IN THE summer of 1968, amid the upheaval following the murder of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the College of the Holy Cross recruited 20 black students to pursue a liberal arts education on its Worcester campus. That act of racial outreach and social justice was the special project of Rev. John Brooks, the college’s visionary president. He not only offered the students a place at Holy Cross, but “mentored, defended, coached, and befriended’’ them, as journalist Diane Brady writes in her inspiring new book on Brooks and the promising black students he recruited.
One of those students - a lonely, angry seminary dropout from Pin Point, Ga., named Clarence Thomas - returned to his alma mater last week, where he accepted an honorary degree and described his gratitude to Brooks and Holy Cross for lifting him out of his despair.
“It is here that I enjoyed the first brief glimpses of what it meant to be educated,’’ said Thomas, now a Supreme Court justice, in remarks that moved some in the audience to tears. “It is here that I tried to exchange the cloak of animus and self-pity for that of hopefulness and charity.’’ Though he was the one being honored, Thomas insisted, “it is I who should be honoring Holy Cross and all the wonderful teachers, administrators, and staff who helped me more than four decades ago’’ - above all the compassionate priest who had seen in him possibilities he couldn’t yet see in himself. “I know that I am the better for you having lived,’’ he told Brooks. “You are paternal, but never paternalistic. You saw each of us as a person, not as a project.’’
Thomas’s affection for Holy Cross is longstanding; he has been a trustee and adviser to its students. His gratitude for those who reached out to him when he was a 19-year-old with “no place to go and no idea what I was going to do’’ does him great credit. But it reflects even more honor on the institution and the educator who believed in him and his fellow recruits. It was in Worcester, Thomas said, “that I took one long painful step to becoming a man.’’