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Carl Rowan: Worked to Make a Difference

By Betty Gabrielli


Carl Rowan
Carl Rowan



Reuters News Service: "Crusading Columnist Carl Rowan Dies"

Associated Press: "Journalist Carl Rowan Dies"

SEPTEMBER 23, 2000--If anyone epitomized Oberlin's belief that one person can change the world, it was Carl Rowan '47, who died this morning of natural causes in the Intensive Care Unit of Washington Hospital Center.

Rowan spent his life challenging the status quo. Fostering the vision that one person can make an impact, in 1987 he founded Project Excellence, which has awarded over $39.5 million in scholarships to college-bound black students from the Washington, D.C., area, many of whom have gone on to graduate from Oberlin College.

One of Oberlin's most cherished and revered sons, Rowan had his first encounter with the College in 1943, when the navy sent him to Northwestern University for summer training as a naval reserve officer. When the university refused him residence because of his color, the navy transferred Rowan to Oberlin.

After the war, he recalled in his autobiography, Breaking Barriers, he returned to the Oberlin campus to complete his degree as a mathematics major. But he also came back because he felt "Oberlin would permit me to study in a special oasis, sheltered from the hurts, the anger, the rage, that all victims of racism experience."

It was a memorable period for him.

No course he took at Oberlin, he said, "was as educating" as having Bumpy Stevenson, wife of College president William Stevenson, join his friends and him in a sit-in at a Columbus, Ohio, hotel after the hotel dining room denied them service because he, a black man, was in the group.

Another major experience was the post-dinner bull sessions in the coed dining room of Pyle Inn, where students "argued about the burning issues of the day."

Rowan credited Miss Foster, his English professor, for confirming his ambition to "earn a living using the English language."

Lost in a class of more than 100 students, he had confronted her with a request to critique his essay "A Conqueror's Plea," which he later described as "an angry bit of prose that I wrote as I returned from a war that I knew had not given me freedom."

After reading it Foster said, he reported: "'Whew! I think you'll make it.'"

"That put forty years of wind under my wings," Rowan said. " . . . "But nothing did more for me than those sessions at Pyle Inn to push me toward wisdom, to force me to develop concepts of justice and take stands, even unpopular ones."

Over the years, Rowan returned periodically to the campus in various capacities.

Speaking at the 1995 inaugural symposium of Nancy Dye's installation as president of the College, he said this (as reported in the Winter 1995 Oberlin Alumni Magazine) about the relationship between community service and academia:

"We ought not think of this involvement in citizenship only in terms of something somebody would call charitable. . . . If somebody on this campus, a handful of students, said 'You know, I can stop this polarization by getting involved in some organized way in making use of diversity, making diversity work'--that would be a tremendous service."

During the 1997 commencement weekend the Oberlin College Alumni Association awarded Rowan the Alumni Medal, the association's highest honor, "for his outstanding advocacy of Oberlin's values," reported the supplement to the Summer 1997 Oberlin Alumni Magazine.

"Besides his service as an alumni-elected trustee, he was recognized for his leadership in Project Excellence and for the influence he has had on many minority college-bound students from the D.C. area," continued the magazine. "His frequent visits to Oberlin have inspired faculty and students alike with his philosophy of education and access . . . ."





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