Forty-five years ago my college classmates and I became the largest class to ever graduate from Arkansas Agricultural Mechanical and Normal College, now the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (UAPB). Like countless numbers of UAPB graduates before us, we have had successful careers in education, social services, government, business and Industry and the military, among other employment sectors. Except for those who came from metropolitan areas like Chicago, Memphis, Little Rock or Pine Bluff, most of us came from towns, hamlets and villages with a single stop light and a few hundred residents at best. Like me, the overwhelming majority of my classmates arrived on campus with their belongings in cheap suitcases or large trunks in the family car, or in the back of a dusty pickup truck.
In the years since graduation, we have busied ourselves with raising children and with jobs that required our undivided attention. Thus, we’ve returned to campus only periodically for Homecoming, Founders’ Day or the funeral or memorial service of a beloved faculty or staff member. God willing, that will change this fall when a few hundred of us return November 7-9, 2014, for a weekend of festivities punctuated by hugs, laughs and tears for classmates who taken flight to a place beyond the physical horizon of Mother Earth. Per the request of the Reunion Planning Committee, I have paid my registration fee, reserved a hotel room and signed up for every scheduled event. Importantly, I have made my financial contribution toward our class goal of $200,000, which is smaller than the goal for which I was hoping. I must admit that as the reunion date nears, I’m more excited than a pre-adolescent boy who can barely wait to open his Christmas or birthday gifts!
Personally, I’ve returned to campus on numerous occasions as a featured speaker or pro bono consultant. Even so, I am truly excited and honored to have been invited to serve as the keynote speaker at my 45th class reunion. I’ve been asked to speak no more than 15 minutes on the topic, Keeping it Alive at Forty-Five! And, I have been asked to keep my remarks light-hearted and fun. As a retired three-time university president who had words for every occasion, from funerals to commencements, I must admit I am still trying to sort through what to say so that I don’t disappoint those who were kind enough to recommend or select me for this auspicious occasion. As country boy who “got religion” many years ago via the “Mourners’ Bench”, I am confident that what I should say will be “revealed” to me over the ensuing weeks and months. I am sure that what follows will be among the key points I’ll emphasize in my remarks. Of course, I reserve the right to change my mind depending on the directions of the spirit!
While this speech may not be in keeping with my classmates’ request to “keep my remarks light-hearted and fun”, I anticipate that as I continue to sort through my thoughts and memories, I will be led to some less serious observations about my college experience at UAPB.
Classmates, you honor me greatly by inviting me to make a few remarks this evening. During the course of my long career in the academy, I have made more speeches than I can remember, in more places than I can remember, and for more money than I ever thought one of my speeches was worth. What I want to do this evening is tell you why I love this HBCU, our alma mater, and why we owe her our unswerving loyalty and financial support during these times of uncertainty and need.
First and foremost, I love this place because it gave all of us a shot at obtaining a college education during an era when white schools throughout the state of Arkansas were so wedded to racial segregation that they wouldn’t even accept an application from a black person no matter how talented we may have been. Of course, that began to slowly change as we neared the UAPB graduation finish line in 1969. Whether poorly prepared or well prepared honor students, our alma mater accepted us just as we were and honed us into graduates prepared to compete with talent from around the world. We were among the first in appreciable numbers to enter the corporate world of IBM, Ford Motor Company, General Motors, General Electric, the U. S. Department of Agriculture, etc.
Second, I am convinced that the Supreme Being placed Mrs. Gladys McKindra Smith, my Freshman Studies Advisor, in my path because He knew that this unpolished rural boy from a subsistence farming background needed the guidance and encouragement of someone who exuded patience and kindness, and who knew that I had more academic potential than my composite ACT score would suggest. Although Mrs. McKindra Smith had no biological children, she was the surrogate mom and mentor for countless numbers of us. Sensing the anxiety of a young man about to embark upon a journey along a path without landmarks, my advisor handed me a schedule of classes with these simple words, “Mr. Nelms, your scores are sort of low but if you follow this schedule you’ll be alright”. From that moment on, until receiving my doctorate from Indiana University a decade and a half later, I was indeed alright! I love our alma mater and those in her employ because they refused to allow us to use race or racism as excuses for not excelling academically.
Third, I love our alma mater because I was provided a seventy-five cent per hour work-study job milking Holstein dairy cows on the College Farm. When I became discouraged and told my supervisor, the chair of the Animal Husbandry department, of my plans to quit because I feared that I would not be able to earn enough money to cover the unfunded portion of my college expenses, he refused to accept my resignation. Instead, he encouraged me to maintain my work-ethic and attitude and he’d make sure I could enroll in school. True to his word, he gave his secretary a blank check as he headed out of town the day of registration with instructions to make the check out for whatever amount I needed. There was no expectation of repayment, only that I would do well academically. I’m pleased to note that I spent my career in higher education paying him back by supporting students who, like me, only needed an opportunity.
Fourth, I love our alma mater because of the mentoring I was privileged to receive from the College president, Dr. L. A. “Prexy” Davis, who was a staunch advocate for students despite the strictures of in loco parentis. He was willing to speak truth to the powerful white politicians and businessmen who worked tirelessly to undermine and discredit him because he dared to challenge the racist policies and practices during the segregated era of the 1950s and 1960s. Equally as important, when I told him of my desire to become a college president he didn’t discourage me. He gave me a big smile of approval and said affectionately, “Boy, you can do it!”
Finally, the best advice I ever received came from “Prexy” and others at UAPB. They advised me to leave the South for graduate school. Not only did they encourage me, they wrote letters of recommendation and made telephone calls to their white professional colleagues at northern universities on my behalf. Their advocacy resulted in my receiving assistantships from several excellent universities, one of which I earned two graduate degrees and another that awarded me a national fellowship for two years.
As we assemble for this, our 45th class reunion, I am retired from active university leadership but not from my passionate advocacy on behalf of HBCUs. I am an advocate for HBCUs not because of what they have been but for what they are–an engine of opportunity for people like us. Although I can never repay UAPB for what she did for me (indeed, all of us), every year I gladly pay an installment on that bill. This year, approximately 20 students at four universities will receive scholarships because of the investment that UAPB made in me 45 years ago.
Yes, we are Keeping It Alive at Forty-Five and we’re all going to prove it on the dance floor in just a few minutes! Although the contours of many of our bodies have changed, and so has the true color of our hair, it’s fantastic to see you even if I don’t remember your name!