Opinion: A glimpse of America at her best

El Paso, Texas — Antonio Basco stands silently at his wife’s cross as family members visit the memorial site at dusk after funeral services that day for mass shooting victim Margie Reckard. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Wire/TNS)
El Paso, Texas — Antonio Basco stands silently at his wife’s cross as family members visit the memorial site at dusk after funeral services that day for mass shooting victim Margie Reckard. (Carol Guzy/ZUMA Wire/TNS)

Ever since the terrorist act in El Paso earlier this month, I have been trying to decide what I could do. After the massacre of young children and their teachers in Sandy Hook almost seven years ago, I helped found College Presidents for Gun Safety and some 400 presidents signed a letter to our nation’s leaders calling for sensible gun safety legislation. Forming another organization and writing another letter just didn’t seem enough given the refusal of our politicians to act and seeing the frightening rise of racism and white nationalism in our country. As time passed and the school year was around the corner, it occurred to me I was likely to do nothing but mourn privately for the victims and our country.

And then I saw a story about a husband who was burying his wife and had no family in El Paso. He mentioned to a reporter that he didn’t want to bury his wife alone and would welcome strangers to come celebrate the life of his wife with him. I knew I needed to be one of those strangers. El Paso is a three-hour flight from Atlanta. The service was early Friday night. Our first-year class at Oglethorpe arrived and moved in that Friday morning and for the past 14 years I have been there to greet each and every family as they drive through our gates to drop off their precious bundle. It truly is my favorite day of the year and as this is my final year as president of Oglethorpe, the welcome is something I could not imagine missing. But after the morning meet and greet was over, I headed to the airport and arrived in El Paso in time to join others who never met Antonio Basco or his wife Margie Reckard.

On my flight down, I was seated next to a woman whose family goes back six generations in El Paso. When she asked me what brought me to El Paso and I explained that I was coming for the evening service for Margie Reckard, she just thanked me. She shared what a special community El Paso was and how much all the citizens of El Paso cared about the things that made it so very special, especially its diversity. She reminded me that El Paso only became part of Texas in 1850 and that the border between Mexico and the United States had been moved to make this happen. In many ways it seems that El Paso still belongs to both countries. We talked for almost all of the three-hour flight, something she and I both noted as we were walking off the plane that neither of us ever do. Our conversation began to take me out of my Atlanta, business-focused mindset and prepare me for what I was about to encounter.

After Mr. Basco’s invitation hit the press and calls began to flow into Perches Funeral Home, they quickly realized the original plan for the Friday night service was no longer viable and it was moved to a larger sanctuary that could seat 350 and hold another 150 people standing. The visitation was scheduled for 6 to 10 p.m. I arrived at 4:30 and found a seat in the already half-full room. Well before 6 p.m., the room was already full. They announced that there were hundreds of people in line outside in the heat and they wanted to allow them to process in and greet the family. She asked for our patience. Margie did have family who had traveled in from out of state; Tony was the only one on his side of the family. Together they stood in front of the casket and for the better part of three hours hugged, talked to, and cried with each and every person who came up. I was seated next to a retired El Paso policeman and we also talked for those three hours. By my count, in addition to those of us in the room watching, there were at least another thousand people who processed in. The service itself started at about eight and ended close to nine. When I walked out to call an Uber to get me back to the airport hotel, there were hundreds more in line, quiet, in the dark, with candles and flowers. It felt like the entire city of El Paso had decided they could not let this man bury his wife by himself. And so they decided to honor him, honor his wife, honor the other victims, honor their city, and make a statement that El Paso cared, that their community would not be ripped apart based on the color of people’s skin or the language they spoke. Tony and Margie Basco were white. Ninety percent of the people who showed up were not. These days, I am both frightened for and embarrassed by my country and its leaders. This night, I couldn’t have been more proud of its citizens.

It’s my intention to use my final year at Oglethorpe to speak out and show up. We are at a tipping point in our country. Two years ago at Oglethorpe’s Commencement I read the inscription on the Statue of Liberty to our graduates, not ever imagining the White House would prefer to amend it by adding white and European to its clarion call. That is not the America I know and love. For me, El Paso is that America and I was blessed to see it and feel it in person.

Lawrence M. Schall is president of Oglethorpe University.