Edley, Christopher Fairfield, Sr.

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Edley, Christopher Fairfield, Sr.

(b. 1 January 1928 in Charleston, West Virginia; d. 5 May 2003 in New Rochelle, New York), lawyer, president, and chief executive of the United Negro College Fund who raised funds by capitalizing on the slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

Edley was the son of Philip Edley, a cabinetmaker, and Helen (Penn) Edley. He had one sister. After his parents’ divorce, Edley was raised by his mother, who worked as a housekeeper at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in Lynchburg, Virginia. In 1949 Edley graduated magna cum laude with an AB from Howard University in Washington, D.C. He continued his education at Harvard Law School, graduating in 1953 with an LLB and as one of the few African-American students. Edley served in the U.S. Army from 1946 to 1947 and again from 1950 to 1951, becoming a sergeant. He also served in the army reserves. Edley married Zaida Coles on 2 September 1950, and the couple had two children. Christopher Edley, Jr., became dean of the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law.

After law school Edley moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he worked from 1953 to 1954 as a law clerk for Lewis Tanner Moore. Edley was an assistant district attorney in Philadelphia from 1954 to 1956. From 1956 to 1961 he was a partner in the law firm of Moore, Lightfoot, and Edley. During this period Edley became the chief administrator for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. From 1961 to 1963 he was regional counsel for the Federal Housing and Home Finance Agency (later called the Department of Housing and Urban Development). In 1963 Edley became the first black program officer of the Ford Foundation, running the foundation’s government and law program.

In 1973 Edley went to work for the United Negro College Fund (UNCF). He revamped the organization’s method of fund-raising by setting long-term goals, instituting strategic plans, and proposing fresh and creative ideas. In 1979 Edley started a higher-education national telethon, the Lou Rawls Parade of Stars (1979–1997), later called An Evening of Stars (1998–), which raised more than $200 million over twenty-five years. Edley encouraged increased donations by individuals. He also arranged to have the UNCF become an option for federal employees’ giving and for state and municipal workers’ payroll deductions.

Edley used advertising to increase awareness about historically black colleges and their issues. The famous tag-line “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” was created by the Young and Rubicam executive Forest Long in 1972, just before Edley began working for the UNCF. Edley used the highly successful slogan extensively in print, television, and radio advertisements. The campaign earned numerous awards, including nineteen Communication Excellence to Black Audiences Awards and a number of Clio Awards. Edley provided audiences with opportunities for donating money after advertisements ran during the annual telethon and other celebrity events. He said that the advertisements were meant to soften up the audience.

Edley started a Washington-based government affairs office of the UNCF to represent the organization with Congress, the White House, and federal agencies involved in issues pertinent to historically black colleges. Achievements of this office are the Historically Black College and University Act, the Endowment Challenge Grant Act, and executive orders issued by presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan establishing the White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

During Edley’s tenure at the UNCF, the entertainer and educator Bill Cosby and his wife, the educator Camille Cosby, in 1988 donated $20 million to Spelman College. It was the largest individual contribution to a black college. Edley hoped that other gifts would follow. He disdained wealthy African Americans who did not contribute, estimating that 65 to 70 percent of the money coming to the UNCF was from white organizations.

In 1990 Edley initiated Campaign 2000: An Investment in America’s Future. He generated a $50 million challenge grant from Walter Annenberg, the publishing executive and former ambassador to Great Britain. At the time the grant was the largest single gift to an African-American charity. According to a biography of Annenberg and his father, Edley approached Annenberg for a $20 million donation and was told the amount was “too small... we need a crusade.” Edley accepted the donation at a ceremony attended by President George H. W. Bush.

In 1987 a UNCF study had shown that cuts in federal funding of higher education limited the opportunities of African-American youth, who statistically came from families that found it difficult to pay for college. Edley believed the federal deficit responsible for the cuts should be addressed, but not by cutting funding of higher education. In 1991 he made a speech stating that the United States was “not yet a kindlier and more generous nation” and that the country was “doubly tough” for African-American youth.

During his seventeen years in office, Edley raised more than $700 million dollars. When he joined the organization in 1973, the UNCF was raising approximately $9.5 million per year. By 1990, when Edley retired, annual contributions averaged approximately $48.6 million. Edley’s goal had been to provide the opportunity for education to those who could not otherwise go to college. Enrollment at historically black colleges increased 13 percent from the mid- to the late 1980s. Edley attributed the phenomenon to cost, because the schools had become less expensive. Edley left the UNCF in 1990 because of health problems. He had undergone heart bypass surgery seven years previously. He died on 5 May 2003 of a heart attack at his home in New Rochelle, New York.

Edley changed how fund-raising was done by the UNCF. The national telethon and advertising campaign he introduced were used long after his retirement. Under Edley’s tenure, the UNCF became a major fund-raising institution. Edley implemented the techniques of modern business to create a strong organization. He had the ability to inspire others to give and raised consciousness about investing in the next generation. Edley commanded the attention of people as diverse as Ronald Reagan, Jesse Jackson, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Walter Annenberg, Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, and Frank Sinatra to support a single cause.

An op-ed article in the Boston Globe (9 May 2003) discusses Edley’s personality. Obituaries are in the New York Times (7 May 2003), Jet (26 May 2003), and The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (31 July 2003).

Sheila Beck