Another Little-Known Fact: Ralph Metcalfe Was a Marquette Law Student (at Least for a While)

Posted on Categories Marquette Law School History

Ralph Metcalfe (1910-1978) is one of the best-known of all of Marquette University’s African-American alumni.  A member of the undergraduate class of 1936, Metcalfe achieved great prominence as an athlete at Marquette and as an educator and a public servant in his subsequent life. 

In the 1930’s, Metcalfe and Jesse Owens computed neck and neck for the unofficial title of the greatest sprinter of the decade.  Metcalfe won a total of four Olympic medals in 1932 and 1936, and while at Marquette, he equaled the world record for the 100-yard dash and set or tied NCAA records in both the 100-yard and 220-yard dashes.  (His time in the 220-yard straightaway is still the official NCAA record and one that is likely to last since the event is no longer run.)  Although the younger Owens bested Metcalfe in the 100-meter dash at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin, Owens never matched Metcalfe’s best times as a collegiate runner.  In 1975, he was a member of the second class inducted into the National Track and Field Hall of Fame.  

After Marquette, Metcalfe  went on to a successful career as track coach and instructor in political science at Xavier University in New Orleans.   (He also picked up an M.A. degree in Political Science from the University of Southern California.)  After service in the U.S. Army during the Second World War, the Georgia native returned to Chicago, where he had lived prior to enrolling at Marquette.

In Chicago, he achieved additional success as a businessman and politician.  A Democrat, he served four terms as a Chicago city alderman, and in 1971 was elected to the United States Congress, in which he served until his death in 1977.  As a Congressman, he was one of the founders of Congressional Black Caucus.

What is not so well known is that Metcalfe was also a Marquette law student from 1934 to 1935.  The primary reason that this is not better remembered is that Metcalfe’s stint as a law student was relatively brief and that he transferred back to the undergraduate college during his final year at Marquette.

Metcalfe enrolled at Marquette during the 1931-1932 academic year and competed in the 1932 Los Angeles Olympic Games as a Marquette student.  In 1934, he transferred to the Law School without having yet earned an undergraduate degree.  There was, however, nothing unusual about such a course of action in 1934, since two years of college work had been a prerequisite for enrolling at the Law School since the early 1920’s.  However, in 1934, the Law School announced that all students who enrolled after  January 1, 1935, would have to present three years of undergraduate work.  (Technically, this remains the requirement today.) 

Whether or not Metcalfe had earned three years of college credit before the fall of 1934 is not clear, but at that point the requirement was still just two years, which he had clearly completed.

Although Metcalfe was an excellent student — he was elected a member of Alpha Sigma Nu, the Jesuit Honor Society — and when he received the Ph.B. degree in 1936, it was awarded cum laude — he apparently found his studies at the law school quite challenging.  In Jeremy Schaap’s recent book on Jesse Owens, he reports that Metcalfe pulled out of a much anticipated race with Owens in the spring of 1935 (in Milwaukee of all places) because he had to study for his Law School exams.

However, by the following fall, Metcalfe had apparently decided not to pursue a career in law after all.  The October 10, 1935, Chicago Tribune reported that he had transferred from the Law School back to Marquette’s undergraduate college, and it was the undergraduate college that awarded him his degree in the spring of 1936.  Apparently, the fact of his transfer was not everywhere noted;  for example, a February 9, 1936, story on Metcalfe in the New York Times described him “as a law student at Marquette.”

Today, Metcalfe is best remembered at Marquette through the periodic exhibits pertaining to his career that are staged by the University Archives and by the attachment of his name to the university’s outstanding athlete award, to two prestigious undergraduate scholarships, and to the university’s Ralph Metcalfe Chair, which is used to bring noted African-American scholars to the Marquette community.

