In the 1970s and ’80s, the three deans of students at Middlebury conducted dorm inspections. These were preannounced safety inspections, but we still found our share of contraband.
We broke up into teams—one Student Affairs staff member, the RA of the dorm (then called the “house director”), and someone from Facilities (“Buildings and Grounds,” in those days)—and went door to door.
Jackie Flickinger, director of student activities, had been shaken during her dorm inspection when she knocked on a door, was invited to “come in,” and was greeted warmly by three entirely naked students. She quickly left, and shortly thereafter informed Dean of Students Erica Wonnacott that she would no longer be doing dorm inspections.
Being a new hire in the fall of 1976, I was shadowing the associate dean, Arnold McKinney ’70, on a late afternoon inspection of Hepburn Hall. An African American, Arnold was in charge of our diversity programs, extensive in this decade after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., and handled the other varied duties of the three deans of students.
I was the new dean, the assistant dean of students. Arnold was a couple years younger than I, but we knew each other as schoolmates, as we had overlapped for the 1966–67 school year.
We knocked on the door of a fourth-floor triple in Hepburn. “Just a minute,” the inhabitants instructed, then said, “Okay. Come in.” Just inside the door, straight ahead, was a bunk bed. On the top bunk, two students faced us, a couple, male and female, their legs dangling over the edge of the bed. Keen observer that I am, I noticed immediately they had no clothes on.
I was taken aback. Arnold was not.
Unperturbed, he strolled about the room, casually looking things over, asking questions: “How’s the heat? Radiators work? The windows, are they tight? Do you have any candles? They’re not allowed, you know.” He made sure they had no flammable tapestries on the wall and the sprinkler heads were free of adornment.
Then he came back to the bunk beds, stood directly in front of the students, and further engaged them in conversation, asking about their majors, backgrounds, and so on.
It wasn’t long before they dived under the covers in embarrassment, and we left.
Arnold was cool. He had presence and authority.
Arnold McKinney was the first African American administrator at Middlebury College. His importance, however, goes well beyond that notable, if ultimately incidental, fact. Arnold had a passion, a vision, and a mission at the College, and his impact was large indeed—on the ground, working with students, at the dawn of a new era on campus. He was at Middlebury for only a little over a decade, 1966–77, but when I am asked, after nearly a half century here, to identify the people who had the greatest influence in making the institution what it has become, my mind jumps immediately to Arnold.
A member of the Class of 1970, Arnold was a dean at Middlebury even before his class graduated, a neat trick in the late ’60s, when any presumption of authority was called into question. If you talk to alumni, particularly black alumni, from the tumultuous late ’60s into the 1970s, a time when colleges like Middlebury got the message loud and clear about their intolerable homogeneity and cultural isolation, they will attest to Arnold’s influence and commitment to their success.
Dennis O’Brien, dean of the College from 1968 to 1975 (and later president of Bucknell and Rochester) hired Arnold to be his special assistant in 1969, his “liaison to the black student community,” when Arnold was a junior at the College. In 1972, Arnold was appointed assistant dean of students to Erica Wonnacott and was promoted to associate dean of students in 1974 while still in his mid-20s. He left Middlebury in 1977 for the ministry and had a remarkable two decades in the church in Georgia before dying too young at 49 in 1996.
We have honored our heroes of integration at Middlebury, those solitary progenitors, racial standard bearers—Alexander Twilight, Class of 1823; Martin Freeman, Class of 1849; Mary Annette Anderson, Class of 1899—and appropriately so. Twilight Hall has a prominent presence on campus, and the Anderson Freeman Resource Center in Carr Hall is a hub for students who have been historically underrepresented in higher education.
We have also remembered in our history those distinctive individual African Americans who happened to find Middlebury: Charles Stubbs, Class of 1903, football player and doctor in Baltimore; Emile Holley, Class of 1925, a brilliant student; Gladstone Chandler, Class of 1926, faculty member at Morehouse University; Ambassador Charles A. James ’49, recipient of an honorary degree in 1977; Sonny Dennis ’55, Hall of Fame athlete par excellence; his teammate Charlie Sykes ’57, humanitarian, also a recipient of an honorary doctorate in 1992; Ron Brown ’62, President Clinton’s secretary of commerce.
These distinguished individuals are worthy of our admiration; it is also worth noting their singularity. In the first 165 years of the institution’s history, from 1800 to 1965, just a handful of black students, fewer than 20, graduated from Middlebury. They were separated one from the next by many years, even decades. I came to Middlebury in 1963, in the Class of 1967, just three years before Arnold. There was not a single black or brown student in my class at Middlebury, nor in the next year, 1968.
