Section: Features

Exploring the KAC’s new name: Who is William E. Lowry?

Exploring the KAC’s new name: Who is William E. Lowry?

Bill Lowry was the first Black member of Beta Theta Pi. | COURTESY OF GREENSLADE SPECIAL COLLECTIONS AND ARCHIVES

On Oct. 29, the Board of Trustees announced that they will be renaming the Kenyon Athletic Center (KAC) after William E. Lowry Jr. ’56 H’99. Lowry was the fifth Black person ever to graduate from Kenyon and served on the Board of Trustees for over two decades; he remains an emeritus member. “I was just floored, I really was,” Lowry said in response to this renaming. “What does it mean to me? Well, it means just about everything.”

Lowry was born on the south side of Chicago on Feb. 16, 1935. He spent much of his time playing football, basketball and baseball in Washington Park, which was a block away from his childhood home. He played constantly; whenever he was not in school, Lowry recalls, he was at the park.

Lowry attended Francis W. Parker School, an independent liberal arts high school in Chicago. During his junior year, he befriended three seniors who were planning to attend Kenyon when they graduated. His peers at Francis Parker told Kenyon’s dean of admissions at the time to recruit Lowry, he said. 

As an accepted student, Lowry was invited to visit the campus before he made up his mind about attending. A Kenyon alum living just outside of Chicago contacted Lowry and offered to drive him to the Hill for the weekend. 

“It was magic,” Lowry said, recalling the first time he saw Kenyon. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that beautiful in my life.” Lowry spent the weekend reconnecting with his three Francis Parker friends and thoroughly enjoying his time on the Hill. Shortly after returning home, he committed to attend Kenyon for the upcoming fall. 

Despite his excitement about attending, being one of very few Black students at Kenyon in the 1950s quickly proved difficult for Lowry. He recalled, in the fall of his first year, going to an empty restaurant in Mount Vernon early in the morning. Despite being the only patron, the owner — who seemed dubious of Lowry’s presence — sat him in the back of the restaurant, next to the kitchen, Lowry recalled. “So I told myself, ‘This is going to be a long four years.’”

Lowry did not expect to play football competitively at Kenyon; academics were his priority. Prior to his arrival, he had turned down the opportunity to play for the Lords, and did not attend preseason training. But the moment he got to Kenyon, Lowry went down to the football field to look at the team playing. Bill Stiles, the football coach at the time, immediately noticed Lowry. As Lowry remembers it, Stiles went up to him and said, “Dean Bailey wants to see you at one o’clock.” The dean convinced Lowry that Kenyon football players were able to not only balance sports and academics, but that this actually enhanced their college experience. Within the half hour, Lowry had the Lords football uniform on.

Lowry quickly became a star running back on the Lords football team, his speed proving one of his strongest assets on the field. But joining the football team was only the beginning of Lowry’s athletic career at Kenyon. 

“As they say the rest was history, because I never took off some kind of uniform, either football, basketball or baseball,” Lowry said. “It was not my plan originally to do that. But that’s the way it worked out — and I think it worked out for me.”

Lowry didn’t just find things working out — he thrived. Not only would he become co-captain of the football team his senior year, but his offensive proficiency as a guard for the basketball team would eventually earn him the co-captain slot that year as well. A stellar infielder for the baseball team, Lowry also served as co-captain of the baseball team his junior and senior years. 

Though he formed strong relationships with his teammates on all three teams, Lowry was closest with his fellow football players, many of whom were members of the Beta Theta Pi (Beta) fraternity. His teammates extended him a “social bid” into the fraternity during his first year, which meant he could attend all events except for official meetings. In his sophomore year, however, the Betas decided they wanted to formally initiate him.

This was no easy task; in 1954, Kenyon only had three Black graduates, and the national fraternity of Beta Theta Pi had never before initiated a Black man. But Kenyon’s Betas did not shy away, and did everything in their power to make sure Lowry was initiated. Out of concern that their ability to initiate Lowry would be blocked on a technicality, the group made sure to get the entire chapter’s grades up and collect all dues. Lowry found the Betas’ efforts incredibly meaningful, both at the time and today. 

“They went to bat for me. … And I have to admit, it wasn’t until later in my life that I realized the real significance of that,” Lowry said. “I realized this was a sacrifice they were making in it … but I didn’t really get the full significance of what that meant in terms of the courage that it took for them to do that.”

Not everyone was as appreciative as Lowry about his initiation. Although the entire chapter was on board with initiating him, according to Lowry, Beta chapters across the country as well as fraternity alumni urged the chapter not to go through with it. These alumni fought against it until the last minute; a group from the organization’s headquarters even came to Kenyon the night of Lowry’s initiation to try to dissuade the chapter. While most of the College community was not necessarily discouraging of his initiation, Lowry recalled that one administrator, who was himself a Beta alumnus, “vehemently” advised against it. 

Despite this backlash, Beta went ahead and made Lowry the first Black man to ever be initiated into Beta Theta Pi in 1954. The incident is now referred to as “The Kenyon Affair.”

After graduating in 1956 with a degree in history, Lowry had a short-lived major league baseball career. After moving back to his native Chicago, he became deeply involved in the city’s labor issues, and would later take up these issues as a host on the Emmy and Peabody Award-winning program The Opportunity Line. Also noteworthy are his roles as vice president and senior advisor to the president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. 

Later in his life, Lowry became a member of the College’s Board of Trustees. While on the Board, Lowry made it his personal mission to make both Kenyon’s student body and its faculty more diverse. 

“It’s not that we get thousands of people of color teaching [at Kenyon] now, but we have considerably more than we had 20 years ago,” Lowry said. “I saw this as my job to not only bring those teachers here, but do whatever I could to keep them here.”

At age 85, Lowry reflects on his time at Kenyon with nothing but gratitude. 

“There are a few loves that I have in my life and — aside from my family, my children, my wife and so forth — [it’s] Kenyon there, and everybody who’s a part of it,” Lowry said. “It will always be that way.”

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