Adkins, Rutherford H. 1924–1998

views updated

Rutherford H. Adkins 19241998

University president

At a Glance


Rutherford H. Adkins served as president of Nashvilles Fisk University for a few brief months before his untimely death from cancer in 1998. He was a professor of physics who taught at many educational institutions. Before becoming the historic black colleges eleventh president, Adkins and Fisk had a long relationship that dated back to the early 1960s.

Adkins was born in 1924 and raised in Alexandria, Virginia. His father, Andrew Adkins, was a Baptist minister, and Rutherford Hamlet was one of six children born to the reverend and his wife Mattie, a schoolteacher. Education was extremely valued in their family, and at one point his parents even led a campaign to persuade Alexandria civic authorities to establish a separate high school for African American students. All of the Adkins children would go on to earn graduate degrees. But as a young man, Adkins dreamed of a more prosaic career as an auto mechanic. Since there were no college degree programs in this field, he pursued the nearest academic subjectphysicsfirst at Virginia Union University and then at Virginia State University for his first years of undergraduate schooling.

After transferring to Temple University in Philadelphia, where he lived with his uncle, Adkins was drafted when World War II erupted. The American military was still segregated at the time, but after passing an exam Adkins qualified for the U.S. Army Air Corps (the precursor of the U.S. Air Force) training school for African American airmen at Alabamas Tuskegee Institute. Adkins flew 14 overseas missions with this elite squadron of black pilots.

After World War II, however, there were few opportunities outside of teaching for blacks who possessed university degrees. The U.S. Post Office was one of the biggest employers of African American college graduates at the time. Despite these prospects, by this time Adkins had firmly decided upon a career in science. At school I had seen black persons who were physicists, he told Contempora, a publication of Fisk University. I knew that jobs were out there; I knew how to study, and I knew I wasnt dumb. He returned to Virginia State University, in part because his girlfriend at the time was also a student there. The two married secretly, but had to live separately until he graduated with a B.S. in physics in 1947. He began teaching courses there, but because Virginia States graduate school program was closed to African Americans, he earned his masters from Howard University. In 1955 he received a Ph.D. from the Catholic University of America, also located in Washington, D.C.

Adkins began his career as a professor of physics at Tennessee State University in 1958. In 1962 he took a job at Fisk University, and over the next decade and a half would hold a variety of academic posts there, including associate dean, dean, and even interim president for a period around 1975. Because of that stint, he landed on the list of names set before a presidential

At a Glance

Born November 21, 1924, in Alexandria, VA; died of complications from lung cancer, February 6, 1996, in Nashville, TN; sort of Andrew (a Baptist minister) and Mattie (a teacher) Adkins; married first wife (deceased, 1967), c. 1946; married Nanci Cherry Pugh (an attorney), November, 1992; children (first marriage): Sheila Adkins Scales, Mark, Theresa Ann. Education: Attended Virginia Union University, early 1940s; attended Temple University, early 1940s; Virginia State University, B.S., 1947; Howard University, M.S., 1949; Catholic University of America, Ph.D., 1955.

Career: Began academic career at Virginia State University, Petersburg, VA, asa member of physics faculty, late 1940s; member of physics faculty at Tennessee A&l University (now Tennessee State University) Nashville, 1958-62; affiliated with Fisk University, Nashville, TN, from 1962 to 1976 as professor of physics, associate dean, dean; also served as interim president, 1975-76; served as president of Knoxville College, Knoxville, TN, from 1976 to 1981; from 1981 to 1990 he served as distinguished visiting scientist and professor of physics at the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis, MD; he also held academic posts at Morehouse College, and the Georgia Institute of Technology, both Atlanta, GA, during the early 1990s; returned to Fisk as part-time professor, 1993, named chair of Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, 1993, named interim president, 1996;97, and president, 1997. Military service : Member of 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fight Group (Tuskegee Airmen) until 1945.

search committee for another Tennessee school, Knoxville College, and took the job when it was offered. He retired from Knoxville in 1981, and became a distinguished visiting scientist and professor of physics at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. He was affiliated with the military academy until 1990, when he became a member of the physics faculty at Atlantas Morehouse College.

It was in Atlanta that Adkins met his second wife, attorney Nanci Cherry Pugh, at a football game. Adkins had been a widower since the tragic death of his first wife in a 1967 automobile accident. Pugh was a Fisk graduate whom he had known slightly in the 1970s, and the two began dating. They married in November of 1992, and soon afterward Adkins left his teaching posts in Atlanta (he was also a visiting professor at Georgia Institute of Technology) and moved to Nashville, where Pugh was an attorney for the U.S. Veterans Administration. Back in Nashville in 1993, Adkins took a part-time teaching job at Fisksince Pugh had cautioned him to restrict his hoursbut within a few months was tapped to fill a vacant chair as head of the Department of Natural Sciences and Mathematics.

Fisk University is a private liberal arts school with a small enrollment of around 800 students. Founded just after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation as a college for freed slaves and their children, its alumni have included W.E.B. DuBois and Hazel OLeary. But Fisk was suffering from declining enrollment and financial problems by the early 1980s; an expensive football program had diminished resources for academic programs and scholarships. By the time Adkins took over the science department in 1993, however, Fisks longtime president, Henry Ponder, had put the school on the economic rebound. Adkins efforts during his tenure as chair of natural sciences and mathematics resulted in increased success for the school as well: a National Science Foundation study found that Fisk produced an unusually high number of graduates who went on to earn advanced degrees in the sciences.

When Ponder stepped down as president in 1996, Adkins was again named to the interim presidency. During this term in 1996 Adkins maintained and strengthened the successful strategies Ponder implemented at Fisk, and in February of 1997 the colleges board of trustees voted to name him president, though he had not sought the job. The inauguration ceremonies were held over a two-day period in the fall of that year, and Adkins, though 72, had firm plans for the schools future. He hoped to further increase its scholarship endowment fund, restructure some departments, and push enrollment up to one thousand.

But Adkins was diagnosed with lung cancer just a month after his inauguration, and died the following February. He was survived by his wife, three adult children, and several grandchildren and stepgrandchildren. His eulogy praised his dedication to Fisk, and remembered the scientist for his lack of pretense: Adkins drove an older-model Buick, and was known to stop and pull a weed from the campus if he saw an errant one. He still met with students, though his presidency did not require him to do so. He never rushed, a former colleague, Joseph White, told Dorren Klausnitzer of The Tennessean. He was humble and unique. His lifes work was basically to help others. A student told Klausnitzer that he had once submitted to Adkins a request for an academic reference on which he had written Dr. Rutherford Adkins. But the president, as 21-year-old Anthony Watkins told Klausnitzer, told him to cross out the Dr. because thats not a name my mama gave me.



Contempora, April 1997.

Nashville Banner, February 9, 1998.

The Tennessean, February 15, 1997, p. 2A; October 21, 1997, p. 4B; February 10, 1998, p. 6A; February 11, 1998.

Tennessee Tribune, February 13, 1998.


Additional information for this profile was provided by Special Collections, Fisk University Library.

Carol Brennan