Dr. Michael L. Lomax with UNCF Lifetime Achievement Award Honorees Hamish McLennon, Peggy Conlon and Vernon E. Jordan, Jr.

*In 1970, Vernon E. Jordan, Jr. became executive director of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF), the nation’s largest and most effective minority education organization.  During his tenure, UNCF’s widely recognized motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” campaign was launched by Y&R, the advertising agency, and the Ad Council, which placed the UNCF spots and advertisements around the country.

“When ‘A mind is a terrible thing to waste’ made its debut, the idea that African Americans should attend college was neither familiar nor widely accepted,” said Michael L. Lomax, Ph.D., UNCF president and CEO.

The motto which is one of the best known and most successful ad campaigns in history has yielded measureable results: 280,000 college graduates, and $3.3 billion raised to provide scholarships to students at over 900 colleges and universities around the country and financial support for UNCF’s 39 member historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

UNCF celebrated this groundbreaking collaboration by presenting its lifetime achievement awards to Jordan, Y&R and The Ad Council at its “A Mind Is…Gala” celebrating the fortieth anniversary of its famous motto “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” Thursday, March 3, 2011 at the New York Marriott Marquis Hotel in Times Square, New York City.

The Gala raised 2.8 million dollars for UNCF including $1 million that will go toward UNCF’s Campaign for Emergency Student Aid (CESA), a scholarship program to help recession-impacted seniors at UNCF member colleges graduate on schedule.

“We are marking this anniversary, not only to celebrate how far we’ve come, but how far we still have to go before every American can get the education they need and the nation needs them to have,” lamented Dr. Lomax.  “But forty years of seeing and hearing the famous phrase catalyzed a revolution in attitudes and reality, and today African Americans attend almost every college and university in the country.

In paying tribute to the motto’s originators, Dr. Lomax presented UNCF’s highest honor to Jordan, who headed UNCF when the motto was created and is now a Washington attorney and New York investment banker; Y&R, the advertising agency that created the first “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” campaign; and the Ad Council, which placed the UNCF spots and advertisements around the country.

Y&R was represented by its global chairman and UNCF board member Hamish McLennan and Edward N. Ney who was the chairman and CEO when UNCF’s motto was created and is presently Y&R’s chairman emeritus.  The Ad Council was represented by president and CEO Peggy Conlon.  During the tribute, former President William Clinton praised his longtime friend Jordan and the other honorees via video and applauded UNCF for its decades of work educating people of color.

David Ushery, anchor, WNBC 4 New York served as Master of Ceremonies.  Others participating in the elaborate program included Johnson C. Smith University Singers; Rev. Dr. Lester W. Taylor, Jr., Senior Pastor, Community Baptist Church, Englewood, NJ; William F. Stasior, UNCF chair, board of directors and senior chairman, Booz Allen Hamilton; David Miller, Esq., president, National Alumni Council; and Dr. Wesley C. McClure, president of the members, president, Lane College.  During a live musical tribute, legendary singer Roberta Flack serenaded guests with hit songs including “Killing Me Softly” and “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

Grammy Award-winning artist and producer Pharrell Williams credited UNCF with helping him see he could be anything he put his mind to and made a commitment to help.  “We owe it to them to do what we can, to help UNCF help these great young people, said Williams.  “UNCF is on their side, making a commitment to the future and making a difference.  Count me in,”

UNCF presidents

The nationally-attended annual event was co-chaired by UNCF board members Tamara Harris Robinson, vice president of the Robinson Harris Foundation, and Mark Mason, chief operating officer and managing director of Citi Holdings, and attracted financiers, attorneys, senior executives from Fortune 100 corporations, prominent education advocates, athletes and entertainers; along with the presidents and alumni of the 39 UNCF member institutions who were presented by UNCF longtime announcer G. Keith Alexander.

Prominent guests in attendance included legendary singer Roberta Flack, Grammy Award-winning artist/producer Pharrell Williams, Extra correspondent AJ Calloway; Johnson Publishing Co. (and UNCF Board member) Linda Johnson Rice; socialite and Avid Partners founding partner Pamela Joyner; former Time Warner CEO Dick Parsons: and Kathy and Kenneth Chenault, CEO, American Express.

Proceeds from the Gala will be directed at helping recession-impacted seniors at UNCF member institutions.  As the recession lingers, many students at UNCF schools continue to find themselves in financially vulnerable positions.  Layoffs, pay cuts and the disappearance of many private student loan programs have left students owing money for tuition, text books, and dormitory rooms — bills that must be paid before they can graduate.  Individuals, corporations and foundations can help thousands of students finish the fall semester by contributing to CESA.

UNCF is the nation’s largest and most successful minority education organization.  Its mission is to increase minority degree attainment by providing financial support to its 39 member institutions, reducing financial barriers to college and serving as a national advocate for minority education.

UNCF institutions and other historically Black colleges and universities are highly effective, awarding 18 percent of African American baccalaureate degrees.  UNCF administers more than 400 programs, including scholarship, internship and fellowship, mentoring, summer enrichment, and curriculum and faculty development programs.

Today, UNCF supports more than 60,000 students at over 900 colleges and universities across the country.  UNCF’s recently redesigned logo and brand identity feature UNCF’s torch of leadership in education and its widely recognized motto, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

“Forty years ago the idea that African Americans could and should aspire to a college education was neither familiar nor widely accepted.  The fact that today almost every college has African American students — and that the country is led today by an African American president who built his remarkable life on a good education — attests to the power of the idea, and of the campaign that carried the message across the country,” remarked Dr. Lomax in his closing remarks.

(Photos by Earl E. Gibson III)

Audrey J. Bernard is an established chronicler of Black society and Urban happenings based in the New York City area.