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Winter 2000


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A SILVER YEAR
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ISENBERG SCHOOL
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GENEROUS PEOPLE:
RANDOLPH AND
CECILE BROMERY

 

 

Determined to diversify


Encouraging others to take up geology: the Bromerys' $250,000 endowment.

 

 

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 survey’s administrative office suggested he’d probably like to go out with a new airborne geological survey group. The woman’s name was Bertha Malmhoud, Bromery remembers a half century later. “She was bubbly and everything else, and I’ll never forget her.”

     Bromery went to work for the survey the next morning, and stayed for twenty years. During those years he measured Earth’s magnetic field from airplanes, chased clouds of fallout from nuclear testing, and worked on mapping projects in Nigeria. Along the way, he earned his master’s, 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 didn’t 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 who’s done that better, of course, than airman-scientist-administrator Bromery.

     Among Bromery’s distinctions is the past presidency of the Geological Society of America – once again, he’s 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). It’s 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. That’s my main interest.”

     “It’s 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.” It’s 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 didn’t 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.”

– Mary Carey

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