I mourn today the passing of Mr. Cliff Talton, age 71, of Monroe City, MO. The superlative “hero” is tossed around much too lightly, but in Mr. Talton’s case, it is most aptly fitting. Mr. Talton led a life that positively impacted thousands.
From 1984 to 1989, two of Cliff’s son’s, Eddie and Clay, played on my Monroe City High School basketball teams. I coached both for three years, the oldest, Eddie, his sophomore, junior and senior years. If Eddie would have been 6’6 instead of 6’1, he would have played on TV for a lot of years. He was that good. Clay, three years younger, is one of only two freshmen I ever started in a varsity game. I coached Clay his freshman, sophomore and junior years. The two careers of the brothers overlapped one year, in 1987, when Eddie was a senior and Clay a freshman.
In simple terms, their father, Cliff Talton, is one of the finest men I have ever known. I was honored when Eddie contacted me with an invitation in March, 2013 to attend a 70th birthday celebration he was organizing to honor his father, who had been in very poor health for a number of years.
Listening to the tributes paid to Cliff Talton that snowy late winter day illuminated in my mind the link his amazing life’s labor provides for all of us, white and black, to a critical time in our nation’s history. Cliff Talton came of age at a time when America’s Civil Rights Movement was barreling unimpeded down an increasingly violent and confrontational path, transitioning from the conciliatory civil disobedience strategy under the leadership of Dr. Martin Luther King to the violent rage that represented a younger generation of Black Power militants who had no hesitation to spill blood in the streets of towns small and large, if needed to bring about total racial equality, NOW. In the summer of 1968 the winds of social change, years in the making, now fanned the flames of the riotous racial fires of Watts, Harlem and Detroit. Against the backdrop of a bemused society seemingly hell bent on a racial apocalypse and a cultural suicide, Cliff Talton was hired as the first black police officer in the history of Monroe City, MO.
At the birthday celebration, Cliff was toasted repeatedly by friends and family as a unifier and a uniter. When he rose slowly from his seat to address the gathering after nearly two hours’ worth of respectful veneration from friends and family for a man whose life’s work had bridged every class and social line of this small town; and despite a body ravished by years of sickness and poor health; I saw not only a trailblazer but a proud man – proud of his family and his place in this community he had served so well for so long. It was a deeply touching and emotional moment in celebration of a life well lived. His voice defied his physical appearance, ringing loud and proud. As the town’s first black police officer, Cliff told the audience, he had always felt the burden to be twice as good as any white officer on the force.
Educated in the 1950's in Monroe City's segregated school for "colored children," Mr. Talton was a man who without doubt could reach across the racial lines of this small town, but he was not, I can assure you in the strongest of terms, an Uncle Tom. I always felt Cliff navigated this slippery slope well. He accepted the burden of, due to his race, of “having to be twice as good,” but he never compromised his pride. I once saw him, with fire in his eyes, light into a teacher (and rightful so) who had directed a disparaging remark in class at his son Eddie. When it came to the treatment of his children, I found Cliff to be a fair and reasonable man. The first time I met Cliff, now almost 30 years ago, he told me, in a moment right out of the movie Hoosiers, “If you ever have any trouble out of Eddie or Clay, you call me.” I never had to place that call.
Great men raise fine sons. Today, Ed and Clay lead lives that make their father proud. I do not recall Clay ever, in the three years he was my point guard, string more than 10 words together. Yet, when his turn came to give a 2013 birthday toast to his dad, he gave a 10 minute speech that was touching, succinct and poignant. I was very impressed. Clay works with computers and is raising his family in Kirksville, MO. Ed, an officer at the local bank, has been a member of the local school board. He is very involved in his church. Ed is raising his family in Monroe City, following the example his dad has set as a well-respected leader in the local black community.
If I needed to talk to Cliff in those days of the 1980’s, I had to catch him on the run. To provide for his family - a wife and eight children - he worked two full time jobs. He rose at 4:30 am each morning to make the 30 mile trip to the city of Hannibal and a 6 am to 2 pm shift on the factory floor of the Underwood Meat Packing Plant. Rushing home, his wife would have awaiting his arrival both his dinner and his bath water - ready and hot - insuring he had the time to change into his police uniform, then report to his second full time job, protecting his hometown from 4 pm to midnight. After a few hours of sleep, Cliff would again rise before dawn, to find on the horizon another 16 hour work day. During their birthday testimony to him, his children, in unison, said they never heard him even once complain about his back-breaking 80 hour a week workload. He was, they said, the ultimate family provider.
At his 70th birthday celebration, all eight of Mr. Talton’s children told the audience of their strict upbringing, but also of the unconditional support of a father they all deeply loved and now appreciate beyond words. Memories of growing up in a safe household dominated each of his now grown children’s remarks. His son Clay told of a nightly ritual, a favorite memory of a happy childhood: at bedtime, his dad would drive by the family home and flash his spinning police car’s lights into the darkened bedrooms of his children. It was a father’s unique way of saying good night.
Mr. Cliff Talton was a Giant of a man. He will be missed, but the fruits of his impacting life will live on in all those he touched in his 71 short years on this earth.