Remembering "Rev"

The Reverend Eugene S. Callender speaking at the City College of New York. Reverend Callender passed away on November 2. by Vince Boudreau, Director, Colin Powell Center

The Reverend Eugene Callender—or “Rev” as he insisted we call him—served as the very first New York Life leader-in-residence in the early years of CCNY’s Colin Powell Center. He embraced the opportunity of working with our students with incredible joy and energy, and was particularly committed to bringing the lions of the civil rights struggle—people like Derek Bell and Vincent Harding—to campus to meet our students. He was a mentor and a leader to our students, and to many of us who had the chance to work with him.

We had asked Rev to join us as our founding leader-in-residence because he uniquely embodied the spirit and conscience at the heart of the Harlem community. For more than 50 years, Dr. Callender, an ordained minister and graduate of New York Law School, was a driving force behind a multitude of city programs and policy efforts. He was the first person to organize a New York City rent strike, the first to establish a community-based drug detox center (helping clients such as Miles Davis), and the visionary behind Harlem’s famed “street academies,” schools set up with prep-school atmosphere, where formerly at-risk youth routinely graduated to Ivy League colleges. He masterminded Martin Luther King, Jr.’s first visit to Harlem and mentored numerous politicians. Dr. Callender also served on five presidential commissions and led the New York Office of Aging under Governor Mario Cuomo. In short, he had a depth of experience and understanding of policy that has been the lifeblood of the Harlem community.

Often, as leader-in-residence, Rev spoke to our students about the fundamental qualities of a good leader: courage and inner strength. A leader, he said, needs inner personal power, a conviction to do what’s right, and an outlook that’s not selfish or ego-driven. He also described the leaders he admired: among them, Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. President Roosevelt, he said, took the country in the heart of the depression when people were starving and created the Works Progress Administration, the Civilian Conservation Corps, and Social Security. He changed the whole social philosophy of the United States with his courage and heart. Marshall, whom Reverend Callender knew very well, fought the Jim Crow laws and anti-lynching laws as a young lawyer. He argued the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education case before the Supreme Court and won, and later, as a Supreme Court Justice, handed down many courageous decisions.

I received the sad news of Reverend Callender’s passing earlier this month with a heavy heart, lightened only by the knowledge of the unmistakable imprint he made then on the life of the Colin Powell Center, still evident today in the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership. We are exceptionally lucky to have had the chance to walk alongside this wonderful man for a few miles of his extraordinary life’s journey, grieved by his loss, and warmed by his memory.