Monday, September 18, 2017

Boundary Voices: Snapshots of the Student Experience at Central Michigan University

By Frank Boles

On September 13 Professors Jay Martin and Brittany Fremion opened the Clarke’s current exhibit celebrating the University’s 125th anniversary by sharing some of the results of an oral history project with CMU students, past and present, that they have been conducting.  Their presentation offered insights into why students come to CMU, their experience on campus, and their views about the institution.

One of the many interesting points made in the presentation was on the importance of mentorship. Two stories told by individuals who attended CMU in the 1950s made this point vividly.

John “Jack” Harkins also told of how individual insight could help a student in need. The Harkins family owned a farm on what is today the CMU campus (when you visit the Music Building you are on the Harkness farm) and Jack had attended CMU’s “Lab” School, where student teachers learned their skills teaching students in a real school located on campus. Harkins went to college in Ohio and after three semesters returned home, without an invitation to return to his school. He applied for admission to Central and was rejected. He did not meet the normal admission criteria and was told, in so many words, to join the military and “grow up.”
Jack was not of a mind to enter the Service so one evening his father walked over to President Anspach’s house (which is today the Alumni Center) and knocked on the door. Anspach answered and the two men had a discussion about Jack, which ended with Anspach promising to look into the boy’s case. After reviewing transcripts and talking to his former teachers at Central, Anspach called Jack to his office, and told him he was reversing the decision of the Admission Committee and admitted Jack to Central. As it turned out, Anspach did this a few times every year – using his judgement to admit a student who he thought had the talent to succeed, but not the background to pass muster with the admission committee. As one of “Charley’s boys”, Harkins would go on to obtain both a bachelor’s and master’s degree from Central, become very successful as a local Mt. Pleasant business person, and become a generous benefactor to both the school and the community.

Walter Beach was a talented football player from Pontiac who was being recruited by Michigan, Michigan State, and Central. In the end he came to Central because, as he told it in the interview that was shared, his mother decided that Central’s football coach, Bill Kelly, was an “honorable man” who would do right by her son. Kelly would quickly prove her right.

In the first few days of practice Kelly’s assistant coaches organized the squad into four practice teams, with Beach always being placed on the fourth team with the poorest prospects. Kelly, knowing Beach’s potential, kept moving Beach to the first team, only to have the assistant coaches put Beach on the fourth team the next day. After a few days of this, Kelly called a team meeting of coaches and players. He announced by name who he expected on his first team at practice – Beach among them. The point could not have been made more clearly – judge Beach by his talent, not his color.

It was a lesson the NFL had yet to learn. Beach would go on to a career in the NFL, shortened because he was considered a troublemaker. In 1961 when the Boston Patriots went to New Orleans for a pre-season game the team was housed in a luxury hotel – except for Black players who the facility would not accommodate. Black players were to be housed with Black families in the community. Beach would have none of it, and made the decision to fly down to New Orleans on the day of the game, play, and then fly back to Boston that evening. Boston’s coach, Mike Holovak, decided this was unacceptable behavior, and cut Beach from the team the day after the game.

In 1963, while working as an elementary school teacher back in Pontiac, he was picked up as a free agent by the Cleveland Browns. Just before the 1964 season was to begin, he was suddenly cut from the team. He was packing his bags for the drive back to Pontiac when Jim Brown, then Cleveland’s outstanding star player and a man who recognized Beach’s talent, told Beach to wait a few minutes before leaving camp. Brown went to talk to management. Management never apologized for the “mix-up”, but Beach was back on the team. With his help Cleveland would win the 1964 NFL championship. However when Brown retired Beach knew his days with Cleveland were numbered. He was quickly fired.

In 1967 Beach would be present at one of the most iconic moments of sports history. Jim Brown asked him to come to a meeting where several Black athletes would gather to publicly support world champion heavy weight boxer Muhammad Ali, who had announced he was a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War and had refused to be inducted into the military.

“It was an unforgettable moment. It was one of the most significant moments in my life. Ali was one of the most principled and moral human beings on the planet at the time.  …We met as black men around a moral and ethical issue, not as celebrity football or basketball players.”

Beach’s words, while true, understate the public importance of the moment and the risk those who participated took, because of the widespread publicity received when a group of Black men, who also were a stellar assembly of athletes, publicly took a moral stand to support Ali.

The people who made Central was it is today are both the students who attended here, and the faculty and staff who helped them achieve their dreams. There stories were an integral part of Professors Martin and Fremion’s presentation, and is part of what we celebrate this anniversary year.