At 17, Dick Myers knew he was too small to play basketball at a major college. So, the Kansas native enrolled at nearby Hutchinson Junior College to gain height, weight and skill – hoping to eventually catch the eye of recruiters and coaches. The year was 1963 and two years later, Don Haskins came calling.
You may not be as familiar with the name Dick Myers as you are with those of his teammates: Orsten Artis, Willie Cager, Harry Flournoy, Bobby Joe Hill, David Lattin, Nevil Shed, Willie Worsley.
Together, more than 50 years ago, these young men on the Texas Western College (now The University of Texas at El Paso) men’s basketball roster broke down racial barriers and made national history.
When Myers arrived at Texas Western to play alongside the famed starting line-up for the 1966 NCAA championship team, he found himself among friends.
“Those guys taught me a lot,” he said. “And I think I taught them a lot, too – from the standpoint of my ability to get out there and perform. And I think we were just a really great combination of people. Color didn’t mean anything. It was more about who you were as a person, a teammate. And that’s what really happened. We became good teammates and then a great team. We were a close group, and it was a lot of fun.”
Which is why, after the death of George Floyd and other recent tragedies involving black Americans, Myers and his wife, Elsie, have had cause for concern.
“We obviously had significant racial issues in the ’60s,” Dick Myers said, “and I thought we had gotten better. I mean, I know we’ve gotten better, but we still have such a long, long way to go.”
Myers knows firsthand that one way to bring people together is through sports.
“In basketball, between practices, games, living together and traveling together, you learn to appreciate and depend on each other,” he said. “But you don’t reach everyone in sports. There have to be more options.”
Today, more options are springing up at colleges and universities around the country – thanks to the urging of Scott Hagan, Ph.D., president of North Central University, who spoke at George Floyd’s memorial. He challenged higher education to find ways to bring about change, real change.
UTEP, having some history of its own with influencing change, was among the first of the universities in the country to respond, creating The George Floyd Promise Fund. The fund is designed to help students begin and enhance diversity programming both on campus and in the greater community. With the Myers’ challenge gift of $5,000, the fund is well on its way to providing UTEP students with the resources they need to build a portfolio of programming that will transform words into actions.
“The George Floyd Promise Fund is important,” Myers said. “It is a way for us to indicate that we recognize there is a problem in this country, and that we want to do what we can to address that problem – to create programs that will bring people together. Whether you want to be involved as a participant, or create a program of your own, this fund offers a great way to get started.”
The Myers will tell you that education, compassion and action have an enormous impact. And they will tell you that raising their three children in El Paso – a community that has for more than 400 years been a melting pot of nationalities, beliefs and races – afforded them ease in teaching acceptance. Now grown and with children of their own, the Myers’ children are working for equality in their communities.
Ann Templeton, a 1989 UTEP graduate and the oldest of the Myers’ children, serves as assistant principal at Chandler High School in Arizona. She is proud of the school’s diverse student body and the work accomplished by a united community of teens, parents and staff. Recognized as one of the most academically challenging schools in the nation, it is the most diverse high school in Arizona, with a history of graduates who positively impact their community.
Their daughter, Lori Myers-Steele, and son-in-law, Scott Steele, have been making a difference at Berea College in Kentucky for the past 20 years – the mission of the college directing their work. Founded in 1855 by an abolitionist minister, Berea College was the first integrated, co-educational college in the South. To this day, the college remains tuition-free and only admits academically promising students who have limited economic resources – often first-generation, low-income and those of color.
The youngest of the Myers’ children, Steve, lives in Seattle with his wife, Jane Edelson. They are the proud parents of 7-year-old Isaac (the youngest of the Myers’ five grandchildren). Wearing a mask and social distancing, Isaac and his parents marched in a Black Lives Matter protest this summer. “Isaac already knows how important this is,” Elsie Myers said. “He’s a pretty terrific kid.”
The Myers, who now live in southern Florida, believe that as unfortunate as recent events are, they have brought people together – talk is becoming action, with real steps that can make a difference.
“We just have to bring people closer together,” Dick Myers said. “I know there can be boundaries out there – we need to keep knocking down those walls.”