February 6, 2014
I am honored to be here today in celebration of Oakwood University, and of my good friend Frank Hale.
You know, one of my favorite memories of Frank was actually the last time I ever saw him. On the last day I visited Frank, he knew he was dying. Yet, a day that could have been somber was, instead, filled with cheer and laughter.
When I arrived, there was Frank; hard at work planning his funeral — or, a better word for Frank would be a “life celebration.” He gave me a play-by-play description of his life celebration and, after nearly an hour, I said to him, “Frank! This is going to take all day!” He said, “Yes, and why not?”
That was pure Frank. He celebrated life and death in full force. And, he died with great dignity and with the celebration that he deserved.
When I first came to Ohio State University in 1990, Frank was already an iconic leader. He had a real affection for the university and our students, as I am sure he did at Oakwood.
And, Frank was chock full of advice for a young university president. In fact, I very clearly remember the best advice that he ever gave me. He once said to me, “Gordon: Be.Your. Self.” I continue to live by those words every day.
And, Frank lived by his own advice. He was never one to look back. Frank lived his life looking through the windshield, not the rearview mirror.
As we all know, in his early career, Frank prevailed during a time of trials and tribulations, of both civil unrest and a lack of basic civility. Yet, he cleared every obstacle in his path, and was a polar star in higher education for more than five decades.
From working with him, I can tell you that he came to campus every day with energy, passion, and a positive outlook. How many times did he retire anyway? Like some of us, he had that drive to keep moving on and on.
Frank was a pioneer who personified diversity — not only in higher education, but in humankind itself. He brought those characteristics of optimism with him to the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century. He became firmly established at Oakwood as a professor and, as you probably know, he organized a three-car caravan of students to Montgomery to witness the trial of Rosa Parks. That shows you the kind of person Frank was — a person devoted to civil action, goodness, and engaging students outside the classroom.
And, his impact spread far beyond the states of Alabama and Ohio. He was the first African-American to hold a deanship in the Graduate School at Ohio State University. Through his efforts, more than $15 million in graduate fellowship awards were granted to 1,200 minority students. Eighty percent of those fellowship recipients earned masters or doctoral degrees. During his tenure, the university was cited as the number one producer of African-American Ph.Ds in the nation in the 1970s and 1980s.
I will say that again: the number one producer in the nation.
Frank was very clearly a world-class leader, who provided opportunities that cultivated other brilliant minds and hard workers.
We need superstars like Frank in higher education today. I am delighted to see that his legacy continues to live on at Oakwood University through his daughter, Dr. Ifeoma Kwesi, a talented professor here in the Department of Religion.
Although he worked at Ohio State for quite some time, his heart very clearly belonged to Oakwood and to the advancement of historically black colleges and universities. He realized, and I agree with him 100 percent on this, that historically black colleges and universities are a pillar of strength in the higher education industry. There are more than 4,500 higher education institutions in the United States today, and that includes a mix of public and private, two-year and four-year institutions, medical schools and community colleges.
I firmly believe that it is precisely this diversity of approach that makes American higher education the best in the world. These myriad institutions promote diversity in ways of thinking, ideas, beliefs, values, innovations. And, if we lose the voice of historically black college and universities, then we risk losing our sense of common concern for education in America. Thanks, in large part to Frank Hale, Oakwood University is one of those powerful voices in higher education today.
Oakwood and West Virginia University, where I am currently serving as president—for the second time around—have a lot in common. West Virginia University is a public, land-grant university with a vested interest in bettering our communities, and I see that in a lot of the work at Oakwood. At West Virginia, we are striving to serve as a model institution for the attraction and inclusion of diverse groups. Fostering diversity and inclusion has been one of our top strategic goals, and we are continuing in a direction that will grow our university into an institutional haven for intergroup relations, curriculum, and scholarship.
In fact, our Chief Diversity Officer David Fryson is here with me today. David was also educated at a historically black college and continues to be inspired by Frank’s book, Angels Watching Over Me. In my short time working with David, I can tell you he certainly exhibits a similar flair and passion for his work as the great Frank Hale.
Well, I know you are all tired of hearing me talk, so I will end with this thought for the students here:
Oakwood helped shape Frank Hale and his long, vibrant career, and it will do the same for you, as long as you never give up, study hard, and of course, remember to have some fun while you are here.
Frank was a force to be reckoned with, who opened the doors of opportunity to underserved students through sheer force of his intellect and determination.
And, because of Frank Hale and people like him, I believe that the spirit of good endures.
Thank you, again, and I will now gladly take your questions.