By Laura Hutton, News Co-Editor
Contributions by Geoff Peckham
On Saturday, September 29, McDaniel College held its first Founders Convocation since the 125th anniversary of the school 15 years ago. Among those honored was NBA hall-of-famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who was awarded an honorary degree in Human Letters. Jabbar is the author of Brothers in Arms, which centers on the 761st Tank Battalion, the first all-African American battalion in the United States Army during WWII.
Also honored was 1931 alum Paul Lavern Bates, who was the commanding officer of the 761st.
Baron Bates, the son of Paul Bates, accepted the Trustee Alumni Award that was posthumously presented to his father. This honor is given to a very small number of alums who greatly impact society after leaving the campus.
“My father would have been most honored,” Bates said. Paul Bates was eager and confident to lead the first African American battalion and land on foreign soil. Bates insisted that his men, who called themselves the “Black Panthers,” be given nothing but the best.
Best known for his basketball career, Abdul-Jabbar is creating a new name through himself through his growing collection of authored works.
“He was most impressed with McDaniel College for producing a leader like Paul Bates who cared so much about his soldiers and for the cause of social justice,” states President Joan Coley.
Through Brothers in Arms, (published in 2005), Abdul-Jabbar remembers the 761st Tank Battalion. He became interested in the 761st through a 1992 documentary that he was invited to attend.
Disappointed with the sloppy production and factual errors pointed out by “Smitty,” a family friend and member of the 761st, Abdul-Jabbar decided to write the book. Abdul-Jabbar was surprised to learn that this “wise-cracking copwho was a friend of my dad’s was actually a war hero.”
Information about the Battalion “really opened my mind up and I was totally flabbergasted by what I saw,” said Abdul-Jabbar.
“Smitty” only lived for a year after the book was published. It was just enough time to share his experiences with friends and family and see the smiles the book put on the faces of the Battalion members.
Abdul-Jabbar shared that people always ask him why he wrote the book and he said that the answer “is really very simple.”
Sophomore Lia Snow adds, “It is a great honor to have Abdul-Jabbar visit our school.”
Also honored was Dr. Vasilis Pagonis, professor of physics at McDaniel College, with the inaugural appointment into the John Desmond Kopp Professorship in the Sciences.
After receiving his Honorary Degree, Doctor of Humane Letters, Abdul-Jabbar was presented with the Army Coin of Excellence by Major General W. Montague Winfield. “It is not very often that one gets to make a presentation to his hero,” stated Winfield upon the presentation of the coin, “Brothers in Arms is my favorite book.”
The army never intended for the 761st to fight. They just instated the Battalion to maintain continued support from African Americans for the war. Not only did they fight, but the 761st faced 183 days of continuous combat.
“These gentlemen were able to help tell America about the one to two million African Americans that fought in WWII,” explained Winfield, who also commended Abdul-Jabbar for the balance he created between sports and academics.
Coley added, “Founders Convocation was McDaniel College at its best. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is an excellent example of a scholar athlete who valued his education and wants people to know him for something other than just his sky hook.”