Gregg Townsend ’75 Shares School Experiences that Shaped His Identity

Kimberly Swick Slover
Townsend returned to St. Paul’s School for MLK Day presentations

Gregg Townsend returned to St. Paul’s School on January 18, 2016 to introduce his college friend, Michael Fosberg – who would perform “Incognito,” a play about identity – during the annual Martin Luther King Jr. Day commemoration. In this introduction, Townsend also spoke of experiences at St. Paul’s School that helped to shape his own sense of self.

An excerpt follows:
“I welcome you, on this the day, that we celebrate the life and work of the Reverend, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. On this day we pause to reflect on the struggle for civil rights and equality, on Dr. King’s actions to end racism and poverty and the effect of peaceful demonstration within a struggle. Martin Luther King Day is a day to promote equality among all people, regardless of background or ethnicity, sex or sexual preference, family status, or disability. This, in part, is the legacy of Dr. King and why we pause each year to remember him.

Today we will also talk about identity, the qualities and beliefs that make a particular person or group different from, or perhaps the same as, others. Identity defines who we are, it is affected by how others see us, and it guides us on who we might want to be.

Slogans of identity shout out from our media as people try to align their identities in our modern society:

"Je suis, Charlie,"…

"Black Lives Matter,"…

"I am SPS..."  

St. Paul's School gives us much but perhaps, above all, it helps us form our identities, early in our lives. My young identity was formed at SPS as well and three succinct memories still resonate with me these many years since…

I entered St. Paul's as a Second Former at the beginning of the 1970s. Radical social change was occurring in all corners of society and St. Paul's was no different. I remember going to the post office on my first day and finding a letter inviting me to the African-American Society’s first meeting of the year. I was openly excited that I was to be included in the discussions of race and equality.

I shared this later that week with one of the club’s officers when I encountered him on a school path. As he looked at me, you could tell from his expressions he was confused but he did acknowledge my excitement.

Later that week I received another letter from the society apologizing for the first letter’s mistake. The society was a closed group open to only persons of color and I was un-invited.
In sending the initial invitation, perhaps they assumed I met their requirements because I was on full scholarship, that I came from the South Side of Chicago, or that my afro haircut extended so far beyond my head, 8 to 12”, so that the nickname given to me that same week was ‘Bush.’
One of my first lessons of my identity at SPS was based on the assumptions of others. I learned who I was.
In the Fifth Form a classmate of mine asked me what my father did. His father was an executive of a major corporation in charge of the entire South American market. He based his identity at St. Paul's, in part, on the accomplishments of his father and in an effort to know me better; he wanted to know what my father did. My father was my foster father, one of many fathers I had in my life. I told him, matter-of-factly, "My father is a bus driver."

Disbelievingly he asked again, "No really, what does your father do?" To which I replied again, "My father drives a bus."

He was confused, for no matter how many times he changed the question, the answer was always the same: My foster father was a bus driver. He must have thought, “How could Gregg be at St. Paul’s?”

Several weeks later my friend triumphantly confronted me and showed me that an executive of the Greyhound Bus Company shared my last name, Townsend. He thought I had cleverly disguised my father's true identity. In order to satisfy my friend's understanding of my identity, my bus-driving foster father became a person of power at Greyhound. The encounter taught me who I was not.

In the Sixth Form, as I balanced between "the School's expectations" and my "adolescent expression," I was called into then Rector William Oates’ office on the second floor of the schoolhouse. Mr. Oates and I discussed the thin tight wire I was walking on and the need for me to change my behavior or there would be severe consequences.

At the conclusion of the meeting, with his large leaded bay window behind him, overlooking the Schoolhouse lawn with the chapel in the distance, Mr. Oates swept his hand across the panorama and challenged me by saying, "Gregg, everything you see at this school was given through the generosity of others. St. Paul's School is here because so many have given back."

His words have echoed in me for a lifetime. They have defined, in part, who I should be.

Gregg Townsend is on hiatus from his work in media production to play more of a support role for his children while his wife completes her residency in family medicine at the University of Minnesota. After an 8-year journey for his family, she will graduate in June. Townsend will return to his career in media production once his wife begins her clinical work and has a more predictable schedule.