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Following the Trail His Grandfather Helped Blaze

An engineering grad completes his academic journey his own way with guidance from his grandfather, one of the first African-Americans to graduate UC with an engineering degree.

Date: 4/28/2015
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-1825
Photos By: UC Creative Services
Emory Beck-Millerton is proud to say he's his own man.

He’s soft-spoken and polite, but the confidence comes through in his voice and the steady gaze of his brown eyes.

He admits, though, the man he is might have been much different without the guidance of his grandfather, Clark Beck.

So when Beck-Millerton crosses the stage May 2 during the University of Cincinnati's Spring Commencement – having earned his degree in mechanical engineering like his grandfather did exactly 60 years earlier – he'll know it's the end of a road he traveled but one his grandfather helped pave.
UC student Emory Beck-Millerton poses on campus
Emory Beck-Millerton will graduate the University of Cincinnati with a degree in mechanical engineering. He's the grandson of Clark Beck, on the first African-Americans to graduate UC with an engineering degree. (Photo: Andrew Higley)


"His influence has helped me. And were it not for what he's done and said, I wouldn't be where I am," Beck-Millerton says. "But I do things on my own merits. I'm not defined by my relationship with him. I mean no disrespect toward my grandfather. In fact, it's because of him that I feel this way and he understands that."

For two people with such similar backgrounds – same family, same major, same school – their individual academic journeys couldn't have been more different. When Beck-Millerton, an accomplished student from Dayton's Thurgood Marshall High School, looked to enroll in college, many doors were open to him. That wasn't the case for his grandfather. Far from it.

Beck-Millerton is well aware of his grandfather's struggles as an African-American seeking a scientific degree amid the swirling prejudice of 1950s America. The social climate has improved over the decades since his grandfather became one of the first blacks to graduate from UC with an engineering degree. Yet Beck-Millerton says there's more work to be done.

"The attitudes have done a 180, which is really good. It's just the rest of it needs to catch up," Beck-Millerton says. "The number of students who pursue a scientific or technical degree and acclimate to that hasn't changed a bit."

A VOW THAT WOULD NOT ABIDE

In 1951, segregation poisoned much of the nation, and higher education was not immune to the side effects.

That year, Clark Beck drove straight to UC's campus after he'd been rebuked at another university earlier the same day, when a dean told him, "Your people cannot be engineers.” Beck said it felt like being stabbed in the heart.

"I didn't know I couldn't be an engineer. I didn't think that," Beck says. "Instead, I was encouraged to enroll in industrial arts so I could then teach 'my people' to build houses."
UC student Emory Beck-Millerton poses with his grandfather, Clark Beck
In this 2013 photo, Clark Beck poses with his grandson, Emory Beck-Millerton. Beck earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 1955. Beck-Millerton will earn the same degree this year. (Photo: Lisa Ventre)


Beck was wounded by such cruel indifference but not crushed. His desire to become an engineer burned away any self-pity. He turned his attention to the University of Cincinnati and the renowned cooperative education program it offered.

Beck was accepted into UC's engineering program but with the warning from then Dean Howard Justice that he'd "catch hell from both sides of the desk." Beck didn't know it at the time, but Justice's words were no exaggeration.

"I had decided I was going to be an engineer even if it killed me, and quite frankly it almost did," he said.

Beck had little money and fewer friends. He always studied alone while his peers met in groups. He often had little to eat and his health suffered. A chronic strep infection that began his freshman year caused permanent damage to his kidneys. Later in life, he would go on dialysis and need a kidney transplant.

Beck refused to give in. He earned his degree in mechanical engineering in 1955. He and Henry Brown in chemical engineering were the first blacks to graduate with engineering degrees.

Initially, Beck was consumed by bitterness over what he'd endured. The night of his graduation, he swore to himself he'd never set foot on UC's campus again in his life. It turned out to be a vow that would not abide.

Time became the salve that healed Beck's emotional wounds. Over the years, his appreciation grew for how UC had prepared him for his engineering career, and he softened his hard line against his alma mater. He began recommending UC to others and returned to earn a master's degree in aerospace engineering in 1969.

He's since gone on to support UC scholarship efforts and serve on the UC Foundation Board of Trustees. In 2005, UC presented him with an honorary doctorate.

A FAMILIAR BLUEPRINT

Beck took an active role in helping raise his grandson at a very early age. He looked upon Beck-Millerton almost as his own son.

He brought him to football and basketball games and other special events on campus. He wanted to show Beck-Millerton the good side of UC. But he didn't hide the darkness he'd experienced there so long ago.

"Since Emory was very small, he has been my special project," Beck says. "I wanted him to know what the world is about. So we did everything growing up.
Emory Beck-Millerton looks at a project
Emory Beck-Millerton takes a close look at one of his engineering projects. (Photo: Andrew Higley)


"I also told him about the difficulties I had. In my own mind, I said I will do everything within my power to make sure Emory does not have to endure what I did."

Beck's guidance certainly paid off. Beck-Millerton is a beneficiary of both UC and National Science Foundation scholarships for minorities in engineering. As part of the co-op program, Beck-Millerton has worked with Wright-Patterson Air Force Base's Materials & Manufacturing Directorate – a dream job for him. Up next, though, is applying to a master's degree program in materials engineering.

As UC's Spring Commencement nears, Beck-Millerton reflects on his academic career and how glad he is to share his success not only with his grandfather but also his parents, Angela Beck and Eric Stone, whose love and guidance are invaluable to him. He also knows many others like him haven't been as fortunate, and he'd like to see that change.

He says the key to getting more minority students involved in technical fields like engineering is to get them interested at an early age and to promote more programs that encourage diversity, such as UC's Emerging Ethnic Engineers and Darwin T. Turner scholarship programs.

UC’s Office of Ethnic Programs and Services is dedicated to what Beck-Millerton suggests. The office provides quality programming and services that enhance the cultural, ethnic and racial awareness of the entire university community; support the needs of students of color; and build bridges between the university and the community.

Beck-Millerton also would like to see students better prepared for what could happen in college, the good and the bad. Students need advice that goes beyond platitudes like "you have to study hard" and "it's not a game,” he says, especially for what can be less obvious challenges for some, like managing personal finances.

"A lot of people who graduated high school with me may have entered into a technical field, but they had to drop it due to finances and not being ready,” he says.

The blueprint Beck-Millerton outlines is familiar. It's just like the one his grandfather followed with him: get involved early and be ready for what’s ahead, positive or negative. Clearly, Beck-Millerton has learned well.

And for that, Beck couldn't be more proud of his grandson.

"Our relationship is as close as could possibly be between a grandfather and a grandson," Beck says. "Now that Emory is soon to be 23, it's time for our relationship to change. He's no longer that little boy that I'm schooling and giving protection to and guiding in the right way. He's gotten to the point where he's his own man, and he and I are equals.

"And I'm glad to see him finish the school that I went to. I'm just overjoyed."


MORE ABOUT CLARK BECK

Moving from anguish to admiration
One of UC’s first African-American engineering grads breaks his vow to turn his back on his alma mater.

Video of Clark Beck by UC Alumni Association

COMMENCEMENT CEREMONY DETAILS

Information about the ceremony – including when to arrive, where to park, how to take part via social media and more – is available online.

MORE TO LEARN

Further information is available on the Commencement website.