On this day, when the world memorializes the life of Nelson Mandela, I am reminded of another great man, who has dedicated his life to peace, civil rights, and education. I had the honor of meeting Ulysses S. Doss during a Black Studies class at the University of Montana in 1968. That meeting led to a friendship that continues to this day.
Ulysses’ earliest achievements came in sports at Ripon College, where he earned athletic letters in every sport during every year that he competed. He averaged 20 points per meet during three years of track and field competition and set a record of 191 feet tossing the javelin. He played football and basketball, leading to his selection as Outstanding Athlete in 1956. He won the Samuel N. Pickard Award in 1957 and was later inducted into Ripon’s Hall of Fame.
His athletic prowess evidenced his leadership skills, which he employed as a member of the clergy and a leader of community-based organizations in Chicago. His efforts provided him an opportunity to work beside Martin Luther King, Jr. before King was gunned down on April 4, 1968. Concerned that news of the assassination would lead to violence in the streets, Doss quickly organized his groups’ members and distributed fliers encouraging students to stay indoors. When rioting occurred despite these efforts, he joined a group of fellow clergymen that walked the streets of Chicago in an attempt to restore peace and raise funds to bail student protestors out of jail.
Humbled by his groups’ inability to reestablish calm and pained by the loss of Dr. King, Ulysses took a break from work and traveled to Missoula, where he visited a friend who was a campus minister. As a consequence of that trip, Doss discovered a way to reenergize his spirit and focus. He relocated to Missoula and established a Black Studies Program—only the second one in the nation at that time.
His decision to break ground in a hostile climate of bigotry and a dearth of persons of color—with the exception of Native Americans who, during that time were treated as second class citizens—brought diversity and a lasting impact to Missoula, the state of Montana, his beloved students, and me.
His classroom and his deportment distinguished him from any other professor or teacher I have known. Each class—and I took at least two a year for three years—began with music. Doss would slip a vinyl disc onto a turntable, drop the needle on a cut chosen for relevance to his lecture, and sit with his eyes closed until the last note sounded. At a time when the student body was ripe for revisionist history and justifiable vengeance, Ulysses employed fact, poetry, a wealth of knowledge, and charisma to teach love and peace among all regardless of color, creed, or origin.
His dedication far exceeded the time he directed to research and the classroom. Doss used his office hours, early mornings, and evenings to counsel his charges regardless of the nature of their problems or backgrounds. He worked numerous additional hours recruiting and caring for the welfare of African-American students he attracted to U of M. At all times, he was compassionate, caring, and loving to all who came within his reach. I personally benefitted from his giving—in the classroom, when I sought personal counseling about a private matter, during an off-campus retreat at Flathead Lake, and through over forty-years of sharing correspondence, gifts, and love.
Today, when we express our admiration and love for Nelson Mandela—a man whose life touched the world, I couldn’t help but think of the man who touched me so deeply and served as a beacon when my path seemed the darkest. Thank you, my dear friend, for all that you have given to so many. Thank you for your love and guidance.