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Alumni Speaker Series: Tony Reed '73

September 19, 2014

During assembly on Friday, September 19, Tony Reed ’73 talked about growing up in St. Louis/attending Burroughs in the 60s and 70s, and his determined path to succeed — in business and as a marathoner — despite personal and institutional obstacles. He was one of the first African Americans to graduate from Burroughs.

Reed was invited to launch the Alumni Association’s semi-annual Alumni Speakers Series. As an author, businessman, motivational speaker and marathoner, his original remarks were more focused on his running. (He has completed 126 marathons and is one of 225 people worldwide to be a member of the Seven Continents Club.)

But Reed said he altered his presentation in reaction to two recent events. Earlier this month, he attended a family gathering and learned that one of his nephews had been beaten by four policemen. And earlier this week, he read about Brittany Packnett’s September 15 assembly talk in which she referenced the 1955 murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was Reed’s cousin.

So Reed’s presentation became personal and reflective. 

He talked about traveling to Washington, D.C. with his mother and a school group from Soldan (where his mother worked) in 1968. They were in D.C. during the riots and looting that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination. Despite having official passes to many sites in D.C., they were refused entry. “No black tour groups were allowed in the [federal] buildings —  except for the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian.”

He talked about Burroughs, where, he said he was "unlike anyone else": He lived in the projects. Though interested in cross country, his experience was limited by his mother who was concerned about his running in Ladue. In fact, a gun was drawn on him five times in six years. He had no real friends — people at Burroughs couldn’t understand his home life and his family couldn’t relate to his school life. He worked multiple jobs after school and on weekends, so he couldn’t participate in much of what other kids did and he couldn’t afford much of what other kids had. (He showed a picture of his JBS baseball team in which he was the only one wearing tennis shoes; he couldn’t afford a bat and cleats.) In 1999, by then an accomplished and acknowledged marathoner, he was asked which teacher motivated him to overcome all of the challenges he faced at Burroughs and beyond. His answer was: None. Later he remembered one supportive voice, Bernice [Curlett], who worked on the maintenance staff. She told Reed he “had a right to be here.”

He talked about his first marathon in 1982 when the white runners declared him “too big” to run — “but I ran my 126th marathon earlier this year.”

He talked about taking an advanced accounting class in college where the white students were not willing to be in a study group with him. “I had the sense they were looking to me to fail…I decided my role was to bust the curve.” And he did, scoring 98 points, 20 above the average, on the first test.

With growing success, Reed attracted the attention of the Smithsonian, which asked for the clothes he wore when he became the first black to compete on all seven continents. He was also interviewed by The HistoryMakers, the largest African American video oral history collection, and that interview is archived in the Library of Congress. He referred to the irony that the two federal institutions which granted him (and students from Soldan) entry in 1968 were now gathering the artifacts of his success.

Reed ended his remarks with the following advice: “There are two sides to the coin. Don’t be prejudiced. Don’t stereotype. And don’t judge what you don’t know.”