News of Carl Rowan's death sent my memory spooling back to the night I first met the man. He had come to speak at Ohio University, where I was one of just a few black journalism majors at the time. It was 1967. Dozens of riots were erupting in black neighborhoods in American cities.
Two years had passed since Rowan had become the first black columnist to be syndicated in major newspapers. It was one of many barriers he had broken. For those too young to recall, I point out that those days were "B.B.C." - Before Bill Cosby. There were almost no journalists or other celebrities of color in the mainstream media.
In those days, government offered the closest thing to a level playing field that most educated women and non-whites knew about. Rowan had just been the first black ambassador to Finland and the first black head of the United States Information Agency. Rowan's bio is full of "firsts" or "onlys."
So, when I managed to shake the great man's hand after his speech, I asked if he thought the USIA would be a good career move for me to make after graduation.
Suddenly Rowan's familiar droopy eyelids narrowed into a baleful glare, as if he could not believe what he was hearing. The next thing I remember is his hissing at me in his lilting, rural Tennessee accent, "You would be a daw-goned fool to take a government job now, when these white editors finally are looking for black talent."
He leaned into me and made me promise to forget about the public sector. "They say they want qualified people," he said of the media bosses. "You make yourself qualified, then go out there and hold them accountable."
"Ye-yes, sir," I stuttered. It was no use offering him any excuses or asking where to begin. To Carl Rowan, the answer was simple: You just keep knocking on doors until somebody lets you in.
That moment, to me, was the essence of "Carl," as I would get to know him in later years. He helped white America to understand the black experience, whether they wanted to or not. But he also insisted on nothing short of excellence from fellow blacks. That included the NAACP, where his journalism exposed corruption in the early 1990s and helped speed the organization's financial recovery.
With all of that in mind, I can imagine how much it hurt him to hear that in the late 1980s in Washington, the city where he lived, low-income black high-school students were ridiculing academic achievement as "acting white." No one knew better than Rowan did that excellence is not for whites only.
Carl Thomas Rowan was born in 1925 in a racially segregated Tennessee coal town. His local library would not admit blacks. Yet, he graduated at the top of his high-school class, became one of America's first black naval officers during World War II and in the 1950s became one of the few black reporters on a mainstream newspaper, the Minneapolis Tribune.
In 1987, he founded Project Excellence, a college-scholarship program for high-achieving black high-school students in the Washington area. So far it has distributed $26 million to 1,150 students. It also runs a scholarship fair with the Freedom Forum that has provided an additional $66 million in scholarship money.
But the money only underscores the seriousness of Carl's message, that racism won't hurt us nearly as much as our own self-defeating attitudes will.
Carl Rowan died Saturday of apparent complications from illnesses that have troubled him in recent years, including diabetes, heart and kidney problems. He lost part of one leg to diabetes a few years ago, yet he never failed to turn out his column.
He also never failed to turn out hilarious solo performances at Washington's satirical white-tie Gridiron Club dinner. Carl became the prestigious club's first black president, and he stayed a trooper to the end. In last spring's program, he dressed up as Monica Lewinsky in a wig and blue dress (size: extra-extra-large) and hobbled out on stage to croon to President Clinton, "Are You Lonesome Tonight?"
That was Carl, always speaking truth to power. He will be missed, on stage and in print. But his life offers lasting lessons for anyone who thinks excellence is not a black thing. Carl knew better than that. Thanks to his efforts, others will, too.