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Heroic Measures

George Washington Carver touched their lives--even though they are decades apart in age and experience. Now these two Los Angeles men are passing his legacy along.

December 12, 1996|JOCELYN STEWART | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Their lives intersect on the page of history titled George Washington Carver.

A mutual interest in Carver brought them together: Frank Godden, an 83-year-old who knew the humble scientist, and 48-year-old Abdul-Salaam Muhammad, who meticulously researched his childhood hero.

Ask the men about Carver, and the response is the same. They recite long lists of his agricultural discoveries. They speak passionately of the creations he gave the world, while asking nothing in return. They talk of lessons he taught by example.

Since meeting at a gathering of the Tuskegee Alumni Assn. in Los Angeles, Godden and Muhammad have shared their passion for history and their desire to see Carver remembered. The men now live next door to each other in a triplex near USC, working to promote a greater awareness of Carver--particularly among young people.

"If you don't know your background, what you've contributed, there's not too much you can do," Godden said. "History is so important."

Godden, historian for the local Tuskegee Alumni Assn., has amassed a collection of Carver photographs and memorabilia, and created a small museum in the third unit of his triplex. He is routinely sought by curators and writers searching for information about the history he has lived.

"He knows so many things," said Solomon L. Banks Jr., the association president. "What he doesn't have in writing and documentation, he remembers."

Muhammad created Dr. Carver's American Original Creamy Peanut Butter, a brand that carries Carver's image on the jar--a fitting tribute, Muhammad said, to the man who gave the nation peanut butter as we know it. It is not yet on the shelves, but Muhammad is searching for investors and financing to mass-produce the product and simultaneously multiply Carver's profile among the general public.

One of nine children, Godden grew up on the campus of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where Carver was an instructor. He started at the school in 1928 at 14--back when it still offered a grammar school and high school curriculum--and graduated in 1939.

During those years, Godden worked as a campus guide, taking visitors on tours of the laboratory Carver called "God's Little Workshop."

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By then Carver was already known as a "creative scientist"--part scientist, part mystic--who spoke of his inventions as revelations from God.

Each morning, Carver rose at 4 for a daily walk in nature, a quiet time to receive messages from flowers and plants. "I love to think of nature as an unlimited broadcasting system through which God speaks to us every hour, if we only tune in," he once said.

The man who would invent more than 300 uses for the peanut, nearly 200 uses for the sweet potato and revolutionize agricultural practices was born a slave in Diamond Grove, Mo., about 1861.

Shortly after his birth, nightriders kidnapped Carver, his mother and sister from the man who owned them. Carver was returned--near death by then--in exchange for a horse worth $300. But he would never find his mother or sister and later would refer to his aloneness again and again.

In 1921, Carver spoke before a House committee on the issue of a tariff for peanuts. Members at first laughed as he pulled out samples of products made from the peanut. "Do you want a watermelon to go along with that?" one asked. In the end, he was invited back for further testimony.

What Godden remembers most about his first meeting with Carver is the scientist's curiosity about his family. Carver wanted to know everything, so Godden told him--about his father, who was a minister and a farm demonstration agent at Florida A&M University; about his mother, who was a high school principal and music teacher at an all-black high school; and about Live Oak, Fla., the town they lived in before the Klan ran them out because of his father's political activity.

Carver was a humble presence--the same worn clothes, a flower always in his lapel. More than once, Godden trekked across campus to the lab and knocked on the door, a group of curious visitors following close behind. Carver would peep through the cracked door and declare himself too busy to entertain guests.

A young Godden would then whisper pleas on behalf of his visitors. "It was embarrassing as the devil!" Godden said, but eventually Carver gave in. "We would get in there, and he would look like he was afraid to say anything. And then he would warm up, and he was one of the most interesting persons that you ever wanted to meet."

But not until later in life, after leaving Tuskegee, would Godden fully realize the place Carver held in the nation, and the world. "Carver [saved] the South," Godden said. "Carver is to the peanut what Edison was to the lightbulb."

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