Convincing Fred Black to delay a long-planned trip was easy for Susan Hoerger and the friends they share in Chapel Hill.
They simply had to tell Black and his wife, Sylvia, that their help was needed on some community project or that they were going to honor some deserving citizen.
The hard part was keeping secret the fact that they – Fred and Sylvia – were the deserving couple being honored.
The Blacks pulled into the cul de sac in the Tinnin Woods section of Efland Saturday morning, thinking they were going to a party to honor Hoerger’s son, Jacob, who’d recently been graduated magna cum laude from Carleton College.
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They found instead about 40 friends, relatives and Sylvia’s sorority sisters, who’d gathered to reveal the site of a house being built in their honor by Habitat for Humanity of Orange County. The house, for Marty Smith, a single dad, and his two children, will be the first of 28 in the community.
After the tears were dabbed and speeches of gratitude made, Fred Black jokingly rebuked his “deceptive friends” who since February had kept their secret from them. “The best part about this whole thing is seeing family and friends and their support of Habitat,” Fred Black beamed. “If there was anything I would have my name on, this is it.”
To Sylvia Black, his wife of 50 years, “the best part is that people think enough of us to honor us in this way – and seeing them,” she said, motioning toward the couple’s children.
It took a few minutes before they saw Shana and Fred Jr., because when they first drove up to the site, their children were hiding behind a 6-foot-high, covered sign on which was written “Future home of The Smith Family in honor of Sylvia and Fred Black and their unending love and service.”
The children had flown in the night before, stayed at a hotel near RDU, and stepped from behind the sign to shock their parents.
Did they, I asked their children, ever feel neglected because of their parents’ myriad board meetings and volunteer projects?
“There were times when we might’ve wished we were neglected,” Frederick Black Jr. joked. “They were always there when we needed them.”
“We always came first and we knew that,” said Shana Black, of Rockford, Ill. “They always taught us to be independent. Our friends would say ‘Your parents go on vacations without you?’ They’d say ‘That is not normal.’ But it was always them as a couple and then us as a family, and we knew both of those were equally important. Everything else came after that.”
Fred Black Sr. is a retired U.S. Army colonel who served as associate professor of political science at the United States Military Academy, West Point. Fred Black Jr. is a lieutenant colonel and assistant professor in the Department of History at West Point.
Sylvia Black, formerly a professor at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School, received the Department of the Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Award.
“They also wield a mean hammer,” Susan Levy, Habitat’s executive director, said, noting that she’d recently seen Sylvia on a Habitat house roof doing just that.
When Susan Hoerger, the mastermind of the plot to honor the Blacks, called to suggest a column on the couple, who were about to celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary and their 70th birthdays, she spoke of how selfless they were with their time, energy and whatever other resources they had. “We knew Fred and Sylvia were very special,” Hoerger said. “They actually were the first African-American couple to be married at Duke Chapel.
They even, she said, have plotted out the time and route of their morning walk so that they can get to the school bus stop around the same time as some neighborhood children. “They check on them and joke with them,” Hoerger told me.
“Some of these kids don’t have grandparents here,” Sylvia Black said, “so we’ve become kind of surrogate grandparents.”
Fred said “The bus comes to our neighborhood at 7:01 for elementary school. For middle school, it’s 7:33... We don’t see the high school kids, because they drive.
“When we’re not there, they get worried,” he said. “We have to tell them ‘We’re going to be out of town, so don’t worry.’ ”
Fred Black, friends said, is a raconteur extraordinaire, so the comment of his that drew the loudest applause was when he – choked up with emotion – said, “I’m speechless.”
That’s OK, though, since the Blacks seem content to let their actions, commitment to their community and hammer speak for them.