Archive for June, 2012

A Gathering to Honor Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach

Last week on the summer solstice, June 21, the Katzenbach family held a memorial service in Richardson Auditorium at Princeton University to celebrate the life of Nicholas deBelleville Katzenbach, former attorney general. Everything about the memorial was an apt reflection of the man who passed away on May 8, 2012 at the age of 90.

His quick wit, sense of humor, and decency were on display for all to see through the memories of his friends and family. There was so much laughter in Richardson Auditorium that day that if you didn’t know better you would have thought you walked into a comedy club not a memorial service.

It was only fitting that the memorial was held at Princeton University, his alma mater, and an academic institution for which he cared deeply about, spending years on its Boards of Trustees and also providing pro bono legal services on occasion. Former Princeton President Bill Bowen was the first to pay homage to the man no longer among us. “He was truly ‘one of a kind’: a gentle giant of a man, as kind, compassionate and humorous as he was brilliant,” said Bowen.

Following Bowen were three lifelong friends, all of whom had known Katzenbach for a half-century or more – Herb Sturz, Jack Rosenthal, and Ward Chamberlin, the latter of whom had known Katzenbach since their teenage years at Exeter. He regaled the crowd with stories of a European adventure they took following high school graduation. They went on a biking tour of France and wouldn’t you know it, it happened to coincide with the Tour de France. The boys tried to ride ahead of the pack (avoiding several miles and towns on the route) so they could arrive at the next layover ahead of the cyclists, but hoping to be mistaken for them.

One of the most memorable stories was told by Jack Rosenthal. He recounted a visit Katzenbach made to the LBJ Ranch in which President Johnson took his guests deer hunting. Katzenbach was not thrilled about the prospect. He was not a hunter. “And then,” as Rosenthal told it, “inspiration struck. Katzenbach said, ‘Mr. President, as much as I’d like to shoot a deer, I don’t think I should, I don’t have a Texas hunting license.’” This was particularly problematic given his position, as attorney general and he didn’t want to violate the law. LBJ responded, “You know, I never thought of that.” Both Katzenbach and a deer were spared.

The three friends were followed by Katzenbach’s four children, as different as can be, but all inherited Katzenbach’s wit and knack for storytelling. The last of his children to speak was his daughter, Mimi. Her theatrical background and stage presence commanded attention. She explained why there was a Bloodgood Maple tree on the stage. The answer can be traced to the Revolutionary War and Katzenbach’s namesake, Dr. Nicholas deBelleville.  As she said, goodness flowed through his veins. During the Battle of Trenton, Dr. deBelleville ordered both sides to carry their wounded to a bloodgood maple tree in the middle of the battlefield and he treated them all. “Like his namesake on the battlefield,” said Mimi, “Dad did not discriminate among those who are wounded in the fight for freedom and justice.”

After the service everyone retired to the Prospect House, a Victorian mansion in the center of campus, which once housed Princeton University presidents such as Woodrow Wilson. At the Prospect House friends, family and colleagues from as far back as Katzenbach’s days in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations to his tenure as general counsel at IBM, and beyond, mingled and reminisced about the man who not only impacted the hundreds in attendance, but also this nation.

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Katzenbach Memorial – University of Alabama

Marina Roberts provides opening remarks at the Nicholas Katzenbach memorial service held in front of the school house door

The Tuscaloosa forecast for Monday, June 11, 2012 was not good. Thunderstorms were predicted and threatened to wash out the Nicholas Katzenbach Memorial Service sponsored by the Mallet Assembly, an honors program at the University of Alabama. An alternate location indoors was identified, but it wasn’t needed. At 6:30 p.m., as the memorial service got underway, the hot Alabama sun beat down on the crowd gathered for the ceremony outside Foster Auditorium, the site of the historic confrontation between Governor George Wallace and Deputy Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach exactly 49 years ago.

Marina Roberts, the Mallet Assembly President and brain child of the event, opened the memorial. She recounted how a few short weeks ago she didn’t even know who Nicholas Katzenbach was. It was Mallet Faculty Advisor, Professor Billy Field, who told Marina about this remarkable man after Katzenbach passed on May 8, 2012. The more Marina learned about Katzenbach, the more Marina wanted to do something to honor his life and the role he played in the integration of the University of Alabama.

“When we think of the infamous stand in the schoolhouse door, too often I think we forget that George Wallace was not the only man standing up for something that day,” said Roberts. “I find it a little sad that we remember this moment with an emphasis on the governor playing into the prejudice of his constituents, and not on the magnificent effort made by common people to work with one another, to tear down the barriers that impede them, to empower each other, to open doors and to walk through them. For me, this is why we must remember Nicholas Katzenbach – there will always be impediments to progress and human equality, but it is imperative that we recognize our own power in these situations to push against these obstacles and to overcome them.”

The next speaker was another student, Jonathan Thompson, who gave an equally eloquent speech on the importance of Nicholas Katzenbach, Vivian Malone, James Hood, and the freedoms we enjoy today.

