Friends, family remember African-American leader

T'Nerra Butler, Multicultural Editor

Submitted Photo
Submitted Photo

Bill T. Ridgeway was known to many on Eastern’s campus as a professor, some an advisor and others a leader.

Ridgeway passed away at 2: 15 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015 at Carle Hospital in Urbana. Ridgeway was 87-years-old when he passed of natural causes.

Ridgeway was born Dec. 23 1926 in Columbia, Missouri and received his A.B. Degree from Friends University in 1952, a M.S. degree from Wichita State University in 1958 and his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in 1966.

Ridgeway earned his Ph.D. in Zoology and retired as a professor of Life Sciences in the 1980s at Eastern.  Before becoming a professor, Ridgeway served in the U.S. Army for World War II. His Daughter, Myra Chesser, said while her father was in the army he was a medical tech and he spent time at a Veteran Health Administration Hospital in New York. Chesser said originally, her father had plans to go into dentistry, but with time, his path changed.

Chesser said when Ridgeway first came to Eastern in 1966 he was one of few African-American faculty members.

Mona Davenport, the director of minority affairs, was a student while Ridgeway taught at Eastern. She said many students looked up to him and Ridgeway was one of the first African-Americans she knew with a Ph.D.

“He was very no non-sense,” Davenport said. “He took care of his business, made sure we were serious about everything and that was just his demeanor, very prestigious. He was the epitome of what it is to have a Ph.D.”

Davenport said Ridgeway was so respected on campus because he expected nothing, but great things from the African-American students.

“If you got bad grades and he found out about it, it would be worse than telling your parents,” Davenport said. “He probably touched every student that was here.”

Davenport said Ridgeway and his wife, Leta Ridgeway who preceded him in death in 2004, were popular among the students of Eastern while she studied at the university. Davenport said they were an influential couple on campus and many of the students aspired to be like them.

For Chesser, she will always remember her dad as a remarkable person; for the last 10 years, Chesser took care of her father after moving away from Chicago. She said he was proto zoologist and he researched all over the Midwest and the two did a lot of traveling before Ridgeway passed on. Chesser said many of her memorable moments came from Ridgeway taking her to see the many places he researched.

“He was physically not as active, but mentally he was very aware in his last years,” Chesser said.

Teaching runs in the family seeing as though Chesser is a fourth generation teacher and her daughter being the fifth year.

Ridgeway played a big role in founding the Zeta Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, and the current advisor of the organization, DeMarlon Brown said Ridgeway helped to start other chapters as well.

“He was instrumental in bringing Alpha Phi Alpha down to Eastern Illinois,” Brown said. “

Ridgeway was initiated into the fraternity on November 7, 1945 at Lane College in Jackson Tenn., Which is known as the Beta Phi Chapter.

Brown said even after his retirement, he still worked with Eastern’s chapter.

“Even with his age, he never stopped,” Brown said. “He was a brother’s brother and he didn’t want us to just be better Alpha men, but better men in general. And the best way to teach us is to be an example of it.”

Brown said Ridgeway mentored and educated the students on campus and always was sincere in his approach.

“He gave us the feeling that we could conquer, just based off what he did,” Brown said. “He set the tone for all of us and anything less than that would be a waste.”


T’Nerra Butler can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected]