Despite brushes with racism,
Randolph Bill Bromery seems, to hear him tell it, to have
led an almost charmed life. Chancellor of UMass Amherst from 1971 to 1979,
he was the first, and so far the only, African American to hold that post.
Indeed, when he joined the geology department in 1967, Bromery was only
the fifth black faculty member on campus, and one of just three black
geology Ph.D.s nationwide.
How the former chancellor got where he did
is an engaging tale of hard work, good luck, and a field that proved remarkably
congenial to him. He says he more or less stumbled into geology. Having
flown with the legendary, all-black Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, Bromery
graduated in math and physics, courtesy of the G.I. bill, from Howard
University in Washington in 1948. But when he tried to get a job with
the Naval Research Lab, he says, he found himself stonewalled.
Then, in a copy of The Afro American
newspaper that someone had left on a trolley seat, he noticed an ad seeking
mathematicians, geologists, and engineers for the U.S. Geological Survey.
A jovial woman in the surveys administrative office suggested hed
probably like to go out with a new airborne geological survey group. The
womans name was Bertha Malmhoud, Bromery remembers a half century
later. She was bubbly and everything else, and Ill never forget
Bromery went to work for the survey the next
morning, and stayed for twenty years. During those years he measured Earths
magnetic field from airplanes, chased clouds of fallout from nuclear testing,
and worked on mapping projects in Nigeria. Along the way, he earned his
masters, then a Ph.D., in geology; learned several languages; and
arranged for Jesse Jackson to speak at a geology conference at the Colorado
School of Mines.
Jesse didnt know anything about geology,
says Bromery of the latter feat. But he gave a great talk. He talked
about what he always talks about that we have to diversify our
skills. It would be hard to find anyone whos done that better,
of course, than airman-scientist-administrator Bromery.
Among Bromerys distinctions is the past
presidency of the Geological Society of America once again, hes
the only black person to have held the office and when the GSA
presented him with its Distinguished Service Award last October, he was
gratified to hear the citation read by the then-current president,
who was a student at UMass in the early days. (Gail Ashley 63
72G is a geology professor at Rutgers). Its precisely to encourage
women and minorities to take up geology that Bromery and his wife, Cecile,
recently established a fund to support such students in geosciences at
UMass. The fund is expected to total $250,000 over time.
I figured if we did this in the geology
department, it will trigger the other departments to set up something
similar, Bromery said. Especially in the sciences. Thats
my main interest.
Its an unusual thing, and we are
obviously very happy to use that money to attract, retain, and support
minority students, says geosciences chair Ray Bradley. Because
there are very few minorities in geosciences. Its important
to note, Bradley adds, that Bromery feels very good about the university,
and wants to support students who can perhaps follow in his footsteps.
Bromery, four of whose five children are UMass
graduates, agrees. (The children are Dennis 86, David 83,
and Keith and Carol, both class of 72; only Christopher broke ranks.)
And, says the former chancellor, the geology department at UMass
treated me very well. My race didnt mean anything to them at all.
Just as Bromery never forgot Bertha Malmhoud, so he aims never to forget
the UMass geology department.
Everywhere I went, I was the first African
American, says Bromery. It made me feel bad. You feel that
this is tragic. We will achieve a major shift in this country when African
Americans stop being the first.
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