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Reatha Clark King

  • Born: April 11, 1938, Pavo, Georgia

  Interview Details

Interview no.: 0663
Interview Date: May 1, 2005
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Interviewer: Jeannette E. Brown
No. of pages: 46
Minutes: 140

  Abstract of Interview

Reatha Clark King was born in Pavo, Georgia, the second of three daughters. Her father was a sharecropper who never learned to read or write, and her mother, who went to school only through third grade, worked as a maid. There King began elementary school in the Colored church, Mt. Zion Baptist, in which one teacher taught all seven grades in one room. Her parents divorced when King was young; before the divorce, King was sent to live with her widowed maternal grandmother who lived alone. During that time, King attended elementary school in nearby Coolidge, Georgia. Later she re-joined her mother and sisters. Then her mother moved the family to Moultrie, Georgia, where King attended high school. She says she and her sisters always did well in school, and her teachers and family were always proud and supportive of her scholarship. When she was in high school King discovered science.

King had always thought she would attend Hampton University, which she had learned about in Black History Week programs. But Clark College sent a recruiter to her high school who offered her a full tuition scholarship to enroll at Clark. Chemistry was a required course for a home economics major, and King was immediately smitten with it. She resolved to become a research chemist, an ambition encouraged by Alfred Spriggs, head of the department, in whose lab she worked on gas chromatography. He and several other professors at Clark and at Morehouse College influenced King to apply for a Woodrow Wilson Fellowship and to seek admission to the best universities in the country. She won the fellowship and was admitted to the University of Chicago, where she obtained her PhD in thermochemistry. At Chicago, O.J. Kleppa was her mentor, and his wife became her friend. During these years she also met and married another chemist, N. Judge King. 

Reatha King’s first job was as research chemist at the National Bureau of Standards in Washington, D.C., where she remained for five years. While there she worked on a project for ARPA, the Advanced Research Projects Agency, and published several papers. She also bore two children. When her husband accepted a position at Nassau Community College in Garden City, Long Island, New York, King took an assistant professorship at York College of the City University of New York, progressing to associate dean of the college. From there she was chosen president of Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota, and the family moved to its most permanent location; King’s husband became a research chemist at Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (3M). After eleven years as president of Metropolitan, King joined General Mills, Inc., as a vice president, and as president of the General Mills Foundation, a philanthropic organization, where she served for fourteen years as president, and one additional year as chair of the Foundation’s Board of Trustees. King has received numerous awards, including fourteen honorary degrees; and she has served on the boards of directors of many nonprofit organizations as well as of for-profit companies.

During the interview King talks about having worked hard, both in school and during summer employment as a maid; the various transitions in her life: from rural to urban; from South to North; from research lab to academia to business and then to philanthropy. She discusses the challenges posed to women and African Americans, especially in her young years; the difficulties of balancing home life with work; two-career families; her church; and the importance of attitude and communication.


1958 BS Clark College
1960 MA University of Chicago
1963 PhD, Thermochemistry, University of Chicago

  Professional Experience

National Bureau of Standards, Washington, D.C.

1963 - 1968

Research Chemist

York College, City University of New York, Queens, New York

1968 - 1977

Chemistry Faculty

York College, City University of New York, Queens, New York

1970 - 1974

Associate Dean for the Division of Natural Sciences and Mathematics

York College, City University of New York, Queens, New York

1974 - 1977

Associate Dean for Academic Affairs

Metropolitan State University, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Minnesota

1977 - 1988


General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota

1988 - 2002

Vice President

General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota

1988 - 2002

President and Executive Director, General Mills Foundation

General Mills, Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota

2002 - 2003

Chairperson of the Board of Directors

University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, Minnesota


Louis W. Hill, Jr. Fellow in Philanthropy, Hubert H. Humphrey
Institute of Public Affairs


1958 - 1960

Woodrow Wilson Fellow

1960 - 1961

National Medical Fellow


Meritorious Publication Award, National Bureau of Standards


Builder of Brotherhood Award, National Conference of Christians and Jews, Queens-Long Island Chapter

1976 - 1977

Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship for Higher Administration


Leader Award in Education, Minneapolis YWCA


Merit Award for Consumer Rights and Advocacy in Education,
Minneapolis-St. Paul Alumnae Chapter, Delta Sigma Theta Sorority


Honorary Degree, Carleton College


Distinguished Alumnus Award, Clark College


Paul Harris Fellow Award, St. Paul Rotary Club


Communication and Leadership Award, Toastmaster’s International
District VI, Twin Cities


Exceptional Black Scientist Award, CIBA-GEIGY Corporation


Leader Award in Education, St. Paul YWCA


Honorary Degree, SUNY Empire State College


Minds in Motion Award, Science Skills Center Inc., Brooklyn, New York


Spurgeon Leadership Award for Community Service, Indianhead Council of Boy Scouts of America


Drum Major for Justice Award, Southern Christian Leadership


Educational Excellence Award, National Association of Black Women in Higher Education


