Among the more than 30 photos in Carl McCall’s “Truly Blessed and Highly Favored” memoir is one where he poses in front of a building in Albany named in his honor. Like the building, the prose soars epically, chronicling his magnificent odyssey as it recounts nearly a century of New York’s political history.
Distilled in the 20 chapters from “Roots” to “Retirement” is the story of a man whose life is emblematic of New York’s often turbulent social and economic saga. McCall, now 88, is like Zelig: seemingly present at many of the dramatic moments in the state and the city’s fortune, and misfortune.
Toward the end of the memoir McCall’s wife Joyce succinctly captures her husband’s compelling tale: “Carl’s great determination, dedication, self-discipline, and efforts have helped him realize his dream. It was a dream not about the trappings of positions, but rather about the pathways the positions would provide. I have had the privilege of being part of this journey for the past thirty-six years. I always smile when I think of our marriage. Who would have thought that Roxbury and Harlem, where I was raised—Harold Street and Convent Avenue—would be the intersection for those with the determination, the intellect, and the commitment to excel.”
Each chapter of the memoir unfolds vividly, flowing seamlessly as McCall, assisted by Paul Grondahl, moves from one career change to another, and as Joyce has said, without succumbing to the “trappings of positions.”
Born Herman Carl McCall on October 17, 1935, in Boston, Massachusetts, he was the only boy among five sisters, all of whom were raised by a mother after the father left the family when McCall was 11. Many of us who came of age as McCall did will recognize some of the details of his mother’s struggle to make ends meet. “My mother was a survivor and possessed remarkable resilience,” he wrote. “She easily could have fallen into a deep funk, but instead she mobilized and labored to support herself and her six children.”
Some of that resilience and determination rubbed off on McCall and was bolstered by the church and ministers of Roxbury. “I was surrounded by positive Black male role models who formed a kind of surrogate fatherhood…,” he said. “I experienced stages of grief, to be sure, but I never let the sorrow weigh me down or sidetrack me from focusing on my education, my emerging interest in politics, and becoming the best person I could be.”
As a student at Roxbury Memorial High School, McCall was well on his way to becoming a popular scholar-athlete when an injury in a football game intercepted that promise. Despite his body being immobilized in traction for a month, he didn’t lose any ground in his school work; in fact, when he returned to the classroom, he discovered he was ahead of the other students.
The setback to his sports dream only intensified his reading and later involvement in student government. His winning an election as senior class president was a harbinger, whether he realized it or not.
“I could not believe my good fortune,” McCall exclaimed after learning he had been accepted to Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. “My dream was becoming a reality…I was headed to the Ivy League.”
His years at Dartmouth centered on the classroom, where he excelled in nearly all his courses. There was also a momentary venture back into sports that his once-injured leg curtailed; being president of the Student Assembly and editor of the campus newspaper; and enrollment in a fraternity and the ROTC. The latter would provide a segue to the next chapter.
There was a brief stint teaching in a Boston high school before the Army summoned him. “I was ordered to report to Fort Benning, Georgia, in February 1959,” he said. “It was the first time I had traveled below the Mason-Dixon line.” It didn’t take him long to adjust to the customs and morés of the South, and it passed in “a flash,” he related. And picking him upon arrival back home was Cecilia, a girlfriend who would become his first wife.
Before accepting the call to the ministry and relocation to New York City, McCall had an interesting interlude involving the man who would become Louis Farrakhan, known in Roxbury then as Louis Eugene Walcott. He provides background about the leader of the Nation of Islam that is rarely discussed: his musical prowess.
“We lost touch after high school,” McCall recalled. “He traded the violin for a guitar and reinvented himself as a Calypso singer known as ‘The Charmer’ and ‘Calypso Gene.’” While the singer morphed into a national leader, McCall noted that he was drawn more to the philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
McCall experienced an unsettling moment when his father showed up at his mother’s funeral in 1961. His father was a distraction for a grieving son who wanted to devote his full attention to his mother’s passing. “It had been more than ten years since he abandoned our family,” he said. “I did not want to see him but he appeared and he put on a phony performance of grief.” He would pop again later as McCall became increasingly successful and prominent, but it did not change things between them.
Change was a constant in McCall ’s life, and as the grief subsided, he resumed his pursuit of the ministry, establishing outreach programs in Roxbury before setting his sights on New York City, including a call from the New York City Mission City Society. This would be just one of the several unexpected calls he would receive to change the course and location of his life. Each new calling, he explained, presented a fresh set of challenges and innovative improvisation, much like the improvisational skills of the jazz musicians he admired.
McCall wasn’t in Brooklyn long before he was comforted and embraced by some of the community’s leading church elders: the reverends Sandy Ray, Gardner Taylor, William Jones, and Milton Galamison. However, he confessed, his job with the United Church of Christ was “not a good fit for me in the long term, and not what I hoped it would be.”
When he was offered a position at the Taconic Foundation in 1965, it would be the beginning of a long and impressive résumé of milestones, and each chapter of the book elaborated on the stints—collaborating with Percy Sutton, his Senate campaign, an affiliation with the Amsterdam News, the restless period in Albany, international opportunities, the quest to be lieutenant governor, his tenure as New York State comptroller, the gubernatorial venture, the many firsts of his achievements, and his extensive and productive stay at the State University of New York.
To gather the full warp and woof of McCall’s memoir cannot be accomplished in this limited space. For those interested in following a consequential life, who interacts with the powerful and relates to the underserved, this book has an abundance of these moments, as well as a few humorous ones, like his encounter with the late Leroy Knight. But I won’t spoil this one or his productive and enduring relationships with Sutton, Charlie Rangel, Lloyd Williams, and certainly his companion Joyce Brown.
It would take the capacity of the H. Carl McCall SUNY Building in Albany to accommodate the majesty of his passage among us, and it might even require additional floors.
For more info, visit www.sunypress.edu/Books/T/Truly-Blessed-and-Highly-Favored.