Visit Seattle history with story of Sam Kelly — educator, advocate
Follow Sam Kelly through his life and you'll learn about American history and about Seattle's past. Like Zelig or Forrest Gump, Kelly was often there. Unlike those fictional characters, he was real, and he made an impact. You can visit history in "Dr. Sam: Soldier, Educator, Advocate, Friend," (2010 University of Washington Press) an autobiography written with University of Washington history professor Quintard Taylor.
Seattle Times staff columnist
Follow Sam Kelly through his life and you'll learn about American history and about Seattle's past.
Like Zelig or Forrest Gump, Kelly was often there. Unlike those fictional characters, he was real, and he made an impact.
You can visit history in "Dr. Sam: Soldier, Educator, Advocate, Friend" (2010 University of Washington Press), an autobiography written with University of Washington history professor Quintard Taylor.
Kelly, who became UW's first vice president for minority affairs, is best known for his role in adding color to the curriculum, faculty and student body, and setting standards for programs across the country by combining recruiting with academic and economic support.
He was a self-described conservative, a career Army officer and a man committed to fighting inequality.
Taylor said black people in Seattle used to joke that if you wanted something done, you needed to see one of the Sams — Kelly, Seattle City Councilman Sam Smith or Mount Zion pastor the Rev. Samuel McKinney.
It was more than a joke, but the three helped Seattle grow to a point where today there are many more than three black people with influence.
Kelly called Taylor in 2004 and asked for his help in writing his life story.
Taylor was drawn to the project by the many ways Kelly's life intersected with significant history.
Kelly's family was part of the Great Migration of African Americans out of the South. They moved from Virginia to Greenwich, Conn., where he was born in 1926.
Most black people couldn't vote then, but he lived to see the first African-American president.
He grew up in one of the country's richest communities and was the only black child in his classes until eighth grade.
The family lived a 30-minute drive from Harlem, and on trips there, Kelly met people most of us know only from books. He was inspired by wealthy and accomplished black people.
He met Dr. W.E.B. DuBois and historian Carter G. Woodson. Singer, actor and activist Paul Robeson asked him, "What are you going to do for the race?" Adam Clayton Powell Sr., prominent minister and civil rights activist, told him not to forget the race as he advanced. Their words stuck with him.
Kelly joined the Army at 18 and, feeling cocky, stepped into the ring with Sgt. Joe Louis; the champ knocked him out.
In the Army, Kelly moved from being present for history to helping make it.
He rose through the ranks of the segregated military quickly.
Kelly served in Japan during the occupation, helping to reshape that nation.
In 1948, President Truman's order integrating the U.S. military took effect while Kelly was stationed at Fort Lawton.
He was shipped to Korea where he excelled on the battlefield, winning two bronze stars and numerous other commendations, all the time wrestling with discrimination.
Kelly, who'd started as a private, kept rising through the ranks. He became a paratrooper, then took part in modernizing Army tactics. He left the Army as a lieutenant colonel in 1966 and turned full time to his other love, education.
Kelly was the first black community-college professor in Washington. He taught three years at Everett part-time before leaving the Army, then moved to Shoreline Community College where he created a groundbreaking program to advance the education of disadvantaged students.
When the UW sought his help, Kelly said he'd come only if then-President Charles Odegaard hired him as a vice president, because he wanted the job to be taken seriously.
Starting in 1970, the program he created opened the doors to minority and poor white students and supported them, with the help of friends such as Govs. Dan Evans and John Spellman and the Gates family.
He lasted for six years in that job, before retiring. He felt forced out by a lack of support from subsequent presidents, tight budgets, and a conflict between students and administrators that had both sides criticizing him.
Kelly worked another six years at the UW teaching and as an assistant to the president before moving to other work, eventually running a vocational school for disadvantaged students in Portland until he was 78.
Kelly's health was in decline when he called Taylor in 2004. He died at his Redmond home, July 6, 2009, just weeks after the manuscript was finished.
Taylor said Kelly had a sense of history and had carefully documented his life.
Kelly was right to believe his story needed to be told, because it is a valuable window on our own history.
Jerry Large's column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Jerry Large
I try to write about the intersections of everyday life and big issues. I like to invite readers to think a little differently. The topics I choose represent the things in which I take an interest, and I try to deal with them the way most folks would, sometimes seriously, sometimes with a sense of humor. My column runs Mondays and Thursdays.
email@example.com | 206-464-3346
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