Arthur Gelb: Service-Minded Spirit and a Helping Hand

Screen Shot 2014-06-05 at 2.00.22 PM by Jeffrey Rosen, Professor of Psychology, Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership

Arthur Gelb died recently at the age of ninety. Some readers of this blog may know of him as a renowned journalist and editor at the New York Times, a newspaper that he helped transform. However, most people won’t know about the pivotal role that Arthur played in the initial creation of the Colin L. Powell Center for Leadership and Service at CCNY, an institution that would set foundational principles that now guide the mission of the Colin Powell School for Civic and Global Leadership.

First a little background: Arthur Gelb, the child of immigrants, was born in East Harlem in 1924, and as befits this reminiscence, began his undergraduate studies at CCNY in the early 1940s, only to drop out and become a copy boy at the Times, eventually rising to the position of managing editor. Upon his retirement in 1989, he became president of the New York Times Foundation and the head of the New York Times college scholarship program for students who sought to overcome hardship and disadvantage. It was then, a few years into his tenure with the New York Times Foundation, that I met Arthur.

The late 1980s through roughly the first half of the 1990s was a tumultuous period in CCNY’s history: one marked by calamitous budget crises, student revolts, and campus scandals. I was the Dean of Social Science throughout that period. When I was not busy trying to help quench the flames and minimize the damage, I engaged in a variety of efforts to support existing programs and to create new academic opportunities for students and faculty. It was within that context that at some point in the early ‘90s I invited Arthur to come uptown and visit his old college campus. He was more than willing, and I suspect, somewhat curious. He may have been curious in no small part because our college had been in the newspapers, especially the New York Post, with some frequency—and for all the wrong reasons.

He asked to bring along his friend and colleague A.M. Rosenthal, another legend at the Times and graduate of CCNY. We wandered the campus, visited their old haunt in Shepard Hall and spoke with a number of students. They were impressed by the caliber of the students they encountered and the personal stories these students relayed—students with whom both Arthur and A.M. could identify. (Rosenthal subsequently wrote a very affirmative article about CCNY entitled “An American Promise.”)

Arthur agreed to support several CCNY initiatives through the Foundation, and thereafter he and I would meet periodically at his office, where I’d update him on events at the college and we would explore the possibilities of new initiatives. It was in that context that a discussion began between us about the possibility of engaging General Colin Powell, another CCNY graduate. Arthur suggested it might be helpful to enlist some assistance and suggested that we might invite former Mayor David Dinkins and J. Bruce Llewellyn—a prominent businessman, CCNY graduate, and cousin to General Powell—to meet with us, hear our thoughts and if they found them sound, develop a plan for engaging General Powell. Arthur contacted both Dinkins and Llewellyn and they agreed to meet with us. It was at that meeting that a proposal for the Colin L. Powell Center was fashioned. And the rest is history.

I think it fair to say that none of this would have happened without the enthusiastic support and remarkable skill set that Arthur possessed. With fond recollection of him and enduring appreciation for his support, I’ll end with an excerpt from a recent article by Maureen Dowd on the death of Arthur Gelb, in which she offers a sense of Arthur’s spirit and person. She writes:

“Some people have such a radical vitality, such an electric consciousness, such a lifelong love affair with the world that when they stop breathing, it is like the wind dying, like the waning and disappearing of the light.

And the world feels duller and dumber and more lackluster without them.

Arthur Gelb, the New York Times editor known as 'The Arthurian Legend,' had that constant, overflowing generous engagement. The world was always putting its hooks in him and he was always putting his hooks in the world.”