Lloyd Dennis, a 1968 graduate of St. Augustine High School, knew exactly what the number 80 meant.
The inescapable reality of “probability” was not lost on a Purple Knight who loved math and science.
The number 80 (out of 365 days in the year) in the Vietnam War draft lottery meant an almost certain ticket – maybe even a one-way ticket – into the jungles of Southeast Asia.
Dennis had spent more than a few mornings and afternoons in the office of Josephite Father Joseph Verrett, where in the culture of the time he received some back-of-the-seat reminders about discipline and protocol from the wooden “Board of Education.”
But now he was waiting in the Army intake line that would take him to God knows where.
“I always tell kids that education changes your life,” Dennis said.
Before Dennis had stepped into the line that would have led to boot camp, he had taken a basic test that measured his aptitude in math, science and reading.
“Just as they were ready to sign me up, an Air Force recruiter approached me,” Dennis said. “I was all ready to raise my hand. The recruiter told me, ‘Dennis, if you’re willing to do four years instead of two, I can take you out of this line. We need sharp people like you to do technical stuff.’”
Dennis didn’t have to compute that. “I had friends I grew up with who died over there, and some who came back were damaged goods, both physically and mentally,” he said.
Dennis’ four-year diversion to become an expert in electronics and computer technology did more than save his life. It gave him a chance to make a life.
When he returned home to New Orleans, he married his teenage sweetheart Anne, and they’ve been married for nearly 50 years.
But for an African American, breaking into the electronics market in New Orleans in the early 1970s was not exactly a push-button experience. Dennis had sent his glowing Air Force resume around to electronics service companies in the area – the ones that service radar systems on tugboats that need those electronic eyes to navigate in the soupy fog of southeast Louisiana – and he got a callback from a Westwego company.
“When I walked in, you could see Henry didn’t expect me to be a black guy,” Dennis said, smiling. “He was kinda digesting what he had before him, and he told me, ‘You know, the only colored who ever worked here was the guy who cleaned up. I don’t know how this is going to work.’”
But Henry took a chance and assigned Dennis to one of his veteran staffers.
“He was an older guy, but I remember he smoked a lot – he had cigarettes falling out of the ashtray in the company car,” Dennis said. “He treated me like it wasn’t really his idea, but he treated me like a man. He knew there were certain places we couldn’t stop for lunch. I accepted the fact that I was the new guy and I was doing the grunge work. I would do all the cable running. At a certain level, I earned people’s respect.”
That didn’t happen with clients, however. Once, Henry sent him to a tugboat captain who had a radar problem, and Dennis showed up. Upon spotting him, the captain started cursing, called him a “n—–,” grabbed his company tool box and threw it in the river. “That toolbox was probably worth about $400 or $500,” Dennis said.
A couple of months later, the radar went down again. No one in Henry’s 10-man shop could ever seem to fix it for more than a day.
The captain called Henry again, this time in a real frenzy. Henry said he only had one technician in the shop who had never worked on the captain’s radar.
“Send him out here,” the captain barked.
“The last time I sent this fella out, you threw my toolbox in the river,” Henry replied.
The captain had nowhere else to turn. When Dennis showed up, the captain stayed below while another crew member led him to the radar equipment.
Dennis asked a few questions. The shipmate told Dennis when the tug needed the radar the most – when it was raining or there was heavy fog – the blips started going haywire. Dennis poked around and quickly spotted the potential source of the problem: corrosive residue on one of the boards.
“The solder joint from the factory was never good, so whenever the humidity was high, they would have intermittent problems,” Dennis said. “I took out my soldering iron, heated up the joint correctly, put a little fresh solder on and plugged it back in. It took all of 10 minutes.”
It’s amazing what a one-penny piece of solder can do to a man’s cold heart.
“The captain came up – and he had to walk past me,” Dennis said. “He walked up to the radar unit and just stood there for a minute. Then he looked at me, and he went back down the steps, and then he yelled down to the cook, ‘Put a couple of those big steaks on. Me and this fella are going to have some steak tonight.’ I went down and the dude apologized. He said he had learned something. He said, ‘You’re the best Henry’s got.’”
For the last five years, Dennis and a group of mentors have drummed home the education message to eighth-grade boys in Orleans Parish public schools.
“Algebra is where your manhood lies,” Dennis said. “If you don’t know math, they’ll let you carry the wood, but they’ll never let you measure it or cut it.”
The mission of “Silverback Society” is to marshal the strength of African-American men to work with boys and offer words and deeds of encouragement and hope.
They preach education. They preach etiquette and “polite conversation,” which means telling the boys to respect the ability of others to have a conversation at the next table “by only speaking loud enough to be heard at our table.”
The program has been so successful that is being carried on as the “Silverback” members move to high school. This year, the high school Silverbacks organized to bring supplies to the residents harmed by the New Orleans East tornadoes.
Dennis would love to have more mentors step forward.
“We need African-American men because black boys need to believe by seeing that a black man did it,” Dennis said.
And that does not necessarily mean going to college. The trades have high-paying jobs just waiting for young men with skill and dedication. Dennis learned that at St. Augustine.
“I believe that to whom much is given, much is expected,” he said. “I was the golden child in my family. I got all the love and support that a child could stand. Seeing kids who are getting none of that is so tough. I have a lot of love to give.”
For more information on mentorship, contact, www.silverbacksociety.com.
Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.