Remembering a Pioneer — and Creating New Ones: The Dr. Cleon C. Arrington Scholarship in the Sciences
Cleon C. Arrington knew the burdens of being a pioneer. As a senior research chemist with Monsanto in the 1960s, he was constantly reminded how few African-Americans there were in his field. “All of his time there, he was the only black chemist involved in the process,” remembers his widow, Judy. “He got tired of hearing people say how different he was, implying that you don’t see many blacks doing this.”
In 1967, Arrington had the option to accept a promotion at Monsanto. Instead, he returned to Atlanta, where he’d attended college, to become the head of the chemistry department at Atlanta University. “His mission really was to develop and flood the market with black chemists,” Judy explains.
That mission continued at Georgia State University, where he accepted the position of assistant vice president for research and sponsored programs in 1984. And though Arrington passed away three years ago at the age of 72, his mission lives on in the Dr. Cleon C. Arrington Scholarship in the Sciences, which Judy and her family endowed shortly after his death.
An Enduring Legacy
It was no small task to honor Cleon Arrington in a way that did justice to his legacy at Georgia State. Under him, the university greatly increased its standing as a research institution. It also became a sponsoring member of Oak Ridge Associated Universities (ORAU), an academic research consortium on whose board Arrington later served. In 2002, Georgia State’s remote operating center for the CHARA astronomic facility was named for him; five years later, so was the university’s Research Initiation Grant Program, which he’d established.
Toward the end of Cleon’s life, Judy and their daughter, Michelle, discussed ways his many colleagues and friends could honor his memory — with something other than flowers. They decided a scholarship endowment fund was the answer. “Knowing how much my dad loved Georgia State, and how he was so proud of the university and the progress that it had made, we thought this would be a great way to combine his commitment to Georgia State and his interest in the sciences,” says Michelle, who earned an M.B.A. in marketing from Georgia State in 1992. “He felt really good about what he was able to contribute to the progress of the university, and he always held it in such high regard.”
The Arrington Scholarship is awarded to full-time students in good academic standing majoring in science, technology, engineering or mathematics. In keeping with Cleon Arrington’s life and goals, it was created with a special focus on African-Americans and other groups that remain under-represented in the sciences.
Not only did the scholarship honor Cleon Arrington’s hard work on Georgia State’s behalf, it strengthened the bonds between his surviving family members and the university. Michelle, who works in pharmaceutical sales for GlaxoSmithKline, soon received an invitation to serve on the Board of Visitors for the College of Arts and Sciences, and she currently serves on the Georgia State University Alumni Association board of directors as well.
“It’s always a good feeling to be able to contribute to your father’s legacy,” Michelle says. “It’s just so important, no matter what your contribution is, to be able to give someone that extra boost so that they can continue their education — it can potentially change the trajectory of someone’s life.”
Making a Difference for Aspiring Researchers
Two recent recipients of the Arrington Scholarship are proof positive of Michelle’s statement. Sheneeka Ward started getting interested in computer science all the way back in middle school; today, thanks in part to her scholarship, she’s a senior at Georgia State majoring in computer science. This summer she’s headed to Iowa State University for a research opportunity; after that she plans to explore a wide range of internships before going to graduate school.
“Currently I’m looking at opportunities at NASA. They have an area where you can apply for research internships, and I heard that’s also a good way to get started with them,” she says. “That’s a goal of mine.”
Senior Darius Devlin, meanwhile, has his eye on a Ph.D. in genetic engineering. He came to Georgia State thinking he might not see the inside of a lab until graduate school, but he’s already spent a couple years working under principal investigator Zehava Eichenbaum, Ph.D., an associate professor of biology.
“When I met her, I was still only a sophomore,” Darius recalls. “She said, ‘You don’t have any background in microbiology.’ I said, ‘No, I haven’t taken a class yet, but I’m really interested in getting into a lab.’ So she took a chance on me and let me into her lab. Then when they found out how interested I was, they started putting me on projects, and she’s been a great mentor.”
Big Dreams and Hard Work, Fulfilled
According to Judy Arrington, these are exactly the kinds of opportunities her husband strove to create at Georgia State. “When we were students, those opportunities really were not available to either of us,” she says.
Both Judy and Michelle paint a picture of a man for whom educational opportunities and Georgia State in particular, were truly his life’s work. Not that it came at his family’s expense — they both describe Cleon Arrington as a loving husband over the course of a 48-year marriage and as a father who was intensely proud of both his children and his granddaughter.
But when he walked into his office on campus, Judy says, the welfare of the Georgia State family became a top priority, too. “In talking to some of the faculty at Georgia State since he passed, I’ve discovered how he was always willing to listen to faculty, to help them with problems, how he was never too busy, how he mentored them through tough situations,” she says. “I knew he was always very helpful, but I was not aware of the extent of it.
“Personally, he was very fun-loving, very caring, crazy about his children, and he dearly loved going to our place up at Lake Hartwell. . . . But when it came to Georgia State, Cleon was a workaholic. ‘I need to get X amount of money from here, and if I can get that, I can match it with this’ — his mind was forever scheming.
“He thoroughly enjoyed what he was doing at Georgia State,” Judy says. “He was really very happy here.”