He grew up in Tuskegee, Ala., the son of a well-read janitor and a substitute music teacher.
“I had an amazing childhood,” Al Ashley says. “In those days the place to live in the South was Tuskegee. It had three major things going for it: There was the Tuskegee Institute, now Tuskegee University, they had the Tuskegee Airmen, and they had the third largest VA hospital in the United States.”
His father, Alonzo Ray Ashley, worked at the VA hospital for 41 years, first as a janitor, then as gate guard and then in patient effects. After he retired, the elder Ashley became the second black justice of the peace to serve in Alabama.
His mother, Beatrice Hyde Ashley, taught private piano lessons and worked as a substitute music teacher at the high school. Ashley, the youngest of four children, avoided taking lessons himself.
“When my mother was teaching piano lessons to other people I would go under the porch and hide,” Ashley says. “That was never my cup of tea. I don’t have the appreciation for music like other members of my family.”
Music wasn’t his calling, but it didn’t take long for him to find his. Ashley has degrees in physical education and public administration and has garnered respect from a Nobel Prize winning physicist and has helped countless minority students excel in the world of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.
Ashley has been recognized by the National Society of Black Physicists, been the subject of a resolution signed by Nobel Laureates and a proclamation signed by administrators of the Atlanta University Center Incorporation and the Dual Degree Engineering Program.
In 2005, Ashley was given the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring from the National Science Foundation. That award, established by the White House in 1985, honors people who have mentored individuals underrepresented in STEM education and in the workforce. It came with a $10,000 award to the Stanford Linear Acceleration Center, where he created the SLAC Summer Science Research program — now known as the Science Undergraduate Laboratory Internship Program — 35 years ago, for continued mentoring work.
Ashley was hired as minority representative for employment and training at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, now SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory, in 1968. Two years later he became the employee relations representative for SLAC and in 1983 he assumed the title of personal officer for the organization’s employee relations.
He retired from Stanford in 1999, but remained a consultant for his former employer as well as for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Standard for Technology and the National Consortium for Graduate Degrees for Minorities (GEM) in Engineering and Science.
He met his wife, Wanda Bynum Ashley, at a conference and they married in 1999. He moved to Little Rock, where she lived. In 2004, he co-founded the Arkansas Mentoring and Networking Association.
“I’ve done a lot so I have no complaints. I’ve devoted all of my life to the effort of helping students in math and science, especially underrepresented minority students. That’s the thing I’m most proud of, my involvement with kids.”
Dr. Billy Thomas, vice chancellor for diversity and inclusion and a professor in the department of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, works with him on that endeavor.
“Al just showed up one day,” Thomas says. “We knew of the value of mentoring and networking but we didn’t have a component that allowed us to address that issue. He had a good network of people that he worked with as far as providing placements for these students to go train over the summer. He is really very, very good at networking.”
Thomas knew Ashley while he was still at Stanford and remembers seeing him at a national conference.
“He was holding court in the middle of the break area,” Thomas remembers. “There were crowds of students around him as were some of the researchers who were there.”
MAN FOR THE JOB
Ashley’s sister, Dolores Ashley Harris, now deceased, taught at Tennessee State University in Nashville. His brother Wendell is a retired U.S. Air Force colonel and brother Roland Ashley owns a pest control business in Chicago.
“My dad was a well-read individual. He got a certificate in those days for reading every book in the library. Every time you saw him he had a book,” Ashley says. “Everybody in my family read but me. And everybody in my family took piano lessons but me. Let me tell you, I was a rebel. I was doing something else instead. I spent my time out playing basketball and things of that nature.”
After he completed his bachelor’s degree from Texas Southern University in Houston, Ashley found a job with the Westside Veterans Administration Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y. His employers there sent him to a conference in Santa Monica, Calif.
