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Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

Wichita State's independent, student-run news source

The Sunflower

‘It’s just who I am’: Lee Pelton finds purpose in education and civic leadership

Lee+Pelton+gives+a+speech+at+the+Fairmount+College+of+Liberal+Arts+and+Sciences+Hall+of+Fame+induction+on+Feb.+6+in+Wiedemann+Hall.
Monique Bever
Lee Pelton gives a speech at the Fairmount College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Hall of Fame induction on Feb. 6 in Wiedemann Hall.

It was Lee Pelton’s first day on campus in the fall of 1968. Eager to immerse himself in academia, he made his way to the interest table labeled “Honors Program.” He earned good grades in high school, so joining the program made sense. Pelton told the man standing behind the table he wanted to do so, but he was dismissed. 

“He looked at me and made certain assumptions, and said ‘That’s not for you,’” Pelton said. 

Pelton, a Wichita native, arrived at Wichita State University imagining he’d leave with a professional degree in engineering or law and an express ticket to the middle class, but that path was now looking like a road he’d rather not traverse. 

Disenchanted, he took a step back from school and did what many other young people did at the time – he went to Europe. 

“I really fell in with a group of German intellectuals,” Pelton said. “Young students at (Heidelberg University), who had a real interest in ideas and politics and the arts. They seemed to know more about my country than I did in some fundamental way.”

With eyes open to a world of new ideas and a passion to pursue an intellectual life, Pelton came home after a summer abroad to finish his degree in 1970. 

“I returned to WSU to complete my studies, and I discovered the English department, a group of faculty in the English department (who) really took me under their tutelage,” he said, “I gobbled up just about every course that I could take in the English department.”

While his initial rejection from the honors program was “shattering,” it ultimately created an impulse in him that said, “I’ll show you how good I am.” 

Pelton graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor’s of English in 1973 and then earned his doctorate of English from Harvard in 1984. 

His career in administration began a few years after graduation, first serving as the dean of students at Colgate University and then as dean of the college. Next, he was a dean of the college at Dartmouth College, later serving as president of Willamette University, and then president of Emerson College. 

Pelton found his home in academia and his mission to participate in the larger society, stirring up change through advocacy and leadership.

“I’ve always felt that I had an obligation to exercise my leadership for the public good. And to speak out forcefully on the inequities that plagued our country,” Pelton said. 

Throughout his career, he’s been guided by the principle of social activism and speaking out on racial injustice and discrimination.

Namely, in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, he drafted a letter that was signed by over 250 college presidents to former President Barack Obama, pushing for what was then called common-sense gun laws. Similarly, in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Pelton wrote a letter titled “America is on Fire,” which detailed his experience as a Black man in America and exposed the injustices he faced despite his reputation and position as a college president. 

“I wanted folks to understand that privilege does not protect you from the onslaught of racism, which I experienced in every city, including Wichita,” Pelton said. 

In 2021, Pelton left academia to serve as president and CEO of The Boston Foundation, a community foundation that emphasizes bridging gaps in socioeconomic disparities and dismantling systemic inequities. 

“I had an ‘aha’ moment when they asked me to take this role,” Pelton said. “I had a moment of recognition about my life’s work, and in my life’s work is me. It’s not something I get up and go to in the morning (and) shut off at night. It’s who I am 24 hours a day, every day.”

Leigh Gaspar, vice president and special assistant to the president and CEO, works closely with Pelton. She said this work is something he was made for. 

“It’s sort of in his blood and DNA,” Gaspar said. “He has a deep interest in helping people and making the community a better place and solving, not just day-to-day issues of equity in the community, but also really reaching back and figuring out where those issues come from.”

Today, Pelton’s work at the foundation is dedicated to closing the racial wealth gap in Boston. Addressing discriminatory practices in Black and Brown homeownership dating back to the G.I. bill and redlining

“We’re trying to create new zoning across communities that are close to our transit system so that those communities can build different kinds of housing, not just single-family homes,” Gaspar said. 

Pelton’s love for his work at the foundation reflects his character and drive for social equity. The fire, ignited in part by the honors program adviser who derided him on his first day on campus, burns hot and shines “a bright light on the path forward,” even now, when most his age are retiring from the workforce. 

He enjoys a long list of accomplishments and awards including an honorary degree from WSU in 2017 and he was inducted into the Fairmount College Hall of Fame on Feb 6. 

“This is not a job. It’s just who I am, an expression of my values of what matters to me,” Pelton said, “A set of issues that I believe should matter, not only to Bostonians but to the nation.” 

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About the Contributors
Isabel Ordoñez, Reporter
Isabel Ordoñez is a second-year news reporter for The Sunflower. Ordoñez is a transfer student from western Kansas. She's a senior at Wichita State majoring in communications with an emphasis in journalism and media production. Ordoñez is pursuing a career in the field of mass communications. She uses she/her pronouns.
Monique Bever, Reporter
Monique Bever is a first-year reporter and photographer. She is a freshman majoring in philosophy. Monique has lived in Wichita for most of her life. She loves film, fashion, and her cat.

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  • C

    CindyFeb 8, 2024 at 9:49 pm

    “What an inspiring journey! This article beautifully captures the incredible impact of Pelton’s life work. Thank you for shedding light on such an uplifting story!”

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