What kind of alchemy produces a man who walks a tightrope every day and never seems to be working hard at it? A key element was Dartmouth in the 1950s, to hear McCall and some of his classmates tell it. He and a handful of other black students had to make their own way, under sometimes difficult circumstances, in a tradition-bound community that was overwhelmingly white and wealthy. At the earliest dawn of the civil rights movement, McCall and about 20 other African Americans on campus ate, slept, studied, and even dated under a microscope. Sometimes they regarded Dartmouth as an oasis of tolerance. Other times they felt like curiosities or even interlopers in a place that did not always support their aspirations. Always they felt the special challenge of being different.
"It was a supportive environment, but there were limits. They weren't always visible but they were there, and you had to find a way around them,” McCall says. "That's kind of what the rest of my life has been like." Carleasa McCall had taught her only son that hard work and educational achievement were his tickets out of poverty in Roxbury, Massachusetts. Herman McCall took a different route, deserting his son and five daughters when Carl was 12 after losing his job as a railroad waiter. (Carl McCall's first name is also Herman, but he has made a point of never using it, and never explaining why.) To support her family, Carlessa McCall turned to welfare, and to a tight-knit neighborhood chock full of successful black male role models, two of them Dartmouth graduates.
Lawyer Matthew Bullock '04 and social worker John Shelburne '19, each a former All-America football player at Dartmouth, looked out for young Carl. So did the superintendent of his Sunday School at St. Mark's Congregational Church, Edward Brooke, who would become the first African-American United States Senator since Reconstruction. The men not only set an example for McCall, they also actively intervened in his life. McCall likes to tell the story of how an administrator at Roxbury Memorial High School tried to enroll him in shop classes with most of the other black students, and a church elder marched down to the school and demanded that he be switched to college prep classes. In and out of class, McCall excelled. As a high school senior, he was basketball captain, yearbook editor, and class president.
When it was time to pick a college, McCall's high school guidance counselor suggested Boston College. Naturally, Bullock and Shelburne had a different idea. But to McCall, Dartmouth seemed impossibly out of reach. The yearly tuition, room, and board charge of about $2,000 was only a few hundred dollars less than the welfare payments that supported his entire family. "To me, it was just astronomical. I mean, how could I possibly do that?" McCall remembered. "So Bullock said to me, 'Look, I want you to apply to Dartmouth. If you get in, I will see to it that it won't cost you anything."' Bullock kept his promise, arranging for a Boston foundation to pay all expenses that weren't already covered by McCall's work-study financial aid package from Dartmouth.
Arriving in Hanover in the fall of 1954, McCall felt as if he had been dropped off on a different planet. He had grown up in a community that was racially and economically diverse. Dartmouth was neither. There were just nine African Americans in the Class of '58, up from four the previous year, and McCall remembers hearing grumbling that Dartmouth had "lowered its standards" in more than doubling the number of black students admitted. Later Dartmouth classes would have as few as one black student, and the numbers would grow very slowly in the 1960s before rising steeply in the early 1970s.
After getting his divinity degree, he moved to New York City and became the activist he never was at Dartmouth. He worked for various civil rights causes in the 1960s, and in 1974 was elected as Harlem's representative to the New York state senate. Four years later, President Jimmy Carter appointed him the United States' second-ranking diplomat to the United Nations. After losing a race for lieutenant governor in 1982, McCall bided his time in private industry, working as a vice president of Citibank and running the city board of education, an unpaid position. The chance he was waiting for came in 1993, when New York's longtime comptroller resigned. Though lacking experience in accounting and finance, McCall used his political connections and his reputation as a talented manager to win appointment by the State Legislature to fill the unexpired term, and in 1994 won a full four-year term from state voters.
[In 1988] when he announced he would not try to unseat George Pataki, McCall had been traveling around the state, delivering speeches that were a little less cautious than usual, with sharper digs at Governor Pataki and other Republicans. Often he worked Dartmouth into his stump speech, telling audiences that he is a living example of the worth of providing opportunities for minority students, including affirmative action programs. What he doesn't tell his audiences is that one of the things he learned at Dartmouth was how to thrive in a community that, when viewed from today's perspective, did not always live-up to its own ideals. "It was clear to us that discrimination was very real, and that we were victims of it. But we were in the mode of, 'You have to work harder. You have to be better. You have to overcome. And that's what we did."