Deceased April 3, 2008
It came as a shock to me to learn of Carl’s death. Although we had not seen one another or spoken for a very long time, I have always experienced him as an important part of my life. He was one of the closest friends I have ever had. Friendships during college are in a category of their own. Never before or after has there been a time in my life in which week after week, month after month, two friends may spend eight to 12 hours of their waking lives together—far more than most married couples do. Carl was a kind, intelligent and impassioned person.
There was a good deal of joy and laughter during the hours we spent together at Amherst. But much of the time was occupied with our coming to terms with the fact that he was a “Negro” (the term “black” did not enter common usage until our sophomore year) and I was white. He had never had a white friend, and I had never had a black friend. When we began college in 1964, the country was still in a period of de facto segregation: Only two years earlier, U.S. Marshalls were sent to accompany James Meredith as he enrolled as a student at the Univ. of Mississippi. The summer before our freshman year, there were riots in Harlem; the summer of our sophomore year there were riots in Watts.
In our Class of 300, there were only about a dozen blacks. It took extraordinary courage for Carl to attend a small highly competitive white college where the vast majority of students were far better prepared in high school for the level of academic work that was demanded at Amherst. And Amherst was unprepared to include black students: Within a few years of our time at Amherst, a black student drowned attempting to pass the swimming test that was required of all freshmen. That Carl would feel embittered was not surprising. That he persisted in being himself is impressive but not surprising to those who knew him. He had a “philosophy” he liked to profess, the principal tenet of which was: “This too shall pass.” During rough times, he would pin a card to the door of his dorm room on which those words were written.
Carl’s family was a very loving one and welcomed me warmly when I visited their home in Queens. Carl’s father worked as a postman in railway mail cars; my father rode the commuter train from the suburbs to New York City where he worked as an insurance salesman. Carl said that he had not seen a white person until he was about four years old, when his mother took him shopping in an adjoining neighborhood.
Carl and I bumped up against all of these differences in the ways we had spent our first 17 years, and we talked about them often and at length deep into the night. There were not storybook endings to our talks. We often left them feeling hurt and angry and utterly misunderstood. But the proximity allowed in college life provided the opportunity to start again or put it aside for a while. In retrospect, I know that I loved him and that he felt the same for me despite the intensity of anger that we often felt for one another and the pain of the feeling of having been betrayed by the other. The world is an emptier place for me now that Carl has died. I wish he had lived to see the inauguration of Barak Obama.
Tom Ogden ’68