Remembering Edgar F. Beckham ’58
Edgar F. Beckham ’58, one of the nation’s most influential and beloved leaders in higher education, passed away in May 2006 at the age of 72. As the first African-American dean of the college at Wesleyan, Beckham led efforts to build understanding that diversity is integral to excellence in American higher education. While he served as dean, Wesleyan became a national model for excellence in education for students of diverse backgrounds.
Beckham was born in Hartford in 1933. In 1951, he enrolled at Wesleyan, the recipient of the Lewis Fox Scholarship for his outstanding academic record. He pursued a pre-med course and was an editor-in-chief of the Argus, a fraternity member of Delta Sigma, and a member of the choir. Between his junior and senior years at Wesleyan, he served for three years in the U.S. Army in Germany where he trained as a neuropsychiatric technician. He graduated from Wesleyan University in 1958 with a bachelor’s degree in German. That same year, he married Ria Haertl, of Stuttgart, Germany. He earned his master’s and completed his doctoral course work in Germanic languages and literatures at Yale University. He began his academic career at Wesleyan as an instructor of German. He spent 28 of the next 29 years at Wesleyan, serving in various posts including lecturer in German, director of the language laboratory, associate provost, and, from 1973–1990, dean of the college.
Beckham also served as the chair of the Connecticut Board of Education, working to bring the lessons learned at Wesleyan to the public schools of Connecticut. In the 1990s, he headed one of the most far-reaching and effective change efforts ever launched in higher education: the Ford Foundation’s Campus Diversity Initiative. In 1998, he joined the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) as a senior fellow, where he continued to guide colleges and universities throughout the United States on matters of educational quality.
Beckham was honored with numerous awards. In 1997, he received the Outstanding Contribution to Higher Education Award from the National Association of Student Personnel and Administrators. In 1991, he received Wesleyan’s Raymond E. Baldwin Medal, awarded for extraordinary service to Wesleyan and to the public good. In 1996, he was named dean of the college emeritus, and in 1998, the Wesleyan Alumni Association honored him with its Distinguished Service Award.
I must say that after the initial excitement about writing something in memory of my dad wore off I was left with a serious case of nerves. How could I, in a paragraph or so, ever hope to do justice to his legacy? And what’s more, in the Alumni of Color Newsletter, in full view of so many who have been touched so deeply by his intellect, humanity, and integrity. Do I write formally, or use more of the tone of voice I remember from childhood—the tone of late-night voices winding their way up the stairs from the kitchen table on Mansfield Terrace. Will I make a mistake? Will I do him justice? Will I make him proud? So I started writing.
I think my dad would be okay with that. I think that he would be okay with the slightly informal tone, would be okay with me using my choice of voice, a voice I hope appropriate for the occasion. You see that’s what my dad was about. He wanted us all to think, and worry a bit, too, and in the end find our own voices. In his work at Wesleyan, and later at the Ford Foundation and AAC&U, he challenged us to think critically, to have discipline, to work hard for each other, for justice. While on one level he wanted to help us become better people, it was on the road to getting there where his work really resided. I used to watch him writing late into the night, then rewriting, and writing some more. At the time, I really didn’t know it was writing, for he often wrote in his head, well before pen ever got to paper. To the casual observer this might have looked like procrastination, but as I got older, I began to realize that it was really about my father’s desire to get it right, to do the job, whatever it was, justice.
My father instilled that desire in so many people. Of course he wanted us to be better, but more importantly, he wanted us to work at being better, and to worry sometimes that we might not be doing a good enough job. He also wanted us to know that if we messed up a little it would probably be okay.
I’ve spent days writing this in my head. I had to ask for an extension, and it’s two minutes until that deadline. To some it must look like procrastination, I just hope it’s a bit of my dad in me.
He left us memories and his unfinished work, he left himself with us, and while I worry sometimes, I also have faith that we will all work to do his legacy justice.