However, we can also add his name to the list of remarkable individuals who passed through the Marquette Law School during the 1920’s, 1930’s, and 1940’s, but who made their mark outside of the legal profession, a list that includes the likes of NFL players Lavern Dilweg, Biff Toucher, and Dan McGinnis; actor-athlete-singer Paul Robeson,;actor Pat O’Brien (who played Knute Rockne in The Knute Rockne Story); circus giant and actor Clifford Thompson; and controversial politician and hipster Joe McCarthy.

The picture below depicts Metcalfe (L) and sprinter Eddie Tolan at the 1932 Olympics.

4 thoughts on “Another Little-Known Fact: Ralph Metcalfe Was a Marquette Law Student (at Least for a While)”

  1. I am a Marquette Alumnus,1966,and worked briefly in the Athletic Dept in 1967-1968. During that time, I did some research on Metcalf. Ralph could be considered the greatest sprinter of all time.

  2. What do you mean when you call Joe McCarthy a “hipster”? Is this a misprint? There was nothing “hip” about McCarthy. Moreover, calling him a “controversial politician” is strange. He was a “notorious” politician because he accused people of being communists, although he often had no shred of evidence. He was a demagogue who exploited a paranoid brand of anti-communism merely to gain prominence to advance his own political career. Please correct you mischaracterization, or you will risk being accused of defending a man who at best was a dangerous buffoon, and at worst a hate-filled, morally corrupt disgrace to the great state of Wisconsin.

  3. First of all, it should be noted that this post was about the career of Ralph Metcalfe, and not Joe McCarthy, who is mentioned almost incidentally at the end.

    That said, I do not necessarily disagree with Bob Schildgen’s characterization of Joe McCarthy’s career. He was irresponsibile, and he clearly accused individuals of having ties to the Communist Party when he was aware that he had no evidence to support his accusations.

    On the other hand, McCarthy died 55 years ago last week, and it has now been 58 years since he was censured by the United States Senate. I think that enough time has passed since his heyday to allow us to move beyond our instinctive disapproval and try to understand why McCarthy behaved the way that he did, and why his appeal was, at least initially, so powerful.

    Treating him like a comic book villian does very little to advance our understanding of the man who liked to refer to himself as “tail gunner Joe.” Labelling him a “dangerous buffoon” and a “hate-filled, morally corrupt disgrace to [Wisconsin]” may provide some pyschological satisfication to the writer or speaker, but such characterizations do not reflect a sophisticated effort to understand the motivations of an extremely complex individual.

    Linking McCarthy to the “hipsters” of the early 1950’s is not an original insight on my part. Shortly after McCarthy’s death, the great 1950’s journalist Richard Rovere wrote, “He was closer to the hipster than to the Organization Man.” Historians Richard Pelz and Alan Brinkley have made similar observations.

    In that regard, I would like to propose a thought experiment. Imagine, if you can, that by some perverse twist of fate, Beat Movement icon Neal Cassady had been elected to the United States Senate. How would Senator Cassady likely behaved?

    It seems possible that Cassady’s blue collar upbringing (and work-life), his disdain for rules of any kind, and his contempt for conformity would likely lead him to identify the representatives of privilege and pomposity and then attack them savagely with no special regard for literal truth.

    You can argue that that is exactly what McCarthy was up to. The outsider Catholic kid from a hard scrabble farm in the Fox Valley who didn’t finish high school until he was 21 and who then had to work his way through a provincial Catholic college never overcame his resentment for those whose backgrounds were more privileged and who likely looked down on him for his “man of the people” mannerisms.

    Who were McCarthy’s targets in his campaign against Communism? Usually upper class WASPS from privileged backgrounds with Ivy League pedigrees. Who was his closest associate? Roy Cohn, a conservative Jew (and closeted homosexual) who seethed with resentment and covetted the benefits that seem to fall disproportionately to those who were rich, well-educated, and handsome. Although Cohn was a product of elite prep schools and Columbia University, he realized that his background forever prevented him from becoming a member of the true elite of American society.

    I’m not arguing that this is the definitive reading of McCarthy’s character, but it takes us far beyond the “buffoon” level of analysis. I won’t say that I can’t be pursaded otherwise, but for now, I am sticking with my characterization of McCarthy as a kind of “hipster” and a very definitely “controversial politician.”

