Troy Duster, Russ Ellis, and Thelton Henderson: sixTy years of friendship
Story by Karin Evans. Photos by Nancy Rubin
In a program dedicated to their rare, 60-year-long friendship, Berkeley octogenarians Troy Duster, Russ Ellis and Thelton Henderson shared the stage at a sold-out Ashby Village event March 25. It was an afternoon filled with laughter, poignant stories about uphill struggles, and memorable anecdotes. Co-sponsored by the UC Berkeley Retirement Center, the discussion was moderated by author Adam Hochschild. The three men, as well as the moderator, are all members of Ashby Village.
Ellis, now 82, was born and raised in Los Angeles. He joined the UC Berkeley Department of Architecture in 1970 and served for five years as Vice Chancellor for Undergraduate Affairs and later as Faculty Equity Associate. One of his proudest achievements was helping to develop the Incentive Awards Program that helps give talented low-income students better access to UC Berkeley. He retired in 1984, and since then has devoted himself to family, his garden and sculpture.
Duster, 81, the grandson of civil rights activist and famed journalist Ida B. Wells, grew up in a world of contrasts. “Home life was a cultural haven, but the Chicago streets were tough and mean.” At Northwestern, he was one of just seven black students. He went on to an illustrious career as a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley, as well as New York University. He was president of the American Sociological Association, and wrote a number of groundbreaking books.
Henderson, 84, came to California from Louisiana with his family when he was three years old, part of the great migration. He played semipro baseball, came to Berkeley on a football scholarship in 1951, and graduated from UC Berkeley’s School of Law. He was the first black attorney hired by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division, but lost his job after lending his government car to Dr. Martin Luther King. He went on to serve as an Assistant Dean at Stanford Law School and served for 37 years as Chief Judge of the 9th Circuit of the U.S. District Court.
By 1970, all three men were friends and living in Berkeley. They played music together in a group. All grew up in a highly segregated world and each eventually found himself the first black person to hold an important position. All three experienced a common slight.
“A student would come in the door and look at me and say, ‘Is Professor Duster here?’” said Duster. “I told that story to Russ, and he said, ‘Hey, that happened to me, too!’”
Henderson also had the experience. So the three thought up ways to deal with that, competing about who could be the most clever. Henderson won.
He was in his office as a Dean of the Law School at Stanford, and a student walked in and said, “I want to see Dean Henderson.” Henderson said, “Have a seat. Dean Henderson will be here shortly.” He had the student wait, then ushered the student into his office and had the student sit on the other side of the desk and wait a bit more. Then he looked up and said, “Dean Henderson is here now.”
“You’ve maintained this three-way friendship for 60 years,” said Hochschild. “What lessons have you learned?”
Henderson talked about the comfortable ease of their friendship. “We weren’t seeing each other as much, and we decided to get together at Troy’s because he’s the only one who can cook, and he had better wine. So we had a wonderful brunch and spent the entire day together in that house. Midday, Troy, who is a potter, was working on his pottery, and Russ was in the living room doing something, and I am in the kitchen. We spent it together and we didn’t have to be talking, and it was wonderful.”
While both Troy and Russ have turned to art in retirement, Henderson just retired a year ago, and is still involved at UC Berkeley’s School of Law. “I go a couple days a week and it’s the perfect mixture for me because I don’t have an artistic bone in my body.”
At the end of the program the three old friends burst into song: “If you’re ever in a jam, here I am. If you’re ever up a tree, call on me. If you ever feel so happy you land in jail, I’m your bail. Friendship, friendship…”
The audience rose in a standing ovation.
After that the younger generation took over. Russ Ellis’s daughter Zoe and his granddaughters Lily and Bella sang “You’ve Got a Friend.” They were accompanied by Russ’s son, Dave Ellis, on saxophone and pianist Ellen Hoffman.
And the audience sang along.