The Colgate Scene
May 2004

The prodigal rebel

Trustee emeritus Gregory Threatte '69 was named chair of the department of pathology at SUNY Upstate Medical University in late 2003. "A pathologist is the doctors' doctor," Threatte said. "We are the ones who maintain the scientific database of medicine." [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

It's a typical hectic weekday morning at the pathology laboratory at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse, N.Y., and the office of trustee emeritus Gregory Threatte '69 is an oasis of relative calm amid a whirlwind of activity.

"Pathology attracted me when I realized that pathologists were the quarterbacks. The ball has to come here first," explained Threatte, who was named chair of the department of pathology at SUNY Upstate Medical University late last year. "A pathologist is the doctors' doctor. We are the ones who maintain the scientific database of medicine, all the lab tests; and most of the diagnostic information comes through us. It appealed to me because if I was going to go into medicine, I felt I might as well be in the middle of all the action."

Whether it's as an all-star high school football player, as an activist protesting racism on campus during the late 1960s, as an award-winning educator, or as a nine-year member of Colgate's Board of Trustees, the middle of the action is where Threatte has always thrived.

"I've pretty much done everything I felt like doing in my life. I guess I have always been arrogant enough to just do," he said. "You know, if I had planned my life, I wouldn't get to here from where I came."

Where Threatte came from is the tiny hamlet of Filbert in the coal mining country of southwestern Pennsylvania. Life threw its first curve ball at him when Threatte's father died when he was only three years old. Threatte's widowed mother was forced to send his two older brothers to live with their grandparents, and he went to live with a foster family who lived nearby.

"We only lived a couple of miles apart. We probably saw each other more than we needed to, because when you get three boys together, what do they do? They fight," he recalled. "We fought every day."

Daring the teacher
The competitiveness between the three roughhousing siblings spurred them to excel both in athletics and academics, with two brothers becoming physicians and the third earning a doctorate in education. Threatte's high school gridiron success led to him being heavily recruited to play college football, including by the University of Maryland and Wake Forest University.

"Wake Forest said that I would become the first black football player in the Atlantic Coast Conference," he said. "Maryland said, `Wake Forest is lying, because they recruited a black player the year before.' It turns out that he broke his ankle and they took his scholarship away."

Threatte's high school coach steered him toward schools with strong academic reputations where he wouldn't lose his scholarship if he didn't play football. Colgate doesn't offer football scholarships, and Threatte came to the Chenango Valley. A broken toe sidelined him for much of his first season and, ultimately, led Threatte to abandon his football career.

"It hurt all the time and I just couldn't run," he said. "It was so frustrating that by the end of the season, I just did not want to play football anymore, and so I got a part-time job working in the physics department. That job gradually evolved into me becoming a physics major."

During the 1960s, like the rest of the country, Colgate was struggling with issues of race and class. Threatte was one of only seven African Americans in the Class of 1969, and there were only 14 in the entire student body during his first year. Racial tensions at Colgate during Threatte's junior year culminated in the takeover of the Sigma Nu fraternity house by African American students and a sit-in at the administration building.

"I was a rebel. I was right in the middle of all of the sit-ins," Threatte recalled. "If you check the 1969 yearbook, there is a picture of me with this anguished look on my face with a brown paper bag under my arm. When we went into the [administration] building and I had the brown paper bag, there were people who thought I was carrying a bomb and all it was, was lunch!"

During his senior year, a recruiter from Upstate Medical University approached Threatte about the possibility of attending medical school, and the self-styled rebel was on to his next challenge.

"When you arrive in medical school as a person of color, you're dealing with this overwhelming attitude that the only reason you are here is because of affirmative action, you really probably aren't bright enough to be in medical school, and we're going to have to spoon-feed you. I decided I was going to prove every last one of them wrong," said Threatte. "I used to sit in the front row of the class and dare the teacher to make a mistake."

Smashing stereotypes
Four years later, Threatte graduated from Upstate as a member of the medical honor society Alpha Omega Alpha. He served residencies at hospitals in Pittsburgh and San Francisco, and eventually was named director of the clinical pathology residency program at the Georgetown University School of Medicine in Washington, D.C. Threatte's appointment as deputy to the president for minority affairs at Upstate (in addition to a teaching post) brought him back to central New York, and close proximity to the alma mater he had left with feelings of "good riddance." He started visiting campus whenever he could, and offered to speak with students in the Office of Undergraduate Studies summer program. Threatte would often talk about the six other African Americans in the Class of 1969, and how much they and he have achieved since graduation.

"If you look at where those seven black students ended up, we've all been changing stereotypes. Ron Burton at Dun and Bradstreet, Mo Haskins at United Tennessee Bank, and the late Bob Boney was assistant vice president of student affairs at Syracuse University," said Threatte. "Here are seven very successful African Americans, and what did we have in common? Colgate stretched us to a place where we didn't take no for an answer."

Threatte's commitment to the OUS students was noticed by university officials and his fellow alumni, and in the early 1990s, he was asked to join the Board of Trustees. He also remained a rebel, he said.

"At one Board of Trustees meeting, I made the declaration that when two white students arrive on the campus at Colgate, they don't look at each other and say, `Let's go and find some other white students,'" said Threatte. "When you first arrive, as the person of color, the first thing you worry about is, `Am I the only one?'"

Threatte's candor was but one of the attributes that made him an effective trustee, according to trustee emeritus Ralph Verni '64, whose nine-year board tenure paralleled Threatte's.

"He was always supportive and positive, but never afraid to speak his mind. He somehow could be a provocateur while also being a bridge builder," said Verni. "These wonderful characteristics were displayed regularly in the two and one-half years we spent on the Task Force on Campus Culture. Greg often would stimulate a different way of looking at an issue and just as often suggest ways to address it that respected ideas and comments of others, but yet were quite unique."

"Colgate has progressed as much as any college in terms of dealing with race and class," said Threatte. "No matter how much the school shapes the perspectives of students, each fall a whole new group of students come in from the nation's high schools and you have to start all over again with another set of preconceived notions. Students break down stereotypes by interacting, which is hard to do if there is not much diversity."

Threatte adapts that philosophy to his own teaching.

"Students come with many preconceived notions about whether a subject is hard or easy, dull or exciting," he said. "I think that you have to find out what those preconceived notions are, assume that they all have the worst preconceived notions, and then try to replace the bad notions with good ones. If you tell students what they should learn and why they should learn it, you don't have to teach them anything because they will learn it on their own!"

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