First In Education
Eldridge McMillan is the longest-serving member in Board of Regents’ history
Eldridge W. McMillan, 73, a member of the State University System’s Board of Regents, tells a remarkable story regarding his first teaching job in Atlanta in 1954.
“I was supposed to teach at Price High School,” he says. “But the day before I was to report, the superintendent for colored education called to change my posting to Nathan Bedford Forrest Elementary.” The school was named for a Confederate Civil War general who lent his name and support to the Ku Klux Klan.
“I was smart enough to know who Nathan Bedford Forrest was,” McMillan says. “That school had been turned over to blacks and the system didn’t bother to change the name.”
Times have changed, in society and in education, and McMillan has been in the thick of it. Life has taken him far from his humble upbringing as a Methodist minister’s son in south and central Georgia.
At 16, McMillan graduated from high school in Dublin and headed to Atlanta where he attended Clark College, now Clark-Atlanta University.
There were few professions for blacks to aspire to and education wasn’t McMillan’s first choice. Neverthe-less, he found his niche studying English and journalism, serving as editor of the student paper and yearbook.
“I thought I’d pursue a career in journalism,” McMillan says. “I was very naïve. There were no black journalists in Atlanta or in the Southeast.”
Instead he took a test administered by the Atlanta Public Schools (APS) for students with enough hours to qualify for a teaching certificate. After passing with flying colors, McMillan was offered a teaching position. But first there was the question of military service.
“The school system was understandably reluctant to fill a teaching position with someone my age, with no military service or classification,” McMillan recalls. “I offered to take a physical.”
As it turned out, a lifelong eyesight deficiency kept McMillan from service. With his 4-F classification in hand, he set forth to teach elementary school. At age 19, he was deemed too close in age to teach high school students.
McMillan taught until 1959, when he earned his master’s degree in guidance and student personnel administration from Columbia University in New York. He remained with APS, as a resource counselor to students in three different high schools.
“We were trying to encourage students to continue their education,” McMillan says. “Today we’d probably be called school social workers.”
His days as a resource counselor came to an end in 1965 when he was hired by the federal government and spent two and a half years as a program operations supervisor before the Department of Health Education and Welfare took over the desegregation of schools. “I worked in the Office of Civil Rights for one year,” he says. “It felt like 15!”
Resigning from government service in 1968, McMillan moved into the nonprofit sector, as program associate for the Southern Education Foundation (SEF). One of the nation’s oldest foundations, it’s dedicated to providing equity and excellence in education for blacks and other “disadvantaged Southerners.”
The foundation had a strong public policy thrust and was well-known for its excellent administration of large grants from even larger foundations and charitable trusts. Rising through the ranks at the SEF, McMillan became the organization’s first black executive director in 1978. At the time of his retirement in 2001, McMillan was the SEF’s president, CEO and ex-officio board member.
In 1975, while still with the SEF, McMillan was named to the Georgia Board of Regents by then-Gov. George Busbee. He was reappointed by former Gov. Zell Miller in 1996 and once again by Gov. Sonny Perdue in 2003. He served as the chairman of the Board of Regents from 1986 to 1987 and is the longest-serving member in Regents’ history. In 2005, the University System of Georgia Foundation named its Lifetime Achievement Award after McMillan.
“I never could have imagined that I would one day serve as a regent,” McMillan says. “I’ve had an unusual history as my vocation and avocation intertwined.”
He’s optimistic about the road he’s traveled and where it leads. McMillan is currently working on a memoir. It will be a story worth telling and a book worth reading.