Ten African American students were in the Class of 1969 and nine more in 1970, Arnold’s class. These students were the vanguard, the first wave, or cohort, of African American students, as Middlebury, and so many schools like it, made the decision to add black students to its overwhelmingly white student body. It could not be otherwise. The times demanded it.
In the chaotic spring of 1968, in the immediate aftermath of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., President James I. Armstrong emphasized that Middlebury “must do what it can to help alleviate the urban crisis conditions” and empaneled a broadly composed “Special Committee,” chaired by Dean O’Brien. This committee quickly became known as the “King Commission.”
Its 26-page final report proposed “admissions procedures, funding, and a special curriculum for disadvantaged students,” and the “establishment of a Special Program under the guidance of a permanent director.”
The language of the day, rife in the report, makes for some uncomfortable reading: the operative euphemism was “disadvantaged students”; black students are “Negroes”; and there’s much mention of the “ghetto” from whence they came. Yet these discussions, these decisions, were critical in Middlebury’s effort to become more diverse, more inclusive, a place of learning that reflected the diversity of America itself.
The expedience with which recommendations were implemented was reactionary. Dale DeLetis, who was assistant dean of students from 1965 to 1972, described the time as “fraught, continual upheaval and unrest. Kids were just coming apart.” Anger about the Vietnam War, and the threat of the draft, was sufficient to fuel passionate discontent and demand for change—fundamental, radical change.
And competition for qualified black students was intense across the higher education landscape nationally. Middlebury emphasized early on the recruiting of students who had shown “promise” as well as achievement but who would be “at risk” in the Middlebury academic environment. It was clear that admission to Middlebury came with a complementary obligation of the College to support these incoming students. Hence, the “Special Program.” (Its signature was a summer orientation period for admitted students.)
Somebody was needed to oversee, implement, and direct the program that the King Commission proposed. Authors of the report had recommended a “senior” position in the administration. They got a “junior,” 21-year-old student Arnold McKinney, and though it was an unlikely hire given that he had not yet graduated, he was decidedly the right person at the right time.
Dennis O’Brien, now in his third decade of retirement, lives in Middlebury today, at age 88, with wife, Judith. In his time at the College, he was an activist dean, ubiquitous, unafraid to engage students at their level, on their turf—he seemed to thrive on the hurly-burly of the fractious campus scene.
O’Brien experienced firsthand Arnold’s capabilities and leadership when Arnold was a student. In the spring of 1969, Arnold chaired the “Middlebury Conference,” an annual symposium that brought major writers and activists to campus for two days of lectures, panels, and workshops. The theme was always a timely issue, and it changed from year to year. The focus in 1969 was on poverty. Radical social activist and writer Saul Alinsky was the headliner, but other prominent figures from New York, as well as local antipoverty workers, were invited and engaged students. “I was very impressed,” O’Brien said. “Arnold was very visible, in charge.”
Over lunch recently, O’Brien explained his appointment of Arnold: “We were trying to hire black staff and faculty and getting nowhere. I got so frustrated. I persuaded (President) Jim Armstrong to allow me to hire Arnold McKinney. That turned out to be one of the most successful appointments we ever made.” He described Arnold as “a no-nonsense guy, a great taskmaster. We gave him real responsibility—he was very good at helping to integrate black students into the school.”
Arnold arrived at Middlebury from the South Bronx in the fall of 1966, and in his first days, he fell in with someone else from New York, Eugene Oliver, and they soon were close friends, nearly inseparable. Both Gene and Arnold were from the same neighborhood in the Bronx and recipients of scholarship assistance attached to the East Side Settlement House there, though they didn’t really know each other before matriculating at Middlebury. (Gene attended DeWitt Clinton High in the Bronx; Arnold had commuted to Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School.) Gene was tall, six foot three, outgoing and charismatic, an outstanding basketball player; Arnold was small in stature, five foot six, maybe 150 pounds, lively and ironic.
He had a deep rich voice, a preacher’s voice, and a look, a baleful glare. An arched brow on Arnold’s face was enough to intimidate any nonforthcoming student. It was a brave student indeed who tried to put one over on Dean McKinney.
Now retired after a 27-year career as a judge, Gene discussed his time at Middlebury and his friendship with Arnold in a recent conversation. “Being from New York, he was someone I could talk to right away. There were only eight African American students in our class,” Gene said, “and we all became very close. We started the group Black Students for Mutual Understanding (BSMU). Arnold was a natural leader. We all gravitated toward him. He sought us out. He kept us together. When any one of us had a problem, he was there.
