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Harvey Milk, '51: From Intramural Athlete to Civil Rights Icon

March 2, 2009



Milk movie poster

The biopic film, Milk, recounts the political life of slain activist and UAlbany alumnus Harvey Milk, who graduated from what was then the New York State College for Teachers in 1951.

The Academy Award-winning film, Milk -- directed by Gus Van Sant -- recounts the political life of slain activist and UAlbany alumnus Harvey Milk. It chronicles a yearlong journey on how the gay rights movement was organized and eventually broadened due to Milk's efforts. Acclaimed author and UAlbany alumnus Joseph Persico reflects on his memory of his college mate from the early 1950s.

"At the time, Harvey Milk was a sports reporter for State College News," said Persico, who graduated in 1952, a year after Milk. "My vivid impression of him is running around in a gray sweat suit, which was the uniform for jocks in those days. He was often engaged in needling athletes about their performance."

Persico assumed that Milk would become a math or history teacher after graduation. Instead, Milk became a civil rights icon and the first openly gay man elected to a major political office in America. But one characteristic that Milk showcased at UAlbany would also manifest itself later in Milk's life -- his outspokenness.

According to UAlbany archivist Geoffrey Williams, Milk was a solid student who majored in mathematics. He was a member of the Jewish fraternity Kappa Beta and active in student government, though ran unsuccessfully for freshmen class president in 1947. He was a spirited competitor in intramural basketball, volleyball and softball and wrestled on the intercollegiate team.

Alumnus and activist Harvey Milk, '51

Harvey Milk graduated from what was then called the New York College for Teachers in 1951. He was an intramural athlete, playing volleyball, basketball and softball, and a sports reporter and columnist for the school newspaper.

"He was a known character on campus. He was not a shrinking violet by any means, he thrust himself into the forefront," said Persico, a best-selling non-fiction writer and former speechwriter for New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller.

Milk did not come out publicly until the 1960s. Building on the support of the counter-culture community in San Francisco's Castro district, Milk successfully ran for the post of city supervisor and eventually authored groundbreaking gay rights ordinances.

After Milk's historic election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1977, he was interviewed on NBC's Today show. The appearance marked the first time Persico had seen his former college mate in 25 years. He discovered that Milk had undergone a dramatic transformation.

"What struck me was that he was an appealing, attractive, sympathetic figure -- far different from the rather abrasive college character I had remembered," said Persico. "He was a man now at peace with himself."

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