The Martin Luther King Scholarship board “is like a family,” Cal Poly Psychology Professor Dale Federer said.
Federer helped found the San Luis Obispo group in 1968 and stayed on until his death in 2016. Even after he broke his hip and was in a care center, he asked for 125 tickets to sell.
Wyoming-born Federer reminded us of his rugged roots. With his wide brimmed hat, he could easily have been mistaken for a one-time rodeo star.
In 1987, we interviewed Federer, who lived in rural Arroyo Grande and raised cattle.
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Because of ranch duties, he was sometimes late for the early MLK board meetings, prompting Rev. George Aki to scribble on Federer’s copy of the minutes, “Better get to the meeting or we’ll not have any election! Cows will have to wait!”
Rev. Aki became pastor of San Luis Obispo’s Congregational Church in 1968.
In March 1944 Aki was assigned to the 442nd replacement units being trained at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. He became the last chaplain to serve the 442nd Regimental Combat Team composed of Japanese Americans. He was sent to the north of Italy where many of the war worn young Nisei had fallen.
Upon returning to a parish in Chicago, Aki was offered membership in the Triple A (Chicago Motor Club) even though he understood that Japanese Americans were barred from membership.
“Seven months later, I got a call from the west side branch of the Chicago Motor Club stating that they had made an error and a person would come to see me to revoke my membership.” Aki understood the continuing problem of race in America.
The catalyst for the MLK Scholarship was Jenny Hiltel, a parishioner at Old Mission and a Rockefeller Republican.
She recalled its origin this way:
“When news came of the Rev. King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, I was truly shaken. I felt I had to do something. I thought of my friend Marie Barron’s Springfield Baptist Church and phoned to talk with her minister, the Rev. A. J. Banks. His wife, Florence, answered the phone. We talked for a long time. I had to say, ‘I’m so sorry,’ to someone.
“The newspapers told of memorial contributions sent to Atlanta. I thought: Why not a living memorial here in San Luis Obispo for our students.’”
Within the month, Hitel was joined by Dr. Charles Lewin and Rusty Duval of San Luis Coastal, Florence Banks, Maxine Lewis of St. Luke’s Missionary Baptist Church, Dale Federer, Rita Wood of Old Mission, Mrs. J. W. Bell of the Presbyterian Church and Stanley Rogers. Attorney Richard Wood, who would later become a medical doctor, volunteered his services.
The newly arrived George Aki felt right at home with the group.
An annual southern-style chicken barbecue would provide funds for scholarships. The scholarships could be used for any post-high school training that would lead to gainful employment, including beauty and trade schools.
SLO High senior Liz Lewis was awarded the first MLK Scholarship in 1969. She entered Cuesta College. After getting a bachelor’s degree, she began a career with Disney World in Florida, training chefs who would staff the new cruise ship, Disney Magic.
The MLK scholarship has helped fulfill the dreams of hundreds of young people of all races. Come this year and be part of a real SLO tradition. It’s only $10. There’s no greater value in human terms.
Enjoy Southern-style chicken BBQ lunch with all “the fixins,” at the 50th MLK Scholarship BBQ on “Super Bowl Sunday” at the Elks Club from noon to 3 p.m. Feb. 3 at 222 Elks Lane in SLO. You can “eat in” or get take out.