University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Back On Campus

Alumna Bill Pickens meeting with students in the SGA office
Photograph by Sally McCay


Back On Campus

Generations of UVM student leaders gathered on a late April weekend to mark the seventy-fifth anniversary of student government at the university. Among the alumni returning for a visit, Bill Pickens ’58, the first African-American student elected to the top job.  

Pickens circled up with six current student leaders to share memories, the advice of an elder, and talk today’s issues. He spun out the story of leading an effort to bring Kakewalk’s blackface rituals to an end. Pickens’s family, including his grandfather, a founder of the NAACP, was well connected to many African-American leaders nationwide, including baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson. Pickens brought some of these leaders to campus to speak out against Kakewalk, but the tour de force of delivering Robinson was thwarted by a snowstorm that stranded him at LaGuardia Airport. And Kakewalk endured for many more years. 

Pickens’s start in student government would set the stage for years involved in Democratic party politics, including service as New York treasurer for Jimmy Carter’s run to the presidency. Pickens told the students about staunchly Republican students who were close friends and allies for his own election. “Politics should not eliminate friendship if you do it the right way,” Pickens said. “It is not a zero-sum game.” 

As for graduating and heading out into the world: “Get off your duff and do something. Put it to work. Get into the fray. You’ve got to snatch it, because nobody is going to give it to you. But always act with dignity and sensitivity, not a bludgeon.” 

The student senators gathering with Bill Pickens included Carolynn van Arsdale, Jamie Benson, and Nicole Woodcock, pictured. Chris Petrillo, president; Brandon Tracy, and Will Suban are out of frame.  

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