of his days, he devoted much time and energy to sharing stories with me, his eldest grandchild, that were designed to prepare me for the challenges and responsibilities life would present.
But not that story.
I don’t think my grandfather was scared. He was not a man easily intimidated or deterred. It also had happened a long time before. And, in any event, he knew he soon was headed to a place where no one could reach or harm him.
No, I think he didn’t want to talk about the cross burning because, more than a quarter-century later, it still hurt.
Hanover was a special place for him. He was the first member of his family — my family — to go to college. He often walked from his home in the hills some 40 miles away to this lovely campus. After graduation, he settled here. He started his family here, built his life here. He thought this was the place where he belonged.
That’s what the cowards in the hoods who scurried across his lawn in the dark to set up the cross and set it ablaze took from him. They meant to take that from him.
My grandfather was a smart man. He had to have known that some of the figures hiding behind masks were men he knew, acquaintances and neighbors. Some he might even have thought were his friends.
But they visited an indignity upon him in the home he shared with his wife and daughters. And they didn’t even have the courage or the courtesy to show their faces while they did it.
Now, on a hot summer afternoon while I’m here with my son to watch one of his friends play baseball, this small town still looks lovely, a picture of what America always promises to be, warm, welcoming and oh so beautiful.
But ugliness can lurk in even the loveliest places. It did once here.
The Fourth of July is upon us once again. Most often, it is a day devoted to celebrating all that has made America great. This is appropriate.
But it also should be a day in which we remember the times when we Americans have not been great – the times when we have been meager and mean and cowardly. We should think of all the times we have allowed the worst among us to hold sway and then rededicate ourselves to making this country, our country, in Lincoln’s words, “the last best hope of earth.”
Sometimes, people ask me why I’ve spent as much of my life as I have confronting bullies and bigots.
I tell them it’s because I love my country and it’s the right thing to do, but that’s not the full story.
The truth is that I often think of my grandfather, a good man, enduring a hurt too great for him to discuss.
Then the rest of the script writes itself.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism and publisher of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.