Curious college choice pays off for Grandview High School grad
By DONALD BRADLEY
The Kansas City Star
Josh Packwood got bounced around as a kid.
He had to move in with friends after his family was evicted. His father couldn’t speak or walk because of a motorcycle-train accident. His mother struggled. The family broke up.
But Packwood still had his choice of colleges when he graduated from Grandview High School in 2004. The Ivy League liked his academic excellence and SAT scores. Columbia University was one of several schools to offer him a scholarship.
Packwood had always wanted to live in New York, but instead of Columbia, he decided on Morehouse College in Atlanta.
A curious choice, considering Packwood is white.
On Sunday, though, Packwood will graduate as the 2008 valedictorian, the first white student to do so in the 141-year history of Morehouse, which has never counted more than a handful of white students among its enrollment of roughly 3,000.
“Absolutely no regrets,” Packwood, 22, said from his new office at Goldman Sachs, a Wall Street banking and securities firm where he started work last week.
“I wanted to get to New York someday, and here I am. I think I’ve always been the kind to take the path less traveled. Sure, at first I was known as the white kid on campus, but later on, I was just Josh. And the way I view the world now … I don’t think I could have ended up any better.”
The one thing that didn’t turn out good was that his father will not be present for Sunday’s graduation. He died in October, three days before Packwood’s final interview for a Rhodes Scholarship.
Packwood had just left the office of Anne Watts, associate vice president for academic affairs at Morehouse, when he got word of his father’s death.
He fell to the floor and cried. Watts, his Rhodes coach, pulled him back into her office and sat him down. She knew of his father’s disability and how much Packwood wanted his dad to see him walk across the graduation stage.
“After a while, he squared his shoulders and dried his tears,” Watts remembered. “Then he told me he had to go to Kansas City and take care of things for his father.
“He told me he had to go do what a man does.”
A history of success
Officials at Grandview High were not surprised to hear of Packwood’s college honors.
He is remembered there as a friendly, gifted student, fine athlete and champion debater who was always involved in school activities. He said his drive was due partly to having seen friends make bad choices and end up in trouble
“Everybody knew Josh, and everybody liked him,” said Joyce Caruthers, an academic counselor. “We are very proud of him. We’re not surprised at his success, but maybe a little surprised at his college choice.”
On one hand, some people were surprised Packwood chose Morehouse because he’s white. On the other hand, one Morehouse recruiter was surprised to learn Packwood wasn’t black.
Packwood had sent information to the all-men’s school and visited after learning about it from a girl he’d met in Kansas City. She attended nearby Spelman College, the women’s school.
Impressed with Packwood’s academic credentials, the recruiter invested heavily in phone calls and correspondence, trying to snag him from elite schools such as Columbia and Stanford.
But the two had never met. Finally, one day while Packwood was getting ready for a Grandview track meet, the recruiter called to make another pitch.
Packwood, speaking on his cell phone, thanked the man for calling but said he had to get on his shoes for an event.
“Well, don’t let a white kid dust you,” the recruiter jested.
Hmmm. Packwood asked the man to take another look at his application, particularly the “ethnicity” box.
“You do know I’m white, right?”
But the recruiter told Packwood that he was the kind of student Morehouse wanted — whatever his race.
That exchange sealed the deal. Up to then, Packwood worried a bit that Morehouse viewed him as a “token white kid — someone they could steal way from the Ivy League.”
“I knew then they wanted me solely on my merits,” Packwood said.
Aside from the stares at the beginning of his freshman year, Packwood merged smoothly into Morehouse life. He wasn’t the school’s first white student; that person came in the mid-1960s, not long after James Meredith became the first black student at the University of Mississippi.
But black culture wasn’t new to Packwood. His mother had married a black man. He had black step-siblings. Grandview High had been 53 percent black his senior year.
Part of the Morehouse appeal was its rich history. Founded in 1867, just after the Civil War, it has been hailed as the nation’s premier draw for black students, and counts among its alumni such prominent names as Martin Luther King Jr.
Upon arrival there, Packwood jumped into campus life, becoming director of a mentoring program for alternative high school students. He became active in student government. He was voted president of his dormitory and vice president of the Morehouse Business Association.
Students liked him.
“And, of course, I was always asked to give the white perspective to class discussions,” he said.
Watts goes further. Anytime an issue of unfairness or injustice surfaced on campus, Packwood often jumped into the middle of it.
“He was never afraid to speak his mind,” she said. “And sometimes it was not a popular stance from a white student. But Josh had a way of pulling people away from staunch beliefs they had held many a day.
“So tenacious … so gifted. He was always a reminder to me of, ‘To whom much is given, much is required.’ ”
Watts met Packwood that first year. He showed up at her office one day and said he wanted to be a Rhodes Scholar.
Lots of students do, but she knows how long the odds against success can be, and she tells them: “Let’s look at something else.”
But Packwood’s file made her think he had a chance. Like most aspirants, he needed help with his essay. She gave him some pointers and sent him on his way.
He was back the next day.
“I found him sitting outside my office, with that smile of his … that infectious smile that I will never forget,” Watts said.
Despite his hard work to win the Rhodes Scholarship, Packwood decided to skip the final interview after his father died. But friends and family told him his father would have wanted him to go.
He did so, but fell just short.
“If not for him hurting as much as he was, I think he would have made it,” Watts said.
On the Morehouse Web site, school President Robert Franklin Jr. wrote this of Packwood:
“Josh Packwood is Morehouse. He happens to be Euro-American and brings much appreciated diversity to our campus.”
And of Packwood’s Rhodes quest and father’s death, Franklin wrote: “He had every reason to lose focus and abandon hope, but true forever to Morehouse tradition, he doubled his determination and represented us with great distinction.”
Packwood leaves Morehouse on Sunday with a perfect 4.0 grade-point average. His studies took him to China and the London School of Economics.
Now, he sits in a Wall Street office building high above the city he longed for, a world and years away from the pain of boyhood memories.
That curious college choice, though, will be with him for a while.
His brother, John Robert Packwood, a 2008 Grandview High graduate, is headed to Morehouse in the fall.
A changing landscape
Historically black colleges began to see their first white students shortly after the 1954 landmark Supreme Court decision Brown v. Board of Education, which outlawed segregation in public schools. But the numbers remained low until recent years, when some schools — because of affordability, programs and location — began to see jumps in white enrollment.
Lincoln University in Jefferson City, for example, is on the high end of that. In 2005, more than half of its 3,180 students were white (1,659), according to the United Negro College Fund. Closer to the norm are Grambling State University in Louisiana, with 5 percent white enrollment, and Tuskegee University in Alabama, with about 3 percent.