Morehouse's Candle Gala Co-Founder Petey Franklin (Fall 1980) Looks Back On Their Start With Co-
What has become one of Atlanta’s top events of the social season was a tough sell for fairly recent Morehouse graduates Robert H. Bolton ’86 and Hardy “Petey” Franklin Jr. ’83.
The two were young administrators at the College in the late 1980s and had a great idea: the College should put on a big event to celebrate Founder’s Day. Not just a dinner or a dance, but an elegant, fun, black-tie night that celebrated the best African American male achievement, along with raising money for scholarships at Morehouse.
Instead of a nice dinner in Chivers Dining Hall, which had been done for a number of years, they saw something special in their idea for the “A Candle in the Dark” Gala.
“We got pushback because the school had never done anything like that before,” Franklin said. “And at the time, we were the youngest administrators that the College had. Because of that, the other administrators kind of thought we were thinking too big.”
“I was 23 and he was 26,” Bolton remembers. “And you’re sitting on the Administrative Council with folks who are 50 or 60 and they still saw us as “Oh, this is Robert, this is Petey, the students.”
But then-president Leroy Keith ’61 believed in their vision and convinced others to buy into the young graduates’ idea. The only mandate from Keith and Vice President for Development Richard A. Ammons was that the event had to at least break even.
That 1989 event not only broke even – it grossed $128,000 and netted $63,000 as 1,200 people were in attendance and honorees included luminaries such as football/baseball legend Bo Jackson, actor Danny Glover and others.
Now 30 years later, the “A Candle in the Dark” Gala has now become one of the College’s signature events in which everyone wants to be in attendance to rub shoulders with Atlanta’s elite, Morehouse students, alumni, faculty, staff administrators and supporters, and honorees whose names are synonymous with success.
The honorees’ names –such as Muhammad Ali, Sidney Poitier, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Quincy Jones, Arthur Ashe, Ray Charles, Berry Gordy, Denzel Washington, Edwin Moses ’78, Samuel L. Jackson ’72, Andrew Young, Ed Bradley, Spike Lee ’79, Hank Aaron, Maynard Jackson 56, Ken Chenault, Ossie Davis – read like a Who’s Who in African American male history. But it’s more than just honoring men – and one woman, Oprah Winfrey in 2004 – for their achievements. “It’s about continuing to lift up,” Bolton said. “You have to remember what we are doing here. We’re not just gathering, having a good time and raising money for scholarships. You’re lifting up in front of the community individuals, celebrating their achievement. But also, it’s an example for the current students to say, ‘This is what we are expecting you to do in five or ten years.”“And it’s not only for students,” Franklin added. “It’s an example for any black child to see a black man excel and achieve and be recognized for it….
So since Morehouse is the only institution of higher learning focusing on black men, it just seems right that we honor the achievements of black men so other people can see that.”
While much of the night is about showcasing achievement, it’s also about showing the College at its best. At the top of that list are the annual presentations by the Gala presenters. They are the students who each year thrill the audience with their powerful oratory, delivered with dramatic and theatric flair that each year proves as memorable as those honorees they each are introducing.
There have also been many special moments over the past 30 years. Bolton remembers when Oprah Winfrey surprised everyone with a check for $5 million. Or when Nancy Wilson and the Count Basie Orchestra were part of an unexpected gift that allowed them to perform. And when Stevie Wonder played an impromptu song instead of giving an acceptance speech.
Franklin left Atlanta shortly after the first Gala, but Bolton has continued to coordinate the February event held traditionally at the Hyatt Regency Atlanta (it had been held at the Westin hotel). Since 1997, a committee of administrators, faculty and staff – led by current Alumni Engagement and Giving Director Henry Goodgame ’84 – works for months each year with Bolton to ensure the event’s success.
As for a wish list, Franklin wishes the late music icon Prince had been an honoree, while Bolton would love to see Barack Obama honored in the future. And they discussed an idea of seeing the Gala nationally broadcast someday.
But the “A Candle in the Dark” Gala has already had a successful 30 years, raising tens of millions of dollars for scholarships and honoring the achievements of African American men and truly has become the anticipated event that Bolton and Franklin envisioned 30 years ago.
“There is a special feeling that you have. And I think what’s really wonderful for me, and I think for Petey as well,” Bolton said. “We are both graduates and we have been able to create an event that is an institutional legacy. And not only is it still going, it has helped to raise millions in the process.”