“Rusty Ruf,” was a large, muscular, commanding, serious, dark skinned Negro who got his street name from his lack of attention to his dry skin, which reminded us boys to use lotion on a daily basis. My Scoutmaster Rufus H. Cox was a machinist by profession, but my father anointed him “the smartest man in Nicetown.” It was a big ticket to fill, based upon the ministers, doctors, lawyers, number runners and politicians that claimed the title in our Philadelphia neighborhood.
Mr. Cox was always calm, and wore a warm smile. He was in charge of Troop 134, which was comprised of 25 “Knuckleheads.” That’s what he affectionately called us when we were disobedient or did not listen, which was the majority of the time. We never knew what possessed him to start the troop and actively request our parents to command us to attend weekly scout meetings. He contributed all his spare time to troop activities and our academic and moral growth.
We felt sorry for his wife for the tremendous amount of time he allocated to our development, but we were happy that he held daily, open tutoring sessions on any subject at his dining room table from 7 to 9 pm. “There is no reason for you to go to school unprepared,” was his mantra.
The first 15 years of my life, I attended elementary and junior high school within 3 blocks of my house. I was sick and tired of not having the opportunity to ride the bus, trolley or subway to a foreign destination in another part of Philadelphia. I applied and was finally accepted at a high-caliber, predominantly Jewish high school located 5 miles away from Nicetown and 1 block away from my father’s part-time, second job.
I got more than I asked for. The new school’s instructors gave us four hours of homework each night. And my father felt that since I was so talented and could navigate the subway system, I could now work on his second job, 2 school days a week. On those days, I would leave home at 5 in the morning, catch the subway, work 2 hours cleaning bowling lanes, walk down the hill to school, go to class, return home, deliver newspapers and study.
Needless to say I was a mental wreck, but I could not tell my father that homework, school, jobs were too much. I would only get the routine lecture of a migrant sharecropper’s son, who found greater opportunity in the North. “Son, I wish I had your opportunity,” he’d say. “I did not go to school for one year because we were so poor I could not afford a pair of long pants.” He then often quoted a famous local college dignitary, “There are acres of diamonds at your feet; all you have to do is pick them up.’’ I was sure my father would misdiagnose my predicament and had no solution for my fragile mental state.
My small world was being destroyed. English was not a problem, because, I loved to read, but Math was another issue—a big issue—and Geometry a bigger issue! I didn’t know the difference between a right angle and a left angle, much less an axiom and a theorem, and I saw no reason on earth for proofs. This new kind of math was poised to ruin my life, limit my stick ball games, and place me in the insane asylum.
I then played my last survival card: Mr. Cox. I rang his bell at 7 that night, made him aware of my rapidly approaching nervous breakdown and then said, “I want to transfer to an easier school.” Mr. Cox, calmly said, “Don’t worry, WE can do this.”
For the entire spring and fall semester he tutored me in Plane and Solid Geometry. My grade went from a fat F to B+. Extra credit problems that I could not solve became solvable. If we (he) could not solve the problem during our evening sessions, he worked on the problem late that night and relayed the solution to me before the start of the school day. I became a math wizard in class. There was no problem I could not solve—or should I say, Mr. Cox could not solve. The make-or-break moment of my young life hinged on Geometry. Mr. Cox saved me from a fate, in my young mind, worse than death: another “When I was your age,” lecture from my father.
I will never know whether Mr. Cox saw us as diamonds in the rough with potential, or he was a Saint on a divine mission to rescue us from the mundane and average. He was a reincarnation of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Dubois—Booker T. for his skill and work ethic and W.E.B. for his innate belief that we all comprised the “Talented 10th” and that we had tremendous intellectual and academic potential that was worth molding and nurturing.
Mr. Cox offered unselfish assistance—financial, educational and emotional to a group of knuckleheads. His inspirational presence, spiritual depth and wisdom were unmatched and continue to guide my moral compass and work ethic. Throughout college, business school and a long career, I remembered what Rusty Ruf taught me: “You gotta run more than your mouth to get somewhere. It’s not a level playing field, so you need to jog during the day, and train to leap hurdles late into the night.”
Charles Dixon was born in Philadelphia to Willard and Mattie and now lives in the Fillmore. He is not one to run his mouth, but he listened to Miles and Coltrane while successfully negotiating and consensus building in college, business school and during his career in high tech.