“You are not going out with that boy unless his parents are driving and that's that. I'm not just Spitting Grits here, young lady!”

. . . My father, John Thomas Cravey, USAF, to me in 1956.

In Memoriam: Dr. John L. Blackburn, 1924-2009

Today, Spittin’ Grits honors Dr. John L. Blackburn, who died at 84 on  Friday, July 3, 2009. One of the most honorable and upright men I’ve known, Blackburn, with Dean of Women Sarah Healey, is largely responsible for the peaceful integration of The University of Alabama in 1963 during his tenure as Dean of Men, despite Gov. George Wallace’s showy and futile “stand in the schoolhouse door.” He also played a serious role in ensuring the protection of and support for Vivian Malone Jones and James Hood.

His influence on several generations of students and adults is legend. He remained close friends with Jones until her untimely death several years ago and with Hood until his own death last Friday.

The University paid tribute to Blackburn by establishing the Blackburn Institute in 1995, which has become a nationally recognized leadership development program for UA students.

Blackburn also helped ensure UA’s future ability to offer students financial aid. As Vice President for Educational Development from 1978-1990, he led the first public fund raising campaign, the Sesquicentennial Campaign, for academic endowments, breaking a long-held tradition that public universities should not raise fund from private sources, especially in a state where it is rude to talk about money, politics, and religion. It brought $63 million for 16 endowed chairs, 14 professorships, and 250 academic scholarships. The University’s endowment went from $21 million to $79 million at his retirement in 1990.

He told a reporter once that when alumni would say, “I would die for the University,” he replied, “No, you don’t have to do that; just sent $1,000 and stay alive.” His efforts tapped into the alumni’s love for the institution and their continuing financial support.

Blackburn raised twice as much money in ten years as the University had done in 148 years.

Private giving to the University is now firmly established, and alumni generosity has ensured The University of Alabama’s rightful place as a major academic  influence and educational institution in the state and nation.

Blackburn opened opportunities for my future career at the University when he hired me as his Special Assistant to the Vice President for Educational Development. I worked with him and for him for more than five years.

When I went to interview with him, I was scared to death. We had crossed paths in 1964 when he was a feared Dean of Men. I had been a co-chair and –writer of a skit presented with several others in Foster Auditorium. My sorority and one of the fraternities collaborated on “Blackfinger,” to compete with the rival sorority-fraternity creations that night. Dr. Blackburn, UA President Frank Rose, and Dean of Women Sarah Healey sat on the front row, and they were guffawing because we watched them from behind the curtains.

The skit was a take-off on the James Bond movie blockbuster “Goldfinger,” and a parody of Dr. Blackburn and the whole administration. It was hilarious, if I do say so.

After what must have been serious reflection, we were all called into the Dean’s offices Monday morning. I was scared. As best I remember, we were all put on social probation for maybe a week. That was in the days we had to be in the dorms by 9 p.m. on weeknights and 11 p.m. on weekends, so it wasn’t like we missed tons of social opportunities.

As the interview with Blackburn progressed twenty-something years later, I was terrified that he would go down to the basement files and figure out I was one of the culprits behind “Blackfinger.” He didn’t. He hired me.

I later told him about my role in “Blackfinger.” He just laughed in that unmistakable gravel voice of his that scared many male students for many years.

I am personally saddened by his loss. But I am forever grateful for my years under his guidance. I will miss him.

 

The family suggests that memorial gifts be made to the Blackburn Institute, P.O.Box 870122, Tuscaloosa, AL 35487-0122.

 

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