Albany Book Festival featured guest: H. Carl McCall
McCall, the first African-American to be elected to statewide office in New York, is one of more than 30 featured authors coming to the University at Albany on Saturday, Sept. 17
H. Carl McCall, former New York state comptroller, and chairman emeritus of the State University of New York, has published a memoir Truly Blessed and Highly Favored (SUNY Press, 2022) He will be a featured guest at the Albany Book Festival, in conversation with collaborator Paul Grondahl at 11:45 a.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, at the University at Albany.
“Carl McCall, who has overcome obstacles, broken barriers, and served the public with great distinction--and whom I've had the honor to know for nearly fifty years--now shares his amazing life story in a book that should be required reading for every current and aspiring elected official. As his memoir will powerfully remind us: if every public servant shared Mr. McCall's commitment and work ethic, our state and nation would be the better for it. Here is not only a must-read autobiography, but a how-to guide to effective and inspiring leadership.” -- Harold Holzer, author of Lincoln and the Power of the Press: The War for Public Opinion.
The Albany Book Festival runs from 10:30 a.m. through 5 p.m. More information at www.albanybookfestival.com.
McCall was a guest at the NYS Writers Institute's State Author/State Poet induction ceremony at the 2018 Albany Book Festival. From left, UAlbany President Havidán Rodríguez, Writers Institute Founder William Kennedy, State Author Colson Whitehead, State Poet Alicia Ostriker, H. Carl McCall, Paul Grondahl. (UAlbany Photo)
The following story was published in the Albany Times Union on Sunday, Aug. 28. Reprinted with permission.
H. Carl McCall pens memoir, with help from Paul Grondahl
By Jack Rightmyer
© Albany Times Union, August 28, 2022
In October 2018, at the age of 83, H. Carl McCall was preparing to retire after a lifetime of work in both the private and public sectors. His friend, civil rights activist Vernon Jordan, had told him years earlier, “You should control your exit,” and that was what he was doing. McCall was also experiencing troubling health issues and believed it was time to work on a memoir to reflect on his experiences and detail the blessings he has enjoyed.
“I had written statements and speeches before, but this was the first time I had ever attempted something this comprehensive and I’m not a very reflective person," McCall said. "I’m a doer. I like to be active, so I knew this could be difficult.”
His book Truly Blessed and Highly Favored (SUNY Press) is a riveting story of a boy who grew up in Roxbury, Mass., one of six children raised by a hard-working single mom. He would go on to graduate from Dartmouth College, become a popular preacher and succeed at the highest levels of both the business and political worlds. He was a former New York state comptroller, and chairman emeritus of the State University of New York, the nation’s largest comprehensive system of public higher education.
“It was clear to me when I undertook this endeavor that I needed some help. I thought of Paul Grondahl, the director of the New York State Writers Institute at the University at Albany. "We had a relationship, and I thought we could work well together. He gave me some valuable advice. Sometimes I did the writing, and sometimes Paul did.”
Grondahl initially told McCall he was too busy to put much effort into the collaboration. “But it turned out to be a wonderful experience for me," Grondahl said. "I have collaborated with other people on books and done some ghostwriting before, but this was special. It was a great opportunity for me to get to know Carl on such a deep level because he’s a quality person who has lived an amazing life.”
What McCall enjoyed the most was how working on the memoir forced him to reflect on his life. “I’ve always been an activist, ready to jump into new endeavors, but this forced me to slow down and look back on all the people who helped me along the way.”
As McCall was reflecting upon his life, Grondahl also took some time to reflect upon his own. “Carl was never afraid to take a chance and move from the public sector to the private sector. He had very demanding high-level jobs in both areas. He was never just a career politician," Grondahl said. "He’s also one of the most humble people I’ve ever met. He never wanted to settle scores with anybody who had wronged him along the way. That’s not his style, and when you work with someone like that it’s easy to think about how you live your own life.”
The early part of the book describes the young McCall attempting to make his way in an impoverished area of Boston, with the help of his mother and several aunts, among others. “Strong women have been at the core of my life. The Roxbury community at that time was also very diverse. There were people on assistance like my family, and there were also judges, lawyers and doctors. I looked upon those people as role models, and those community leaders supported me and made it clear there were opportunities for me if I worked hard.”
Attending Dartmouth was like living in a different world. “I’ll never forget the first time I walked on that campus with the buildings all covered in ivy and all the grass and trees," McCall said. "It was the complete opposite of my crowded and cramped apartment in Roxbury. I knew Dartmouth was my gateway to success, and I also knew I wanted to come back home and make some kind of contribution to help others the way so many people in my community helped me.”
McCall has always had great empathy for people who are struggling. He knows what that feels like. At 11, his father went to work one day and never came back.
“It was such a traumatic experience and my father’s abandonment has always stayed with me. I still have no explanation why he left. Was it his own character flaw? Was it an economic reality that he had no way to take care of the family so he just walked away from his responsibility?”
As a young man he experienced subtle forms of racism, but it was his time in the military in 1959 when he was stationed in Fort Benning, Ga., where he first experienced the degradation of the South’s Jim Crow laws. “I had heard about the Jim Crow laws, but I’ll never forget how demeaning it was to be forced to eat in a separate place than my white friend," McCall said. "I wasn’t in the South for long, but I wondered how people could put up with this every day. It was even worse years later when I visited South Africa during apartheid.”
McCall is concerned that, today, the country is moving backward.
“We’ve made a lot of progress. (President Barack) Obama getting elected was a signal that we were moving to a post racial society, but unfortunately the opposite has seemed to occur in the past few years. It’s very frightening that we’re still struggling with voting rights, but I’m optimistic we can move beyond this. My hope is with our young people.”
Grondahl believes the issue of race permeates through the book.
“Carl never forgot where he came from, and he never forgot the great Black leaders who supported and encouraged him along the way. He never pulled the race card, and as a politician he always ran on his own skills, his own intellectual merit. He always took the high road and was even willing to protest and go to prison on issues like race that mattered to him.”
McCall refused to let his defeat to George Pataki in the 2002 gubernatorial election slow him down. “Failure is just another experience we all face, and we need to learn from it. I’ve always believed I could come back from any loss. My spiritual faith has always helped me during difficult times.
In 2011, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo appointed McCall chairman of SUNY’s Board of Trustees.
“Education has meant so much to me,” McCall said. “It has been such an honor to work with so many young people and excellent educators.”
In February 2021, to honor his service, the SUNY headquarters building in downtown Albany was renamed the H. Carl McCall SUNY Building.
“I was there the day they had the public event to honor him by renaming the SUNY building, and it was amazing to see the people come out to show their love and respect for him," Grondahl said. "That’s the mark of a great person. He’s beloved, and that’s hard to do in this polarized political world.”
Jack Rightmyer is a freelance arts writer who has published two books A Funny Thing About Teaching and It's Not About Winning. He is an adjunct English teacher at Siena College and has written for various national magazines such as Writer's Digest and Poets and Writers. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The 5th Annual Albany Book Festival will take place from 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 17, at the University at Albany. Free and open to the public.
More at www.albanybookfestival.com