It was the spring of 1964. I was a high school senior. I wanted to attend Temple University…but I guess I missed the application deadline. At the time, I couldn’t afford Temple anyway. So, I decided that once I graduated, I would work for a year; save up some money and apply to Temple the following year.
In June of that year, my minister, Rev. Edler G. Hawkins, caught wind of my plans. He was not happy. “Rev” (that’s what we called him) was a second father to many of us teens growing up in the south Bronx (New York). He insisted that I go to college in the fall. His opinion was that if I got a job, I would probably spend my money on a piece of a car and drive around the neighborhood thinking how cool I was…and I’d never go to college! (He was probably right, but I didn’t think so at the time.)
I reminded “Rev” that it was June…far past the deadline to attend any college that fall. His response was…”let me work on it”. He asked for copies of my high school transcript. A few weeks later, “Rev” told me he had “arranged” for me to attend the University of Dubuque in Iowa! Huh? Iowa! You gotta be kidding me! Where is Iowa anyway?
In those days (the 60s)…I had never been further west of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania! Hell…I’d never been further south of Philadelphia (thank God)! I was a New York City boy! I told “Rev” that I was really grateful and sincerely appreciated his efforts…but I wasn’t going to anybodies Iowa! “Rev” insisted. He had done so much for me…how could I say a flat out no? We reached a deal. I would go to the University for just one semester…and if I didn’t “like” it…all bets were off and I could return to the Bronx! No questions asked? His response…”that’s a deal”!
Early in September of 1964, I boarded a Greyhound bus at New York City’s Port of Authority bus terminal. Over thirty hours later, after a connection in Chicago and a few “roadside bus stops” enroute to Dubuque, I arrived at the bus depot in downtown Dubuque.
From the time I left Chicago, until the time I arrived in Dubuque…I never saw another black person…not even on the bus! Again, this was 1964. My instructions were to call the President’s office upon my arrival…and then catch a cab to the campus. The cab pulled up to Steffen’s Hall and Gaylord Couchman, President of the University, personally greeted me! That first semester came and went and the rest is history.
I later learned that “Rev” and Dr. Gaylord Couchman attended New York’s Union Theological Seminary together. I think they may even have been roommates!
I often look back and reflect on my four years at the University. It was truly the best of times during the worst of times. The year prior to me attending, a church was bombed in Alabama and President Kennedy was assassinated. There was, and continued to be, a great deal of civil unrest and racial injustice. There was “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Alabama…that I viewed from afar…on a black & white TV in the University’s student union lounge. I watched National Guardsmen block blacks from entering southern universities and use fire hoses on innocent & peaceful demonstrators across the south. On top of all of this…there was the ongoing and ever escalating Viet Nam war.
Just prior to my graduation, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated! Shortly after my graduation there was the infamous 1968 Democratic national convention and the resulting riots in Chicago, Illinois.
For me, the university provided a tranquil, calming shelter from much of the insanity that helped define the 60s. I received a solid education, both academically and socially. I made lifelong friends. I remember the times I spent with some of my Iowan friends and their family on their farms…chasing (corralling?) pigs and driving huge combines! I also remember how saddened I was just days before my graduation, because I knew this phase of my life was coming to an end. I knew it would never be the same again and it has never been. That’s life.
To this day, when I’m asked where I attended college…I always get the following question; “How did a kid from the south Bronx wind up in Dubuque, Iowa?” My standard response is; “How much time do you have?”
As I mentioned, I grew up in the South Bronx…in close proximity to the burned out neighborhood that President Jimmy Carter visited back in the 1970s. Back in the 1950s, we had kids from all races, religions and ethnicities attending my elementary school (Public School #54). However, each group lived in different sections of the “neighborhood”…but we all attended PS 54.
As time passed, whites moved out. After elementary school, my Mom had concerns about me attending the local Junior High School (JHS). The neighborhood was in transition and the local schools’ academic status was questionable. So, just prior to the beginning of the school year, using my great-grandmother’s address…(in another part of the Bronx), she “arranged” for me to attend a “better” Junior High School.
I arrived at JHS 127 and quickly realized that I was the only black in a student population of almost 1,000 teenagers. Needless to say, I stood out like a sore thumb…and I felt it. The first few months were difficult for me but as time passed, I learned to adapt. I developed some great friendships but had to lie to them about where I actually lived. In those days…I was not supposed to attend JHS 127! If anyone knew my true address…I would have been expelled.
A few years later…I attended James Monroe High School. James Monroe was a “mini” United Nations. Again kids from all ethnicities, races and religions attended…and our friendships knew no boundaries! I think it was about 70% white (Irish, Italian, Jewish, WASP), 25% black/Latino and 5% Asian. It was truly a United Nations. The total student body was huge…over 4,000! Our claim to fame was that we had the second largest stage in New York City…second only to Radio City Music Hall! There were 1184 students in my senior class alone. There was also another Paul Clayton who I didn’t even know! His ranking was #1183 out of the 1184 seniors graduating that year. They mistakenly sent his transcript to Dubuque! That’s a whole ‘nother story!