Like the black woman in Birmingham who wanted to sit in the front of the bus because she was tired, Allan Paul Bakke did not set out to become a test case.
"I want to study medicine more than anything else in the world," Bakke wrote in a 1973 letter to Dr. George Lowrey, then dean of admissions at the University of California Medical School at Davis. He was, he continued, "most desperate" to become a doctor.
[TEXT OMITTED FROM SOURCES] struck down yesterday by the Supreme Court, did not answer the letter. But in 1974 he interviewed Bakke, whom he found "rather limited in his approch" for opposing the quota, and gave him such a low rating that Bakke was denied admission to the medical school for the second year in a row.
Yesterday, up early at his sprawling, ranch-style home in Los Altos surrounded by apricot trees, the 38-year-old Bakke learned on the radio that the high court had found Lowrey's approach more limited than his own. He telephoned his attorney, Reynold Colvin of San Francisco, to quietly express delight with the ruling and say that he would be enrolling at the Davis medical school, 17 miles west of Sacramento, in September.
So determined was Bakke not to become a political cause that he became a virtual recluse during the long court fight, keeping to himself and doing all of his talking through his attorneys. To this day he refused to make any statements about the case other than saying that it should be judged on its merits.
However, a portrait of an extraordinarily determined man fully convinced of the rightness of his position emerges from Bakke's letters to the university and from interviews with friends and those who screened him in his two attempts to get into the Davis medical school.
Co-workers at the Ames Research Center, a National Aeronautics and Space Administration laboratory where Bakke works as an engineer, describe him as a shy, serious person who watches his health and diet and jogs nearly every day. These friends say that the soft-spoken Bakke, who is well-liked without being a mixer, became obsessed with medicine while working as a hospital volunteer helping accident victims several years ago.
The hours were long, particularly after a full day at the lab, and the pay was low, but an acquaintance said that Bakke didn't seem to mind. Instead, the experience persuaded him to change his life's goal from engineering to medicine.
Bakke is from a middle-class background - his father was a mailman, his mother a teacher - and he signed up in naval reserve training so that he could obtain government assistance to put him through the University of Minnesota engineering school.
Dr. Theodore West, who interviewed Bakke in 1973, believe that some members of the admissions committee may have had vague unconscious prejudices against former Marine officers. But West, who is now a professor of pharmacology at Davis, was impressed by Bakke and strongly recommended his admittance.
"On the grounds of motivation, academic record, potential promise, endorsement by persons, capability of reasonable judgment, personal appearance and demeanor, maturity and probable application to balance in the class, I believe that Mr. Bakke must be considered a very desirable applicant to the medical school . . ." West concluded after the 1973 interview.
West's only reservation was about Bakke's age, then 33, but Bakke had an answer for that, too - a newspaper clip with a headline, "Man, 46, becomes doctor of medicine."
As Colvin sees it, Bakke was "an obscure figure" who believed in his rights and fought for them.
Another of Bakke's friends calls him "the perfect engineer," meaning, he says, that "he's the last guy in the world to get mixed up with politics or become a test case."
"He's cursed with a logical mind," says Colvin. "He was told he could not be discriminated against because of race and he believed it. He's going to become a doctor now."