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Kirkwood addresses integration in Worthington

WORTHINGTON -- In 1964, during what King Turkey Day speaker Andre Kirkwood called the "height of the racial clash," he and his family moved to Worthington -- one of the first minority families to do so.

WORTHINGTON -- In 1964, during what King Turkey Day speaker Andre Kirkwood called the "height of the racial clash," he and his family moved to Worthington -- one of the first minority families to do so.

His father was employed by Armour and was transferred to the area to work in the Worthington plant.

"I don't know if Armour realized it would be changing the face of Worthington forever," Kirkwood said, his words ringing loud and clear from speakers in the downtown area on Saturday.

Only 9 years old when he arrived in Worthington, Kirkwood said he was aware of racial differences and afraid he would be shunned when he started school.

"Now, I know what Spock must have felt like on the Enterprise," he joked.

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Instead of being treated as an outcast, Kirkwood said his family was accepted easily.

"People smiled and waved when they saw me," he said. "They would say, 'Hey Andre, how are you?' and 'Hey Andre, come on in.' or even, "Hey Andre, if you get in trouble, we're going to tell on you.'"

He spoke of the city becoming integrated, which he said was good for the community and good for the Kirkwoods.

"I had a mother, a father, a sister and a brother," he elaborated, "and I also had the Worthington community as family."

He remembered how safe he felt as a child, riding his bike through the streets of Worthington.

"People talk about brotherhood. In Worthington, they didn't talk about it, they just lived that way," he said. "They didn't preach brotherhood, it just showed in their faces. They didn't need sensitivity training, they just lived by the golden rule."

When he entered high school and joined sports, Kirkwood said the fans yelled and cheered as loud for him as they would for any other athlete.

"I was happy, because I was accepted," he said. "I belonged."

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After graduating from Worthington High School in 1975, Kirkwood joined the U.S. Navy, eventually rising to the rank of Master Chief before retiring.

"I can't understand why the Navy has not opened a base in Worthington," he quipped. "I wanted to come back here many times, but plans change."

Looking out from the main stage in downtown Worthington to the citizens listening, Kirkwood explained that people in the military frequently ask the same questions upon meeting a new shipmate or soldier.

"Where are you from?" they ask or are asked.

"And I always said with pride, 'I'm from Worthington, Minnesota,'" Kirkwood explained. "There was malice toward none with regard to race, color or creed. That is how I saw it then and see it still."

When he received the invitation to be the featured speaker on King Turkey Day, Kirkwood assumed it was a mistake. After calling and finding the invitation was genuine, he immediately became nervous.

Knowing past speakers included Robert Kennedy, Hubert H. Humphrey and Jesse Ventura, Kirkwood almost let his nerves get the best of him and considered declining the invitation.

"But then I remembered the pancake breakfast," he said as the crowd laughed. "I love pancakes."

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He concluded his remarks by saying how honored he was to be invited to speak and to be back in his hometown, adding the City of Worthington is strongly implanted within his heart.

After his speech, he was informed by emcee Chad Cummings and Worthington Mayor Alan Oberloh that he was now required to kiss a turkey. Without missing a beat he stepped forward and attempted to plant a kiss on Oberloh, but was instead handed a live turkey.

Awkwardly holding the large bird, Kirkwood beamed at the audience.

"I finally got one!" he said. "Now I have accomplished everything I needed to do in my life."

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