“I got to Santa Monica and the sun was shining and it was so nice,” Ashley says. “It was cold back there in Buffalo. I told the guy, ‘Here’s the keys to my room. I live on the fourth floor. I have only one thing there — it’s a footlocker. Would you ship it to me?’ I gave him my plane ticket to turn in because I wasn’t going back. So I stayed there from June 17th and July 8th I got my first job, as assistant playground director at recreation and parks of the city of Los Angeles.”
A supervisor recommended him for a job at Stanford University and urged him to interview.
“I knew nothing about Stanford,” Ashley says. “I called my dad and he said, ‘That’s a major university. It’s the Harvard of the West.’”
Ashley went to Stanford for an interview and when he left the room to go to the restroom he overheard his interviewers talking.
“They said, ‘There’s our man.’ I turned around and came back,” Ashley says. “I said these words, ‘You don’t have to do anymore interviewing. I’m the man for this job.’”
The time was right for him to influence the future.
“That was shortly after the death of Martin Luther King and there were a lot of things in the air at the time. For example there was Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and there was the Vietnam War, and kids on college campuses were making great demands about more African American students, more African American or minority faculty members and administrators,” Ashley says.
When he first arrived, his new bosses asked him to look around campus.
“For the first two weeks I just went around the site — 420 acres of land, about 50 buildings — and went to every department and I looked and I saw,” he says. “Then they had a big meeting of all the administrators and the director and the associate directors and they said, ‘We asked you to go around and take a look and what did you see?’ He caught me off guard but I gave him a good answer, I thought. I said, ‘You could shoot a cannon through here and you wouldn’t hit an African American soul.’ They said, ‘We want to do something about that and that’s why you’re here.’”
In 1969, Ashley visited 21 historically black colleges, talking to the deans there about the opportunities available to their students at the Stanford lab and urging them to visit the lab during the summer. That summer, he invited six professors — including one Hispanic professor and one American Indian professor — to the campus for an all-expenses paid, 10-week fellowship.
“I found that there the scientists were the high and mighty, they were the last word at the laboratory and they were the most powerful people — the scientists, the physicists, the engineers — and I didn’t see many minorities in those roles,” Ashley says. “I thought if our kids were going to be involved in something in the 21st century then they had to be involved in science and technology because science and technology was the wave of the future.”
HIS BIGGEST ACHIEVEMENT
In 1970, he laid the groundwork for the SLAC Summer Science Research Program, which allowed minority college students to spend nine weeks on campus, attending classes and getting hands-on experience in the laboratories.
“That program began to get a lot of publicity and was well-received throughout the nation, really. And we raised from 18 students to 25 students each summer. They lived on campus. We paid for their transportation there,” he says. “We gave them a small stipend. Now it’s $5,000 — it wasn’t $5,000 when we started, but they got their room and board and everything covered.”
Burton Richter, former director of SLAC, considered Ashley one of his most trusted advisers after he assumed that leadership position in 1984 and now considers him a good friend.
“Suddenly I became director of a lab that had 1,500 employees, many hundred outsiders using our facilities, a budget of $350 million a year and one of the things a leader like me needs is people who will tell him what he needs to know, not just what he wants to hear,” says Richter, who received the 1976 Nobel Prize in physics. “Al was one of the small group I had whose job was to tell me what I needed to know, even if I didn’t like what I was hearing.”
A picture of Ashley with Richter and two other Nobel laureates — Richard Taylor (Nobel Prize in physics, 1990) and Martin Perl (Nobel Prize in physics, 1995) — hangs on the wall in Ashley’s Little Rock home.
“I don’t pose for pictures very often. But for Al I was happy to do so,” Richter says. “He was a terrific guy, a great addition to the lab and a great help to me.”
Jonathan Evans, a nuclear engineer with U.S. National Regulatory Commission, calls Ashley each fall to see if there are students Ashley would like to suggest for internships with the commission.
