A Master Trailblazer
Finances kept Gus T. Ridgel’s MU enrollment brief, but his legacy has helped a generation.
His master’s degree in economics at MU was supposed to take two years — 1950–52 — but Gus T. Ridgel, who had graduated magna cum laude the previous spring from Lincoln University with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, told his adviser he could do it in one.
“I can’t stay here for no two years,” the Poplar Bluff, Mo., native remembers saying.
“It’s a two-year program,” his adviser replied.
“Well, we have problems because I don’t have enough money,” Ridgel, MA ’51, DS ’96, said. “I only have enough money for two semesters.”
Ridgel took his case to the department chair, who saw no harm in letting give it a try. Ridgel would go on to be MU’s first African-American student to earn a graduate degree.
All he had to do was take four semesters’ worth of courses in two and turn in a master’s thesis at the end of it. That’s the plan he started with, says Ridgel, now 87, and it’s the one he ended with.
“It was a seven-day-a-week-job,” he says. “There wasn’t a lot of time for social events.” Between classes and thesis writing, he had little time to enjoy Columbia, and, being African-American, many options weren’t available to him. After the dining halls closed for the evening, there was only one place near campus — a coffee shop near University Bookstore — where an African-American student could get something to eat. When he and a few friends sat down for lunch at a different nearby restaurant between classes, his white friends were told they could be served, but Ridgel had to leave. They all walked out.
Ridgel says he was aware he was one of the first black students on campus, but he didn’t focus on it. His objective was just to graduate. “My ‘first’ was purely coincidental,” he says. He didn’t imagine at the time that he’d be coming back decades later to be honored and interviewed.
After graduating, Ridgel taught for a year at Fort Valley State University in Fort Valley, Ga., to replenish his bank account before going on to earn a doctorate in economics from the University of Wisconsin and doing postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago, Indiana University, Duke University and other schools. In 1960, he was hired as head of the Department of Business at Kentucky State University where, other than a few years in the 1980s, he served until he retired in 1996 as vice president for finance and administration.
It wasn’t until the 1980s that Charles Sampson, now an associate professor emeritus in the Truman School of Public Affairs, called Ridgel to ask if he would be willing to have a fellowship named after him. Established in 1987, the Gus T. Ridgel Fellowship is available to underrepresented minority graduate students in any discipline.
“It was quite an honor,” Ridgel says.
It’s also fitting that someone who started his graduate work on such shaky financial footing should have a fellowship named for him that has helped underrepresented minorities fulfill their graduate education dreams for more than 25 years. Nineteen Ridgel Fellowships, which provide renewable awards of $10,000 for five years or $15,500 for three years, were given for the 2013–14 school year.
“I’m pleased,” Ridgel says. “When I look around and see not only the diversification of the classrooms but [also] the diversification of the offices and of the Ridgel Fellows, it makes me feel that [the fellowship program] is reaching its objective.”
And when he sees people such as public affairs Professor Charles Menifield, who received the Ridgel Fellowship as a student and now is establishing his own fellowship as a faculty member, he’s even surer the program is accomplishing what was intended.
“He’s one of the best living examples of it,” Ridgel says.