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Home » Discover Rackham » Alumni Spotlight: Roy Hudson

Roy Hudson didn’t start out with aspirations to be a university president. He didn’t consider executive management a potential career option. He figured his options were fairly straightforward, hoping he could extend his GI bill to cover most of a Master’s degree which would lead to a job as a high school teacher or technician.

That all changed the day he got funding. Roy was selected to be a Danforth Foundation Fellow, earning one of 50 highly competitive spots mostly given to students from Ivy League-style schools. That is when this unassuming yet tenacious student (i.e., Honor Roll, class valedictorian, SGA president, college Hall of Fame athlete, radio DJ, etc.) from a very small Christian college in North Carolina found himself able to pursue his dream education.

We are lucky he chose the University of Michigan – he almost didn’t. Noticing that Roy was planning to attend MSU or OSU, a wise faculty member prompted him to apply to U-M. Roy says, “Now, having gone to Michigan, I know that was the place for me to be.”

Roy faced some hurdles along the way. “I arrived in late August of 1955 and my first challenge was to find housing. It became quite a task because of the barriers of the time. Sometimes I would call and be told there was a room available, but when I arrived at the house they would take a look at me and say somebody else had rented the room without letting them know. Some would outright tell me they don’t rent to Negroes.” Eventually Roy found a place to live – and he just took off from there.

“I didn’t know what I would find, particularly compared to my small school experience.” He managed exceptionally well and recalls one experience that demonstrated his transition to U-M: “To keep the Danforth Fellowship, I needed a record of A’s and B’s. The chair of the Zoology department had placed me in an undergraduate embryology course instead of a similar grad level class for which I would get research credit.” When asked about it, the chair said he didn’t know what to make of ‘all these grades’ from his small undergraduate institution. Roy says, “I went back with straight A’s at the end of the year and asked him now what do you think of those small school grades.”

Hudson would become the first Black student to receive a Ph.D. from the Department of Pharmacology at U-M and the first Black member of the medical school faculty in pharmacology.

He does admit that his exposure to the array of sciences had been rather limited, and he had never heard of pharmacology, which turned out to be his life’s passion. He explains, “Pharmacology is a medical course generally only taught in medical schools with the exception of Schools of Pharmacy. There was no exposure to such a course in a regular undergrad liberal arts program. I first learned of the field my first summer when I was in need of a job and a friend in my genetics class who worked for Dr. Edward Domino in pharmacology referred me to him, knowing he needed a technician in his lab.”

Roy was thrilled for the chance to begin research so quickly. “As a Zoology Ph.D. student, I got the chance early on to do research I thought I’d be doing in my own department at some point.” He continued to work for Dr. Domino, and after a couple years, Dr. Domino invited him to be a graduate student in pharmacology. “I had difficulty making that decision. I had already finished all my coursework and language requirements (there were two foreign language requirements at the time) for a Ph.D. in Zoology. I was just doing Zoology research at that point, and switching to pharmacology meant I’d have to go back and start right at the beginning again.”

He jumped in and didn’t look back, becoming the first Black student to receive a Ph.D. from the Department of Pharmacology at U-M. “It was one of the best choices I ever made. Pharmacology was a much more versatile type of field that offered exposure in a number of directions.”

Roy didn’t undertake this journey alone. His college sweetheart, Constance (Connie), finished her last year at Livingstone College then joined him at the University of Michigan as a Master’s student in the School of Social Work. Before heading to Michigan, the couple wed and used the Danforth Fellowship weeklong retreat as a honeymoon opportunity. Roy recalls, “Each year Danforth Fellows brought new wives to Camp Miniwanca in Michigan. The retreat was open to honeymooning couples, so many marriages occurred and used that time as their honeymoon. We stayed in little cabins with canvas sides. Previously every newlywed couple could have a whole cabin, but as more and more people came, they started putting two newlywed couples in each cabin with a drop down canvas divider in the center. “Our first year was such a year. That was an interesting experience,” he chuckles.

Connie took a two year hiatus from her academic pursuits when their daughter was born, but finished her degree thanks in part to smart budgeting, her own graduate assistantship, and the generous support from Roy’s Danforth Fellowship.

