Dr. Frederick S. Humphries, president of Tennessee State University from 1978-1985,

By Reginald Stuart

As the Nashville community comes to grips with the loss this month of another icon, the spreading awareness of the death of Dr. Frederick S. Humphries, president of Tennessee State University from 1978-1985, renewed confirmation of a long held feeling that Dr. Humphries was the right man at the right time in the university’s evolving growth into a major state-controlled institution. 

Dr. Humphries, whose status grew over the years from the small community of Apalachicola, Florida, to earn a Ph. D. degree in chemistry at the University of Pittsburgh and become an internationally known college president, serving 10 years as head of TSU and 10 years as president of Florida A & M University (FAMU) in Tallahassee, passed June 24 in Orlando after a challenging illness, according to his family.

“Fred Humphries was a giant advocate for excellence in higher education,” said Dr. Belle Wheelan, president of the Atlanta-based Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on College, SACSCOC, the principal standards regulator for all of higher education in the South.

His “Life Gets Better” scholarships transformed student lives as well as campus life, enriching their futures in major industries across the country and around the world,” said Dr. Wheelan, echoing the sentiments of many others.

“He was a giant towering man who did not cower in the face of adversity,” said Dr. Matthew Kinnard, one of nine brothers and sisters from Franklin, all of whom graduated from Tenness State during their school years in the 1950’s and 60’s. The Kinnard’s, who earned nine bachelor’s degrees and four master’s degrees at TSU, gave Dr. Humphries bragging rights when he went on the road to recruit prospective students. 

Dr. Kinnard, who spent his career as health science administrator in Washington for the federal government’s National Institute of Health before retiring, echoed others who characterized Dr. Humphries as a person who “could be, and often was, your most ardent supporter and could be your harshest critic. Either way, he was your friend,” said Dr. Kinnard.

Dr. Kinnard was president of the Washington D.C. TSU alumni chapter in the late1970’s to 1980 and served as regional vice president in the Northeast and on the alumni association’s national alumni committee for 10 years. 

He recalls Dr. Humphries, who stood 6 feet seven inches and puff smoked from a tobacco pipe, had running battles, from the start of his TSU job, with Tennessee higher education officials over whether TSU should be merged into the University of Tennessee, as they had planned, or UT Nashville should be allowed to open a law school on its Nashville campus downtown near the federal courthouse, main PostOffice, and Union Station. Dr. Humphries would have none of it.

Fortunately, Dr. Humphries found allies in the state legislature with locally active civil rights attorney Sen.Avon N. Williams Jr., who, in the 1960’s had worked with a team of local attorneys to defend students and adults arrested during the civil right movement, labor attorney George Barret, Tennessean editor John Seigenthaler and aspiring college student Rita Sanders Geier. 

“Dr. Humphries provided some courageous and significant help at a time of great change,” said Ms. Geier, a Memphis native who, after her college graduation, began her public service career working for Legal Services of Nashville, the free civil legal services agency for the poor. Dr. Humphries’ arrival on the TSU front helped the university “navigate through a very trying time of change,” said attorney Geier, now retired and living in Maryland.”

Barrett, now deceased, represented Sanders Geier in a nearly 4 decades long successful lawsuit requiring Tennessee to “dismantle’ its dual system of higher education. The court order prohibited maintenance of a UT branch in Nashville. With the UT Night School off the books and a law school plan abandoned, Tennessee State was able to acquire the UT higher education franchise in Nashville and build a downtown campus near First Baptist Church Capitol Hill.

“You could depend on Dr. Humphries doing things the right way for his students,” said Dr. Robert Poole, a Fisk University alum who recently retired as vice president for development at Meharry Medical College. 

Having watched Dr. Humphries articulate his thoughts and effectively make his points at various higher education meetings, Dr. Poole lauded Dr. Humphries for “fighting for equitable funding, in every possible instance. He was a towering giant, literally and figuratively,” he said of Dr. Humphries, who effectively used his stature, punctuated by his pipe puffs, to boost his presence without saying a word. 

While struggling in the federal court to win the best legal battle he could in the Geier case, Dr. Humphries made regular trips to Capitol Hill to champion funding from the state legislature every year and was a regular fixture every fall, greeting students for a new school year and TSU friends and alums at the fall Charles Campbell memorial fish fry to raise scholarship funds for needy students. The event, held on homecoming weekend, was staged on the lawn of the president’s house during his tenure and has stayed put since. 

Working the crowd with his beloved wife until her death from cancer, he continued raising their three children and did not skip a beat when helping students get educated. As he had demonstrated his metal as a higher education leader at TSU, he gradually became widely sought, eventually moving his skills and talent back to his alma mater—Florida A & M University, home of the Rattlers.

Dr. Humphries worked inner-city, rural, and poor neighborhoods day and night seven days a week during his entire 10 years as president of TSU observers noted. When not knocking on doors for recruits and aid for them, he persistently confronted state law makers to give the institution funds and visibility from Legislative chambers headquartered just over a mile from campus. 

“I remember the stories of Dr. Humphries recruiting scholars, specifically National Merit Scholars, like coaches recruit athletes,” said FAMU journalism professor Dr. Valerie White. “He visited students in their homes and convinced them to attend FAMU. In fact, FAMU would rival and surpass Harvard with the number of National Merit Scholars enrolled,” she said in a brief gesture of admiration.

“FAMU has not enjoyed that distinction,” since Dr. Humphries ended his 10-year stretch as chief of FAMUin 1985, Dr. White said. “Dr. Humphries put the school on the map in many areas.”

Dr. Humphries was a rare stamp among academic leaders, especially presidents of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU’s), said Dr. Frank Pogue Jr., retired successful president of four state-controlled universities (including Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Grambling University of Louisiana, three other short stints and seasoned with 24 years as an administrator in the State University of New York System.

“Any place the man has been, he was a successful leader,” Dr. Pogue, said of Dr. Humphries, noting Dr. Humphries as an early promoter of engineering and technology.  Everywhere he went, he set a high bar for leadership,” said Dr. Pogue, who now mentors aspiring college presidents. I only have a good image of him. He will be missed.”

When the family issued a brief statement of his peaceful passing, they expressed appreciation for the overwhelming positive wish from TSU family and friends and said final arrangements for a memorial in Orlando were forthcoming.