A few weeks ago I received a letter from Carol Quillen, the president of Davidson College, informing me that I had been selected to receive the Distinguished Alumnus Award. This came as quite a pleasant surprise and a great honor, especially given the achievements of so many in the fabulous class of 1964. When I told Embry about it, she exclaimed, “You got the Disruptive Alumni Award? Fabulous! Long overdue.”
The letter and the award certificate cited my work in social justice and civil rights, in developing affordable and seniors housing and my writing, teaching, and volunteer involvement. My Davidson roommate for three years and best friend, Sam Glasgow, gave the award.
Here are my remarks:
Thanks, Sam, for your kind words. I do not know how I could add anything but I will give it a try. First of all, thanks, Davidson. This is an extraordinary honor for me. Now I have not gotten a whole lot of awards in my lifetime; but even if I had, I would put this one at the top of the list. I know how much many in this room have achieved and accomplished and am aware that this award could have gone to a whole lot of people in our class.
Davidson is a great school and had a great impact on my life. I am truly grateful and want to say thanks. Here are the things I am thankful for in order of importance.
First of all, thank you, Davidson, for blind dates. Or more specifically one blind date in particular. This blind date occurred at the Spring Frolics weekend during our senior year. My good friend and our classmate, Reese Coppage, who sadly is no longer with us, arranged it. The date was with a former townie and a student at Randolph Macon Women’s College, one Susan Embry Martin, known then by all as “Mimy” Martin and the daughter of Louise and Grier Martin, the president of the college.
Now I was a bit apprehensive since I was already something of a persona non grata on campus due to my civil rights involvement, but also I knew President Martin to be a kind and gentle person, who I believed would not hold grudges. That blind date resulted in our marriage in December 1965 and some 54 years of life together– and counting. Mimy, now known by most as “Embry,” has had quite a distinguished career—a PhD in public policy and a noted researcher in the health policy research field. She is an ardent feminist and advocate for the disadvantaged. She is also a world traveler. We have visited or worked in some 45 countries and in 2015 traveled around the world without flying. It has been quite a ride. Thank you, Davidson, for blind dates.
My next thank you is for best friends. I had several best friends in Davidson and they—almost all of them—are here, some with their wives. Sam Glasgow and his wife, Diane; John and Jane Spratt, Hank and Mel Ackerman, and my roommate senior year, Bud Fry. Jim Killebrew was supposed to be here but flaked out at the last minute. These friendships have been very important to me, and I think it is pretty unusual that I have kept up strong ties with all of them for some 55 years and counting. Thank you, Davidson, for best friends!
My next thanks is for the professors that we had. Now these guys were not all great teachers, but they were on the whole great men and great human beings. They were men of integrity and decency and whom we got to know as people and mentors, not just as teachers.
The first on my list is Bill Goodykoontz. Now it is true as Sam pointed out that English Professor Goodykoontz was a bit of a loose cannon, and it is true that he did call President Martin a “female fish monger” at one point, but he was also inspirational and had a huge impact on many people. He left Davidson—he probably was fired—our junior year and moved on to Chapel Hill where he lasted a couple of years before he was fired or quit and ended up in New York City writing for the Weekly Reader. Embry and I were in New York at the time where I was studying at Union Seminary, and we saw him and his partner Chuck Wry, also a friend of ours, on a regular basis. The most amazing thing was that this overweight, disheveled intellectual became a serious runner and completed the New York City marathon in the late 1960s. He died in Chapel Hill in the late 1980s when he was in his early 70s and was buried in the outfit he wore when he completed the New York Marathon. Thank you, Davidson, for Bill Goodykoontz.
And there were many others. Think for a minute about these extraordinary people: Dan Rhodes, Max Polly, Charlie Lloyd, Henry Lilly, Frontis Johnson, Phil Secor, Ernie Patterson, Olin Puckett, Malcolm Lester, Bill McGavock, Jim Martin (erstwhile Chemistry professor to become US Congressman and two-term Governor of North Carolina), Earl McCormack and philosophy professor, Dr. Abernathy. (Does anyone know if Dr. Abernathy had a first name?). These men—and other professors at Davidson–were great human beings. They embodied integrity and decency, and were student-focused and accessible. They instilled in us the Davidson values that have guided a lot of us through life. Thanks, Davidson, for the professors that we had at Davidson.
