Education is Precious: A Profile of Dr. M. Lee Pelton
Born in Wichita, Kansas, M. Lee Pelton, the 22nd president of Willamette University, received his undergraduate education at Wichita State University, where he graduated magna cum laude in 1974, with a double major in English and psychology. Following graduation from Wichita State, Dr. Pelton entered the graduate program in English and American Literature and Languages at Harvard University where he earned his doctorate in 1984.
Throughout his academic career, Dr. Pelton has worked to achieve a balance among complementary goals: teaching, administration and scholarship. Dr. Pelton was inaugurated as president of Willamette University in July of 1998 and is continuing to improve upon its liberal arts legacy. Before Willamette, Dr. Pelton served at Dartmouth College from 1991-1998 as both dean of the college and professor of English literature. Between 1986 and 1991, Dr. Pelton served as dean of students and later as dean of the college at Colgate University and as a senior lecturer in the English department. While at Harvard, Dr. Pelton was first a teaching fellow and instructor of English and American literature, and subsequently a lecturer on English and American literature.
His roots, like many African-Americans begin in the South. On his father’s side, Dr. Pelton’s ancestral home is in Arkansas, in little towns called Conway, Minnefee and Plumberville. He notes, “My grandparents were sharecroppers, who worked the cotton fields in the rich, red earth of the Arkansas bottoms.” The maternal side of his family was also sharecroppers in Oklahoma, who tilled and toiled on the land until the great dustbowls of the depression sent them Northward.
Growing up in Kansas as a young boy, Dr. Pelton lived in a multicultural neighborhood. He is quick to point out, however, that while the neighborhood was multicultural, it certainly was not integrated. As he states, “The neighborhood was distinctly divided into a white enclave, a black enclave and a Hispanic enclave.”
Dr. Pelton’s parents were both working class. His father was, in his words, “A very, very smart man. But he attended a segregated school and never had the opportunity to pursue a college degree after high school.” For many years, his father and an uncle owned a gas station in town. It was a difficult business to be in, but his father made a good living, until he had to close down because the U.S. government decided to build a highway right down the middle of it. At the age of 40, Dr. Pelton’s father became a warrant officer and was soon named administrative head of the department.
Dr. Pelton’s mother was a homemaker. When times were financially tight, he remembers, “She did what most African-American women did at that time: housecleaning for the wealthy and middle-class white families in the area.”
The two most influential things in Dr. Pelton’s life at that time were his grandmother and church. Dr. Pelton’s grandmother, known as Mama Avery to him and to just about everyone else – migrated north to Kansas at an early age, with her six brothers and sisters. He recalls, “She cleaned houses for a living all her life and lived alone, rising early every day, making pies and cakes for her many nieces, nephews and grandchildren. She worked well into her 80s, motivated less by money, than by the social connections forged over many years of labor.”
Mama Avery lived next door, less than 50 feet away from Dr. Pelton’s childhood home. To him, she was “A second mother.” When he visited her house, she would sit in her favorite overstuffed chair and they would exchange stories about family history, their hopes, their dreams and their fears. What Dr. Pelton loved most about those conversations was that they would talk about important issues. He remembers, “We talked about everything: politics, social issues and cultural issues. She would talk to me, without any bitterness, about the American political-social structures and about racism.” They would also discuss the need of the federal government to play a greater role in establishing racial equality. He states, “But she was not someone – and I carry this with me today – who thought that you should allow anger, hatred or bitterness rule your life. She taught me the value of working hard and doing your best, no matter what the circumstances.”
Grandma Avery also believed very strongly in the redemptive power of her church. Dr. Pelton notes, “She believed that education was a life raft in an unsettled and stormy sea that had special consequence for a young African-American boy growing up in a world divided by race. She taught me at an early age that nothing on earth – save family – was more precious than a good education.” She was a noble, gracious person; in spite of the fact that powerful social injustices were working against her for much of her life.
Her lessons were very important in helping a young Lee Pelton look beyond the inequities he faced. One incident, in particular, has stuck with him his whole life. He was in Conway, Arkansas, visiting some cousins. It was 1970 and he was 20 years old. He went to lunch with his cousins to a diner where there was a prohibition against black people being served in the main dining area.
He and his cousins had to go around to the back of the diner to be served through a small take-out window. He remembers thinking “My God, how can this still be happening?” This was nearly 16 years after Brown v. Board of Education and many years after the passage of other civil rights acts. That experience profoundly affected him. Dr. Pelton states, “I was angry. Angry with the proprietors, angry with my cousins – I could not understand why they tolerated such blatant racism – and I was angry at the social structure.” But he stuck to his grandmother’s teachings, and realized that if he was going to change anything, he would do it though education and faith.
