Commentary

Saunders: Paying attention to the legacy of a true Durham leader

bsaunders@newsobserver.comMarch 5, 2014 

“Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.”

When Willy Loman’s wife made that proclamation in “Death of a Salesman,” the greatest American play ever, she was referring to a man who had toiled unexceptionally, in obscurity, who had created barely a ripple in the pond of life.

Nobody can say that about F.V. “Pete” Allison – that’s how I often greeted him, as F.V. “Pete” Allison – because he toiled exceptionally and not in obscurity. Still, attention must be paid to such a person upon his death.

Allison, a retired Durham banker and civic leader, died Monday at 91. That’s a heckuva run, but when you live that long, people have a tendency to forget what you contributed and accomplished.

Too many people of Allison’s age and generation are passing on. At the same time, too many people who have benefited from the work and sacrifices of people like Allison are blissfully unaware of those who knocked down doors or cleared away the obstructive bramble to make younger people’s current success possible. I meet such unaware people every day, and they often operate under the assumption that it was they and their hard work, they and their skill alone, responsible for their accomplishments.

They are full of crap.

As Congressman G.K. Butterfield said Wednesday, “Pete understood the concept of giving back to the community” and easing the journey of others. “He was old school, a legend. He epitomized the concept of leadership.”

Butterfield, reached by phone in Washington, said he gave a speech on the House floor today in honor of Allison. In it, he said, “Pete Allison fought for justice and equality when and where he could. Allison successfully used his career in banking to enrich the lives of countless individuals through his involvement in many organizations and charities.”

Butterfield said he was with Allison on Saturday.

“We sat in his living room and talked for two hours,” Butterfield said. “As I left, he said he’d been ‘so sick.’ I said, ‘I know you’ve had some difficult days, but you are blessed to be surrounded by love.’ He said ‘Yeah, I know.’ I held his hand, walked out and 48 hours later, he was gone. ... He supported his wife. He was a powerhouse, operating in the background,” said Butterfield, who knew Allison for 45 years.

Strength behind a spouse

No one ever accused Allison’s wife, Dr. Lavonia Allison, of operating in the background. The community activist was often loud and out front. That’s not always a bad thing.

Lavonia Allison, the former head of the Durham Committee on the Affairs of Black People, “couldn’t have done what she’s done had it not been for the support of her husband,” Butterfield said.

Durham Mayor Bill Bell said the same thing. “Pete was the strength behind Lavonia. He was a quiet guy, but he was wise – on the business side and the political side,” Bell said. “He would tell you how he felt, sometimes diplomatically, sometimes in a firm way. I got my first loan for my first house from Mutual Community Savings.”

Allison started at that savings and loan as a teller and bookkeeper and eventually became president and CEO, shepherding it through two acquisitions of smaller banks and its transition from savings and loan to a bank.

“He cared about Durham,” Bell said.

Butterfield added, “I know the difference he made in Durham.”

That’s a tremendous epitaph, one any of us should be proud to have said about our hometown. Attention must be paid, indeed.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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