During his undergraduate days at Indiana University, Virgil Ecton was a champion gymnast on the parallel bars. He led the gymnastics team in points scored and was highly ranked in the Big 10 Conference. So when his 14-year-old daughter, Blair, asked him about his younger days, he was only too happy to get out old yearbooks to show her pictures of himself. Then came the question: “Daddy, why didn’t you go to the Olympics?”
That’s when Ecton had to explain that in 1960 the Olympic training camps were in Florida and tryouts were in California. The school wouldn’t fund a trip to California because it was too expensive, and racial attitudes of the times kept him out of Florida.
One of his white teammates, John Berkel, told him that he was offered the opportunity to go to California, but refused.
“He said if anyone should have gone, it should have been me,” Ecton says. “He was very fair-minded. We were the first students at Indiana University to ever receive grants given to outstanding athletes. He was offered a full scholarship, but he split it with me because he knew I needed it. He was an exceptional person.”
The rest of the world, though, wasn’t so fair. In 1961, the gymnastics team traveled to Little Rock, Ark., only to have its tour canceled because of the racial bias against Ecton.
“We couldn’t stay in a hotel or eat in a restaurant,” he says. “Because of that, the president of Philander Smith College, the historically black college in Little Rock, invited us to campus and arranged another tour with all the other historically black colleges in the area.”
The new tour made quite an impact on Ecton. “I never forgot it. I wanted to repay the kindness, because it gave me a sense of pride. It helped me and my teammates see life from a different perspective. That’s why I became interested in the United Negro College Fund. I needed to repay that kindness.”
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1963 from Indiana, he returned to his hometown of Cincinnati and became an elementary school teacher.
He earned a master’s degree in educational administration from the University in 1966 and moved to Columbus, Ohio, to work for the Ohio Civil Rights Commission. That’s when he started volunteering at UNCF.
“A full-time staff member saw me doing some work, and I guess he liked what he saw because he asked me if I’d like to do it full time,” he says. “At the time, I didn’t think working for a not-for-profit would satisfy me. I planned on working there for two years—three maximum—before moving on to corporate America.”
That was 32 years ago. Ecton started at the bottom and rose to senior executive vice president of development and chief operating officer before retiring last year to work for Howard University in Washington, D.C., where he’s now the vice president of university advancement.
While at UNCF, he created its annual telethon, An Evening of Stars—“I feel really good about the visibility it gives UNCF”—and raised $280 million for the organization, exceeding the goal by $30 million and maybe giving someone the opportunities he never had.