Penn State honors first African American graduate and family

Descendants of the first African American graduate of Penn State, Calvin H. Waller, visited the University on Oct. 24 to learn more about the scholarship program co-named in his honor and to accept recognition for his achievements and those of his grandson, the late Lt. Gen. Calvin A.H. Waller.

The Penn State Army ROTC coordinated the campus visit for Karla Albert, granddaughter of Calvin H. Waller and sister of Lt. Gen. Waller; Marion Waller, widow of Lt. Gen. Waller; and great-grandchildren: Mike Waller, Mark and Traci Waller with children Calvin J. and Hannah; Walton Waller; and Tonya Bessilieu and her daughter, Danielle.

Calvin H. Waller is considered the University's first African American graduate, although there are no official records from that time to indicate students' racial identities. Born in Macon, Georgia in 1880, he earned a bachelor of science degree in agriculture in 1905. While at the University, he distinguished himself as an accomplished vocalist, quarterbacked the football team, and was associate editor for the campus yearbook, La Vie.

During the morning, the Office of Student Aid hosted a presentation about Penn State's Bunton-Waller Scholarship and Fellows Program which is jointly named for Waller and Mildred S. Bunton, the first female African American graduate. The program provides financial support to undergraduate students with high academic performance and who contribute to the ethnic, cultural or socio-economic diversity of the student body. Since 1994, a total of 11,022 Bunton-Waller scholarships and 459 fellows have been awarded. Typically, there are 400 first-year scholarship recipients and 50 first-year fellow recipients each year.

Dr. Terrell Jones, vice provost for educational equity, gave a brief history of the program and explained how the scholarship program is supplemented by The Pennypacker Experience, a scholarly and diverse living/learning community. First-year Bunton-Waller students are housed together in Pennypacker Hall, along with students from the FISE (First Year in Science and Engineering) program, creating one of the most culturally diverse residence halls on campus.

Approximately a dozen Bunton-Waller Scholarship students told the Waller family how the program provided a "challenging and stimulating environment," "a family away from home," and a network of people who help me through the whole college experience." Their majors ranged from comparative literature to computer science to elementary education. They came from as far away as Chicago to Philadelphia to the Greater Washington, D.C. area.

"We demand academic success and performance from these students. They are wonderful students, and The Pennypacker Experience is a home away from home," Jones added.

According to Penn State history, Waller joined the faculty at Prairie View State College in Texas, ranked with Tuskegee and Hampton Institutes as the nation's finest agricultural colleges for Blacks. There, he became well known to students and Black farmers throughout Texas. He traveled widely, urging farmers to adopt production techniques based on science, rather than superstition. He led the Black extension movement in Texas for more than 20 years, becoming Texas State Leader of Negro Extension Work, according to Michael Bezilla, author of "Penn State: An Illustrated History."

Waller held his Texas state post from 1920 until his death in 1941. His legacy included persuading White political figures in various counties of Texas to accept Black agricultural and home economics agents. He expanded the staff to 85 men and women in more than 51 counties.

Bunton earned B.S. in health and human development in 1932 and went on to a career as director of dietetics at Freedmen's Hospital, associate professor at Howard University, participant in the 1969 White House Conference on Nutrition, Food and Health and subcommittee chair of the District of Columbia's Mayors Commission on Food, Nutrition and Health.

Jones told the Waller family members: "Both Calvin Waller and Mildred Bunton went on to careers helping people. Penn State recognizes the significance of their roles and honors their inspiring examples for future generations by naming the scholarship and fellows program after them. All of us stand on the back and shoulders of those giants who have gone before us.  We'd like to say thank you to the family of Calvin Waller."

Members of the Waller family presented the University with a portrait of Calvin H. Waller.

In the afternoon, the Waller family also were guests at the Penn State Army ROTC's 85th anniversary celebration. The Army ROTC honored Waller and his grandson, the late Lieutenant General Calvin A. H. Waller, himself a pioneer in paving the way for many African American Army officers. Lt. Gen. Waller held a major leadership role as Deputy Commander-in-Chief for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and died in 1996.

"It's a great honor to be associated with a university such as Penn State," Mark Waller told the local press. "This institution helped shape the principles of leadership for my father and helped him succeed in the military."


Last Updated March 19, 2009