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White Catholic icon of SC Civil Rights movement retires

The bent figure walks, slow, and in each step is a "squeak," to get to the church service.

Squeak, one of those words that reads just like it sounds, and it might be a metal knee replacement squeaking as he walks up to the altar for communion.

There is no other sound in the tiny chapel but "squeak" and a priest telling blacks and whites who are together, "The body of Christ."

The old, bent white man moves to the front so slowly it seems he will never get there. The back is so bent - the arthritis, the pulled muscles from lifting donations - he looks like a crab scuttling.

Then squeak, squeak.

Brother David Boone's memory is filled with squeaks.

A squeaking car door opens to hooded figures aiming shotguns at him.

Or the squeak of the wheelchair of a crippled black protestant preacher demanding the right to eat a hamburger alongside whites, as Brother David pushed the chair before the cops put the black man and dozens of black teens in jail.

The squeak of recreation league backstops, made of wire mesh, when Brother David was young and white and wearing that black cassock of the Catholic brother or his lay clothes, with his all-black teams of skinny, grinning black girls and black boys, beside him.

Black fingers laced through the mesh, demanding to play on the green fields that allowed only white players. Brother David right there, pulling on the mesh, demanding that these kids be allowed to play - making the whites squawk and the metal squeak.

The squeak of a thousand shotgun shack front doors he pushed through with rent money collected from all corners of the city, borrowed and begged from anyone who would give, to keep the black families inside from being thrown into the street.

"The brace squeaks. I hurt my foot last year; I need the brace forever now, probably," says Brother David, hunched over as he walks with a cane in the place he has worked for the past 52 years.

A church. St. Mary, the Catholic church on Crawford Road in Rock Hill, where the blacks live.

A church where the message Friday was, simply, the Gospel of St. Luke: "Do not be afraid."

'Equality for everybody'

Brother David Boone has never been afraid.

When white banks would not take black business, he ran a credit union out of the church for 30 years.

When white thugs threatened him, he smiled at them and rushed to the refuge of what whites thought was danger and he knew as safety. In more than five decades ministering in that black neighborhood, Brother David has never had so much as a dirty look thrown at him.

At church in 2011, the old man now walks past a statue of St. Martin de Porres, the saint of this church, a statue with a black face because this church was built for blacks and still has plenty of them.

09Brother David worked. His job, parish administrator, was simple.

"Love," said Brother David. "Treat all people as equals, demand equality for everybody, and praise the Lord. Help families one at a time."

Certainly such lofty goals would be applauded by all always.

No.

The last few years, sure, Rock Hill has rightfully lauded Brother David. A building that houses a government agency that helps the poor is named for him. He still sits on the board of directors at Carolina Community Actions after 33 years.

Politicians have written and read speeches about his work with the poor and blacks. Proclamations with his name on them cover walls of places all over the city.

A stool in a downtown restaurant where blacks sat down to demand service in 1961 has his name etched on the back because he was the sole white supporter in 1961.

"I have had plenty of white people whisper to me that they wish they had stood with me during those years," Brother David said. "I wish they had, too."

But for so long, Brother David from the Catholic order of the Oratory on Charlotte Avenue walked alone. Brother David fought his fights alone, and at age 78 and bent he walks into church alone. He is no longer, but at one time he was, shunned and ridiculed, threatened with guns and fists and spit on.

He never threw a punch.

"I had God on my side," said Brother David. "God and what was right and the dignity of these people. I needed nothing else."

'He stood up'

One of the parishioners who attends St. Mary is Harry Dest. He has an office in York, where he is the chief public defender for York County, that has pictures of him framed on the walls - Dest, handsome as a movie star, the legal defender of the poor, on Larry King on national TV. Dest with President Barack Obama.

But say "Brother David" to Harry Dest and he stops. It is as if Dest sees a camera and he is going to get a picture of himself with Jesus Christ for his wall.

Dest says, simply, "Brother David is greatness. Brother David is the greatest. Brother David is unmatched."

At Friday morning's Mass, there were 13 people, plus the priest, named Father Augustine Guzman. Three of those people were black, 10 white, which is about how the percentage at the church shakes out in 2011. About 70 percent white families out of 240, 30 percent black.

There is no other church like it in the city.

In one pew at the Friday service was Gary Capitan.

"This city would not be what it is if he did not do what he did," he says of Brother David. "He stood up. He is greatness."

All prayed together at St. Mary Friday, with Brother David sitting in the rear, reciting every word of every prayer from memory. He needs no books.

He has lived a religious life at the Oratory for 60 years - the last 52 attached to St. Mary.

Brother David was sent to run the day-to-day operations of the church that had a few black families, a church created for those black families, that morphed into a church for all, as all churches are supposed to be.

In the front row was Susie Hinton, one of two black members of the Rock Hill City Council. Surely there would not have been such a job were it not, at least in part, for Brother David demanding that blacks be represented.

In one pew prays a 68-year-old man named Henry Walton. Walton's family, black, has been at St. Mary since the 1950s.

During the "sign of peace" near the end of Mass, when people hold hands with neighbors and shake hands and pray, it was Brother David and Walton holding hands.

The knuckles on Brother David's hands were lumpy, the size of unshelled walnuts, with arthritis.

