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UNM People Changing Worlds: Changing Worlds Through Solidarity

Alumnus’ 52-year friendship with former professor began through ideas, social consciousness

By Michelle G. McRuiz

ed-lewisWhen they first talked over coffee at the Student Union Building in 1959, Edward (Ed) T. Lewis—a football player from the South Bronx—and Dr. Henry J. Tobias—a professor of Russian history from New Jersey—couldn’t have realized how this encounter would change both of their worlds. The former went on to found Essence, the leading lifestyle magazine for African-American women. The latter became a researcher and author after retiring from his professorship. Their mutual intellectual curiosity formed the basis for a steadily growing friendship that was not only pleasurable but also reaffirmed each man’s beliefs in equality for all.

In the Minority

Fifty-three years ago, Ed arrived in New Mexico to attend UNM on a football scholarship. He peered out of the plane’s cabin window and saw an expanse of brown desert. “I thought, ‘What have I come to?’” he recalled.

The 18-year-old was further taken aback when he realized that of the 8,000 students, only a dozen were African-American. “I had to find a way to adapt, to integrate, because the two dominant groups were Anglos and Hispanics, plus Native Americans.”

Ed may have worried about fitting in, but his intelligence, determination and upbringing had prepared him well for these new challenges. A bit shy, Ed was a book-loving only child. Neither he nor his parents were strangers to hard work. Ed spent summers on his grandparents’ 120-acre farm in Prince Edward County, Virginia, where there was always plenty of work to be done. But he learned quickly that for a black person in the 1950s, working hard and making good grades didn’t necessarily guarantee anything.

“Growing up not only in the Bronx but also in Virginia, I realized it was difficult,” said Ed, “that there were some things we couldn’t do, particularly when we went south. But I realized the importance of education.”

Standing Out

Ed and Henry met during Ed’s second year at UNM. “Ed was a student in one of my classes,” recalled Henry. “One day we met at the Student Union. One of us was going in, and the other was going out, so I asked him to have coffee with me. We talked for three and a half hours.

“I was a frequent coffee drinker with students,” he continued, “but Ed was one of the few students who stood out. He was black, for one thing, at a time when there were very few blacks at UNM. We didn’t talk about personal things; we talked about issues. I could see he was genuinely interested.”

And there were plenty of events to discuss then—in the nation, the world, and Ed’s life. An earnest, serious student who supported Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X and often wore traditional African dress, Ed was dismayed to learn that in 1959, UNM decided to rescind his athletic scholarship, allegedly because of his athletic performance. “I became bitter about that,” Ed said, “and I didn’t know how I would be able to go back to UNM. But the dean [Howard Mathany] took an interest in me. He found a way to get me back to UNM.”

In 1985, Ed traveled to Albuquerque to accept the Zimmerman Award from UNM. After his acceptance speech, someone told him that Dean Mathany was still living. Ed visited him and finally learned the real reason why he lost his football scholarship. “The athletic department took it away because they were threatened [by me],” said Ed. Mathany told him, “When you spoke you were very passionate. You didn’t speak very much, but when you did you made people unsettled.”

Ed was stunned to hear the real story. But looking back, he said that when he returned to UNM, after losing the football scholarship, “A different world opened up to me. I came to form a real connection to the University.” He became a dorm counselor, got involved in student government, and ran for student body president.

Mutually Beneficial

Henry helped to balance Ed’s world view during the tumultuous civil rights movement. “He taught me how this country would be much better off if it provided its citizens with equal opportunities,” said Ed. “He helped me navigate. He also made me realize that not all whites were bad. With the civil rights killings [going on], one could become very bitter. Because of who Henry was and what he stood for, he taught me there were good and bad people.”

Ed mirrored Henry’s convictions about social, racial and political equality. “He gave me a sense that I was a strong advocate for equality for everyone,” Henry said. “In a sense, he proved the case for me—that blacks could do just as much as anybody else with the right circumstances. He certainly had all the qualifications for success. If anybody was going to be successful, it was going to be him. He could look beyond himself.”

As time passed, their friendship expanded. They talked more about personal things and traveled together. On one road trip, said Henry, “He wanted to see his mother in New York and I wanted to see my parents in New Jersey. So we took my car and drove from Albuquerque to New York nonstop. One slept and the other drove. I went to his house and he came to my house.”

Henry saw the entrepreneur in his friend early on. “He had dedication to whatever he was doing,” he said. “My daughter was selling Girl Scout cookies, and there was an award for the one who sold the most. Ed took her to his dorm and got everyone in the dorm to buy cookies, and she won!”

Publishing Magnate

Ed earned a BA (1963) and an MA (1967) from UNM in political science and international relations. In the late 1960s, after he moved to Manhattan, Ed founded Essence with Clarence O. Smith. A magazine targeted to African-American women, Essence reflected Ed’s deep admiration of women. He wanted to help them realize that they had much to celebrate about themselves. In the mid-1990s, he founded Latina magazine—the first bilingual magazine for Hispanic women—with Christy Haubegger.

“I thought [the magazine] was a brilliant idea, given the timing,” says Henry. “He always talked about the importance of women in his life. He had a very high opinion of women at a time when that was unusual.”

Maintaining Ties

Ed, now 71, received an honorary doctorate from UNM in 2004. He served on the UNM Foundation Board from 1992 to 2000, has been a member of the UNM President’s Club [now called the 1889 Society], and has established numerous UNM scholarship funds along with his wife, Carolyn.

“I’m one of the lucky ones to survive and come into contact with an incredible slew of people who saw things in me that they liked,” said Ed. “I was able to grow and become the person I am today. And Tobias is certainly a part of that.”

Henry, now 86, taught at UNM from 1959 to 1969 and retired from the University of Oklahoma in 1988. He returned to New Mexico that same year and began researching New Mexico history with an emphasis on the Jewish experience. He has published three books through UNM Press since his retirement: A History of the Jews in New Mexico, Santa Fe: A Modern History, and Jews in New Mexico Since World War II. 

Henry said that although the two men have never tired of discussing news and weighty issues, their friendship and ease in getting along was what he has cherished most. “He always says that I did a great deal for him,” he said. “What did he do for me? He gave me a great friendship.”

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