For those of you with American Clan Gregor Society connections, I wanted to let you know that my father, Joe Tichy, passed away in September. Joe wasn’t a Magruder, though it was hard at times to remember that. On his mother’s side, he came from Tennessee/Georgia hill folk. On his father’s side, he was a second generation Bohemian-American whose grandmother never learned English. When he married my mother–Margaret “Peggy” Bubb, 10th generation descendant of Alexander Magruder–he had no idea he was also getting hitched to a Scottish-American identity that had already endured for three hundred years and was not ready to quit. In the end he surrendered, acquired a kilt he couldn’t afford, and became Assistant Chieftain (which translates as business manager or executive director) of the American Clan Gregor Society. He held that position for 28 years, during which he transformed the society from an old-fashioned, Washington D.C.-based family club to a wealthy nonprofit with an active national membership. Though the ACGS is a different beast now–due in part to changing times, and in part to people like me who have realized we Magruders aren’t even MacGregors–in my parents’ day it was solid and stolid, full of formal and “respectable” people devoted to their Scottish heritage and the idea of kinship…just occasionally letting their hair down enough to have a good time. (Were any of you at the Gathering–I can’t remember where or when–when the pipe band got into the hotel elevator, 2 a.m…guests on all floors madly phoning the manager to complain…in vain…because the manager was in there with the pipers, riding up and down for…was it an hour? God help their ear drums!)
I don’t know if free whisky for the pipe band was traditional or one of Joe’s brighter ideas, but here’s a tale I know belongs just to him. It’s from page 160 of my book, Trafficke.
Baltimore, 1967, the annual gathering of the American Clan Gregor Society, flawed only by the unpracticed hands of office staff called in to serve the Saturday banquet—climax of the weekend, evening dress only—when the regular wait-staff go on strike. My father, who will later remind me of this night, assumes it’s a union problem, but doesn’t ask. He’s not a Magruder, though married to one, and holds no sway. Jump to 1976, and my father, handsome in his new kilt, has been running the Gathering for four years. In the cocktail hour before the banquet, he’s checking details, admiring the centerpieces, the flags, and the large banner of the Fiery Cross, hung, as always, behind the head table. But there’s a wee problem. The wait-staff, all black, refuse to work in the banquet hall so long as that banner is there. My father asks to speak to them, and with (I am sure) great charm and tact, explains the history of the Fiery Cross, its legendary use as a symbol to call the clan to arms—men running picturesquely over the heather, house to house and glen to glen, carrying hand-sized pitch-pine torches in the shape of a double-armed cross. See? It’s there on the banquet program, too, above a few lines from Sir Walter Scott. Nothing at all to do with the KKK. He is sure of this, and sure that his explanation has put their minds at ease. Nevertheless, he takes down the banner, mentions it to no one; and neither at the banquet nor afterwards does anyone remark on its absence. My father runs the Gatherings for more than twenty years, and the banner is never seen again.
OK, yeah, it was naïve on his part to believe there was no connection–however twisted–between Scottish clans and the Klan: that was the whole point of putting this story in Trafficke, so readers could see what my father couldn’t. Looking back now, I can see other reasons this story got under my skin, how it sums Joe up in so many ways. He didn’t know much of the relevant history–and he certainly wasn’t a civil rights activist–he was just a guy with a banquet to run. And a problem. Now, he could have just taken the banner away and got on with the evening. Or he could have insisted it stay, that the meaning of a burning cross in the ill-defined past of the Scottish Highlands trumped its meaning in America. That is what he told the waiters, after all. But he didn’t do either of those things. He accepted that the banner had different meanings for different people, and he talked to them about it. He tried to make them, and himself, more comfortable. Did it matter? Were any of those black waiters one whit happier after his explanation? I doubt it, but who knows. If they were, it probably was not due to what he said, but simply that he made the effort to turn a confrontation into a conversation.
For those of you who knew him, you’ll be happy to hear that he kept his gift of gab, and his famous sense of humor, to the end.