— Frederick H. Beckham
I can remember a time in the late ’60s when Edgar was not Dean Beckham but a relatively new German teacher. He was young and eager to teach and learn about the blackness issue that was all the talk on campus. Edgar was our mentor and also our co-confidant and fellow pupil. I remember the many hours after class, in the Malcolm X house and even at his home discussing, reviewing, and debating issues of blackness and black power. Edgar was always the teacher, and I can remember learning from him the many ways to view issues and frame arguments.
When he became dean it seemed that he had achieved many of the things we had so much talked about. He was the consummate dean and a role model brother, but always he was still the teacher.
While I never took a class from Edgar, he will always be my favorite teacher. Dean Beckham is the teacher of all of us at Wesleyan. Here is to my teacher, my colleague, and my friend, Edgar Beckham.
— Neil J. Clendeninn ’71
I am one of hundreds if not thousands of people whose lives were dramatically influenced by Edgar Beckham, to whom I will be forever grateful. As a young professional 20-some years ago as the dean for first-year students under Edgar’s tutelage, his larger-than-life presence of body and mind were intimidating at first, but his depth of thought and persistence in helping others identify and better understand the complexities of life were compelling, even to the most resistant learner. Among the many lessons Edgar bestowed upon me that remains with me every day is the importance of asking the right questions and then listening to the responses. Asking the right questions is a craft of its own and few demonstrated it better than Edgar.
While Edgar’s words were often voluminous, each was carefully chosen and influenced by an overarching goal. His being several steps ahead of others was frustrating early on in my relationship with Edgar, but it became, often in retrospect, one of the many things I admired so deeply about him. He was an educator in every sense of the word, every day of his life.
Edgar’s instructional approach and his never-ending desire to be sure another truly understood his perspective while simultaneously challenging all previously held beliefs was a gift that no other could offer so effectively and graciously. He was truly an amazing man whose influence will live on in all whose lives he touched.
— Meg Zocco, Director of Parent Programs and Development
I first met Edgar Beckham in the mid-1980s when I was a new lawyer in a downtown law firm and “Dean Beckham” at Wesleyan University was my client. I vividly remember the first time he sought my legal advice. He wanted to talk about liability for student conduct, which was in flux at the time, so when he called me, he said, “and when you come, bring Whitlock v. University of Denver” (and he gave the full citation), “Bradshaw v Rawlings” (again, the cite), and three other cases. When I arrived, he had the full texts laid out on a desk and each case was coated in yellow highlighter and scribbled notes. He proceeded to inform me of his interpretation of the cases, including precedent, competing principles, and conclusions. It was a far better analysis than I could ever have done, and my first panicky thought was, “He doesn’t need me!” That fear was instantly replaced with something else: “How lucky can you get?”
That was the start of a 22-year partnership—I stuck to Edgar like a barnacle—and we worked together until only a few days before his last, devastating stroke in April. Over 22 years, he went from being my client to my mentor, colleague, and dear friend.
It is impossible to do him justice in a short piece, but I will try to honor him by sharing a few “takeaways” from my 22 years with Edgar.
When he arrived at the Ford Foundation, he was asked to provide a position paper on “diversity” and, after much soul searching, he wrote that “rather than define diversity prematurely, the Foundation should listen attentively to the conversations that occur when diversity is invoked.” The Foundation followed his suggested course of listening. Edgar and those who worked with him came to understand that diversity itself is thematically diverse. To some, it means demographics. To others, social justice. Equal access to rights and resources. To others still, it means difference. Or respect for difference. Or the opposite of racism. Or inclusivity, pluralism, respectful and productive relationships. Most significantly, diversity is essential to democracy.
Edgar would tell us that democracy in the United States—as troubled and elusive as it is—is an ideal and a process worth fighting for. Our aspirational democracy rests on several identifiable pillars, particularly, freedom, equal protection, the right of ordinary people to influence public policy decisions, and the right to an education. Every generation is responsible for examining the social experiences of those in and affected by American life, to make certain that these pillars of freedom, equality, citizenship, and education are holding. And this is best accomplished when people with diverse lived experiences are involved.