  4. Thank you Gordon Hylton for your comment on Joe McCarthy. I agree that it can be very instructive to go beyond the cartoon characterization of him as a “buffoon,” because doing so can lead to a serious discussion of the man’s pathologies and their lasting, dangerous impact on our country.

    You are correct in characterizing McCarthy as an outsider who deeply resented elitists and who was motivated by populist blue-collar, working-class anger. But his ability to channel this rage is precisely what made him so nefarious. By creating a target for this anger— communism—he shrewdly distracted working-class people from a far greater actual threat, the power of corporate America to exploit labor.

    Communists were not, of course, his only scapegoats. McCarthy blatantly attacked labor unions as hotbeds of communism, and he supported the Taft-Hartly Act, which more than any other legislation has thwarted the labor movement in the U.S. So not only did he distract many working people from their true adversaries, he convinced them to actively oppose their own best interests. He mobilized populist, working-class rage against the very organizations that could best defend and protect the working class. Sadly, the same cynical, demagogic ability to mobilize working-class anger against its own natural allies is alive and well today in the Tea Party movement, and other groups that persuade working-class whites to vote against themselves and to support reactionary and blatantly anti-labor politicians.

    It’s somewhat misleading to place too much emphasis on his Catholicism as a factor in his reactionary stance. After all, Catholics had a large constituency in the labor movement, which of course explains their long-time (now-fading) support of the Democratic Party. If McCarthy wanted to play the role of a Catholic politician, he could have just as easily gone the route of the Kennedys (an elite family that was embraced by the Catholic working class) and he could have stood before the Senate and waved papal encyclicals on the dignity of labor instead of folders full of names of fictitious communists.

    Yes indeed, he expressed the rage of an economic and religious outsider, but it was an impotent rage that harmed the very class he pretended to represent. Being from a blue-collar Catholic family myself, I can personally testify to his toxic impact. My father greatly admired McCarthy. I remember him coming home one night and saying how ol’ Joe “rolled up his sleeves” and went after the communists. My father also bought McCarthy’s other line, since he was, and still is, a confirmed anti-union man, even though he has never been in a union and knows next to nothing about unions and what they actually do.

    As for McCarthy being a “hipster,” he was a “kind of” hipster only in the most general sense of being a maverick who stood out from the mainstream. But as noted, he was a completely bogus maverick who was merely a tool of the establishment. About the only thing he truly had in common with the hipsters was his abuse of alcohol: He did indeed drink as prodigiously as, say, Jack Kerouac. But all similarity ends there. He would no doubt have loathed Cassady and Allen Ginsberg because they were homosexuals, and he would have despised Ginsberg’s liberal politics and uncompromising opposition to war. Well, okay, maybe Joe would’ve given Cassady and Ginsberg a pass on the gay issue, since two of his finest allies in the crusade against communism, Roy Cohn and J. Edgar Hoover, were homosexual.

    Yes indeed, by getting beyond the labels and studying McCarthy we can learn a lot about his political heirs. With the Cold War over, they are not blessed with a monolithic enemy like communism, so they have had to be more creative in rousting up a diverse array of enemy scapegoats than McCarthy did. So they serve up illegal immigrants, Muslims, welfare cheats, gays, feminists, gun control advocates, rappers, left-wing academics, peaceniks, the United Nations, global warming scientists, tree-hugging pagan enviros, the liberal media, Socialist Obama, and, well, labor—although, having succeeded in slashing the number of unionized workers from a third of the workforce to about 13%, they may have to dredge up with some new enemies.

    So by all means, let’s look at the extensive literature detailing McCarthy’s smarmy life and works. Richard Rovere’s “Senator Joe McCarthy” is a classic; then we have David M. Oshinsky’s “The World of Joe McCarthy,” and “Senator Joseph McCarthy and the American Labor Movement,” to name but a few sources.

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