Hattiesburg native to retire soon as president of Morehouse College

Walter Massey was a shy, black boy from

Hattiesburg, Miss., unsure of his place in the world, when he

arrived as a 16-year-old freshman at Morehouse College.

Nearly 40 years later, he returned to change the school that

changed him. His legacy as Morehouse's ninth president includes a

fundraising campaign that brought in $119 million in three years -

almost $15 million more than he set out to raise - and helping the

school land the coveted collection of more than 7,000 handwritten

notes, letters and sermons by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the

school's most famous alumnus.

But a high-profile hate crime and murder in recent years

involving Morehouse students and alumni cast a shadow on the

school's reputation, threatening Massey's goal of renewing

Morehouse's longstanding commitment to a culture of excellence. On

May 20, Massey will preside over his final commencement at the

nation's only historically black all-male college.

"When they write the history of Morehouse, they will certainly

focus on the Massey years," said Michael Lomax, president of the

United Negro College Fund and a 1968 alum.

Lomax said the school's image as extraordinary has broadened

under Massey's watch.

"Now, people know much more about Morehouse, they recognize its

value. And he has ensured that the college has the financial

resources to compete, as far as attracting strong students and

faculty and ensuring that the academic programs are of the highest

quality," Lomax said

Massey, who turned 69 in April, steps down as president on June

30. Robert Franklin - an Emory University professor, former

president of the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta

and a 1975 Morehouse graduate - has been named Morehouse's 10th


After 12 years as the school's charismatic, energetic leader,

Massey said he has left the school as it left him when he graduated

in 1958: confident and well-prepared, a stark contrast from who he

was as a high school sophomore in Mississippi.

As the story goes, Massey's mother asked young Walter to drive a

group of students to take a test for early admission to Morehouse.

"When I got there, they said, 'As long as you're here, you

might as well take the test, too'," Massey recalled. "It was life

changing, to say the least."

Of the handful of students who took the test, Massey was the

only one accepted - joining the likes of Maynard Jackson, who went

on to become Atlanta's first black mayor, and King as early

admission students.

Massey said that after his first week at Morehouse as a nervous

teenager from the country, he was ready to leave the school near

downtown Atlanta.

"Everybody was very smart," Massey said. "My freshman

roommate was from Dallas, and there were people from other major

cities. I didn't think I knew anything."

He stayed and discovered that his professors and the

upperclassmen were supportive. He found comfort under the big

magnolia tree outside of Graves Hall, which reminded him of home.

And Morehouse's sixth president, Benjamin E. Mays, helped mold him

and his classmates.

"There was this sense that there was certain kinds of behavior

you were expected to adhere to," said Massey, who would receive a

bachelor's degree in physics and math. "And it gave us all the

sense that as a Morehouse student, you would be able to compete

with anybody in the world."

Sitting in his office, Massey has a stature that belies his

slight build, and a personality that warms his formal surroundings.

He is eager to show off his young grandchildren, whose pictures are

strewn across his desk.

Massey has been particularly effective in fundraising for his

alma mater.

"We don't approach potential donors that we are this poor,

little Southern school and we need your help," Massey said. "What

we say is Morehouse is thriving and of importance to the nation in

producing leaders."

Massey is also the first president since Mays to live on campus,

commonly strolling across its 66 acres and among its buildings.

He was there when a student fractured the skull of another with

a baseball bat five years ago because he thought the victim was


"That was a very horrible time," Massey said, adding that he

felt the school was unjustly labeled by outsiders and the media.

"We were more indifferent than hostile."

Massey said Morehouse's student body learned lessons from the

incident about violence and tolerance regarding homosexuality,

encouraging gay students to come forward and form organizations.

Then last summer, the body of 23-year-old student Carlnell James

Walker Jr. was found in the trunk of his car after police say four

former students broke into his home and bound, beat and stabbed him

- looking for a $3,000 insurance settlement check that Walker was

expected to receive.

Massey said the campus is still struggling to learn from that

tragedy. Nothing in the students' records provided a warning, he


This spring, Morehouse changed its admissions policy to require

in-person or telephone interviews of all serious candidates. The

school also is considering instituting a business casual dress


When he vacates his wood-paneled, book-lined office next month,

Massey will leave with much to be proud of. Two Marshall scholars

graduated under his watch. During his term, Morehouse also produced

two Rhodes scholars, becoming the first historically black college

to claim three among its alumni.

All of Morehouse's tenured faculty now hold doctorates. A new

leadership center building opened in 2005.

Now, Massey looks forward to moving to Chicago with his wife,

Shirley, and spending more time with his grandchildren. But he will

still return to campus for homecoming games and commencement


"I'll be an alumnus still," he said, flashing a wide smile.

"They can't take that away."