Opinion: Memories of ‘John the Baptist’

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Commentary by Ward Degler

If God treats souls according to their impact on humanity, there is a very special place reserved in heaven for John Angle. John has been gone for many years, of course, but to folks in Jefferson City, Mo., he holds a permanent place of honor in their hearts and memories.

John was known to all of us as John the Baptist, a name he selected for himself at some undetermined moment in his life. He was simple-minded, the illiterate son of emancipated slaves, born two days before Christmas in 1875. 

The first time I saw John was in 1950 when I was in high school. The last time I saw him I was a writer for the city newspaper a dozen years later. Both times, he was sitting on the sidewalk in front of a downtown store, purposefully squeezing an ancient and barely functional accordion and humming along with the phrases of some wordless tune.

John was always shabbily but colorfully dressed. His signature costume consisted of a frayed tuxedo jacket and an ancient silk top hat that he wore at a jaunty angle atop a crop of wiry white hair. Several rows of medals were pinned to his jacket along with a number of military campaign ribbons and a faded VFW Buddy Poppy. His entourage included two or more stuffed animals and a mechanical monkey that clapped metal cymbals together when wound up with a key.

On the sidewalk in front of him was a brass collection plate, an anonymous gift from a local church. John was always grateful for any donation passersby contributed. He never asked for anything, but if shown a handful of change, he would always opt for the pennies rather than the silver.

“Gold money,” he called it.” I like gold money.”

Whenever there was a parade in town, the folks in charge always made sure John was positioned somewhere near the front, often right behind the drum major. John the Baptist was no slouch at strutting his stuff.

He lived with three elderly women on the west side of town. Someone said that one of them was a distant relative, but I never confirmed it. Each morning he gathered his belongings at the bus stop and rode downtown to the corner where he would set up shop. When the stores closed in the evening, he would ride the return bus back home. The bus drivers never charged him a fare.

I left town shortly after the last time I saw John, and never returned. I found a note in the newspaper archives published on his birthday in 1968 inviting readers to send birthday cards to him at a nursing home in a neighboring city.

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