“He’s helped me get multiple internships,” says Evans, whose first internship was with the University of Arkansas at Medical Sciences in Little Rock when he was a sophomore at Oak Grove High School near Maumelle. “Even to say that he’s helped me get an internship would be miscategorizing a little bit. He is the reason that I was in those internships. I did not know about those internships. I probably would not have applied for those internships if it had not been for him. They really weren’t on my radar.”
Ashley helped Evans secure internships at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, Texas, served as a reference for him to get internships at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and at Harvard University and Yale University.
“I really don’t think he has any equals at networking. When it comes to just knowing people and people who know him and just being able to say a word and get a foot in the door … I don’t even know what to call that,” Evans says. “Mr. Ashley has so many connections with so many different people. He seems to be able to impress everyone everywhere he goes, and that’s a great thing for students like me who are able to step in and get an opportunity where there previously wasn’t one.”
Ashley has made additional connections in Arkansas through his coin and stamp collection, which has been displayed at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center and at the Clinton Presidential Center.
His father took him to the unveiling of the stamp honoring Booker T. Washington in 1940.
“That was the first stamp to honor an African-American,” he says.
His father also collected coins with the likenesses of George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington — and a double-headed one with the likeness of both.
“When my father died in 1971 I grabbed a handful of those Booker T. Washington coins and put them in my pocket,” he says. “I was in a party one night some years later and there were a lot of educated people there. Nobody there believed that an African American was on a coin. That was around 1974 or 1975. I went home from that party and got my coin and came back and showed it to them. They couldn’t believe it.”
His collection includes those as well as representations of Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver, Duke Ellington, W.E.B. Du Bois, Gen. Benjamin Davis Jr., Jesse Owens, Joe Louis, Scott Joplin and Mary McLeod Bethune.
Ashley is pleased to have the opportunity to share this bit of history with others, but his most prized accomplishment lies with the hundreds of students he has helped over the years.
He has slowed a bit — he was diagnosed with inclusion body myositis — a condition that causes progressive muscle weakness and aches — in 1971 and was told then that he would one day be in a wheelchair.
“It didn’t hit me hard until 2007,” says Ashley, who also has a master’s degree in public administration from California State University in Hayward, Calif. “But you know what? I’ve done a lot so I have no complaints. I’ve devoted all of my life to the effort of helping students in math and science, especially underrepresented minority students. That’s the thing I’m most proud of, my involvement with kids.”
DATE AND PLACE OF BIRTH: March 13, 1936, Tuskegee, Ala.
THE THING I’M MOST PROUD OF IN MY LIFE: My parents. My mother and father were caring people, loving people. Our house was like the headquarters of the neighborhood. Everybody came by for Christmas and holidays. My dad was a very, very good bridge player, an excellent bridge player.
THE BEST ADVICE I’VE EVER BEEN GIVEN: My dad said, ‘Don’t be a follower. Be a leader.’ He was trying to tell me that when the boys went out to steal watermelons, don’t tell me that somebody led you to do that. If you wanted to steal it you should have done it on your own. Don’t let your friends sway you to do that.
THE BEST MOVIE I’VE EVER SEEN: Gone With the Wind . I like it.
MY FAVORITE MEAL: I like candied yams. I could take some spinach or broccoli, either one. Probably broccoli. I like it. And salmon.
IF I COULD DO ONE THING OVER: I would read more books.
MY WIFE WOULD SAY I’M: Always cold-natured.
NO DAY IS COMPLETE WITHOUT: Me turning to the news. I want to know what’s going on in the world.
THE TIME OF DAY I LIKE BEST IS: Morning, because I know I got up. I’m a morning person.
SOMETHING I WANT PEOPLE TO KNOW ABOUT ME IS: That I’m fair and consistent in dealing with people.
ONE WORD TO SUM ME UP: Dedicated.
Print Headline: Alonzo Warren Ashley; He doesn’t play piano like his mother did, but the respected physicist has been awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science, Mathematics and Engineering Mentoring