The man whom Martin Luther King Jr. said was one of the greatest influences in his life was leaving the Washington Hilton the other day when a bellman stopped him.
"Dr. Mays, I just want to shake your hand," the bellman said. "My mother talks about you all the time. She heard you preach once and she's never forgotten it."
Dr. Benjamin E. Mays, 83, president of Morehouse College in Atlanta for 27 years and still active as president of the Atlanta school board, smiled and talked briefly with the man about his mother.
"Yes, when you try to do good, people appreciate you," said Mays, as he moved slowly through the hotel lobby to a waiting limousine.
Before becoming president of Morehouse in 1940, he served as dean of the Howard University School of Religion for six years.
Mays returned to Howard Friday to deliver the first annual Mordecai Wyatt Johnson Memorial Lecture. The newly inaugurated series honors Howard's 13th president who was a close friend of Mays.
His address was a tribute to Johnson, the first black president of the university (1926-1960), whose accomplishments included reorganizing the institution, obtaining larger federal appropriations and diversifying the racial composition of the faculty and students.
The same tribute could have been paid to Mays, for he achieved similar goals at Morehouse, an all-male college. His impact was often personal.
Martin Lurther King Jr. said Mays' influence as a college educator and theologian reinforced his desire to become a preacher. At one point, King had decided not to got into the ministry, but after being around Mays at Morehouse, he reaffirmed his ministerial ambition.
Contemporary historian Lerone Bennett, a Morehouse man, recently wrote in Ebony magazine: "As an educator, Mays addressed himself to the major problem of oppression - manhood. He did not intend, he said, to make lawyers or doctors or teachers - he intended to make men."
Bennett recalled Mays saying, "He who starts behind in the race of life must run faster or forever remain behind."
For 27 years, Mays would exhort students at compulsory Tuesday morning chapel services.
What did he say at those services that made such impact on them?
"I wanted to instill them with faith and hope," Mays recalls. "Most of those fellows had come out of segregated situations. I tried to get them to see that they could do anything they wanted to do.
"The sky was the limit, not the ceiling. Be prepared to the nth degree."
As a result, Morehouse students enrolled in some of the best graduate schools in the country, and Mays would follow their progress by writing the deans of these schools.
"The only way we could measure the adequacy of our programs was to find out how our students were doing against the best competition in America," he explains.
"It paid off. Morehouse men are doing well. They're community leaders. We sent out a host of able men. All over the United States, Morehouse men tell what my speeches meant."
Standing a bit stoop shouldered, Mays is no longer the ram-rod 6-footer he used to be. But his eyes have their old twinkle, his clear southern voice conveys warm, comforting feelings, and his mind is still razor sharp. "My health is good," he says. "I never allow myself to be rushed. I never run to catch a plane. I'm always prepared for an emergency. I try to give myself plenty of time to do whatever I have to do.You adjust your pace as you get older."
Though he's grown older, Mays hasn't changed many of the constants of his life - his great involvement with the black churches and colleges, and his burning desire to achieve excellence.
He was born with the letter. From his birth on Aug. 1, 1894, at Epworth, S.C., Benjamin Elijah Mays has abhorred being less than excellent.
"I never did believe that I was inferior to anybody," he recalls. "I suppose that I believed that because I didn't think God would do such a thing to me or to black people - or to any minority people.
"Everything in my environment said that I was inferior. I remember saying to my mother that if God did that to me, I wouldn't say another prayer. That didn't set too well with her. She was quite religious."
Mays remembers giving a speech at his church when he was 8 or 9 years old. The congregation responded fervently.
"They thought I was going to be special," he says. "I thought I'd have to live up to their expectations."
So Mays set about making himself special. He was valedictorian of his high-school class, graduated with honors from Bates College and earned a master's and doctorate at the University of Chicago.
The educator worked his way through undergraduate school waiting tables and running on the road as a Pullman porter.
"Whenever I gave the charge to students, I said Morehouse was where ever a Morehouse man was," he notes. "It wasn't just a set of buildings. Education is for the training of the mind - for a person to do something for his community."
He has been active in a variety of religious and secular areas - the executive committees of the World Council of Churches and International YMCA, the boards of the United Negro College Fund and NAACP. He's written books about the church and his life.
As a man whose life spans many historic markers in American race relations, Mays says he sees racial progress. "My view goes back to the turn of the century," he says. "Youngsters born after 1950 have a different view. However, we've got to realize that we're part and parcel of this country. This is my country. My job is to keep the pressure on [for racial justice].
Like many black college president, Mays had to face dwindling resources for his school. In the wake of desegragation, top-flight black American students started passing up black colleges in favor of predominantly white ones. The increasing competition for operating funds hit black colleges harder than white ones.
Some people fear that black colleges, most of which are small, will gradually disappear.
"I hope not," says Mays, cradling his chin in his hand. "There's something that students need to call their own. You go to Harvard, the University of Chicago and you see them (blacks) clustering about.
"Nobody raised those questions about Jewish or Catholic universities - or Duke and Vanderbilt, which were originally United Methodist schools. I'm not willing for the sake of integration to liquidate black colleges.
"If you do that, you might as well liquidate the black church, black banks. Do away with black lawyers. Let white lawyers handle our legal work.
"You've got to be identified with a racial, ethnic or national group.If this is a melting pot, I don't want the Negro to melt away."