So Edgar’s message not only concerns equal access—this would be the very critical social justice argument—but how we get the job done. The results are better when people with diverse lived experiences collectively assume responsibility. Diversity serves our aspirational democracy.
Edgar’s messages were not the only things that made him special. It was how he communicated—so eloquently, so brilliantly—and how he made all of us feel when we were around him—that our lived experiences counted. That we, too, had something valuable to contribute.
He inspired hundreds, probably thousands, of people (and more than a few barnacles) in the same way that he inspired me. Edgar Beckham changed education, and in doing so, he changed the world.
— Nancy Thomas, JD, EdD, Acting Director, The Democracy Imperative, University of New Hampshire, and Senior Associate, Study Circles Resource Center
When I think of Edgar Beckham at Wesleyan, I am reminded of the line from Genesis: “There were giants in the earth in those days.” Edgar was a giant here, and by no means only because of his height and girth and his booming, resonant voice. He was a giant because of his vision of and for Wesleyan, because of his accomplishments, and because of his influence.
During his tenure as an instructor in the German Department, he showed a prescient appreciation for the importance technology would come to have as a tool supporting learning; he founded our Language Laboratory, in the same space it occupies today, and served as its first director.
Moving across the street to North College, Edgar discovered his calling as an administrator. As associate provost with responsibility for the humanities departments, Edgar was tough but supportive to the faculty with whom he worked.
But it was as dean of the college that Edgar came into his own. He brought together a portfolio of offices and responsibilities that only a man of his intellectual capacity, physical energy, and practical wisdom—in short, a giant—could have handled: In addition to the class deans, he oversaw the Registrar’s Office, Residential Life, the Health Center, Student Mental Health, Public Safety, the Chaplaincy, and the Office of Career Planning. He not only knew what was going on in each of those enterprises; he also gave them direction, making sure that they were all dedicated to the intellectual and psychosocial growth of Wesleyan’s students.
It was from Edgar that I first heard the expression “celebrate diversity.” To him, diversity was not a catchword but a term representing a value to which he had dedicated his career as an educator. Edgar made Wesleyan into the kind of institution the Mellon Foundation invited to apply for inclusion in its brand-new Mellon Minority Undergraduate Fellowship, a program designed to increase the pool of faculty of color at U.S. colleges and universities.
The history of diversity at Wesleyan is indeed worth celebrating. In that history, Edgar Beckham was, and continues to be, a towering figure.
— Krishna Winston, Marcus L. Taft Professor of German Language and Literature, and Coordinator, Mellon Mays Undergraduate Fellowship. Taken from Krishna Winston’s remarks during the Dinner in Honor of Edgar Beckham at last year’s Alumni of Color Weekend.
The newly renovated Fayerweather Gymnasium—now called Fayerweather Hall—has a grand space on the second floor that will be named Beckham Hall, in honor of Edgar Beckham ’58.
Situated at the crossroads of activity, Fayerweather and the new Suzanne Lemberg Usdan University Center will be part of the new central campus area where students, faculty, staff, parents, visitors, alumni, friends, and guests will congregate. Because of their location and function, these buildings will pull the campus together. Beckham often found himself at the center of activity on campus and many of his former colleagues and students have spoken of his tireless efforts to bring people together.
By renovating the original Fayerweather structure, Wesleyan preserves a piece of its history. By designating the building’s great room as “Beckham Hall,” Wesleyan highlights the influence that one of its most innovative, engaged, and engaging citizens had on that history.
When Beckham Hall opens next fall, it will have the capacity to host a variety of large community events including lectures, dance events, concerts, all-campus receptions, and seated meals for several hundred people. We look forward to hosting future Alumni of Color Reunion Weekends on campus and having Beckham Hall as a gathering place.
More information about this project will be forthcoming. Gifts of all sizes made to the Wesleyan Fund in honor of Edgar will be counted towards our ambitious goal of raising $1 million dollars for Wesleyan’s greatest needs. If you would like to make a gift to this project now, please contact Regan Schubel ’01 at 860/685-2253.