“Arnold convinced us that we should all get involved in some aspect of college life beyond BSMU. We both had radio shows. I’ll never forget WRMC! Arnold had a jazz show—he loved his jazz. I had a show that came on right after Arnold’s, rock ’n’ roll, soul music.” That’s actually how I remember them: Arnold was jazz, Gene was rock ’n’ roll, soul.
Dean of Students Erica Wonnacott was Arnold’s boss. They were more than colleagues—they became friends. Erica was the first dean of (all) students at Middlebury and had an extraordinary 19-year run in that role. Prior to coming to Middlebury, she had earned a degree in psychology from Drew University and a master’s in counseling from Columbia and had worked as a counselor on a volunteer basis in Harlem. She then took time off to raise her three small daughters.
Arnold and Erica were as different as different could be—the determined young black man from the South Bronx and the middle-aged, former suburban housewife from Darien, Connecticut. Yet they formed a highly effective partnership. Erica never met a “bad boy” who couldn’t be redeemed and was liberal of second chances. Arnold laughed and expressed a more guarded view, given his experience: “Erica, there are bad boys, and that guy is one of them,” he’d say, rolling his eyes in an expression of exasperation. They both knew the truth lay somewhere in the middle between Erica’s conciliatory approach and Arnold’s skepticism. When Arnold’s daughter was born in 1974, she was named “Erica.”
As a dean, he carried himself with natural authority and purpose. He was mature way beyond his years. Tim Carey ’65, his colleague for five years, discussed Arnold’s prepossession: “I came back to work at Middlebury (three years after graduation) intimidated by everyone, having to deal with all these people I looked up to: former professors, my bosses in Old Chapel. Not Arnold, he was intimidated by no one—President Armstrong, Dean O’Brien, it didn’t matter. He was the same with everyone.
“Arnold was totally honest, to the core. He always got right to the issue, always told the truth,” Carey recalled. “He never raised his voice. He could show irritation, but he was always calm. He learned from both Dennis O’Brien and Erica Wonnacott: Dennis nurtured the intellect, his head; Erica nurtured his compassion, his heart.”
For “dean-ly” conversations in Old Chapel with Arnold, students sat in a chair next to his desk. He sat at the desk in an adjustable chair jacked up to its maximum height. He towered over even the largest male students. He had a deep rich voice, a preacher’s voice, and a look, a baleful glare. An arched brow on Arnold’s face was enough to intimidate any nonforthcoming student. It was a brave student indeed who tried to put one over on Dean McKinney.
Arnold made sure that black culture was brought to campus, and Mildred cited Alvin Ailey and Dick Gregory as examples. When the Black Student Union was provided with organizational and social space in Adirondack House, Arnold named the space Coltrane Lounge.
Arnold dressed for work. I never saw him in jeans or sneakers. His wife, Karen Smallwood McKinney ’73, affirmed recently, “He never even owned a pair of jeans”—that’s not what adult professionals wore. He came to work in a sport coat and tie, or a suit. He wore cufflinks. He hung his coat up on a hook behind the door of his office, or over the back of his chair, and greeted students in his tie and often a vest. Arnold’s “casual” attire was a pair of creased slacks, shined shoes, and a white collared-shirt.
He loved basketball, watching it. Otherwise, he didn’t have a great interest in sports—or exercise, for that matter. He subscribed to W. C. Fields’s dictum, which he often repeated: “Whenever I feel like exercising, I lie down till the feeling goes away.”
Arnold was never very healthy. He had severe asthma. Even in his 20s at Middlebury, he was taken occasionally to the hospital emergency room for breathing assistance.
He loved to laugh and had a broad sense of humor, and we found much in our lives with students worthy of humor. His laugh was a bray, very distinctive, loud inhalations of breath. Racked with laughter, he would run for his inhaler, and we worried. It was an ironic dynamic to be in an office where people liked one another’s company but tried not to be too jocular at the risk of jeopardizing Arnold’s health.
He was an insomniac, from New York, frustrated that night came so early in Vermont. “Arnold never went to sleep,” Carey observed. One of Arnold’s favorite nocturnal companions was Philip Gura, who was teaching American literature at Middlebury as a “fill-in,” as he put it, a leave replacement, while writing his dissertation at Harvard. Philip met Arnold through John Conron, his Middlebury colleague in American literature, who had a keen interest in the recruitment of black students and had taught in the summer orientation program for Arnold. Many years of teaching and writing later, Philip is the William S. Newman Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of North Carolina.
