Friday, January 2, 2009

Two heroes: Suzman and Pell, thank you

Today's entry is brief and heartfelt, to be a small tribute to two giant major hero figures of the last century, both of whom died in the last couple of days, old and proving that good people can also have a long life.

One, Helen Suzman, was a South African white woman, a member of the SA Parliament and the lone opponent in her day to apartheid, braving all kinds of harassment and physical danger to push for an end to what she saw as simply something wrong. She knew that her color and social position might not protect her, and still went on, meeting with the oppressors, facing down the chief of police, making sure the press was on the story, relentlessly, bravely. She loved her country and wanted it to be better.

And she lived long enough to see the end of that regime and the start of new government for South Africa, which is still in some disarray but nothing to compare with that institutionalized injustice. I knew about her many decades ago, as a student wondering what we could do to help end apartheid and not coming up with much, and was surprised that she was still living till last week, but glad she'd seen the fruits of her brave work.

The other, Claiborne Pell, a hero of a different kind, a wealthy man who nonetheless understood the trials of people who were not born to privilege and the difficulty for them of getting even an education. He represented Rhode Island in Congress, for many years and was the creator of the Pell Grants, which accounted for many many students' being able to get a college education who would never have been able to afford it otherwise. He didn't wait for the whole government to move, just pushed on behalf of his own constituents and then by extension all eligible students in the country.

When I worked in higher education in the 70s, I came across many minority students whose Pell grants were the difference between a future and no future, and was amused that so many people didn't even realize Pell was the name of the man who created the grants. A lot of people assumed it was an acronym! It was so accepted that people forgot someone had to invent the notion. I doubt if he would have cared, though.

So let us thank them both and see what their example means for us, too.


  1. Thanks Liz for putting these two people on my radar screen.


  2. I had noticed the obit and articles for Helen Suzman, but did not know about Claiborne Pell... thanks for the very nicely written summaries of these two people's contributions.


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