Reatha Clark King Scholarship Fund, 10th Anniversary Recognition of Presidency, Metropolitan State University


Honorary Degree, Alverno College


Honorary Degree, Rhode Island College


Honorary Degree, Seattle University


Minnesota Public Administrator of the Year Award


Professional Achievement Award, University of Chicago Alumni


Twin Citian of the Year Award


Honorary Degree, Clark-Atlanta University


Honorary Degree, Marymount Manhattan College


Honorary Degree, William Mitchell College of Law


Honorary Degree, Monmouth College


Honorary Degree, Nazareth College


Honorary Degree, Smith College


Sisterhood Award for Distinguished Humanitarian Service, National
Conference of Christians and Jews, MN Dakota Region


Minneapolis NAACP Community Service Award in Education


Honorary Degree, South Carolina State University


Woman of Distinction Award, St. Croix Valley Girl Scouts, St. Paul, Minnesota


Inducted into Hall of Fame, International Adult & Continuing Education


Director’s Choice Award for Leadership as Outstanding Corporate
Director, National Women’s Economic Alliance Foundation


Community Builder Award, Boy Scouts of America, Indianhead Council


Honorary Degree, Metropolitan State University


100 Most Influential Minnesotans of the Century, Minneapolis Star


Honorary Degree, Bennett College


2001 Odyssey Award, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Minneapolis Chapter


National Black College Hall of Fame Award


Phyllis Wheatley Community Center Community Services Award


Community Leadership Award, Hennepin County Office of the County Attorney


Humanitarian Award, Minneapolis Community and Technical College


Special Distinction Award, General Mills Sales Division


Pioneer Award, Women Venture Inc., Minneapolis, Minnesota


Community Service Award, The Cookie Cart Learning Center


Louis J. Hill, Jr. Fellowship in Philanthropy, Hubert H. Humphrey
Institute of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota


Corporate Director of the Year Award, National Association of Corporate Directors


Inducted in Midwest Junior Achievement Business Hall of Fame


Co-Recipient of the 2005 Lifetime Achievement in Philanthropy
Award by the National Center for Black Philanthropy, Inc.


Meritorious Service Award, Association of Occupational Therapy
Foundation Board


Winds of Change Award, Multicultural Forum, University of
St. Thomas, Minneapolis, Minnesota

  Table of Contents

Title and Description Page

Early and College Years 1

Born in Pavo, Georgia. Parents’ work. Move to Moultrie, Georgia. Early schooling. Encouragement from parents and teachers. Discovers science in high school. Clark College in Atlanta, Georgia, sends recruiter, who offers King scholarship. She matriculates, expecting to major in home economics. First chemistry class persuades her to become research chemist. Alfred Spriggs as mentor. Gas chromatography in Spriggs’ lab. Influence of Spriggs and other chemistry professors on decision about graduate school.

Graduate School 8

Applies for and receives Woodrow Wilson Fellowship. Chooses University of Chicago over University of Minnesota. Dr. Clement. Studying hard. Summer employment as maid in upstate New York. Rules of the time for women more inhibiting than racial discrimination. O.J. Kleppa her dissertation advisor. Meets fellow chemist, eventually marries him. Obtains PhD in thermochemistry.

Life in Washington, D.C. 19

Accepts position as research chemist at National Bureau of Standards. Husband’s studies at Howard University. Works on project for Advanced Research Projects Agency of the Department of Defense. Publishes some papers. Gives birth to two sons. Discussion of gender barriers. Many transitions.

Move to New York 24

Husband begins teaching at Nassau Community College in Garden City, Long Island, New York. King becomes assistant professor at York College, part of the City University of New York system. Moves up to become associate dean.

Role Reversal 26

Becomes president of Metropolitan State University in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. Husband becomes research chemist at Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. Benjamin Mays, former mentor and man who performed marriage of the two Kings, remains friend. Importance of her church. Spends ten years at Metro. Becomes vice president at General Mills, Inc.; and president of General Mills Foundation. Discusses her role and goals there. Importance of communication. Attitude. Applying scientific approach in all her jobs. Balancing family life with work. Her children today.

Index 35

  About the Interviewer

Jeannette E. Brown

Jeannette E. Brown has a research MS degree from the University of Minnesota and a BS degree in the Field of Chemistry from Hunter College. She started her industrial career at CIBA 
Pharmaceutical Co. as a junior chemist, working there for eleven years, and she held the position of Research Chemist at Merck & Co. Inc. for twenty-five years. Brown is a former Faculty Associate in the department of Pre-College Programs at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, holding the title of New Jersey Statewide Systemic Initiative (NJSSI) Regional Director. She was appointed to the National Science Foundation Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women Minorities and Persons with Disabilities (CEOSE) and served on that committee for six years. She is the 2005 recipient of the American Chemical Society Dreyfus Award for mentoring minorities in science and she is currently working on a book about the history of African-American women chemists.

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