Church was, and continues to be, the other great pillar of influence in Dr. Pelton’s life. He was trained and educated by biblical studies. “I love the rich, poetic cadences of the Bible” he remarks. “I love the fact that the language in the Bible is so metaphorical. I love the symbolic nature of the Bible. I love the stories in the Bible and that those stories carry a meaning and importance beyond the story itself.”
He remembers with fondness the fulfilling ritual of the Sunday morning sermon: “The preacher would have a way of taking you down to some depths where you would emotionally experience a state of remorse or guilt. And then, at the conclusion of the service, the preacher would bring you back up to the sweet light of redemption and hope.” For Dr. Pelton, these sermons were like Greek dramas. “They had compelling stories that gripped the audience, and the chorus were these big beautiful black women, sitting in the back of the church with large frumpy hats on that weighed a ton, and they would be chanting and responding to the narrative out loud.” The richness of those stories and the marvelous power of gospel music were to him, “operatic.” It was, he recalls, “An experience that sent chills up my spine.”
Through his biblical studies, Dr. Pelton discovered his love of literature and language. For him, literature is like “exfoliating an onion. It is about getting to the very core of something and understanding where it comes from.” Meaning is discovered by exploring the history of a work. You have to not only understand where a work comes from, but its relation to other works. It is like the “fables” in the Bible, “They all stand in relationship to one another. David’s story in the Old Testament is Christ’s story in the New Testament.” It is this rich architecture of significance found in literature and poetry that Dr. Pelton finds truly meaningful.
That is why, when he chose his educational path, he went East rather than West. Dr. Pelton notes, “I enrolled at Harvard University because I knew it would provide me with the fundamental, historical perspective on literature that resonated with who I was, and still am.” By following his passion, Dr. Pelton went against the conventions and expectations of the time. As he states, “ Most people at the time thought that a young African-American in graduate school in the mid 1970s would study African-American literature. But the religious experiences that I had growing up, week after week after week, instilled in me a need to understand the basis of my beliefs.”
Dr. Pelton has always relished the intellectual vitality of higher education. Very early on in his academic career, he thought that the contemplative life of a professor would be an ideal fit. As he states, “I soon discovered, however, that the social activist within me would not be content with such a lifestyle.” Dr. Pelton found that while he enjoyed the intellectual pursuits of the collegiate environment, he was too often the only person of color among his colleagues. While he respected the work they had done, he believed – and still does – that truly meaningful academic discourse comes through a diversity of perspectives. He realized that if he wanted to diversify the racial geography of higher education, he could not be an academician alone.
For this reason, in every previous position Dr. Pelton has occupied, he has played a dual role as both a teacher and administrator. This has allowed him to continue his intellectual pursuits while being an advocate and agent of change at the same time. During his career, he has also been a pioneer, becoming the first African-American dean at Colgate, the first African-American dean at Dartmouth, the first African-American president of Willamette University and only one of three African-Americans to head a private, independent university (excluding historically Black colleges and universities). At each of these posts, his first priority has always been – and will continue to be – strengthening diversity and ensuring that institutions of higher education reflect the geographic, racial and cultural variety inherent in our world.
Dr. Pelton is proud to have been selected as Willamette’s 22nd president. He believes that Willamette is a fine university, with a rich liberal arts tradition. When he walks around campus, he is thrilled by the energy and enthusiasm of its students. But he also realizes that Willamette is an institution with so much potential that has yet to be tapped. He has made it his overriding mission to help guide the University as it reaches toward higher levels of excellence.
While Dr. Pelton continues to distinguish himself as an effective administrator and an individual of remarkable intellect, he is constantly reminded of what counts most in life through the lessons he learned from his grandmother. As he recalls, “When I accepted my appointment as President of Willamette University on Christmas Eve in 1997, it was a happy and exhilarating time for me – one of personal joy and achievement. My family went to church that afternoon, and I was anxious to get back home to call my grandmother to let her know how her own life of sacrifice and resolve had given meaning to mine. My grandmother died that very day, alone in her own home, before I was able to tell her these things. Her death, sad as it was, continues to remind me of what is really important in this life. If we had talked, she would have told me to remain faithful, to inspire what is best – not worst – in humankind; to be compassionate and to give to those in need, not to be too quick in judging others, and to appreciate the joy and power to be found in the informed choices that come from being truly educated.”