Lost and found
After more than 45 years, a West Sacramento man reunites with his son
For many years, Harsant Tantsi was a fixture in and around his home at the Park Place senior apartments at 13th and N streets in downtown Sacramento. In the winter, he would sit in the glass-enclosed lobby and wave to passing pedestrians. In warm weather, he would roll his wheelchair out to the sidewalk and hold court, visiting with other Park Place residents and chatting up state workers walking by on their lunch hours. Later, when he got a motorized chair, he would drive over to the state Capitol and roll through the corridors or head over to the courthouse and sit in on courtroom hearings.
Tantsi was always brimming with upbeat anecdotes about his life: his childhood in Indiana, his journey to the West and the many people he befriended along the way. But his darkest, most personal story was reserved only for those closest to him, the handful of friends he trusted completely. When he relates the incident today, more than 45 years after it occurred, his anguish is evident. He is still tormented by a tragic misunderstanding that caused the abrupt and irreparable destruction of his marriage in 1958. The split also resulted in the loss of his only son, Harsant Tantsi Jr., whom he’d never expected to see again.
After he turned 90 last year, Tantsi’s health and mobility began to deteriorate to the point where last month he was forced to relocate to the Somerset Nursing Center in West Sacramento. Tantsi is frustrated that he can’t get around as easily, but his new accommodations have provided him with a fresh audience for his stories about the 1930s, when he was an all-American track star at Central Senior High School in South Bend, Ind. He boasts that, back in the day, he often was told he resembled his hero, Olympic gold-medal sprinter Eddie Tolan, who won gold in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games in the 100- and 200-meter events. After high school, Tantsi said he traveled to the West Coast, working as a chef in Los Angeles and as an assistant to Rex Allison, the president of the Bon Marché department store in Seattle. In 1980, Tantsi moved to Sacramento and worked in maintenance and as a meat cutter for the former traveler’s landmark, Milk Farm restaurant in Dixon.
He also continued to brag about his father, who also was named Harsant. Tantsi the first was born on the Fourth of July in 1874 in South Africa, came to the United States as a child and later attended not one, but two African-American colleges: Wilberforce University in Ohio and Morris Brown College in Atlanta. Both colleges were associated with the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church, which originally was formed in response to the segregation practices at St. George’s Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia. He then went on to become a respected AME pastor and regional church leader.
But Tantsi’s most secret story was about to get a new ending. It was back in 1958, he recalled, that he experienced a major epileptic seizure. At the time, neither he nor his wife knew what it was. He had yet to be diagnosed with the condition, and his wife mistakenly assumed he was mentally ill. As a result, she put Harsant Tantsi Jr. in the care of relatives, and the marriage ended. Two Saturdays ago, for the first time in over 45 years, the father and son were reunited.
Tantsi Jr. was raised by his aunt and uncle and wasn’t told much about his father as he grew up. “My understanding of it is that when I was 1 year old, he and my mother got into an argument. He left and literally dropped off the face of the earth as far as my family was concerned,” he said. Tantsi Jr. relates the story of a family gathering in Michigan he was at when he was about 11 years old. His father’s name inadvertently came up. “My dad was mentioned, and it was as if someone opened up a walk-in freezer—all conversation essentially stopped,” he said. “And that was the impression I’ve always had of my dad. You mention him, and either no one knows or no one wants to speak of him.”
After Tantsi Jr. grew up, he went to work in the telecommunications industry and spent more than 20 years working at GTE, Lucent Technologies and AT&T Broadband. After a stint in Denver, he moved to Southern California, where he now works for a business long-distance-services company in Van Nuys. When people searches became available on the Internet, Tantsi Jr. started surfing for leads to his father. At one point, he came across a real-estate loan document from Sacramento that had his father’s name on it. “But that was it. Then it pretty much dead-ended,” he said. When he got married in 1999, his wife got involved in the hunt, and last November she came across a Tantsi at an address on N Street in Sacramento. And the listing included a phone number.
Tantsi Sr. said he will never forget the day he received that phone call. “[My son said], ‘Are you Harsant?’” He said he was. “[My son said], ‘Well, I’m Harsant, too.’” Tantsi Sr. said they laughed and talked at length. “Jesus by God we had a long talk,” he said. “I asked, ‘How old are you?’ I couldn’t believe it.” The son suggested he come up for a visit, and the father concurred, and last month they met face to face for the first time since the son was a baby.
Tantsi Jr. described the meeting as an emotional experience and talked about how he saw a lot of himself in his dad. So, it turned out, did his wife, Mia. “Every time he would say something that sounded like it had come out of my mouth, she’d kind of look at me and nudge me, ‘Oh, that’s where you get that from,’” he said.
Tantsi Sr. did most of the talking, while the son tried to take it all in. “I don’t know if I’ve come to grips with it. This is someone who is my dad, but I’ve had 48 years to live without him, so I just sat back and let him speak,” Tantsi Jr. said. After the reunion, he and his wife visited her sister, who recently moved to Sacramento, and then drove around town. They were impressed with the city and are considering moving north. “If a job opportunity presented itself, we would consider moving there. The time we spent [in Sacramento] was very pleasant,” he said.
Meanwhile, they plan to visit his dad at least one weekend a month and catch up on the lost years. Tantsi Jr. said his wife already has fallen in love with her newfound father-in-law. “He’s just like you. He’s silly just like you,” she told him. And Tantsi Sr. already feels a bond with her. “She reminds me of my mother, like someone you’ve known all your life,” he said. “Like my mother, I just couldn’t imagine her getting angry.”