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Oral history interview with Reatha Clark King

  • 2005-May-01

Reatha Clark King was born in Pavo, Georgia, the second of three daughters. Her father was a sharecropper who never learned to read or write, and her mother, who went to school only through third grade, worked as a maid. There King began elementary school in the Colored church, Mt. Zion Baptist, in which one teacher taught all seven grades in one room. Her parents divorced when King was young; before the divorce, King was sent to live with her widowed maternal grandmother who lived alone. During that time, King attended elementary school in nearby Coolidge, Georgia. Later she re-joined her mother and sisters. Then her mother moved the family to Moultrie, Georgia, where King attended high school. She says she and her sisters always did well in school, and her teachers and family were always proud and supportive of her scholarship. When she was in high school King discovered science. King had always thought she would attend Hampton University, which she had learned about in Black History Week programs. But Clark College sent a recruiter to her high school who offered her a full tuition scholarship to enroll at Clark. Chemistry was a required course for a home economics major, and King was immediately smitten with it. She resolved to become a research chemist, an ambition encouraged by Alfred Spriggs, head of the department, in whose lab she worked on gas chromatography. He and several other professors at Clark and at Morehouse College influenced King to apply for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and to seek admission to the best universities in the country. She won the fellowship and was admitted to the University of Chicago, where she obtained her PhD in thermochemistry. At Chicago, O. J. Kleppa was her mentor, and his wife became her friend. During these years she also met and married another chemist, N. Judge King. Reatha King's first job was as research chemist at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, DC, where she remained for five years. While there she worked on a project for ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and published several papers. She also bore two children. When her husband accepted a position at Nassau Community College in Garden City, Long Island, New York, King took an assistant professorship at York College of the City University of New York, progressing to associate dean of the college. From there she was chosen president of Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and the family moved to its most permanent location; King's husband became a research chemist at Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M). After eleven years as president of Metropolitan, King joined General Mills, Inc., as a vice president, and as president of the General Mills Foundation, a philanthropic organization, where she served for fourteen years as president, and one additional year as chair of the Foundation's Board of Trustees. King has received numerous awards, including fourteen honorary degrees; and she has served on the boards of directors of many nonprofit organizations as well as of for-profit companies. During the interview King talks about having worked hard, both in school and during summer employment as a maid; the various transitions in her life: from rural to urban; from South to North; from research lab to academia to business and then to philanthropy. She discusses the challenges posed to women and African Americans, especially in her young years; the difficulties of balancing home life with work; two-career families; her church; and the importance of attitude and communication.

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