More than 35 years ago, I walked into the men’s section of Cox’s department store on Fort Worth’s west side looking for a sport jacket or a suit.The salesman quickly sized me up by eyeballing the measurements, reached for a jacket on one of the racks and said, “You look like a 38 or 39 regular.”He slipped the jacket on me and it was a perfect fit. I bought it.Little did I know at the time that Darwin Jacques Mendoza would spend the rest of his life sizing me up — critiquing my writing, offering advice and constantly challenging me to keep fighting for justice.As our relationship grew, he and his wife, Muriel, became more than friends; they were mentors and “family.” I often referred to him as my “elder brother” and he sometimes called me “son,” although he was the father of a daughter and a son my age.It didn’t take long for this personal hero of mine to reveal himself as a true Renaissance man: a scholar who loved art, music, literature, nature and, most of all, humanity.It was years, however, before he told stories that made me realize he also was an authentic American hero, a West Point graduate who was a paratrooper in World War II and helped liberate France. He would smile when talking about landing in a field near Langres, France, and how an 11-year-old boy ran to greet him as Darwin gathered his parachute.That French town brought him back for an official honor when it celebrated the 50th anniversary of D-Day in 1994. The boy who had greeted Darwin in the field 50 years before was on hand for the celebration.But more than his military exploits, Darwin was most proud of organizing and chairing the first board of directors for Jubilee Theatre, an African-American company that was founded by the late Rudy Eastman and his wife, Marian.Darwin and Muriel had gone to see the group’s production of A Raisin in the Sun in 1981, and fell in love with the players who for several years were a “gypsy” troupe, going from one stage to another to perform.Darwin was determined to find a permanent home for Jubilee, secure additional funding for an annual operating budget, solicit other theater lovers to help support it and to see it appeal to a more diverse audience.After a couple of short-lived places it called home, the theater moved into its current downtown facility on Main Street in 1993, and it truly began to flourish, attracting new audiences, presenting more challenging productions and receiving even more critical acclaim. In many ways for Darwin, Jubilee was like his third child, and to be able to see it turn 30 two years ago thrilled him. After Muriel’s death, it seemed to mean even more.Just three weeks ago, when I was visiting him at the Dallas senior living center where he was staying, he asked me to find out what was playing at Jubilee and figure out a date when he and I could go. I said I would, unable to tell him that he probably would not get to Jubilee again.As he grew weaker over the next several days, staff at the center talked to me about how he cheered up everyone there with his dancing and with his poetry. He was an excellent poet and essayist, one who for years was a regular letter writer to the Star-Telegram.In one of our last conversations, he held my hand and said: “Remember we both have said that we would always die in the struggle.”“Yes, I remember,” I said.“Keep fighting,” he said. “Don’t stop fighting.”Darwin died in the early morning hours of July 16 at the age of 94.Friends and family will celebrate his life at 2 p.m. Aug. 9 at Silverado Senior Living-Turtle Creek in Dallas.
Bob Ray Sanders' column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. 817-390-7775 Twitter: @BobRaySanders