Walton hung onto that lumpy hand and when Mass was over grabbed that hand again and said, "Brother, where would we be without you? You have been here almost as long as me. It seems like forever. You never left us. You have always been here for us."

And Brother David said, "I will never leave."

Then and now

His body weakening, Brother David had to retire recently from administration of the church and daily duties.

He has fought cancer and is still fighting leukemia, yet he hopes not to have chemotherapy like a few years ago when his hair fell out.

One knee is metal and the foot will never be what it was and his back is sore, the muscles pulled, from lifting cans of food for the hungry he has fed for the past 25 years at the soup kitchen across the street.

Brother David and a few others started that soup kitchen, hoping the need would go away. In 2011, though, it serves almost a thousand meals a week.

Many churches and groups help out there, but Brother David's bunch, dubbed Boone & Company, cooks and serves each Friday. That group is all people he has pulled from the street over the years and given jobs to, shelter to, comfort to.

To list Brother David's accomplishments is to cause a forest to be cut down for the paper needed.

In the late 1950s he helped black protestant clergy and the NAACP organize and run a boycott of segregated Rock Hill buses. Today, he remains treasurer/secretary of the NAACP.

He stood with the civil rights protesters over segregated dining, lodging and transportation in the early 1960s - protests that made history when the Friendship Nine went to jail for sitting down at a whites-only lunch counter.

One of those men, David Williamson Jr., said of Brother David: "Greatness. The greatest."

Brother David petitioned to get water and sewer service for poor black families, fighting for years to watch city crews lay the lines that brought the water in and the sewage out of the poorest neighborhoods.

He alone fought to integrate the city's parks and recreation department, demanding that the black teams he coached - and Catawba Indian teams - be allowed to play. He remains on the parks department board of directors to this day.

He pushed for and helped ease the integration of public schools in the city. He founded the Dorothy Day Soup Kitchen a quarter century ago that still opens its doors to all.

In 2009, after 50 years at St. Mary, Brother David received the Order of the Palmetto, the highest civilian honor in the state, for his civil rights and human rights work.

A "Brother David Boone Day" was proclaimed in Rock Hill by the City Council - a turnaround for politicians and civic leaders, who hoped years ago that Brother David would just take his radical idea of racial equality and leave on the next bus with it.

'He did it all'

His work at the church, though - for young people especially - always came first. As he fought for civil rights and registered people to vote, he lived a simple, religious life of service to that St. Mary chapel and its family of followers.

He prayed for people who threatened to kill him and for those who just hated him.

"He ran the basketball games here from the time my father attended them, the dances, coached the baseball and softball teams and drove them all over the place," said Denise Simpson, a parishioner whose father, Clarence Graham, was one of the Friendship Nine protesters.

"He did it all through civil rights and he did it all for the hungry and he did it all for the poor and everyone else. He still does."

Brother David played a crucial role in helping St. Mary raise the money for its new sanctuary, which is attached to the older building he worked in for so long.

He was so loved and respected in his younger years that single women would say, aloud sometimes, watching his demeanor and grace: "I would marry him today."

Some married women would have sure dumped a lousy husband for Brother David, too.

Yet he kept his religious vow of a solitary life - no wife, no kids.

He gave up any chance of having a family for the people of St. Mary and the people of his city - to serve as he could as Catholic brother.

"If I had a wife, a family, I couldn't have stayed at the church all those nights and weekends, so many years, until so late at night," Brother David said. "I was devoted to this place and its people. I still am."

For 52 years at the end of each Mass, Brother David would say to all, "God is good all the time," and the crowd would say back, in unison, "All the time, God is good."

Some of those people would go home to houses without working lights but light bills thick and fat and overdue, and Brother David would leave to find the money to turn the lights back on.

'Leave with nothing'

At 78, Brother David still gets up before the sun and attends Mass. Some days he picks up food or clothing or furniture for the needy.

He helps people find assistance for medication, eyeglasses, rent, food - whatever needs to be done as he sees people outside the church and at the soup kitchen and everywhere on that street he has worked on for 52 years.

He lives, still, in a dormitory at the Oratory, among the priests and other religious people.

He wears no jewelry because he owns none. He drives an Oratory truck but owns no vehicle himself.

This man - who came to the Oratory from the hollows of Kentucky at age 18 and never left - plans to stay at the Oratory and around the people of St. Mary, doing his good works, until he dies.

"I came into this world with nothing; I will leave it with nothing," he said.

Brother David's life and dedication still is, at 78, working to make a better and equal world, to help the poor and the sick, as taught by Jesus Christ - who walked the earth in sandals while penniless.

This afternoon, the people of St. Mary will host an informal drop-in reception at the church to thank Brother David for his years of service.

Nobody needs a suit to thank Brother David.

A couple of hours to look back on 52 years of work that changed the city he lived in - and the world around him.

Brother David will be there. He will come into that church, and he will do what he always does: Smile, and try to give the praise to somebody else.

The brace on his foot will squeak as he walks.

Brother David Boone will walk on anyway - because there is somebody poor and broke out there somewhere who needs him.

Want to go?

The public is invited to a drop-in reception for Brother David Boone from 4 to 6 p.m. today at St. Mary Catholic Church, 911 Crawford Road, Rock Hill.

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