CUNY’s experiment with open admissions began in September 1970, just as I entered my last year at a well-regarded Brooklyn high school that I found claustrophobic, dogmatic, and intellectually deadening. The high school required us to apply to CUNY, probably so it could boast a perfect acceptance record, even if (like me) some seniors expected not to attend college.
CUNY assigned me to the first class at Medgar Evers College, a new four-year college founded to deflect charges of racism in admissions to its senior colleges. My alternative plans fell through, CUNY cost nothing, and Medgar Evers looked interesting. The 60s were still very much alive in the chaos of the makeshift Medgar Evers facilities, which included the cellar of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church and the ornate lodge rooms of a Masonic Temple, where a band of idealistic teachers set out to right historical wrongs, change the world, and teach students. Among these idealists was Luis Sanjurjo, who had grown up in Puerto Rico, graduated from Oxford University and Harvard Law School, and worked as a civil rights lawyer in the South. He resembled a younger Lytton Strachey and talked with an English accent but walked a bit like Groucho Marx. He was encouraging, gently ironical, and very witty.
Luis read omnivorously: The Wall Street Journal one day and – incongruously, to me – the third volume of Deutscher’s biography of Trotsky the next. His example led me to do the same and expanded my narrow world. He taught me that clear writing evinced clear thinking and resulted from careful editing. He loved Flaubert and detested excess. When he concluded that I had exhausted the limited resources at Medgar Evers, he and another wonderful teacher, Jennifer Ward, orchestrated my transfer to Vassar College, her alma mater. He lent me his VW Beetle when I headed upstate, because he had decided to move to California for a while. I saw him last at Christmas 1973, when I returned the temperamental car; we spoke by phone in 1978 and agreed to meet but, I regret, never did.
Luis died in 1987, having packed into his 45 years more experience than most of us will fit into fuller allotments. From his obituary, I gather that he became a very important literary agent and represented Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams, among other prominent writers. Recently I learned that I belong to a very large group of direct beneficiaries of his generosity and kindness. The indirect beneficiaries grew when, as I understand it, he left the Lambda Legal Defense Fund the largest bequest it had received. Luis would cringe, as much from modesty as revulsion at the self-dramatizing excess, if he read that he saved my life. But to me, that is as clear as the fact that I never thanked him. I hope that this scholarship fund will help CUNY Law students; that its recipients will strive to emulate Luis’s many virtues; and that other direct and indirect beneficiaries of his generosity will honor his memory by contributing to it.