MAXWELL:  An apology makes all the difference

2/11/1998 – Printed in the EDITORIAL section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


By now, frequent readers of this column know of an encounter, which I perceived as involving race, that Karen Sitren, one of my white female former colleagues, and I had at the Phillippi Creek Village Oyster Bar in Sarasota.

My column about the experience has generated hundreds of letters, telephone calls and e-mail messages expressing both support of and contempt for Karen and me.

On the other side, the column has brought grief to Bill and Gloria McCloskey, owners of the restaurant. They, too, have received hundreds of correspondences from readers, most of them angry. They have been called every nasty name imaginable, and business has been hurt somewhat. Some callers have even threatened the couple.

In a word, life for the McCloskeys has been hell since the column appeared in the St. Petersburg Times and the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which also published related articles. Television and radio stations have aired stories, too.

Two days after the column appeared in the Times, the McCloskeys telephoned and asked if Karen and I would meet with them at the restaurant to discuss what happened that night. Initially, we hesitated. We agreed to meet with them, not in their restaurant, but in Ocala, near Karen’s home in Gainesville, and only if they promised that they would not try to convince us that we did not experience what we, indeed, had experienced.

We did not know what to expect when we met the McCloskeys at the Lone Star restaurant. They are a handsome couple, each over 65 years of age. The four of us talked briefly about ourselves and families and ordered food. As Bill McCloskey approached the subject at hand, he became choked up, tears ran down his cheeks. His wife consoled him by gently rubbing the back of his hand.

Karen and I were stunned. We had not expected to see a grown man cry. After composing himself, McCloskey apologized to Karen and me for “whatever treatment” we had received in their establishment. “Whatever happened,” he said, “it made you and Karen feel terrible. My wife and I are sorry for that.”

He grabbed my hand. “We’re sorry,” he said.

Karen looked at me and smiled. Then she looked at the McCloskeys. “I accept your apology,” she said.

“I accept your apology, too,” I said. “And if the word “forgive’ is appropriate, then I also forgive you.”

I am not embarrassed to acknowledge that we stood, shook hands and embraced. Nor am I embarrassed to say that, as we sat, I felt relieved. I could see that Karen and Gloria McCloskey also were relieved. For more than an hour, we discussed race and interpersonal relations.

The McCloskeys said that they had hired a firm to conduct diversity and public relations training with their employees. “We don’t want what happened to you all to ever happen in our restaurant ever again,” he said. “We are Christian people. We are not racists, and we don’t want any incidents that might be seen as racist. We accept full responsibility for whatever happened in our restaurant.”

If they do all that they have promised, the McCloskeys should be commended. After all, they did not have to meet with Karen and me. They could have been defensive and could have waged an us-against-them war. They did not come to Ocala to defend themselves or their employees. They came to apologize and put this crisis behind them.

Karen and I would have been wrong not to accept the apology of genuinely contrite people. Some of my acquaintances say that we let the McCloskeys off too easily, that we should have tried to find some way to punish them.

Karen and I disagree.

We believe that a bad situation has become the springboard for change and improved race relations. The McCloskeys think so, too. The husband said as much during a subsequent phone call. He said that he now will be more aware of the feelings of others, especially minorities, and will look for ways to promote racial understanding.

I told them about the unique position of black males, who often feel like outsiders in public places. I told him about my hurt, about the way that black males remain silent rather than complain and further complicate their lives.

When I left Ocala, I felt as if I had been part of a meaningful reconciliation. Karen felt the same. As the McCloskeys shook our hands, the husband asked the obvious question: “Will you all honor us by returning to our restaurant?”

Karen and I stared at each other, slightly embarrassed.

“Yes,” we said at the same time.