Selling Ron

A pro-business black Democrat who appeals to white voters, Ron Kirk is the sport utility vehicle of Senate candidates. But will voters buy him?

"They don't want me to tell this story," Willie Mae "Ankie" Kirk, the candidate's 80-year-old mama, begins impishly. "But when Ron was about 5 years old, he had this little friend who lived next door. One day Ron and his friend had a little disagreement, and the little friend told Ron, 'I'm gonna go tell my granny on you.'

"Ron stood there on the front porch, shaking his little fist at that boy, and he says, 'You go on, run and tell your granny. I don't need my granny, because I got my fist.'

"He's gonna need a mighty big fist in this race," she adds.

Kirk's biggest nemesis on the Dallas City Council, Laura Miller, is now mayor. Kirk calls Miller "an Escada-wearing combination of Max Goldblatt and Billy Jack Ludwig." Here, Miller plants a kiss on frequent mayoral candidate/goofball Ludwig.
Peter Calvin
Kirk's biggest nemesis on the Dallas City Council, Laura Miller, is now mayor. Kirk calls Miller "an Escada-wearing combination of Max Goldblatt and Billy Jack Ludwig." Here, Miller plants a kiss on frequent mayoral candidate/goofball Ludwig.

Ronald no-middle-name Kirk is the youngest of four children born to Ankie and her husband, Lee, now deceased. Born in Austin, Texas, on June 27, 1954, Kirk spent his youngest years in the family's small wood-frame house on Olive Street in East Austin, the black part of town. When he was 10, they moved to a modest brick home in a new, but still predominantly black, development just west of the old airport.

If some aspects of the candidate's personality were apparent early on, others were forged by experience. Although Austin has a reputation as one of the more progressive places in Texas, it is very much a Southern town, and the civil rights struggles of the '50s and '60s did not pass it by. Kirk has vivid memories of segregation, as well as of the turmoil surrounding Austin's efforts to integrate its public schools. "It's funny, the things that stick in a kid's mind. We used to ride our bikes over to the Capitol grounds, and I knew as a kid that it was wrong that I could go to the Capitol to play but couldn't go inside to use the bathroom. And we had our own black theater, the Harlem Theatre. But I remember once going to the Paramount Theater [in downtown Austin]. We always sat upstairs. And there was this old [black] guy up there selling popcorn and candy, and I remember saying how great it was that we didn't have to go downstairs [like at the Harlem] to buy our popcorn. And everyone--my brother and sisters--looked at me like, 'You goober--you can't go downstairs.'"

Kirk's parents were ambitious and well-educated. They met and married while attending Austin's all-black Huston-Tillotson College. Ankie Kirk taught elementary school in the Austin public schools for more than 30 years. "Kids were her passion," Kirk says. Lee Kirk had a harder time following his dreams. On the stump, Kirk glosses over the story of how his dad wanted to be a doctor but was denied entrance to white medical schools because of his race. "My dad had a brilliant mind for science," Kirk recalls. "He married his college sweetheart, did his [military] service and got accepted to black medical schools, but by that time he had babies." Instead, he integrated Austin's main post office, eventually becoming its first black postal clerk.

"It was awful," Kirk recalls. "There were two black letter carriers, but they wouldn't offer [Dad] a clerk's job. That was a good job; it was inside, air-conditioned. My dad was smart as a whip. He took all these civil service exams. And they'd let him take them, but then they'd burn his test. But they'd keep a corner so he could see his score--95, 99."

According to Kirk, his dad found refuge in two ways. "He taught himself to fly," Kirk says. "He loved science and planes, but he missed out on that whole Tuskegee airmen thing. So he quietly bought a little plane--a Cessna. I think he had that thing for three, four years before my mother ever knew about it. She was furious when she found out, 'cause here they are, a teacher and a postal clerk, with kids in college. She eventually forgave him. But that was his passion."

The second way was more destructive. "My dad consoled himself with drinking," Kirk recalls. "It manifested itself in quiet ways. He was in some ways the most curious alcoholic you'll ever see. He always made the house payment, put his kids through college, never slapped around his wife. All we knew as kids was, when we came home we had to be quiet, 'cause he was asleep. He hid it pretty well. Because of his hours [at the post office, where he often worked at night], we just thought he'd been working, not out drinking [all morning]. But when he got older, into his 50s, it got to be harder to hide."

Kirk himself attended an all-black elementary school and then, beginning in junior high, went to a series of schools where blacks were in the minority. He graduated from John H. Reagan High School, where, he says, "maybe 200 or 300" out of 1,800 students were black. Though he remembers race relations at Reagan as "a challenge," they were at least marginally better than at the other Austin high schools. "Reagan was not as violent as some of the other schools. It was probably a good illustration of the power of sports as a bridge. We had all these big, strapping white farm boys and these fast urban black kids, and we were a high school powerhouse."

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