REFLECTIONS/Jonathan Gramling


Jonathan Gramling

I love being involved in the community. It can give one great joy to see some young person who you have known since they were in middle school evolve over time to become a leader in the community. Several issues ago, we did a story on Dr. Rainey Briggs, the newly-hired superintendent of Baraboo schools.

I had known Rainey since he was in middle school and in one of our Madison Urban League programs, Project Jamaa and lived in one of the roughest neighborhoods at the time, Summerset Townhomes.  Rainey was also involved with Stephen Blue and the Neighborhood Intervention Program and other community institutions. It has been an absolute delight to see how Rainey has progressed and become a leader. It has been worth every penny that the community invested in Project Jamaa and NIP. You just have to smile at it all.


But for every moment of happiness, there is a moment of sadness. There is a cycle of life that happens. There is the birth of children into this world who cleanse and nurture our spirit. I might have done a lot of things over the past 40 years, but the most important was to become a father — as opposed to being a sperm donor.

But with birth must come death. And I am saddened with the death of three women I knew and know.

We have different layers of the environment in which we live. We have people who are close to us like family. We have other layers that involve friends, co-workers, acquaintances and people all the way down to the people I recognize and have been nodding to the past 50 years in Madison although I have never had a conversation with them. But for some reason, we recognize each other and nod. They are just as important of a fixture in the environment of my life as a rock star or movie actor who plays a role that somehow has meaning in my life.

And it’s not like they themselves hold up my world or are exclusively responsible for giving my life meaning. But they are a part of the fabric of my life and after a while, as I get older, there are big tears in the fabric of the backdrop to my life and no one left to replace them.

And so these three women died, boom, boom, boom and I are left breathless at its suddenness and finality.

The first is Dzigbodi Akyea. I first met Dzigbodi when I hired her at the Madison Urban League back in the late 1980s or early 1990s to coordinate out Multicultural Agency Training Program. Dzigbodi was so full of life. It was a pleasure to work with her.

I would run into Dzigbodi, her ex-husband Aggo and their children often in life, featuring them at one time of another in The Madison Times and later in The Capital City Hues. I remember Dzigbodi arranging a photo shoot of the members of the African Women’s Association where we featured the members in our middle spread looking their royally lovely selves.

And as I was a member of the African Association of Madison board and the Africa Fest planning committee, I saw Dzigbodi through the years. The last time we spoke was in June when she was starting an assisted-living group home and was looking for employees. For old time’s sake, I gave her a classified ad.

I didn’t see Dzigbodi at this year’s Africa Fest and wondered why she wasn’t there. It was only recently, I figured, that she was experiencing symptoms of her pancreatic cancer. It was only three weeks between her diagnosis and her death. I still can’t believe it.

The second is Valice Payton-Gross. Valice has been a part of this community forever, it seems. I can remember many a community event where she would bring freshly-baked pies for the events. She was an awesome cook and community member.

I don’t remember how it started, but Valice and I would talk on the phone every 1-2 weeks. We would talk about things she read in The Hues, sometimes adding detail I never knew. And we would also talk about other things happening in the community. We were one of each other’s grapevine connections. Valice had such a soft Southern-tinged voice. It was a pleasure to know her and she will be missed. My phone hasn’t been ringing lately. Now I know why.

The third is Phyllis Sanders. Outside of her day job, Phyllis was an artesian, making works of art out of wine bottles and many other things that people would toss away, but Phyllis gave then life once again.

I was assured of running into Phyllis at least once per year at the WWOCN Holiday Scholarship Fundraiser. Phyllis was one of the artisans who were there year after year selling their arts and crafts and clothing and what have you to those in attendance who did their holiday shopping at the event. Often I would take Phyllis’ photo with her wares and place it in The Hues. No longer will her booth be full. She was part of my sense of what Christmas is all about.

And so all three of these women leave a tear in the fabric of my life. I celebrate their lives and the impact they have had on others. But my life is left ever so much emptier by their passing. May your transitions to the next life be joyous!