Fred Austin Culver died of multiple organ failure on April 9, 2007. I can’t remember when my freshman roommate, Matt Mitchell, and I first met Fred, but it was in 1950, early in our freshman year. By the end of that year, my closest friends were Matt, Fred and Bob Schapiro. We decided to room together for our sophomore year. What we shared were seriousness about being good students, a drive for achievement and an awareness that we were public school graduates at a college which had built its reputation and endowment from private school products.
Matt and I had come from upper middle class, suburban public schools. Our parents were college graduate professionals. Bob and Fred were the first generation in their families to go to college. Bob’s father had a two vehicle trucking business in the garment district of New York. Fred’s father was the president of a Rubber Workers local. Fred’s father knew what discrimination was all about, but he also knew how to overcome it.
We were an atypical group, we four roommates, in 1951. Bob was from a Newark, NJ, school district that was 95 percent Jewish. Fred was a Negro (as the respectful term was in those days) from Warren, OH, a town nobody in the east had ever heard of. For Matt and me, Fred and Bob were as important to our education as were any classes we took.
Matt’s high school in Scarsdale, NY, had a few Jews—all with substantial money. But there were no African-Americans in Matt’s class. My high school in Shaker Heights was religiously integrated—a substantial Jewish contingent whose after-school social life was completely separate from that of the predominant white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants. We had a few Catholics. There were two African-American girls who paid tuition to attend Shaker. They came to school, went home after school, and no one knew what they did otherwise. We had a head custodian who was African-American. He symbolized the opportunities for blacks in those days—he was a college graduate in charge of keeping our school clean and in good repair.
Fred had higher aspirations, later realized in almost fifty years practicing law. He came to Amherst on a full scholarship, an Eagle Scout, and first in his class in high school. Fred was among the most popular men in our Class—elected to the student council by our junior year, vice president of the council in our senior year. He was elected to both Sphinx and Scarab. He graduated cum laude and, after his tour of duty as an air force officer, went on to law school at OhioState, where he finished near the top of his class.
For Matt, Fred, Bob and me living together in 29 South that sophomore year was a social experience that few in America could have in those days. We learned first hand from each other about life, fears of discrimination and aspirations of millions we had never seen. We studied together, ate together, went to parties together and competed together. Equally important we learned to be true friends in ways that never left us.
The lifelong impact that those years at Amherst had for all of us and what Fred contributed can never be discounted. We learned from living together as genuine friends that it was possible to build a society based on relationships that transcended race, religion and national origin. We were beginning to live in the world that Martin Luther King, Jr. had his dream about.
Thank you, Fred.
—Burt Griffin ’54