June 11, 1963 – Stand in the School House Door

He was followed by University of Alabama Law Professor Bryan Fair who provided a recap of Katzenbach’s life before, during, and, after the Wallace confrontation and what Katzenbach meant to him. “I acknowledge and understand that I stand on his shoulders,” said Fair, “knowing that his fight against the tyranny of segregation paved the way for me and others to join a previously all-white faculty and staff. I believe the University of Alabama is a better place today because Katzenbach and others faced down segregation.” And that sentiment was a theme carried throughout the program.

Poetry read by local author Jennifer Horne, and civil rights anthems sung by a local choral group were moving touches, especially if you heard their beautiful voices. The choral group was led by Director Willie Williams, who shared how on the day he earned his Master’s degree at the University of Alabama, there was one thing he needed to do after graduation, and that was to stand in the school house door which paved the way for him and countless others.

Mallet faculty advisory Billy Field also recounted personal experiences from his Alabama childhood in the 1960s. He described the prejudices his family experienced when they drove across the country with Alabama license plates in the summer of 1963. Based on that experience Field learned to tell people he was from Florida rather than his sweet home of Alabama. Stories like that brought history alive and helped provide the backdrop of the sweeping changes that resulted from the ciil rights movement.

Two statements were also read at the memorial. The first from Attorney General Eric Holder, whose future sister-in-law, Vivian Malone, was one of the two students who integrated the university. “For me, for my colleagues across the Department of Justice, and for students across this campus and around the country, Nicholas Katzenbach’s example continues to serve as a source of inspiration.  And I am grateful for your efforts both to honor his achievements and to build upon the work that defined his life and distinguished his service to our Nation.”

The second statement was from the Katzenbach family who shared how important their father’s work at the Justice Department was to him and to the nation. “Our father always had a special place in his heart for the University of Alabama. Back in the 60’s, when the nation struggled with the turmoil of integration, he, and the rest of the men and women at the Department of Justice, knew that real equality could only be attained when the best of the colleges and universities throughout the South opened their admissions to Americans of all races. He and his colleagues understood that education did more than create opportunities. It established a commonality of purpose and a dedication to achievement … Our father took great pride in fighting for his country, fighting for justice and fighting for opportunity and aspirations for all Americans. At a time now, when we can all see so many struggles continuing even in this modern world, he believed it was always important to remember how far we have come on our journey together, and how far yet remains to be traveled.”

Vivian Malone               Malone-Hood Plaza

I was the concluding speaker and shared my experiences of my first visit to the University of Alabama. Exactly five years earlier on June 11, 2007, I marked the 44th anniversary of the stand in the schoolhouse door. Back then I was the only one there in contrast to today. The air was swampy, the building deserted, and the crowds gone. The only reminder of the segregationist ghosts of yesterday was a plaque denoting this place, Foster Auditorium, as the “Site of the Stand in the Schoolhouse Door.”

In the five short years since my previous visit, the area outside Foster Auditorium has been transformed into the Malone-Hood Plaza, dedicated in 2010. In the center is the Autherine Lucy clock tower recognizing her efforts, albeit unsuccessfully, to integrate the university in 1956.  The other big change is that Foster Auditorium is no longer a dilapidated building. It too, has undergone a massive renovation and now houses a state of the art basketball court. And in the lobby, the ghosts of history’s past have since come alive with an interactive touch screen about the integration of the university and the key players.

James Hood
Malone-Hood Plaza

While much has changed on campus in the last five years, not to mention the last 49 years, the memorial service itself demonstrated that one person can make a difference.  We saw that with Vivian Malone, with James Hood, and with Nicholas Katzenbach.  And we saw that with Marina Roberts who a few weeks ago didn’t even know who Nicholas Katzenbach was, yet learned about his mark on her university, state, and nation, and organized a fitting tribute to commemorate Katzenbach’s life.

The service ended with a moment of silence and then the playing of Taps by Brittany Hendricks in honor of Katzenbach’s WWII service and quest for freedom.

Katzenbach made a difference not just here, but through the fabric of our society and it was his passion for justice and the enforcement of the law that helped make the dreams of a many a reality.

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As a footnote, the storm managed to stay away, but just as the program wrapped up, the winds kicked up, the sky turned ominous, and the heavens let loose. How the university managed to remove all those chairs in seconds I have no idea. In a matter of minutes, winds were whipping, branches down, and the rain cometh. Mother nature somehow managed to cooperate and kept the storm at bay until the ceremony ended. It is under this dark cloud that Taps was played, a solemn end.

University of Alabama

Today I’m heading to Tuscaloosa to speak at the University of Alabama’s Memorial Service for Nicholas Katzenbach which is being held today, June 11, the 49th anniversary of the stand in the school house door. If you are a new blog follower check out my post from last year about this historic confrontation and the lengths the federal government went to insure that the University of Alabama was integrated. Tune in tomorrow to read about the memorial service which was planned by the students inspired by Katzenbach’s life.

https://sixdegreesofmillicent.wordpress.com/2011/06/11/the-stand-in-the-schoolhouse-door/