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Moving from anguish to admiration

One of UC’s first African-American engineering grads breaks vow to turn his back on his alma mater

When Clark Beck enrolled in UC’s mechanical engineering program 60 years ago, he knew he was going to catch hell. The dean had personally told him so.

Though Beck had stellar academic credentials, including an undergraduate mathematics degree from another college, Dean Howard Justice understood that earning respect and getting doors opened would be difficult for him. In short, racial segregation in 1951 would not overlook Beck’s African-American heritage.

When the dean reviewed Beck’s transcript, his pronouncement was honest, “You can come if you want to, but you’ll catch hell from both sides of the desk.”

Beck refused to let the dean’s warning deter him. He had just driven straight to UC after an engineering dean at another university insulted him. “He told me that my people could not be engineers,” Beck clearly recalls more than 60 years later, “and that, if I enrolled, I would not graduate.”

When given a choice, Beck decided that one dean’s honesty was better than another’s cruelty. Plus, UC had the added incentive of its renowned co-op program, which would help Beck pay tuition and fees in future years.

“Just because someone told me I couldn’t be an engineer, I decided I would be one,” the UC alumnus declares, “even if it killed me. And it almost did. When I graduated from UC, I vowed to never set foot on the campus again.”

Dean Justice’s words about “catching hell” had indeed been prophetic.

Beck’s vow, on the other hand, left room for a change of heart — as evidenced in the fact that his grandson Emory Beck-Millerton is currently a junior in UC’s mechanical engineering program. His grandfather had so highly recommended UC that it was the only program to which Beck-Millerton applied.

Over the years, the man who once left UC in anguish developed a fresh perspective, one that led him to recommend UC’s engineering program to hundreds of minority applicants and to even become a university donor.

Clark Beck in his college days.

Clark Beck during his college years.

A slow change of heart

Beck’s forgiveness of UC was gradual, but steady, a remarkable feat considering how intense his pain had been. For one, he could not afford to live on campus, and no place near campus would rent to him. Furthermore, co-op assignments were rare because only government installations or companies with large government contracts would hire African-American co-ops.

“There were no African-Americans in my classes,” Beck recalls. “None in Baldwin Hall with me. I didn’t dare miss a lecture because I had to study all by myself. The rest of my class studied together, and they were in fraternities together, but there was no socializing with me in general.

“I didn’t realize what a disadvantage I was at. We were seven weeks on, seven weeks off (alternating co-op terms) in an accelerated program. In such cases, it’s not good to study by yourself.”

The loneliness was exacerbated by hunger. “I had little money, and most meals were from canned goods my mother sent me in care packages (from Marion, Ind.). I’d eat half a can in the morning, set it on the windowsill outside in the winter cold, then eat the other half at night. I hated it when the classroom was quiet, and everyone could hear my stomach growl.

“I also hated the quiet because sometimes I had to cough so bad or sneeze from being so often sick with strep throat.” The lack of nutrition and treatment had turned the infection into a chronic illness.

“Those were terrible years. I had great hardships. I survived, but barely.”

Although Beck initially thought he was the only African-American in the entire college, he did discover a black colleague, Henry Brown, in chemical engineering. The two were the first African-Americans to graduate from the college in ’55.

After graduation, Beck began to appreciate that, despite his dark memories, UC actually left him well prepared for his profession. Within a few years, when acquaintances who had an African-American son asked him for advice on engineering, Beck suddenly found himself recommending UC to Sam Ewing, who went on to earn an electrical engineering degree in 1961.

In fact, Beck was an important factor in Ewing’s decision. Recalls Ewing, “Clark was among those giving me the good advice that if I studied hard, showed the instructors that I was serious and dedicated about being an engineer, and could make some friends, it could be done.”

Through the ensuing years, Beck acknowledges, “I came to champion UC, to recommend it highly.” Plus those recommendations led to greater involvement and leadership with the UC alumni group in Dayton, Ohio, where he had moved after graduation. Next, he returned to UC to earn a master’s in aerospace engineering in 1969.

Clark Beck carries the Olympic torch through the Dayton, Ohio, downtown streets for the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake. Photo/Lisa Ventre

Clark Beck carried the Olympic torch through the Dayton, Ohio, downtown streets for the 2002 winter games in Salt Lake. Photo/Lisa Ventre

New kidney brings expanded perspective

Unfortunately, health concerns from his freshman year continued to plague him. Slowly, his chronic strep infection had spread to his kidneys and began destroying them. Dialysis became necessary, then a kidney transplant.

In the early 1970s, growing kidney failure landed him in intensive care, “right on the edge of consciousness,” he remembers. “I could hear people talking, and one lady said, ‘He looks like he’s dead.’” Beck assumed they were talking about his roommate until he realized that intensive care doesn’t have roommates. “They were talking about me,” he says somberly.

In 1972, he received a new kidney at Cincinnati General Hospital, now UC Medical Center. The procedure had only a 50 percent chance of the kidney working for at least six months, but the transplanted organ has been serving him well for more than 40 years, making Beck among the longest living survivors in the world with a functioning donated kidney (according to the United Network for Organ Sharing).

Beck is blunt about the effect on him. “I matured,” he says, noting that after his transplant, he saw the world differently. “It was better, rosier.”

As a student, he clearly experienced the hardships of social ostracism and academic isolation. But he had failed to recognize how he had cultivated his own similar unhealthy attitude.

“I realized that the attitude I had when I graduated was not helping anybody, least of all myself. I came to realize that I could accomplish much more on the UC team and with others than I could alone.”

So shortly after his transplant, he and other early UC African-American alumni in engineering rallied to form a group called the “Pioneers,” providing engineering scholar-ships for minorities following in their footsteps at UC. Beck, now 84 and retired after a successful 33-year engineering career, also supports other UC scholarship efforts, mentors youth throughout southern Ohio and has served on the UC Foundation Board of Trustees. In 2005, UC presented him with an honorary doctorate.

Beck particularly values scholarships: “The best thing you can do for anyone is give them an education. You ask a question, mention a problem, and education is the answer. Education will enable people to understand each other better, take away misgivings and biases people have against one another.”

Decades after Beck had started donating to scholarships, his own grandson ended up being a beneficiary of both UC and National Science Foundation scholarships for minorities in engineering. As a Darwin T. Turner Scholar at UC, Emory Beck-Millerton embodies his grandfather’s vision for education. “The Turner Scholarship is a diversity award, so all ethnicities are represented,” the mechanical-engineering junior explains.

“One of the things that scholarship has provided me is more insight. Getting to talk to students who are of a different ethnicity than myself clues me in on where they’re from and what they’ve been through. It’s like my grandfather says, ‘You walk in other people’s shoes, and you know who and what they truly are.’”

Beck-Millerton, who plans to pursue a master’s in engineering and a doctorate in physics, values another piece of his grandfather’s advice. “He always told me to work in study groups and study teams. You can work on a problem by yourself, and if you’re constantly doing it wrong, you’ll never know unless someone tells you and maybe gives you another idea on how to solve the problem.

“And you can do the same thing for someone else. It’s pretty much been give and take here.”

His grandfather taught him well.

Clark Beck didn’t only recommend the University of Cincinnati to minority applicants who wanted to pursue a career in engineering. He also helped make it financially possible for them to attend. Beck has spent decades contributing to the Minority Engineering Program, the Darwin T. Turner Scholarship Fund, as well as the Pioneers Scholarship Fund, which he helped establish. 

— M.B. Reilly, M (Bus) ’07, and Deb Rieselman