By Kendra Davis
Though Gene Arthur, Class of ’70, graduated but one year after Johnny Jones, whose story was told last week, the two had vastly different perceptions of the same campus climate. He believes much of that is rooted in his childhood experiences.
The oldest of 10, Arthur was born in West New York, N.J., a town just 15 minutes north of the Lincoln Tunnel. Though the population was somewhere around 30,000, he can only remember about four black families living there, one of which was his.
They moved across the street from a convent, and, soon thereafter, Arthur’s mother took a job cooking for the nuns. She became close with not only the women, but also their religion, and eventually converted herself and her family to Catholicism. From that point forward, Arthur had an entirely Catholic upbringing.
“I came to Villanova prepared—I was raised Catholic, went to a Catholic grammar school and high school, and I was the only black student in my high school until my brother came three years later,” he says. “Two of my friends from high school who were white were over here [at Villanova] on scholarships when I got here. Many of my black student peers didn’t have that experience.”
Because he was used to “navigating a predominantly white environment,” as he describes it, Arthur didn’t feel the need to join the Black Students League (now known as the Black Cultural Society) as many of his peers did.
That does not mean, however, that he evaded the negative effects of a racially stratified university.
In his mind, the instability began his sophomore year when the coach who had recruited him back in high school left to become a professional recruiter.
He considered transferring, but Dean Alvin Clay, the adviser to the football team and Arthur’s personal mentor, convinced him to stay—a decision he regretted quickly.
“The new guy was not a ‘players’ coach’,” says Arthur. Despite his contentions, he was elected co-captain with a white teammate his senior year, making him not only the only black athlete on the team but the first black football captain in the history of the University. Needless to say, many eyes—including those of potential recruiters—were on him.
“We had a horrible senior season,” he laments. Though he was offered contracts to play in Toronto and Winnipeg, he could not leave the area because his father had fallen ill the year prior.
To make matters worse, 1969 was also the first year of the Vietnam draft. He remembers sitting in Beef and Ale—the Kelly’s of yesteryear—with dozens of other students, all waiting to hear their fate from the lottery that was being pulled.
Arthur got No. 52, the lowest in the group.
“At that point, I knew I had to go,” he says. “The only option left was either to get drafted or join the Army Reserves.”
He sat with that decision for four months, and in the process ran for student office as a way to take his mind off of it, ultimately winning the position of treasurer of the senior class.
Once his term was complete, he graduated and began his six years of military service—six months active duty in Caven Point, N.J. followed by one weekend of service per month for five-and-a-half years plus two weeks of training every summer.
With a degree in business administration under his belt, Arthur went for his CPA once he finished his military commitment. He quickly realized it wasn’t what he wanted to do and was discouraged for having to begin anew.
“I was bitter about it all for a long time, which is one of the reasons I didn’t want to be part of black oral history project at first,” he says.
Today, after the completion of the project, he feels differently.
“Though I left on disappointing, somewhat tumultuous terms—an underachieving football season due to a controversial, lame-duck head coach in my first semester and the Vietnam War military draft hanging over my head in my second semester—both of these negative situations were not reflections on the University,” he points out.
“The interview with Tom Mogan was somewhat therapeutic. I had never spoken to someone about how I left Villanova. I still had some open wounds that I think the interview has helped close.”
Both his award as the Most Consistent Player by his teammates and coaches during his senior year as well as his induction into the VU Varsity Club Athletic Hall of Fame in 2005 have also thickened the silver lining of the gray cloud that was his departure.
And, of course, there are the friendships he has made that have made it all worthwhile.
“The friendships are the best thing about Villanova,” he says, noting that just this past summer he went to a reunion of 16 teammates hosted by past quarterback Joe Bolasko and his wife Anne Marie. He’s also part of an e-mail group of about 20 former athletes, most of them football.
“In totality, [my time at Villanova] would have to be viewed as a positive, rewarding experience,” he concludes, reflecting on his favorite Buddhist quote.
“Holding onto anger is like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else, but you are the only one who gets burned.”
The series will continue next week.