(First posted on my blog on March 19, 2016.)
Dr. Thomas Winston Cole, Sr. changed the course of my father’s life. In the early 1950’s, he took a chance by offering a Nigerian high school graduate of King’s College, Lagos, a scholarship to Wiley College in Marshall, TX, where Dr. Cole was the registrar. Wiley was a relatively small African-American university (<1500 students) which had ties to the Methodist Church. Though my father didn’t stay at Wiley College long enough to graduate from there, he did stay long enough to appear in two of the Wiley Wildcats yearbooks, which graced the shelves of our living room in Jos, Nigeria when I was growing up.
My father spoke fondly of Dr. Cole and repeatedly told us the story of how this man’s kindness gave him the rare opportunity to attend university in the States. I knew that Dr. Cole had gone on to become President of Wiley and then moved to the University of Florida where he was the third highest ranking administrator (and the first African-American), with a position in Academic Affairs and as University Ombudsman. However, there were many things about Dr. Cole I was not aware of – and perhaps neither was my father – until I recently discovered a lengthy interview with him on-line.
Dr. Cole had attended Wiley himself and graduated in 1934. He claimed the highlight of his time there was serving on the debate team led by Melvin B. Tolson. Tolson’s debate team excelled, despite the climate of Jim Crow, winning the national championship in 1935, a story captured in the 2007 movie, The Great Debaters, in which Denzel Washington starred as Mr. Tolson. (Prior to this film, apart from Papa, I’d never heard anyone speak of Wiley nor met anyone who’d heard of it.) After graduation, despite a degree in the natural sciences, Dr. Cole became a principal which subsequently propelled him into a higher education career. In 1950, he returned to Wiley, first as registrar and later as dean of the college. While working he managed to obtain a MSc in Educational Administration from the Univ of Wisconsin and then completed a doctorate in education at the University of Texas, the first African-American to do so. In 1958, he became the 10th President of Wiley and at the time he was installed, he became the first alumni and the first non-minister to become President. While at Wiley as the chief executive of a historically black college & university (HBCU), Dr. Cole heard Dr. King give his ‘I have a dream speech’ in Washington. He stayed at Wiley until the early 1970s, dramatically increasing student enrollment, raising $100 million in funds for the fledgling university, and overseeing the construction of a number of buildings. Today, a library is named there in his honor.
Long after he’d moved on to study at other colleges in the US, Papa stayed in touch with Dr. Cole, faithfully sending him a Christmas card every December. He also talked often about his dream of flying Dr. Cole out to Nigeria as a way to say thank you. And more than 25 years after they first met, he actually did this. To show his appreciation for Dr. Cole’s generosity to him all those years before, Papa invited Dr. Cole and his wife Eva to visit Nigeria. He put them up in their own chalet in arguably the poshest hotel in town, showed them around, and even hosted a cocktail party for them to meet other Nigerian friends and colleagues. I believe it was Dr. Cole’s only visit to Africa and he never forgot it. In the interview I came across recently, this is what Dr. Cole shared:
As president of Wiley College, I had a few gifted African students… We had several African students on our campus; they were all on scholarship. Since I have been in Florida, one of the students who is a barrister, a lawyer, now in Nigeria, invited me to come over at his expense to visit his home country, Africa, because I was responsible for his education. In fact, he included my wife [in the trip] to Africa. We went at his expense. We brought back several things from Africa. That is what made me think about it (p36).
I recall the Coles’ trip to Jos back in 1979. They were an elegant and gracious couple. Though I was only an adolescent, I wish I’d been able to realize how significant this visit was and more importantly what a tremendous influence Dr. Cole had had on so many lives and not just my father’s.
Forget the great debaters, Dr. Cole was a great educator.