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Christopher F. Edley, 75; Former Chief of United Negro College Fund

May 08, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Christopher F. Edley, former president and chief executive officer of the United Negro College Fund, who helped raise more than $550 million for black higher education during his 18 years of leadership, has died. He was 75.

Edley, a Harvard-trained lawyer, died of an apparent heart attack Monday at his home in New Rochelle, N.Y.

During his leadership from 1973 to 1990, the fund spread the message of its now-famous advertising campaign slogan -- "A mind is a terrible thing to waste" -- and became one of America's best-known charitable organizations.

Established in 1944, the fund supports 39 private historically black colleges and universities.

Known for his business savvy and fund-raising skills, Edley helped boost annual donations to the fund fivefold, from about $9.5 million in 1973 to $48.6 million in 1990.

In 1979, he helped launch the organization's annual national telethon hosted by singer Lou Rawls. The only national telethon for higher education, it has raised more than $100 million.

Edley was also the driving force behind the fund's receipt of what is said to be the largest single gift in the history of black philanthropy: a $50-million challenge grant in 1990 from TV Guide founder and former U.S. Ambassador to Britain Walter H. Annenberg.

He is also credited with establishing a Government Affairs Office in Washington to handle policy issues affecting blacks in higher education.

Edley, who underwent a heart-bypass operation in the mid-1980s, retired as president of the fund in December 1990 on doctor's orders to reduce stress.

"All of my adult life has been heavily laden with the things and the kind of work that would advance black life," he once told Jet magazine.

Edley was born Jan. 1, 1928, in Charleston, W.Va. His father was a cabinetmaker, but his parents divorced and he was supported by his mother, who was a domestic worker at Randolph-Macon Women's College in Lynchburg, Va.

In 1949, Edley graduated magna cum laude from Howard University in Washington. After stints in the Army from 1946 to 1947 and from 1950 to 1951, he graduated from Harvard Law School in 1953.

He served as an assistant district attorney and chief of the appeals division in Philadelphia in the mid-'50s, then became a founding partner in the law firm of Moore, Lightfoot and Edley in that city. He was also active on the Philadelphia Human Rights Commission.

In the early '60s, Edley worked for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the predecessor of the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development.

From 1963 to 1973, he was program officer in charge of government and law for the Ford Foundation -- the organization's first black program officer.

Edley is survived by his wife of 52 years, Zaida Coles Edley; his son, Christopher Edley Jr., a Harvard law professor and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; a daughter, Judith Edley of Hartford, Conn.; a sister, Joyce Dean of Lynchburg; and three grandchildren.

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