He didn't leave much of an impression as a football player at Yale, but Roosevelt Thompson's legacy as a student and a person remains both in New Haven and his hometown of Little Rock.
As the school year began in 1957, Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus turned Little Rock's Central High into the most famous school in the country. In doing so Faubus created his lasting legacy by barring the integration of the school.
Faubus set in motion a showdown with the federal government and the foreseeable violence that followed stained the city and the state, giving it an identity where none had existed. And the primary victims -- the nine black children who became frightened and threatened political pawns -- were traumatized in a number of ways.
They didn't reunite for 25 years until seven of the Little Rock Nine gathered in Washington, D.C., in May 1982 and someone was there to tell them that he was the example that proved their struggle worth it. And few would dispute that that 20-year-old -- Roosevelt Levander Thompson -- was the most amazing student and person to ever come through the famous school.
Born Jan. 28, 1962, Rosey was one of four children born to the Rev. and Mrs. C.R. Thompson of Little Rock. His parents had all the children in the books at a very early age and it was evident that young Roosevelt was gifted academically. He was equally driven, dedicated, diligent and benevolent.
"He made you feel like you were his only friend in the world," said his brother Lee.
Rosey broke down barriers at Central High, which was about half-black and half-white during his high school days. As a freshman, he decided he wanted to pursue a career in public service, once telling the school paper, "I wanted to do something that required a lot of different skills, and that was important to a lot of people."
Rosey got off to a remarkable start. By his junior year in high school, his teachers were already talking to him about becoming a Rhodes Scholar. He played football and ran track. He was student body president, assistant editor of the school paper and valedictorian. He posted the highest score ever by an Arkansan on the National Merit Scholarship exam.
"He just wanted to learn so badly," said his high school English teacher Nancy Wood. "He really thought he could do something for the whole world."
Bill Shelton, city editor of the Arkansas Gazette, where Rosey became a copy boy, told other staffers that Rosey could be the nation's first black president. As he chose Yale University to further his studies, the eyes of Arkansas were upon Roosevelt Thompson. At 18 years old, he was already one of the state's most promising heroes.
Rosey won over New Haven nearly as easily as he conquered Little Rock. Actually he stumbled at first. His first two papers in Western Literature resulted in C-pluses. He rebounded to register a B in the class, the only non-A he'd ever score.
"I was pleased to get a B," he remembered. "English professors tend to grade you more on writing. I had him the next semester and I learned more about writing from him than anybody. I didn't come here thinking I'd get all A's."
If his studies didn't seem to provide too big a challenge, football did. At 5-foot-7 and 195 pounds, Rosey was among the smallest offensive linemen in college football. His option of a jersey number showed his humility as he claimed No. 57 -- in honor of his height. Rosey played jayvee ball, electing to be part of an organized team as opposed to turning to the casual nature of intramurals.
"Rosey was a jayvee player for the most part," said classmate and Yale captain Tom Giella. "He was dedicated. Never missed a practice in four years. Always positive. I never saw him down or depressed. He had a contagiously positive attitude."
Pulling straight A's as a double major and playing intercollegiate football would typically be enough for most students, but remember, Rosey was exceptional. Yale Coach Carm Cozza and all of Rosey's friends were convinced that he'd win a Rhodes Scholar and -- at the very least -- become the first black governor of Arkansas. He was already serving a summer internships for Bill Clinton at the statehouse in Little Rock.
"He was brilliant, absolutely brilliant," remember Giella. "But he was also so down-to-Earth. Rosey never got anything other than A's, but if someone asked he'd say, 'I do okay.'"
In New Haven during the school year, Rosey was working eight hours a week in the work-study program at City Hall, where he focused on housing and neighborhood development. He was also the chairman of the student government at Yale's Calhoun College. Rosey did not forget his commitment to community service, as he not only volunteered for a tutoring program in the New Haven Public Schools during his entire college career, he revitalized the dying program at Troupe Middle School.
As attention turned his way, Rosey began to share his goals, which included earning the coveted and long-discussed scholarship to Oxford. Clinton, himself a former Rhodes Scholar, was pushing him to explore that opportunity as well. When the Yale Daily News interviewed Rosey he talked of the Rhodes, law school and eventually a return to Arkansas to work in politics.
If his achievements weren't enough already, by the end of his junior year he had been named as the recipient of the Hart Lyman Prize, which went to the top junior for high scholarship and character at Yale. He was also one of 10 juniors to be elected Phi Beta Kappa that year.
"He was a hero -- not only to students, but adults," said Calhoun College Dean David Spadafora. "He had all the personal decency, honor and compassion one could hope to find in a leader."
