On Thursday afternoon, President Sean Decatur announced that the College will honor William E. Lowry Jr. ’56 H’99 by renaming the Kenyon Athletic Center (KAC) to the Lowry Center, making it the first campus building to take the name of a Black alumnus.
Lowry was the fifth Black student to graduate from Kenyon, received an honorary degree from the College and served on the Board of Trustees for over two decades and remains an emeritus member to this day.
The announcement, which Decatur shared during the Founder’s Day ceremony, came after the Board of Trustees voted in its October meeting to rename the KAC and to endow a scholarship in Lowry’s name intended to bring underrepresented students to Kenyon.
“This is one of the most significant moments of the past seven years, and — certainly for me, personally — one of the most moving and important moments of my presidency here at Kenyon,” Decatur said in his announcement.
According to Decatur, Board Vice Chair Joe Lipscomb ’87 P’19 spearheaded the Board’s honoring of Lowry, helping to establish the scholarship fund and suggesting the KAC be renamed. In addition, the College has created a companion annual fund scholarship which will aid underrepresented students.
During his time at Kenyon, Lowry was a trailblazer in more ways than one. He served as student body president and was captain of the football, baseball and basketball teams.
“There’s almost no better example of what athletics means in a liberal arts environment than Bill Lowry,” Lipscomb said. “He is truly one of those people who has left his mark on Kenyon in more ways than most of us could ever hope to.”
In April of 1954, Lowry became the first Black member in the country to be initiated into the Beta Theta Pi fraternity. While Lowry — having already become a part of the organization’s social circle — was indifferent about becoming an official member, his future fraternity brothers made national news in their efforts to recruit him.
“They were willing to go through hell to do it. I don’t know if you can get better than that,” Lowry said during an interview included in the announcement. “I could never have respect for anybody much more than I have for those guys.” Lowry’s initiation and the controversy surrounding it became known as “The Kenyon Affair” in Beta lore, and, according to an archived American studies project on Black history at Kenyon, “sparked a series of revisions within many fraternities regarding their acceptance of black members.”
After graduating from Kenyon, Lowry returned to his hometown of Chicago to pursue a career in civil and political engagement. He was particularly involved in labor issues, and became the host of The Opportunity Line, an Emmy and Peabody Award-winning TV program about employment issues in Chicago. Lowry worked for three decades at Inland Steel Industries, eventually rising to the position of public relations director. Lowry has also worked in nonprofit organizations throughout his life, serving as vice president and senior advisor to the president of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Lowry has been just as active in his volunteer work at the College, serving on the Board of Trustees from 1988 to 2012. Lowry also gave the Commencement speech in 2010, and has served on the board of the Kenyon Review, as a reunion planner and as a volunteer for the Career Development Office, among other contributions he has made to his alma mater.
According to Kenyon News, when Decatur and Board Chair Brackett Denniston III ’69 told him that the KAC would now bear his name, Lowry was amazed.
“To me, this building is one of the most significant buildings that we have on campus and to feel that my name would be attached to that was beyond comprehension,” he said. “This is big. It’s a wonderful thing, and I am humbled by it, quite frankly.”