A Tufts Pioneer Turns One Hundred

Francis Hazel, A41, one of the few African American students in his class, looks back on a life of challenge, friendship, and accomplishment
Frank Hazel and his three daughters at his 100th birthday party, held at Tufts
Frank Hazel, A41, with his daughters during his 100th birthday party at Tufts on June 17. Hazel was a member of the traditionally black fraternity Omega Psi Phi. Photo: Alonso Nichols
July 31, 2018

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Shortly before moving out of his home in Lexington, Massachusetts, last year at age ninety-nine, Francis “Frank” Hazel, A41, submitted a photograph to a contest sponsored by the town’s Council on Aging. The image captures an empty wheelchair at rest on a dock as people set off in kayaks on the Charles River. Hazel titled the snapshot “Why Not?,” a reference to the unknown wheelchair user who joined in the paddling.

The title of the photo, which now hangs in Hazel’s assisted living apartment, could also refer to Hazel’s life. The path was seldom smooth for him or many other talented, ambitious African American men. Yet on June 17, as Hazel celebrated his hundredth birthday, surrounded by loved ones at Alumnae Hall—a building erected on the Tufts campus just thirteen years after Hazel’s commencement—he was able to look back on a life of many successes.

Hazel used to walk to the Hill from his home on Jerome Street, in the heart of West Medford’s thriving African American community. His younger brother, David, would later join him at Tufts, yet the college in the late 1930s could be a lonely place for black students—there were only four African Americans in the Class of 1941, and the school often reflected the racial exclusion of society at large.

Frank Hazel, A41, gets a hug from his grandson as his great-granddaughter looks on during his 100th birthday party. Photo: Alonso NicholsStill, Hazel forged lasting bonds at Tufts. He pledged the historically black fraternity Omega Psi Phi, becoming an officer, and he developed a lifelong friendship with twin brothers Bill and Cyril Jones, E41 and A41. (Hazel and Bill Jones would later co-own a boat, which they used to sail the coast from New York to Maine—“Bill used to say he would go anywhere if I was the navigator,” Hazel recalled.)

In the classroom, meanwhile, Hazel was inspired by two of his teachers in particular: the chemistry professor Paul Doleman, E24, AG25, and the poet John Holmes. “I was very good in English, and I got to know Holmes quite well,” Hazel said. “I read anything that was in print.” He passed that curiosity about the world on to subsequent generations. “My parents encouraged us to be lifelong learners,” said his daughter, Karen. “I’m very grateful to both my father and my mother for encouraging that.”

Hazel landed on chemistry and physics as his majors, thinking he might face less discrimination in the sciences. That didn’t prove entirely true. Unlike his white classmates, he was denied a navy commission at the start of World War II. So he eventually served in the Signal Corps, where he became a cathode specialist and worked on developing electronic vacuum and gas tubes for aircraft-tracking radars. It was there that he met his wife, Inez, a math whiz in the Signal Corps’ computing section. They were married for seventy years until Inez’s death in 2013. Their family grew to include three daughters—Doreen, Karen, and Lauren—ten grandchildren (including Koro Nuri, A93), and twelve great-grandchildren.

After the war, Hazel worked for Sylvania, Lincoln Labs, and Mitre Corporation, where he became director of information services, and taught technical writing at MIT. But these professional achievements did not shield Hazel from the realities of racial discrimination. In the early 1950s, when realtors often wouldn’t do business with black buyers in suburban towns, the Hazels found owners willing to sell in Lexington’s Peacock Farms neighborhood. When news of the pending sale spread, the people next door moved out. But things worked out for the Hazel family. Their departing neighbors were replaced by people who had escaped Nazi persecution in Germany, and who became good friends.  

Hazel went on to help found the Lexington Civil Rights Committee. In 1963, Martin Luther King spoke to the group—and Hazel drove him to the airport afterwards. “We talked about civil rights, what could conceivably happen, and how long it would take to happen,” he recalled.

After such a distinguished career and life, how does Hazel feel about turning a hundred?  “It’s the first time I’ve been so old,” he said, with a laugh.

Helene Ragovin can be reached at helene.ragovin@tufts.edu.

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