God bless you.
Henry Frank Briscoe died of a massive heart attack at age 66 in Kansas City last
Saturday (Oct. 25).
I have been asked to fulfill his wish of preaching his funeral and will do so on
Saturday (Nov. 1). I expect to see many of our Sumner high school classmates there at
the Metropolitan Baptist Church with president Lemuel Norman because Henry was
endeared to us as one of the friendliness, kindest guys you could ever meet.
The news shocked and hurt me something awful because Henry was my best friend
outside my family. It also left me feeling guilty because I thought I would die first and
maybe should have died first because I thought I was far sicker.
Henry told me over the last two years that he had been battling diabetes and high
blood pressure. Since March, I have been battling brain cancer, prostate cancer and
end-stage congestive heart failure. So you go figure. Why him ahead of me? I simply
have to thank God for sparing me to live on a little longer.
Henry called me every week or so to check on me, wish me well, bring me up to
date on our Sumner High School (KCK) classmates and assure me that he and the rest
of my friends were praying for me.
But Saturday morning, my brother, Rev. Ephthallia (yes, Ephthallia, and please
stop laughing because that's his name and you'd best not mess with him because he
weighs maybe 300 pounds and stands six feet) called me and stunned me with the sad
"Oh no, not Henry," I thought. "But I was supposed to be the one with the real
life-threatening sicknesses. Was he sicker than he knew? Or was he hiding something
Henry and I came from the South to Kansas City, Kan., in the 1950s with our
families. We were part of the Great Migration of blacks from Southern field labor to the
North for better jobs, better education, better housing and other opportunities overall. He
came from Monroe, La., and I came from Lyon, Miss.
We met as eight-graders at Northeast Jr. High School in KCK. It was a friendship
forged by mutual poor Southern backgrounds, strong Christian faith, good character and
the desire to be the best students we could be and the best gentlemen we could be. Yes,
we were super nerds. We inspired each other to make the honor roll each semester. We
supported each other in our respective endeavors. While the other cats were slouching
in class, smoking Chesterfield or Lucky Strike, drinking Mogan David and Boone's Farm
wine, and concentrating more on trying to make out with Lulubell in the back seat of
some ol' Chevy Impala, Henry and I were booking trying to make and stay on the honor
I was 13 years old and I had been preaching four years when I first came to KCK.
Henry was 12 were he had come a couple of years earlier and he would eventually
become a preacher at the age of 17. We both had picked our share of cotton before
When I came straight from Mississippi to the North, I had a tremendous
inferiority complex because of my poor Southern diction and common mode of dress.
My classmates often made fun of me and would mimic the way I talked or pronounced
certain words. But Henry befriended, respected and encouraged me because he
aspired toward holiness and academics just as I did.
Two things perhaps endeared me to Henry is a special way. One was his respect
for my academic success and what he thought were natural leadership abilities. So
whenever there was an election for home room, class or student body leadership, Henry
would always nominate me for president. I eventually became student council president
at Sumner as a senior. But before that, my classmates refused to elect me as any
president. They chose instead to elect me as chaplain because I was a preacher. I
eventually would take that as an affront and decline because I wanted my classmates to
realize that I was capable of doing more than praying, reading the bible and preaching.
The other reason I appreciated my friendship with Henry was because he was a
handsome dude. He mesmerized the ladies with eyes the color of Budweiser and with
straight, curly hair that made black girls want to have his babies because he would
enhance the chance that the baby's hair would not be nappy,
After graduation from high school, I went to the University of Kansas on
scholarships and loans, graduated on time and had a job as the first black reporter for
the Kansas City Star waiting for me after I graduated. I also went to U.S. Naval Officer
Candidate School in Newport, R.I., became a commissioned officer during the
Vietnam War and afterward began a successful professional journalism career working
for Ebony magazine and then for the Sun-Times.
Fate was not so kind to Henry. And it wasn't his fault. He never knew his father and
he ended up being the surrogate father for his two sisters and three brothers. His brother,
Rev. Cleveland McBeth, tells me that when Henry was in junior high school, he worked
after school to help his single mother, Elvira Estella Briscoe, support the family. He
continued to work extra jobs to help his mother until his sibblings were grown.
"Henry never knew a normal childhood," Cleveland said, "because he sacrificed
that to be the man of the house. We all looked up to him. He was not only our big
brother. He was like our father."
Henry told me he eventually got a degree from Western University in Kansas City.
But Henry never was able to get the kind of good-paying job that netted him a meaningful
career with fringe benefits to include a pension. He married and had two daughters. But
when he died, he, like growing millions of Americans, had no health insurance because
of what insurance called "pre-existing conditions." And his failing health and age made it
even more difficult for him to get the kind of job he wanted and needed.
As such, I assume that Henry did not have access to competent and consistent
medical care when he died. Otherwise, perhaps the severity of his condition could have
been determined and treated early enough to have saved his life. I feel the same about
my father, who died of a stroke at age 64. The same about my mother, who died of blood
poisoning at age 42 after carrying a dead fetus. The same about my baby brother, who
died of a heart attack at age 52.
My oldest sister, Mrs. Maude Lee Burrell, got decent medical attention because she
was able to work a full career at General Motors in Grand Rapids, Mich., and thus
receive care from an affordable group medical insurance policy that she carried on
herself, her chronically ill husband and her five sons. She even spent five months in
the Cleveland Clinic awaiting a new heart before an infection disqualified her from
heart transplant candidacy.
Sure, I'm thankful that I'm still alive. God has blessed me with a good job, a super
care-giving wife in Joyce and access to affordable health care through our union's group
health insurance policy. God is also healing me partly through this instrument.
But if I did not have a decent job and affordable medical insurance, perhaps I
would have died as early as 2001 when I underwent triple-bypass, open heart surgery
at the University of Chicago. There have been other heath issue since then that could
have killed me if I had had no access to proper medical attention.
Personally, I believe that in this great America, the land of the free and the home of
the brave, competent health should be a right of every American citizen.
God bless you.