A Reluctant Pioneer - by Billy Reed (Louisville Courier-Journal, Jan 7, 1967)
Lexington Ky., When he's not playing basketball or studying, Perry Wallace, the reluctant pioneer, likes to hole up in his dormitory room at Vanderbilt University and "just think of what's to come."
Sometimes he thinks about basketball and the ways he can improve his shooting. His rebounding and shot-blocking don't need improvement since they earned him more than 100 college scholarships.
Or he sometimes thinks about his studies. Even at Nashville's Pearl High, where he was valedictorian of his senior class of 450 students last year, Perry says he was "the kind of student who had to apply myself." He's had to apply himself even more diligently at Vanderbilt.
And, although he doesn't particularly enjoy it, Perry must think about what it's like now and what it will be like later when he becomes the first Negro ever to play basketball in the Southeastern Conference.
It is not easy now, nor will it be later. If, as Perry says, "life isn't one big holiday right now," he can only expect his life to get more complex and more trying when he becomes a varsity player.
Ole Miss Cancels Both Games
The signs are there already and Perry Wallace is intelligent enough to know that when Auburn students chant "charcoal, charcoal" at a visiting Negro player on a non-conference team, it can only mean trouble for him next season.
And he's smart enough to read between the lines when the University of Mississippi cancels both of its freshman games with Vandy because of "schedule conflicts."
So this is what Perry Wallace thinks about in his dormitory room: He feels lonely, because people just don't understand.
They don't understand that he didn't come to Vanderbilt just to be a pioneer. That played a part, but more than anything he just wants to be judged on his merits as a person, like any other struggling 18-year-old.
That is what he said Thursday, sitting in the stands at the University of Kentucky's Memorial Coliseum after the Vandy freshmen dropped an 85-64 decision to the UK freshmen. Wallace scored 14 points, grabbed 21 rebounds and blocked several shots.
"Before I signed, I had to sit down and really analyze the situation." Wallace said, "I had to think of all phases of my life at Vanderbilt -- athletic, academic and social. You know, really map it out.
"Being the first Negro in the SEC had something to do with it, very decidedly. But this is exactly the way I thought: I signed to play ball and get a good education. It just so happened that it was in a conference where no Negro has ever played before.
"Honestly, I don't have the pioneer spirit. I'm not mature enough to be a Martin Luther King or a James Meredith. I've got my hands full being a player-student without leading any civil rights movements."
Still, in the South, Perry will be something of a Martin Luther King no matter how much he tried to mind his own business. If he had any hopes otherwise, they have been dispelled since he enrolled at Vanderbilt.
"I had a good idea of what it would be like," Perry said, "but I didn't realize fully, I just jumped into it, but I'm still willing to try."
So Perry Wallace is a pioneer, even if a reluctant one, and the nature of this role means he's also pretty much of a loner. In his own words, even though Vandy also signed another Negro, Godfrey Dillard of Detroit, Mich.
Yet there is more to Perry Wallace though, than playing basketball. Or studying. Or even being a pioneer.
First, he is religious, and that is more important to him now than ever.
Only Support Is From God
"The only support I really get is from God," he said. "If I'm conscientious and faithful, I can overcome things I will have to overcome. I have to look at life realistically. I know it's going to be rough, and I wonder if I'll make it, but that's when I get support from God."
Second, he is inquisitive. Because he liked music, for instance, he bought himself a stereophonic record player. And because he became interested in how stereos work, he decided to major in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt.
Third, he is a deep thinker. And music (he played trumpet for five years) is involved here, too. "I appreciate many different kinds of music because it's representative of life," he said. "You have to appreciate many different kinds of music for what each kind is worth and you have to appreciate many different kinds of people for what each kind is worth. Some people are pretty narrow-minded about music - and they're pretty narrow-minded about life, too."
Finally, and this shouldn't be a surprise, he likes a challenge in anything he does.
"I've got to adapt and look at things not as pressures but as challenges," Perry said. "Life has been a series of challenges for me. I've just tried to meet them as they come along. If I come through now, I'll be a better man for it. It's a hit or miss thing. Either I'll make it or I won't."
This, then, is Perry Wallace, the reluctant pioneer, and this is what he thinks about in his dormitory room. He wishes people would understand: He know some never will.
He hopes he's ready for the challenge.