The Trailblazer - Walter G. Alexander II

By Angela Delli Santi, Rutgers Magazine

Rutgers honors the six new members of the Rutgers Hall of Distinguished Alumni for their exemplary careers, personal achievements, and contributions to society out of these six, TWO are Alums of the School of Engineering, our first awardee is:

Walter G. Alexander II's father practiced dentistry for more than 50 years. His grandfather was a physician. In fact, all the men in his family had been through dental or medical school. So, in 1939, when it was time for Alexander to pursue his own post secondary education, he told the family he'd signed up to study...mechanical engineering. That's Alexander: sufficiently independent to choose his own path but practical enough to make a sensible choice.

Alexander's name has a couple of asterisks after it: first African-American student to graduate from Rutgers' School of Engineering (1943); first African American to serve on the New Jersey State Board of Dentistry (1972-1977) (yes, he did ultimately become a dentist, but more on that in a minute). To Alexander, being the first person of color to accomplish this or that "wasn't any big thing. It was something of note because it hadn't happened but should have. It was a correction of something that was wrong."

Still remarkably fit and trim at age 85, Alexander smiles as he points to himself - all legs and youth - in an old 8" X 10" Rutgers track team photo, where he competed as a miler and hurdler. A skinny kid who hated the cold, Alexander borrowed tights and nug-fitting long-sleeved tops fromt he Rutgers wrestling team to keep warm through outdoor winter practices. He says he was the first to wear the extra layer of "skin" now commonly seen on runners and cyclists.

The fabric of Alexander's life includes his wife, Ann: two daughters; and two college-age grandchildren. He completed training as a military pilot and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Forces in June 1945. But World War II ended before he completed even one mission as a Tuskegee Airman, its conclusion eliminating many jobs for engineers, including the one Alexander had with Douglas Aircraft in Los Angeles before entering the service.

Alexander turned to what he knew. With his family's roots and traditions to fall back on, he entered dental school at Howard University. He graduated in 1952 with a doctorate in dental surgery and went to work alongside his brother, a doctor, who had set aside some space in his Orange office. Alexander kept his practice, which he had long ago relocated to his own home office in South Orange, until 2007.

If the elder Alexander was disappointed with his son's original choice of study, he never said so. Alexander's father was sufficiently determined to guide his son, but wise enough to allow him to make his own way. That must be where Alexander gets his grace.