And then there was Grier Martin, my father-in-law to be, though I surely did not know that at the time. He was a kind and gentle person with extraordinary integrity and vision. What you saw is what you got. My favorite Grier Martin story was when the spring of our senior year I was called by his assistant to tell me that the president wanted to see me at his home that very evening. This came two days before the planned “March In Charlotte” in support of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. I had been expecting this call but was still apprehensive when I knocked on the door of the president’s house and was met by his gracious wife, Louise, who directed me to the parlor on the first floor. Dr. Martin offered me a seat and then got right to the point. The chairman of the Davidson College Board of Trustees and the Mayor of Charlotte had both contacted him and directed him to direct me to call off the march. They both pointed out to him that Charlotte had a pretty good track record on race relations and a march would give the town and the college a bad name. It was not fair and would cause more harm than good.
He went on to list other reasons that I should consider, such as our own safety, and then looked me right in the eye and said, “Joe, I am directing you as is my duty to call off the march, but you should know that I do not have the authority to keep you from doing this.” I noted a slight smile and twinkle in his eye. I knew a wink and a nod when I saw one, and this was surely it. I smiled right back and replied, “Thank you, Dr. Martin. I fully understand.”
What I did not know was that Grier Martin had been working for years behind the scenes first to bring Africans to campus as students, which happened our sophomore year, and then to open up Davidson to African American students, which happened just after we graduated. He was a great president of Davidson and a great man. We lost him way too early. Thanks, Davidson, for Grier Martin.
The final thing that I will mention that I am thankful for is what I would call strong Presbyterian values: hard work, perseverance, determination, steadfastness, humility and modesty.
Now I can talk about Presbyterian values from the perspective of an outsider. I am not a Presbyterian but rather what is called a “cradle Episcopalian.” We Episcopalians share some of the same values but not the last two—modesty and humility. In fact the minute I get back to Washington I am going to post a photo of this award and post it on Facebook! Thank you, Davidson, for strong Presbyterian values.
As some of you know, Embry and I have lived in Washington DC since the early 1970s. The neighborhood where we live in Washington seems to be a magnate for people who come to Washington to make a difference and to change the world for the better. They do not come to make a lot of money so much as to make a name for themselves. A lot come from Ivy League schools, and several of my best friends went to Yale, Harvard or Princeton. At reunion time we often share stories and compare notes. These Ivy League graduates when talking about their 25thor 50thor 55threunions casually mention some of the panels of graduates—a panel of Nobel laureates, another of Pulitzer prize winners, another of CEOs of Fortune 500 Companies and so on. I listen patiently and then reply that we Davidsonians have our high profile stars. Our class has Congressman John Spratt, basketball coach Terry Holland and humanities star Bill Ferris. We can match our guys with their guys. But I tell them that the high profile stuff is not what Davidson is all about. I say to them, “You Ivy League guys, you are like the landed gentry. We Davidson guys, we are the yeoman farmers. We are the unsung heroes, who work tirelessly in our home towns and communities to make them better places, and this in my view is really what counts and makes America great. “
We are leaders in our various professional organizations. We are cub scout and boy scout leaders. We are PTA presidents and Sunday school teachers. We tutor disadvantaged, inner city kids. We work in soup kitchens. We raise money for the United Way and other charities. We serve on planning boards, zoning boards, city and county councils, civic associations and the most thankless of all, neighborhood and condo association boards. We are church elders, session members, vestry members and serve in various other leadership capacities in our churches and non profit organizations.
We Davidson grads do the heavy lifting that makes a difference in people’s lives on the local and grassroots level where it really counts. We learned at Davidson the importance of service to others and to our community, and for this I am especially proud. I am proud of you guys, my classmates of the Fabulous Class of 1964. We have made a difference. I am honored to be part of the Class of 1964 for doing our part. And thank you, Davidson, for this honor of recognition, which I will cherish always.