"Remembering Those Who Follow"
Milton Edelin ’54CC, ’57GSAPP
Like many high school students, Milton Edelin ’54CC, ’57GSAPP wasn't sure what he wanted to be when he grew up. He also wasn't sure what he could be.
"As a young Black person in the 1950s, if you were going to be a professional, you'd look to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a dentist—and you'd serve the Black community," Milton says. "Well, I fainted at the sight of blood, so doctor and dentist weren't going to work for me."
Milton's strengths in drawing and math led him to consider architecture. On the encouragement of a teacher, he applied to Columbia College and got in.
"The challenge was how to pay for it," Milton recalls. "My father paid what he could on his postal worker's salary. My mother was ill, and there were my siblings to care for." He waited tables every weekend and summer the whole way through.
Upon graduation, he enrolled in the School of Architecture, now the Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP). The only Black student in his class, Milton became good friends with Jeh Johnson ’53CC, ’58GSAPP, the one Black student in the class ahead of his.
“"It was very important to me to give back to Columbia and to help others have the same opportunity I had. I wish I could give even more."
"I didn't learn this until recently," says Milton, "but when Jeh was inducted into the military mid-year at GSAPP, the dean offered to hold his scholarship for when he returned. He asked the dean instead to give it to someone else in need, and I ended up getting it. That scholarship was pivotal for me."
Milton went on to a successful career in urban planning, culminating in an eighteen-year tenure as deputy director of city planning for the City of San Francisco.
In 2007, ten years after his retirement, Milton shared his intention to endow a scholarship at GSAPP to support architecture and urban planning students with demonstrated financial need, with a preference for students from underrepresented groups. The original idea was to fund most of the gift through his will, but in 2017 he and his wife, Yvonne, decided to activate it sooner.
The funding behind the Milton and Yvonne Edelin Scholarship represents the largest gift to GSAPP ever from a Black alumnus. Its impact will be felt for generations, helping to attract and retain a greater diversity of students.
"I know how hard it was for me as a young person to balance work and graduate school, and it costs so much more to attend now," Milton says. "I believe if you can just get to school, you can do good things."
Milton is grateful that his and Yvonne's modest real estate investments allowed them to make such a significant gift. He recalls his grandfather telling him that if you climb the ladder of success, you have to remember those on the first rung still struggling to follow. This same spirit has guided his generosity for decades.
"It was very important to me to give back to Columbia and to help others have the same opportunity I had," he says. "I wish I could give even more."
by John Carr