Alex Zhang’s ’18 op-ed in the Jan. 25 issue of the News (“Thompson College, Not Calhoun”) makes an excellent case for the renaming of Calhoun College. Zhang’s list of Roosevelt Thompson’s ’84 accolades is impressive, and the documentary “Looking for Rosey” that he mentions should be consulted for the tributes of former President Bill Clinton LAW ’73 and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton LAW ’73. Yet Zhang did not know Rosey. I did, so I want to add just a few words to his.
I met Rosey in August 1980 before classes started, at a mixer in the Calhoun freshman counselors’ suite. Quiet, unassuming, with glasses that covered a quarter of his face, he might not have made a big impression. Nevertheless, a few days later, I recognized Rosey’s face at the pre-semester meeting for Directed Studies. It was not hard to notice Rosey, as he was the only African-American admitted to DS that year. I nodded to him across the room; his chin lifted in solidarity. He came from Little Rock’s Central High School; I came from backwoods rural Missouri. Neither one of us was ready for our baptism by fire into the depths of Western Civilization, but we both made it through — Rosey, of course, much more successfully than I.
I didn’t see a lot of Rosey outside of DS lectures that fall. He was busy with football, academics and activities, yet every time I saw him, his dark eyes looked straight at me with genuine warmth and encouragement. At the end of freshman year, after missing several classes due to a medical situation, I looked, naturally, to Rosey for help reviewing some of the hundreds of pages I had omitted. He explained the texts from DS history and politics straightforwardly, comparing this author to that, and I entered the final with a sense of quiet confidence.
There were roughly a hundred of us spilling in and out of the freshman counselors’ suite back in August 1980, sipping colas and swapping stats, not knowing how much our lives would be changed by the next four years. We certainly had no idea how much our lives would be changed by having known that quiet guy behind the big glasses, whose dark, understanding eyes and affirming nod we sometimes still unconsciously search for when we are in over our heads in a room full of strangers. And I will say this, confidently and with no hesitation: Not one person — classmate, professor or staff member — who spent any time with Rosey at all has one bad word to say about him. He was “the best of us,” to quote the full-page Newsweek obituary, and indeed, as Yale Divinity School professor Davie Napier DIV ’39 GRD ’44 said, “one of the most outstanding students to enroll at Yale in modern times, and it is doubtful we will ever see his like again.” It is a common theme among those who memorialize Rosey to regret that he did not get the chance to have more influence. Like Zhang, we emphasize the “potential” and “promise” that Rosey represented: “What could be and what should be.”
Nevertheless, the best tribute to Rosey must be, to quote President Clinton’s prayer at Rosey’s funeral, to “think not of what he might have been, but what he was; not of what he might have done, but of what he did.” Rosey never got to be governor or president, but he did get to be a Yale student. By naming one of Yale’s residential colleges after Rosey, we will allow those who never met him to participate in what Rosey was — the perfect example of a Yale student. And he was without a doubt — again, not one of his classmates, not one of his professors will say a word to the contrary — the very best that a Yale undergraduate could hope to be. That is why Yale needs a Thompson College. Rosey does not need a college named after him as a legacy; his legacy will not be enhanced or tarnished by whatever Yale decides about renaming Calhoun. Rosey will live on in the memories of all those who knew him, as well as in and in the memorials in Little Rock. But for those thousands of future Yalies who will enter Phelps Gate every August from now until Doomsday, the unique, history-making gesture of naming a college after a 22-year-old man will be their chance to know Rosey.
Roosevelt Levander Thompson’s life epitomized the words he wrote: “Determined effort in the face of difficult challenges is worthwhile when in contribution to the team, the college, the community.” The creation of Thompson College will inspire future generations of Yale students to follow his example.
Joseph Stephenson is a 1984 graduate of Calhoun College and an associate professor of English at Abilene Christian University in Abilene, Texas. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .