“Overcoming: How Faith, Family, and Friends Helped One Black Man Beat the Odds,” chronicles the life journey of Dr. Willie Dean.
Those bedrocks helped Dean rise from a poor, African-American child born to sharecropper parents, to becoming the first president and CEO of the Omaha, Nebraska YMCA.
Dean discussed his book and chatted with supporters during a book-signing event Sunday (Dec. 11) at LeMoyne-Owen College.
“This work symbolizes my faith in God and the importance of family and friends in my life,” Dean said.
“It also takes a thoughtful look back at the barriers I was able to overcome, with the grace of God ⸺ racism, bullies, divorce, a near-death experience following cancer surgery, and the deaths of a spouse and my parents.”
Dean said the book took about 10 years to write.
“Over the course of eight years, I was jotting down notes from what I could remember as well as research,” said Dean. “It took me another two years to actually write the book.”
Completing an autobiography has its own reward, said Dean. But the road to publication was not always a smooth one.
“Before choosing to self-publish, I applied to eight Christian publishing companies,” said Dean. “Growing up in the South, there is a pervasive racism every day in the experiences of African Americans. Instead of saying ‘the “n” word,’ I spelled out ‘nigger.’ All the publishers turned down the book because of ‘foul language.’”
But Dean felt direct quotes from those who heaped oppressive, racist experiences would more poignantly create the moment for a reader.
“I wanted readers to feel the way I felt when people used the “n” word,” said Dean. “Initially, my life told in my own words was my gift and legacy to three adult sons. But as I worked on the project, I saw that it could be so much more.”
Dean said some of the most satisfying experiences have been talking to live audiences at book signings about some of his most harrowing experiences.
“One of the events I write about happened when I was only 8 years old,” said Dean. “We were driving on (U.S.) Highway 61, from Memphis to Oklahoma City. And I remember when my dad tried to pass this old white man. The man would speed up and not let him come back over.
“Oncoming traffic was coming, and my father had to floor the accelerator to get past this driver. And I thought, ‘What did we do to this man that he hated us so much — someone we didn’t even know.’”
Dean also looks at several other cases of African-American men, who have senselessly lost their lives at the hands of vigilantes and police.
Dean is the husband of former Memphis City Schools superintendent, Dr. Carol Johnson-Dean, who has also accompanied Dean to scheduled book-signings.
“I enjoy the interaction and exchange as well, of others who can identify with many of the experiences described by my husband,” said Johnson-Dean. “We connect with others who understand how disheartening it can be, dealing with racism. The book has sparked so many meaningful conversations.”
“When I graduated in 1969, Black boys in America had only a 70 percent chance of getting a high school diploma,” said Dean. “But through the grace of God, I earned my bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees at Memphis State University, University of Nebraska at Omaha, and the University of Minnesota, respectively.”
Dean said that through his faith and support from family and friends, he has enjoyed “an illustrious, 35-year career with the YMCA.”
“I rose from program director of a Y branch in Memphis, to becoming the first African-American president and CEO of the Omaha YMCA in the organization’s 123-year history.
“After retiring from the YMCA, I was blessed to be named executive director of KFAI Radio Station and YouthCARE in Minneapolis, Minnesota.”