The Miracle of Dr. Jack Daniel


Dr. Jack L. Daniel, University of Pittsburgh, 2004. Pitt Magazine. http://www.pittmag.pitt.edu/summer2004/feature1.html. The use of this photo falls under fair use under US Copyright laws because this blog post is in fact about the subject in this photo.

Last week I started a conversation about my three weeks of starvation in order to secure my entry into graduate school through my post, “Sometimes Starvation.” I’m continuing that conversation with today’s post. For it was that on this date twenty years ago that divine intervention came in the form of a voice inside my head, leading me to a meeting with then University of Pittsburgh Vice-Provost for Academic Affairs, Dr. Jack L. Daniel.

Even as I turned down the opportunity to go back to Mount Vernon and work up in White Plains with Joe Carbone and Westchester County Department of Community Mental Health for the summer of ’91, a name kept popping in my head. And I didn’t know why. I’d only met Jack Daniel on two occasions, both during my freshman year at Pitt. I was a Challenge Scholar, in the inaugural class of Challenge Scholars no less, a merit-based half-tuition scholarship meant to attract more students of color to Pitt, and Dr. Daniel was the author of the program.

I knew that he was a professor with expertise in Black communications. I also knew that he was one of the activists who helped bring the Black Studies Department to Pitt in ’69 by occupying the central computing system on the seventh floor of the Cathedral of Learning, back when he was a freshly minted Ph.D. Other than that, I had zero contact with the man in my four years of undergrad.

For once, I listened to the voice inside my head and, after some coaxing of Dr. Daniel’s assistant, made an appointment with him to discuss my financial options for going to Pitt for my history MA. I figured that I had nothing to lose. I really only hoped that there was an extra $1,000 or two left in his budget that would at least help to feed me through my first year of grad school.

That Thursday, the sixteenth of May, I arrived at my 2:30 pm meeting with Dr. Daniel on the eighth floor of the Cathedral of Learning, not knowing exactly what I was going to say. I walked into the Office of the Provost, where the stale stone of the super-tall building turned into the sights and smells of dark wood, cherry, mahogany even. We exchanged pleasantries, shook hands, and I sat down feeling like I was in sixth grade instead of like I’d recently finished my bachelor’s.

I started. “I’m looking for a little extra money for grad school this fall, so that I don’t have to borrow money to cover tuition and eat,” I said. Dr. Daniel then asked

“What was your GPA here?”

“A 3.4,” I said, rounding up from a 3.37 average.

“What about your GRE scores?”

“60th and 7oth percentile on math and reading,” I said.

“What about your major?,” Dr. Daniel asked.

“I was a history major with a 3.82 average,” I said with a smile.

Then Dr. Daniel got this look on his face, like he was actually angry, like there was a piece to the puzzle that I was missing. “Hold on for a second, I need to make a phone call,” he said.

He called Pitt’s History Department Chair, who at the time was one of my future grad school professors, Van Beck Hall, and spent the next couple of minutes chewing him out about my record and about why I hadn’t been awarded a fellowship. I sat there with a stone face, not wanting to give away the sense of glee I felt watching Dr. Daniel on the phone while verbally beating up on a department chair. Politely, of course.

After he got off the phone, he said, “You’ve got your money for school next year.” My mouth fell open, and not just because I couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe how easy it was. Then Dr. Daniel explained how his office had worked with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (and the other major schools within the university) to create a new fellowship to attract more students of color and women into Pitt’s grad programs. He also explained how some departments and programs had resisted communicating the existence of this new fellowship program to potential grad students. I apparently was another case demonstrating how some folks within the university simply refused to address Pitt’s lack of diversity at the graduate level.

I was beyond thankful. Incredulous, thankful, even speechless. I couldn’t stop shaking Dr. Daniel’s hand. Despite three weeks and a loss of twenty-plus pounds, I played basketball at Pitt’s athletic center that evening, making shots as if I’d been on an athlete’s diet for the past three weeks. I was more excited about the possibility of grad school being paid for than I was about getting my first paycheck of the summer that Friday.

The following Tuesday evening, the twenty-first of May, I saw Dr. Daniel walking down Fifth Avenue outside of the Cathedral of Learning as I was on my evening walk home from work. I told him that I’d gotten the paperwork for my full-tuition fellowship and $7,000 graduate student assistantship stipend for the ’91-’92 school year. As he walked away after I said, “Thank you!,” again, I yelled “You’re the man!” All Dr. Daniel did was stretch out his long arms, shrugging it off as if he’d given me a nickel to buy a Tootsie Roll.

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