Larry I. Palmer

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Before I became a full-time writer, I spent four decades as a law professor, university administrator, and civic and professional leader. My longest tenure at one institution took place at Cornell University where I served as both a vice provost or vice president, and professor of law for twenty-seven years.

The first inkling that I would someday write a memoir occurred when I paused one morning, three days before my third son’s birthday in June 1982, while walking my usual route to the paddock. I scrutinized the large garden plot between the backyard’s white picket fence and the split rail fence. The string beans were blooming, their white blossoms etched by a painter’s brush against the dark green of the hemlocks and the blue sky of Cayuga Lake’s valley vista in front of me. Gazing at the blossoms on their pale green stalks, I recalled what I had learned about photosynthesis and the asexual reproduction of plants in my biology course at Phillips Exeter Academy, the New England boarding school I had attended. The cross-pollination of the flowers leading to pods, seeds, and new plants intrigued me. The bee-assisted gentle mixing of the pollen from the flowers of two plants growing close enough on the earth to receive just the right amount of light to blossom simultaneously seemed a marked contrast to the release of physical energy at the start of mammalian copulation. I glanced at the two geldings in the paddock, their coats glistening in the early morning sunlight, waiting for their breakfast.

Before I reached the paddock gate, I stopped again, this time to absorb the feelings emerging from a vivid image in my mind:

. . . sitting with Sandi in the flower garden of Boston’s South End Art Center as the sun sets on a midsummer day in 1963.  She was a volunteer at the Center; I was a paid worker for the Northern Student Movement, a Civil Rights organization. We were likely discussing our summer efforts to better the world. I was probably doing most of the talking. I often ranted to her about the injustices around us, particularly about my disbelief that the young black graduate of Boston English High School I was tutoring couldn’t read. Yet he had been awarded a track scholarship to a historically black college in the South. Or our conversation could have focused on my general angst over whether my work for the Northern Student Movement was actually helping the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee workers in the South. 

Sandi and I never went out on a “date” during my summer as a nineteen-year-old living without parental or prep school supervision, but we met frequently at the end of the day to talk. I may have kissed her once in that garden, but at the end of the summer she went back to college in Maine, and I returned to Harvard for my sophomore year. I never saw or contacted her again. I could feel how much I liked talking to her and simply sitting quietly with her at the end of a tumultuous day in that small urban garden.

Tears started to flow down my cheeks as I stood between the vegetable garden and the paddock. I sought to categorize the tears decentering me. Were they tears of regret about not ever contacting Sandi, or—about to become a father for the third time—was I missing something in my life?  Before I could answer myself, I experienced the reverberations of tears: a flood of memories continued throughout the day about my previous childless marriage, about my growing up surrounded by many siblings. Before going to bed that night, I wrote feverishly about those memories. The first entry in my notebook outlined what I called an “autobiographical novel”—the word “memoir” had not yet become a part of my own lexicon.  I envisioned the first chapter opening with my experience of Martin Luther’s King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington and continuing with my reflections about the summer of 1963, my first summer away from home.

I was convinced that I could have a portion of the memoir ready for publication in about a year.  How I, the father of (soon to be) three biracial boys, was going to find the time to write this memoir never occurred to me. I had just signed up for another two years as a vice provost at Cornell University, extending my leave of absence from my position as professor of law.  The university’s controller had informed me of some irregularities in the financial reports of one of the departments under my supervision during the spring semester.  I realized that some Cornell employees were going to be “relieved of their responsibilities.”  Or, I was about to fire or force to resign a number of people more than twenty-five years my senior—the biggest challenge of my professional life.

The first attempt to move from scholarly writing to telling stories about my life began in a sermon, “Friends I Haven’t Met Yet,”  a meditative reflection on my racial experience twenty years after the March on Washington. Over the next decade, as I assumed greater administrative responsibilities, I continued to keep a journal. I began to see a shift in my scholarly output away from traditional law reviews to essays, and eventually two books about law and medicine. As I became more enmeshed in the interdisciplinary fabric of Cornell, I found that my writing reflected the influence of organizational change literature and the humanities.

By the end of my term as vice president in 1994, I had collaborated with colleagues in our theater arts department and media services to produce a prize-winning educational video on the Tuskegee Syphilis Study in Negro Men. By the time my second book was published in 2000, I had contributed an essay, “Writing Law,” for Writing and Revising the Disciplines, a volume edited by the director of Cornell’s writing program.  As I moved from law review writer to essayist, I realized these seeds were grounded in my deep interest in literature. I had become a proselytizer for the notion that lawyers had to develop both “professional empathy and professional distance. ”

In 2003, my professional journey led me to Kentucky to teach and do research in bioethics at the University of Louisville Schools of Medicine and Public Health and Informational Sciences. Four years later, I moved to Virginia and taught briefly at Georgetown Law Center before accepting a joint position at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) and the College of William and Mary Law School in 2008.

I was nearing retirement from William and Mary and VCU, my three sons having all graduated from college, when I published the essay, “Checkerboard Segregation in 1950s”  in 2009, as Barack Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States.  This piece provides the background to how an extraordinary teacher helped me obtain a scholarship to attend Phillips Exeter Academy. What that essay does not tell is the role my siblings played, not only in supporting my educational endeavors that allowed me to have a multi-faceted professional career, but also in shaping the human being I have become. That’s the story Scholarship Boy portrays.