Warren Sutton never blamed Alfred University.
Sutton was a solid student, a star basketball player and one of just six black students at the university in 1959. He also was secretly dating the white daughter of a high-ranking university administrator. When the administrator discovered the relationship, he wanted it broken up.
Sutton refused. But rather than risk expulsion, he quietly packed his bags, left campus and returned to his hometown of Chester, Pa., a few semesters shy of an Alfred degree.
His courtship of Dorothy Lebohner continued long distance, and when the two met in New York City in February 1960, it sparked headlines across the nation.
Alfred officials now are trying to make amends for the way Sutton was treated nearly 58 years ago.
He will be awarded an honorary degree during commencement ceremonies Saturday, bringing full circle a story about young love, race relations and righting wrongs.
Sutton said he appreciated the honor, as well as an earlier apology from university President Mark Zupan. He didn’t expect any of it.
“I never saw myself as a victim. I made a choice when I left, because I thought, ‘I’m not really doing anything wrong, so why should I stop something I openly believe in?’ ” Sutton said.
Sutton is now 78 and lives in Kitchener, Ont., where he worked as a computer systems analyst for the city until his retirement in 2004.
Sutton wasn’t embittered by what happened to him as an undergraduate student.
“To me,” he said, “it was a long-forgotten event.”
Sutton fared just fine in the world without an Alfred degree, and he speaks fondly of his time at the university. He has visited the campus several times to reconnect with old friends. The university inducted him into its Athletic Hall of Fame in 1986.
But some people did not forget what happened to Sutton, including Gary B. Ostrower, professor of history at Alfred. Sutton and Ostrower were classmates at the college.
Sutton was among the most popular students at the university in 1959, and word spread rapidly across the small campus that he had been forced out, much to the chagrin of students, Ostrower said.
“We understood that the university behaved disgracefully,” Ostrower said. “There was a lot of very quiet anger. But there was no sense we could do anything about it, not even protest.”
The rural campus of about 2,000 students is located two hours southeast of Buffalo, in the foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. It has long been known for its social progressiveness. At its founding in 1836, it became the second coeducational college in the country, after Oberlin. It also was the second college in the country to enroll African-American and Native American students.
Those facts add more sting to what happened with Sutton, because the university has always prided itself on its history of integration and tolerance, Ostrower said. Alfred hosted the likes of Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony to discuss abolition and women’s suffrage. It has been a point of emphasis in promotional materials, and yet the Sutton case was a glaring example of how the university had failed miserably to live up to its ideals, he said.
Ostrower felt so strongly about it that he mentioned the Sutton story in a private meeting last year with Mark Zupan, who had just been named the 14th president of Alfred. Within two weeks of taking office last July, Zupan wrote a handwritten note to Sutton to say he was sorry about what had happened.
“I realize that this is something that you may not want to relive or remember, but I do feel compelled to convey something, which is that we are committed to an ideal of full racial and gender equality that would make irresponsible the way AU treated you,” Zupan wrote on a university stationary card. “So please consider this an apology.”
The short note stunned Sutton. Nobody from the university before had apologized.
“It was personal. It was handwritten and it seemed sincere,” Sutton said.
Zupan said he wrote the letter “because it seemed like the right thing to do.”
He was not concerned about calling attention to an unflattering piece of university history.
“We go through times where we stumble. The important thing, I guess, is what we can learn,” he said. “It was a stumble.”
Zupan wished that university administrators had considered the heritage of the campus more fully in their dealings with Sutton.
“It’s always easier with the benefit of hindsight, but it’s those moments that test your values as an institution. We don’t always rise to the occasion,” he said.
Sutton handled the indignity with poise and grace. In a reply note to the college, Sutton wrote that the president’s gesture only “further enhances my love and appreciation of my experiences at Alfred.”
The response brought tears to Zupan’s eyes.
Alfred is among several universities that in recent years have publicly owned up to past transgressions. Many of the apologies were prompted by ties to slavery. In April, the Jesuit order that founded Georgetown University held a special ceremony on campus to apologize to descendants of 272 slaves sold in 1838 to pay off university debt.
Ostrower was impressed that Zupan remembered their conversation about Sutton and then acted upon it so quickly.
“For the most part, institutions like to forget about these things,” he said. “He was not going to bury this.”
Sutton was the first person in his family to graduate from high school and the first to pursue college. He enrolled as a freshman at Alfred in 1957, and he had an immediate effect on what had been a middling basketball team. He spent his summers working in Alfred to earn money for school. Dorothy Lebohner, the daughter of university treasurer Edward K. Lebohner, attended Alfred-Almond High School.
They first met when Lebohner was still in high school, and they began secretly dating in her freshman year at Alfred, usually meeting in a library study room. Sutton was 20 at the time; Lebohner was 18.
“He was fun to be with. I think I liked the fact that he had principles and he was pretty clear and independent,” Lebohner recalled in a telephone interview from her home in California. “We just kind of clicked.”