“We saw each other several evenings a week, usually to go out to the Alibi or Fire and Ice,” Gura recalls now. “I would have dinner, work on my dissertation until about 9:00, and then head over to Arnold’s home to pick him up. One night, out of the blue, as we were sitting in the latter place, he said, ‘Philip, I have something to tell you. I have had a calling and I am going to train for the ministry.’ He had never mentioned it before, so it must have been the real spiritual experience, as he described it.”
Gura also worked with Arnold, teaching English in the summer program. “It was something I had never experienced, and at the end of the period, he said to me, ‘You’re such a good teacher, why do you want to spend your life teaching a bunch of white privileged kids when you can do the kind of work you are doing here with these kids?’ It is a question I have never forgotten, going to the root of my conscience.”
The summer “Orientation,” as Arnold called it, involved a basic math course, a writing course, and a seminar that included faculty members presenting college-level academic content. These courses were very useful for assessment. I worked closely with Arnold in the three-week August program and then took on special writing courses for students in the fall and spring.
Approximately 20 students that summer, 1976–77, were housed in Stewart Hall. Though married with a child by this time, Arnold lived in the dorm with the students and was available 24/7 for the three weeks of the program. He made sure students attended class and homework got done.
Curtis Singleton ’79 recalled his summer Orientation experience in a recent email: “Arnold gave me a reality check for survival in August of 1975, my freshman year. He kicked our butts in an academic ‘boot camp.’ We thought we were the ‘talented tenth’ of W. E. B. Dubois. He did not care about how smart we thought we were. He was on a mission. That mission was for us to ‘take the road less traveled’ and earn a Middlebury degree. Excuses were unacceptable and intolerable, but we knew he always had our backs.”
Back for her 45th Reunion in June, Mildred Reese McNeil ’74 pointed out that Arnold was not just a taskmaster: “He was sort of like a social director, too. We had great parties.” Arnold made sure that black culture was brought to campus, and Mildred cited Alvin Ailey and Dick Gregory as examples. When the Black Student Union was provided with organizational and social space in Adirondack House, Arnold named the space Coltrane Lounge.
Mildred and Karen McKinney became good friends. The McKinney home, adjacent to campus, became Mildred’s “home away from home. We were down there all the time,” she says. “I sometimes even forgot about how cold it was in Vermont.”
Mildred’s younger brother, James Reese, accepted a position as assistant dean of students at Bates College immediately after graduating from Middlebury in 1977; he’s worked there his entire career, 42 years. Now the associate dean for international students, James has a ready answer when asked if Arnold was an influence on him in his choice of occupation: “Absolutely, 1,000 percent, early and now! I tell students here all the time, ‘I model myself after a dean I had at Middlebury,’ and I mean it. Arnold was a powerful presence for me and others. He gave us a mountain of support, and not just students of color. His presence with all students was immense.
“Arnold was commanding, but not domineering,” James went on. “Like a good teacher, he conveyed that if you were responsible, he was always there to help you. If you studied, you would do well, and you owed it to yourself to succeed. We had great confidence in him: ‘Go see Arnold,’ we’d say. ‘He’ll help you.’ Everyone when I was at Middlebury had an ‘Arnold helped me’ story.”
Arnold was smitten with Karen Smallwood even before she arrived at Middlebury as a student in the fall of 1969. Smallwood had visited Middlebury the previous winter as part of a group of recruited African American high school seniors. “I was impressed how everyone seemed to hang on his every word,” she said of Arnold, who was in charge of the weekend’s activities. “I applied only to Middlebury, but I was admitted to three schools,” she explained recently. Two colleges had accepted her without her going through the formal admission process. “I was at an academic high school (Philadelphia School for Girls) and ‘they’ were looking for us.” Such was the recruiting intensity of colleges at the time.
After their first date the next year, Arnold told Karen that he had “literally skipped” all the way back to his dorm. I immediately questioned this description, of course. If there ever were a person who did not skip, it was Arnold McKinney. That was an unimaginable image.
“I was shocked, too,” she said, “but he insisted it was true.” Such was his ardor. Arnold had found his partner for life. Dale DeLetis observed, “They were perfectly matched.” They were married the next summer after his class had graduated and she had finished her first year.
As Karen explained, “Arnold split his senior year into two years and worked with Dennis (O’Brien).” In the summer of ’71, Arnold accepted a position in the office of Mayor John Lindsay in New York City, and Karen transferred to Barnard, “one of the schools that had admitted me without applying” for her junior year. They returned to Middlebury after just that one year, when Arnold took on responsibilities as an assistant to Erica Wonnacott, and Karen resumed her Middlebury studies. Karen graduated in ’73, gave birth in ’74 to Erica, earned a master’s in education from UVM in ’75, and was immediately scooped up by the Middlebury Admissions Office to be an assistant director there.
