Like many kids from southern Minnesota, my dad enlisted in the Navy in WWII before finishing high school. Omar Collis was 6 feet 4 inches, 240 pounds, and very athletic. Because of his stature, he was considered “too large” to be assigned to a ship, so he was sent to Hawthorne, Nevada to unload ammunition from boxcars.
Hawthorne Naval Ammunition Depot in 1944 consisted of approximately 2000 enlisted personnel, 95% of whom were African Americans. My dad was appalled at the way that those with darker skin were treated, including always being ordered to sit in the back of the bus.
One day, Omar decided to sit in the back of the bus himself and told everyone else to sit wherever they wanted. For this, he was arrested and threatened with the adverse action. He read the words of the Declaration of Independence to the base commander, “…We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights…” He pointed out that everybody on that base was an American, dedicated to fighting for freedom and American ideals, and that the only colors that mattered were red, white and blue. Long story short, this incident did not resolve all of the evils of segregation on the base, however, from that day forward, everyone was allowed to sit wherever they wanted on the bus.
Shortly after the bus incident, my dad was given a promotion. He was sent to Mare Island and given responsibility for inventory and ultimate delivery of naval ordnance shipped to the Pacific Theatre. This duty required one to have integrity, honesty, and shrewd business skills.
My dad passed away from pancreatic cancer in 1999. Among his last words to me were, “Always do what is right for the people”. These are words that I take to heart and try to live by, whether it is in my personal life, medical practice, or as your 7th District Congressman.
Right to left: Omar Collis and Navy friend.