Interracial dating was not common in the 1950s, and many states still had laws banning interracial marriage. In 1958, Richard Loving, a white man, and Mildred Jeter, a black woman, were legally married in the District of Columbia. But when they returned to Virginia, they were charged with violating the state’s interracial marriage ban. It wasn’t until 1967 that the Supreme Court ruled that such bans violated the 14th amendment.
At Alfred, Sutton had dated other white women on campus. It wasn’t a problem with the students or the faculty, he said. But Edward Lebohner wouldn’t allow it for his daughter, and as the No. 2 administrator at the university, he wielded considerable clout.
“My father was absolutely against us dating,” Dorothy Lebohner said.
She remembers being called into a dean’s office and “told that this was not going to be. I was rebellious then and was not about to stop.”
“I really believed and felt I was in love with him. But I also was not going to be pushed around,” she added.
Administrators leaned hard on Sutton’s coach, Pete Smith, to get Sutton to break off the relationship. Smith did his best to serve as an intermediary, but he was still a young coach with little clout. Smith also was newly married, had a child on the way and badly needed the job, Sutton said.
“He didn’t try to assert any pressure on me. He was really between a rock and a hard place,” Sutton said.
Sutton realized that being expelled could harm his chances of getting into another school, so he decided to withdraw on his own.
Several weeks later, Sutton and Lebohner met in Newark, N.J., for a few days and celebrated New Year’s Eve in Times Square. Lebohner told her parents she was visiting a friend. When they found out she had been with Sutton, her father had her committed to Gowanda Psychiatric Center, where she spent five days, terrified of what might happen to her.
But she resumed communication with Sutton, often by pay phone. The pair made plans to connect again in New York City, where Lebohner and her parents were stopping en route to a vacation to Florida. Lebohner snuck out of her Biltmore Hotel room. Her father called police to report his daughter missing as a “wayward minor,” and when United Press International picked up the story, it spread nationwide.
The Buffalo Evening News ran front-page stories on Feb. 2, 1960, when Lebohner had “mysteriously disappeared,” and again on Feb. 3, when police found the couple watching the “Tides of Passions” in a Times Square movie theater, according to the news accounts.
Some accounts also reported that Dorothy Lebohner told police she hoped to marry Sutton while they were in New York together.
Did she actually say that?
Lebohner doesn’t remember.
“Maybe in my 18-year-old mind that’s what I thought. I don’t know,” she said.
Stories appeared in Time and Jet magazines and in hundreds of daily newspapers.
“Many of her friends are amazed at our opposition to this romance. But I know mixed marriages are almost impossible to succeed,” Edward Lebohner was quoted as saying in one of the stories.
Dorothy Lebohner remembers getting hate mail from people who had read the coverage.
“I got the brunt of the nasty stuff,” she said.
It was just the opposite for Sutton. Most of the letters he received were positive. Some people even sent him money.
Sutton stayed in New York City for a few months to find work. Thanks to Smith’s connections in the coaching world, Sutton landed in the fall of 1960 at Acadia University in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he helped lead the team to a championship season. He later transferred to Sir George Williams University, where he earned Most Valuable Player honors in the National Championship tourney.
The St. Louis Hawks made Sutton the first player from a Canadian university to be drafted into the NBA. Sutton did not end up making the team, and he chose to stay in Canada rather than play in a developmental league in the United States.
Edward Lebohner succeeded in keeping his daughter away from Sutton. She moved to California to continue her studies at Whittier College.
“She was on the west coast of the United States, and I was on the east coast of Canada. I don’t know how much farther you could be apart,” Sutton said.
Even then, the couple corresponded a few times by mail. Lebohner sent the letters to a friend in Alaska, so her parents wouldn’t object. The friend then forwarded them to Sutton, who used the same system in reverse. Eventually, they lost contact with each other.
“It was a typical teenage relationship,” Sutton said. “You never know how long it’s going to go.”
Oddly enough, at least two books published within the past decade wrongly state that Sutton and Lebohner wed. Sutton laughs it off.
He likes to tell the story of how he did a Google search and discovered that he and Lebohner were husband and wife. In fact, Lebohner married an attorney in 1963, and they raised four children. One of her sons married a black woman, and she has three black grandchildren. Lebohner worked as a nurse and later as a psychotherapist. She forgave her father, though he never apologized to her and they didn’t talk about what had happened. He died of a heart attack in 1969.
Sutton was married for nine years and divorced in the 1970s. He does not have children.
He spent many years coaching women’s basketball in Ontario and Quebec.
Sutton and Lebohner reconnected by telephone about 20 years ago and have met several times in Kitchener and in Western New York, where Lebohner returns occasionally to visit family. Sutton also visited Lebohner in California, where she has lived for many years. Their relationship is platonic now. They talk at least two or three times a year.
Lebohner emailed Sutton to congratulate him on his honorary degree.
“I’m just delighted,” she said. “I think it is righting a wrong.”