The Rhodes Scholarship is the pinnacle of postgraduate awards. Only 32 seniors across the country get the call to England. About two thousand apply and thousands more would love to, but realize that their merits will pale in comparison.
The Rhodes Committee does not select bookworms. It looks for candidates who have demonstrated leadership and character. It places value on service to mankind and extracurricular activities. It looks for academic achievement. In short, it looks for someone like Roosevelt Levander Thompson.
And before the Holiday season of 1983, just after he'd finished an unremarkable senior season on Carm Cozza's football team, Rosey was named as one of the recipients of a Rhodes Scholarship. With one of his major goals achieved, Rosey could begin to dream of his personal checklist for the future -- governor of Arkansas, followed by becoming a senator, then president.
Roommate Augie Rivera told the Yale Daily News that the Rhodes Committee made a wise choice, because Rosey "didn't just hit the books. He had a well rounded approach to everything. He puts tremendous effort in everything he does."
And one of the things that Rosey did as a senior was to volunteer as a freshmen counselor, helping first-years blend into campus life and giving them a place to go with questions and concerns. Again, he gave his typical effort and was beloved by those he counseled.
"We think he's a God," Marlane Medican said to the Yale Daily News . "He always comes by our room and hangs out with us." She told stories of the freshmen getting Mystic Mint cookies and inviting Rosey over. She also said he'd imitate Michael Jackson and Eddie Murphy for them, but he'd grow quiet and embarrassed when they talked of his many awards.
And they didn't even know that he had scored a perfect 48 on the Law School Admission Test.
Rosey returned to Arkansas for good in 1984, but the circumstances left the state in mourning. Returning to New Haven after spring break on the morning of March 22, Rosey was traveling northbound on the New Jersey Turnpike near Kearny.
That's when fate took an evil turn. A semi heading southbound went out of control and crossed the center divider. In a split-second, Rosey was gone.
The man with so much promise, with so many aspirations. The man that held the hope of an entire state. The man who had uplifted an entire campus more than a thousand miles from his home. The man who came from humble roots and was destined to make a difference for the world.
The news of his death was announced over the intercom at Central High and the school's flags were lowered to half-staff.
"We went to his funeral, said Giella. "His father was a preacher and the family didn't have much financially. So Rosey knew there was more to life than making money. He had his heart set on social and public service."
It can be easy to overstate the impact of an individual who is taken before fulfilling his destiny, but Rosey's story needs no embellishment. Consider that Bill Clinton spoke tearfully at his funeral, which was held at the Central High Auditorium (now the Roosevelt L. Thompson Auditorium). Consider that Newsweek Magazine ran a one-page obituary under the title, "Rosey: He Was the Best of Us."
Yale Professor David Napier, the master of Calhoun College, said that Rosey was "one of the most outstanding students to enroll at Yale in modern times, and it is doubtful we will ever see his like again."
What was lost that day? Would he be a governor, a senator, a president?
Everyone who knew him is convinced the world would be a better place if he were still among us. More than 20 years after his death, people still come to tears when his name is mentioned.
"I could see him as the Governor of Arkansas or a Clinton White House appointee. No question," said Giella. "What he did in his 22 years on Earth were amazing."
Just this fall, Jack Weatherly of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wrote that if Thompson had not been cut down "maybe Toni Morrison could eventually drop her metaphor that Bill Clinton was 'the first black president.'"
Today's students at Central High in Little Rock can visit the Roosevelt Thompson Auditorium and they are able to receive Thompson Scholarships. At Yale, one of the most distinguished awards is the Roosevelt L. Thompson Prize, which is given to members of the senior class for commitment to and capacity for public service. The AME Church hosts the Roosevelt Thompson Awards Banquet at its annual national event.
In September, the Central Arkansas Library System Board of Trustees opened a new library branch -- in west Little Rock -- the Roosevelt Thompson Branch Library. The press release said the choice was made "to recognize his many academic achievements, outstanding leadership qualities, and the promise for the future that was lost with his untimely death."
President Clinton wrote a letter for the occasion, explaining, "Roosevelt Thompson was a young man of unlimited potential, and his death at the age of 22 was a tragedy not only for those who knew him personally, but also for our world, which would have benefited enormously from all he would have given it."
And as eloquent and heart-felt Mr. Clinton's words were, his football captain Tom Giella may have summed it up better, saying, "He was the kind of guy you wanted your sister to marry."
Ed. Note -- This story originally appeared as part of the 2005 Ivy League Black History Month celebration and won first place in the district in the College Sports Information Directors of America Writing Contest.
— Brett Hoover