Richard Claxton Gregory ran one hell of a marathon.
A messenger of many messages, he began engaging the public square in the military and in Chicago as a stand-up comedian and never stopped traveling the globe to relay the constant themes of universal humanity and universal love until heart failure led him from this earth.
Gregory died Aug. 19 at age 84 in a D.C. hospital.
Most people who knew him or knew of him knew him as Dick, husband of the former Lillian Smith and father of 10.
He had so much to say and so many places to go, Gregory never stopped.
“My dad orchestrated his transition,” youngest daughter Ayanna Gregory, a writer and performance artist, said Wednesday during a joint exclusive interview. “He was planning, dropping gems, downloading the last pieces.”
Miss Gregory and her brother Yohance Maqubela worked like “editors” with their father on his soon-to-be-published book, “Defining Moments in Black History: Reading Between the Lies.”
Gregory was a man of many messages, including education, said Mr. Maqubela, who attended private school in Andover, Massachusetts, and co-founded Howard University’s prestigious Middle School of Mathematics and Science.
“For my father, education began at home,” he said. “When people talk about education, what they talk most about is institutionalized education. ‘Remember you already have’ what you need to learn.”
Mr. Maqubela said his dad constantly reminded him and his siblings of such even regarding his own health, consulting and studying as he did with herbalists, botanists and spiritualists “to exercise his brilliance.”
And brilliant Gregory was.
Mr. Maqubela’s birth name is simply Gregory (perhaps a backhand to the military draft board), and his twin sisters’ middle names are Inte and Gration (reflections of the times).
Gregory was keen on time and knew that its sands wouldn’t last forever.
His comedy intersected with situational and racial affairs, civic consciousness and politics, human rights and feminism, environmentalism and education by any means necessary.
The few times I served on a panel with or attended a conference where Gregory spoke, I sensed that listening was more important than grilling.
Interestingly, his children spoke on that, too.
“Dad was interacting with the spirit world,” said Miss Gregory, the youngest daughter. “He had spirit beyond this world and an intellect moving at laserlike speed. He was trying to get out so much information. [Sometimes] he would say, ‘Just shut up and listen’ — listen to this wisdom and pay attention to what’s underneath, what’s underneath and what’s underneath that.”
The messenger’s marathon began in St. Louis on Oct. 12, 1932. From there he graduated high school, enrolled in Southern Illinois University on a track scholarship and saw his education interrupted by being drafted into the Army. America’s segregated and unjust ways unknowingly injected a heavy dose of comic relief on his behalf, as Gregory deposited himself, his timeless sense of humor and his perspective in Illinois, where he was a postman by day and funnyman at night — mostly to black audiences, of course.
Legendary playboy Hugh Hefner invited Gregory to perform at one of his venues and voila! Gregory joined a generation of socially amenable comedians that included Nipsey Russell, Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson. (Lines such as “Segregation is not all bad. Have you ever heard of a collision where the people in the back of the bus got hurt?” drew laughter from blacks and whites.)
A sparkplug, Gregory stayed in the mix of civil rights and human rights, the antiwar and pro-women movements, politics at home and abroad, health and environmental affairs and at lecterns and via public protestations.
He also was a prolific author of short stories and 17 books, and his spoken-word recordings began in 1961 with “In Living Black and White.” His most recent came in 2016, “You Don’t Know Dick.” He also was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2015.
The Gregory marathon is not yet over, with “Defining Moments in Black History” getting a September publication date, the family Gregory having gathered and chronicled much of their dad’s latest downloads, and extent of the Gregory legacy reaching deep and wide.
That legacy includes, by the way, death threats, dangers to Mrs. Gregory and the kids, and the time then-Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy called a jailed and pregnant Mrs. Gregory in Selma to check on her well-being. Mrs. Gregory was told she could leave, but she refused, saying she would leave when the other women were released from jail.
“It’s an extraordinary journey,” Miss Gregory said. “Everything we needed, we got. At times when he was away, he was still home because he had taught us how to pray, meditate.”
Mr. Maqubela said he wants people to know this about his dad: “My father knew he was an icon. However, he still moved in the ordinary, everyday world and knew he was only one soul a man of the street always available to counsel a woman whose son was unlawfully arrested at events large and small.”
Simple principles, humanitarianism and love (with a special thanks to Lillian Gregory) and laughter sprinkled all around.
May Dick Gregory rest in his peace.
• Deborah Simmons can be contacted at email@example.com.