The Daily Tar Heel
Printing news. Raising hell. Since 1893.
Saturday, Sept. 30, 2023 Newsletters Latest print issue

We keep you informed.

Help us keep going. Donate Today.
The Daily Tar Heel

One Taller Than the Rest of Us

We all watched him because he was the best among us. Spotlight followed him. He was one of those people with a strange gift, an uncanny way about him made people smile.

Plus he was the most intelligent, most athletic among us and most popular because we cared about smarts and sports.

We cared about other things - good looks, humor, fashionableness - he had it all. He was a tall black boy, robust, a grin wide as a melon slit open a summer day - a melon you feast on, we all feasted on.

Eight years we came every day to the same Catholic school.

I never knew Thurmond well.

I was a quiet boy, like most boys, unsure of myself, and he was an institution, even then, among us.

We graduated to Lane Tech, the biggest public high school in Chicago.

Thurmond made the speech.

It was about hope and the future, the kind of stuff you'll always hear at a graduation speech.

Thurmond was known.

I used to hear people talk about him. They spoke not only of the crazy things he said and did, but more of the outrageousness of his manner.

He was almost, if you can believe it, feminine, even though he was the biggest and the strongest boy. Sometimes the way he moved his hands when he spoke and the way he held the "s" on his words - he acted so gay it was perfect, like an act.

None of us thought he was gay, we just thought he acted like a gay would act.

And we liked it.

By our second year at Lane, Thurmond was the most popular kid in our class.

He was elected president of the student body. The boys looked up to him because he was athletic and the girls liked him because he was fashionable and he could relate to them.

Anybody needing advice on a girl went to Thurmond. He always seemed to know.

Nobody thought he was gay.

We pretended Thurmond was normal because we couldn't believe a person so gifted was queer.

Sure, we'd heard about DaVinci and Warhol and even Tchaikovsky - but we didn't know any of them.

It was Thurmond we knew - at least we thought we did.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Homecoming, Prom - the prettiest girls went with Thurmond.

Seventeen pictures in the school yearbook -- sports action photos, student government hearings, posing in the hall, dancing on the stage at the "Mr. Lane Tech" competition - all Thurmond.

He was an icon, we thought, and even if he were gay he was one of those "safe" gay guys who didn't tell it.

We all liked that about him.

Then toward the end of our third year at Lane came the bombshell: Thurmond got drunk one night and slept with a guy. I didn't see him around that week, and all I heard was people whispering, "Did you hear? Is it true?"

Eventually Thurmond admitted to the thing.

He gave up his student body presidency and a lot more - he admitted he was gay.

Everything he was, all he'd ever been was pulled out from under him.

We forgot pretty fast how we used to look up to Thurmond, how he'd been so many things to us - none, I guess, were really him.

It was sad, but predictable, how his friends let him go.

I heard them say they "couldn't deal with a fake."

But we were all real.

In the halls we stood aside to let him pass.

Nobody would touch him.

He quit running track, and over the summer before our last year at Lane he got fat.

All he did those days, we heard, was smoke dope and drink straight liquor.

Fashion was out.

He wore jeans and a T-shirt every day and sometimes went unwashed.

He was fading, it was plain to see.

We all knew how it would end, but none of us said anything.

Who among us is but a spectator to the unfolding drama of other people's lives?

What are other people but characters we make in our minds?

None of us wanted to know Thurmond, and when he ceased to be what we'd made of him, he ceased to be at all.

We used to think Thurmond was taller than all of us.

But later we found he was only standing straight, and when he bent down like the rest of us he was no different.

He was a little black man, an ugly man with whiskers and pimples.

So he left us, and then it was over.

No one knew where he went, or if he'd even left us at all, because no one looked for him.

The next year we all went off to college.

We said he'd have failed that way anyhow, even if he'd been straight, because he was too poor for college.

It was something we mostly said to ourselves, at night, that time right before bed when we were all alone.

It was reassuring.

Paul Tharp is a first-year law student. Reach him at

Special Print Edition
The Daily Tar Heel Women's Tennis Victory Paper