Those early years in Ann Arbor were exhilarating for both of them. “Back then, on any given Saturday there were more people in The Big House than the entire population of Ann Arbor. Ann Arbor was an exciting town when I got there. It was crackling with new ideas – you could feel the electricity. When you walked on campus, people were grappling with ideas and challenges. That struck me about the institution itself. You found it everywhere: there was this thought that it was a big world out there and we don’t know enough about it, but we are here to find out – and to listen to the guys who were out there. And fortunately, I didn’t find my experience at the University as representative of my housing problems when I first got there.”

Pursuing a graduate degree was something Roy always assumed he would do. “Graduate education just opened channels. With a degree in pharmacology, I could teach and I could work in the pharmaceutical industry; there were more channels of opportunity than there would have been in Zoology. There was a premium for students from certain graduate schools – and U-M was certainly one of them. Having a degree from these schools made a big difference.”

Even before finishing graduate school, Roy was offered a faculty position in the pharmacology department, making him also the first Black member of the medical school faculty in pharmacology. He contributed significantly to his department for the five years he was there – so much so that when he was offered a role at Brown University that included a faculty position and an Assistant Deanship in the Graduate School, his colleagues at U-M tried to match the offer. Wanting a new experience, Roy and his family relocated to Rhode Island. At Brown (1966-70), he was breaking new ground. There had not been a medical school in Rhode Island since before the Civil War. Roy was part of a new approach to medical education, incorporating a strong emphasis on integrative medicine and its whole person approach. At this time the medical program at Brown was part of the Graduate School.

His experience in administration provided new opportunities for Roy, which he seized with gusto. Roy served as President of Hampton Institute (now University) from 1970-1976. During that time, he served on a number of national boards, one of which was Parke-Davis Pharmaceuticals. Having made his mark at Hampton, he was lured to Parke-Davis, and consequently back to familiar territory in Ann Arbor. He spent the next sixteen years in various executive roles in the pharmaceutical industry, including a period in Belgium where he pioneered collaborative research between the Upjohn Company and several leading universities in Europe, retiring in 1992 as a corporate officer of the Upjohn Company.

As someone who could always be relied on, Roy was the one many turned to when they needed strong leadership. He came out of retirement twice to serve when called, once as Executive Director and CEO of the Kalamazoo Child Guidance Clinic and then for his alma mater, Livingstone College, as Interim President.

He recalls, “For a while, I was doing quite a bit of public speaking. I’m very involved in my church. I work in Sunday school, and I’m interested in drama, so I wrote a play and performed it on two occasions … as well as directed the Drama ministry. I work with the mentoring program, and sing in the male chorus, now in the Golden Voices choir for us “old folks.” After a while health issues catch up with you. More recently, I have had an operation every year. I’ve had my challenges but God has been good.”

Roy’s experience as a graduate student, faculty member, dean, and university president certainly qualify him to give first rate advice to students. He shares with them: “First, to choose a profession that you truly love. Don’t choose the going fad or the interest of others or what seems to be popular or brings the highest salary. My faculty mentor at U-M, Ed Domino who is 91 now, used to say, ‘I’d do pharmacology even if they didn’t pay me.” You want to have that kind of love for what you are doing.” He also advises, “Use your time wisely. Procrastination is not the way. What should be done today should be done today.” Lastly, he cites his favorite Bible verses found in Proverbs 3:5-6. “Trust in the Lord with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. In all thy ways acknowledge Him, and He will direct thy paths.”

His son, David, became the first child of a president of Hampton University to graduate from that institution. He also followed him at U-M and earned his M.B.A. degree from the Ross School of Business, something that seemed predestined since his days on campus with his dad, going to football games in the fall. Roy says, “There was no place else for him to go except Michigan.” Roy and Connie’s daughter, Hollye, was born in Ann Arbor. She took a U-M economics class before graduating from Wellesley College and later earned a Master’s degree from The University of Texas at Austin.

“I always look forward to being back on that campus. It is like magic to just walk across campus and try to project back 60 plus years.” Roy, Connie, their son, and daughter-in-law developed a pattern of returning to campus for a football game in the fall. This year they are adding a second trip to campus along with their daughter. While during the football season, this trip will focus on the 125th anniversary of pharmacology at U-M and the nation since the first pharmacology department in the U.S.A. was established at U-M in 1891. Roy continues to be impressed when he returns to campus and still feels the enjoyment of his youth in the 50s and 60s at MICHIGAN!!!