Karen and Arnold were indeed a team. She and her admissions associates recruited and admitted students of color (Arnold participated in that effort as well) and then placed them in Arnold’s capable hands for nurturing and support. The McKinney home on the corner of College and Shannon Streets, and then on South Street, was a sanctuary for students. “I often went to bed when we still had a full house!” Karen said.
We were taken by surprise in the dean’s office, Erica and I and others, when Arnold told us that he was leaving in the spring of ’77 to go to divinity school and enter the ministry. We shouldn’t have been—it made sense. He needed a broader canvas for his work.
Arnold’s departure was very big news on campus. In the students’ world, he was a fixture, a force. The story of his impending departure was carried in the March 16 Campus on page one, above the fold, even above the banner: “McKinney Resigns to Become Minister” was the headline with an accompanying photo.
In the piece, Arnold celebrated the “hundreds of students he saw,” and said that he “was impressed by the character of Middlebury students: whenever there was a crisis with a student, everybody was there for support.”
He acknowledged that he liked working in President Robison’s administration but allowed that “I was spoiled by the fact that I worked for Dean O’Brien. I had a special relationship with him.”
The last Campus issue of that school year, May 11, featured a double-page article, at the centerfold, a Q&A: “McKinney Speaks Out Before Leaving Deanship.” Arnold discussed the role of the deans as “interpreters”: “If there’s a problem a student has, there should be one place that student can go to have the problem resolved.”
The best part of his job, he said, was working with a struggling student and seeing a “turnaround.” The worst part was dealing with “disciplinary matters,” but, he added, “even that can have a bright side, as you get to know that student.”
The College, Arnold said, should be educating its students “to do something good for society. There are values that a college should be able to give their students: respect and concern for others, a realization that everyone is not as fortunate as people at Middlebury.”
Arnold’s work at Middlebury was preparation, a prelude to a life of engagement and accomplishment as a minister. After earning his Master of Divinity from the Morehouse School of Religion, Arnold was licensed and ordained at Antioch Baptist Church North in Atlanta. In 1984, Arnold was called to be the pastor at the Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church in Waycross, Georgia. He was there for 12 years.
In Waycross today, Arnold’s church is located at “702 Arnold McKinney Drive,” and the Ware County Family Practice Medical Center, which Arnold founded and served as board president, is now named the “McKinney Medical Center.” Its website explains its origin: “Rev. Arnold McKinney had a vision to assist individuals who were struggling with medical bills and the lack of quality care at an affordable cost.”
Arnold died on August 19, 1996.
That day he left a meeting at a Holiday Inn not feeling well and went to his car, where he kept portable oxygen. The cause of death was heart attack, but, Karen said, “It was the asthma.” Arnold had endured a serious episode just a few months before.
When we heard of Arnold’s death, we were shocked but not surprised. He had a premonition, an awareness that he would not live a long life.
Dale DeLetis remembers Arnold talking about his sense that he would go early. “That’s why he drove himself,” Dale believes. “There was no time to lose with Arnold. He had to get on his way fast—‘Go do it!’” Tim Carey remembers a conversation when Arnold said, “I want to make it to 50.” He didn’t quite.
Gary Margolis and I represented the College at the service for Arnold at his church in Waycross. His career in the ministry was powerfully acknowledged by local and state officials, both ecclesiastical and lay, in a “Service of Triumph.” The eulogy was delivered by the Reverend Cameron M. Alexander, his pastor and mentor in Atlanta and colleague in the state Baptist convention.
In Middlebury, we held our own celebration of Arnold’s life in a service in Mead Chapel on Alumni of Color Weekend in January 1997. Erica Wonnacott, Dennis O’Brien, and Eugene Oliver offered warm recollections of Arnold. President John McCardell welcomed us all and said of Arnold, “Whatever he did and wherever he went, this man, small in build perhaps, but giant in spirit, touched lives and made a difference.”
Two years after Arnold’s death, Karen moved back to Atlanta, where she still lives. She resumed her teaching career at Georgia State University–Perimeter College, became actively involved again at Antioch Baptist, and married another minister, Rev. Harry Holley, in 2011. Her daughter Erica and grandchildren live nearby, as does her son Derek, who followed his father’s footsteps into the ministry and is an associate minister at Antioch Baptist.
In a recent phone conversation, Karen mentioned she was looking at a pen-and-ink drawing of a Middlebury campus scene as we spoke.
“It’s a drawing by Dennis O’Brien, given to us as a gift,” she says. “It’s been hung in the living room everywhere I’ve lived.”