Amidst dozens of piles of notebooks, files, papers and boxes, Thomas Anderson, Jr., smiles at the mess. More than just something he has to pack up and move away, the accumulation of memorabilia symbolizes the work he’s done in the North Philadelphia community for Temple University.
His office walls are covered with black and white photographs of community leaders, politicians and neighborhood residents at building groundbreaking ceremonies, negotiation meetings, contract signings and parties.
Surrounding the photos are plaques, awards and dedications to Anderson for his work in various civic organizations. A yellowed news article from The Temple News on the back of his office door tells the story of Anderson’s first arrival at Temple in 1973.
Anderson will say goodbye to Temple University and North Philadelphia on Dec. 31 after 31 years in the school’s community relations office serving as a go-between for administration officials and neighborhood residents.
Anderson, currently the associate vice president of community relations, came to Temple as the director of community relations, an office created in 1973 to address the increasingly tense situation between the university and North Philadelphia.
“[The relationship] started to improve after I came here because there was no community relations office,” Anderson said. “I was the first and only person Temple had that started community relations. I came here as director, and I’m the first person they hired. I built it from there.”
Though a native of Camden, N.J., Anderson spent many weekends as a child in North Philadelphia with his uncle. Anderson worked for the School District of Philadelphia through the United States Teacher Corps Program at Temple and also worked directly for the district by teaching at John Wanamaker Junior High School.
When Anderson came to Temple, the civil rights movement and public protests continued at the local level with the Black Panthers and MOVE. As the university continued to expand into North Philadelphia, displacing and removing thousands of residents and businesses, the distrust of large institutions was at its height.
Being the director of community relations was not a 9-to-5 job, and Anderson spent many nights in the community meeting and greeting the residents.
“My thing was being able to talk to people and represent the university,” Anderson said, “and at that time people were angry. They were angry with Temple because they thought the university was buying up property and moving people out.
Anderson attended community and block organization meetings and worked at putting a face on the university.
“I spent a lot of time sitting with people at night eating at their tables and talking to folks and selling the university,” Anderson said. “That’s what I’ve done for the last 30 years. I tried to approach it and treat people like human beings. Even though I worked for Temple, I tried to work it from the perspective that people can trust me.”
People like Evelyn Boyer did trust Anderson. Boyer, who has known Anderson for almost 30 years, has lived near Diamond and Carlisle streets since the 1940s and was active in working through negotiations between her community and the university.
“I think [Anderson] worked hard to build things up,” she said. “The relationship is much better now because the university recognizes the community.”
Anderson launched several agreements and contracts during his years at Temple. Although there are several accomplishments he’s proud of, Anderson can narrow his most significant to a handful.
“I am most proud of those students from North Philadelphia that have graduated from Temple,” he said. “We created scholarships for community students, and 15 students have already passed through the program. Two others are still here.”
Anderson also cites the Norris Homes Adoption of 1995 as one of his most significant accomplishments. After a long, and sometimes strained, relationship with the housing project adjacent to the main campus, Temple formally “adopted” Norris Homes and provided a health care center and a computer room and tutoring services for its community center.
“[Anderson] is really going to be missed,” said Diane Gass, president of the Norris Homes Tenant Council and a resident of the community for 36 years. “You always miss the person that started you out. He’s leaving a legacy behind at Norris Homes.”
Despite his retirement, Anderson doesn’t plan to leave Temple for good. He is on a 6-month consultation contract with the university to work for community relations as needed. He also plans to pursue other, more personal projects.
Anderson will continue to write and speak out about prostate cancer for the American Cancer Society. “I meet with medical professionals and people in the area and talk about what it’s like to be survivor,” he said. “There’s so little information about African-American prostate cancer that it’s important for people to speak out.”
Also a member of the Progress Plaza Board of Directors, Anderson will spend time working to bring another supermarket to the shopping center just south of the main campus. Stores will have to be shuffled around, he says, but the new supermarket will again be the focal point for the historic African-American-owned center.
As for the future of community relations at Temple, Anderson says dealing with students living off campus will be the next major challenge for his successor.
“What’s happening is now students are living in the community, which we have no control over, and because of that factor things just got out of hand a little bit,” Anderson said. “The new thing now we have to deal with is to stay on top of this so we do work with students and with the community and getting students to understand that they have to work with the community since they’re still associated with the university. We have to form some relationships.”
Barbara J. Isenberg can be reached at Isenberg@temple.edu.