The Alex Haley Namesake
Chief Journalist Alex P. Haley 1921-1992
Born in Ithaca, New York on August 11, 1921, Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was the oldest of four children. He enrolled at Alcorn State University at the age of 15 and enrolled at Elizabeth City State College a year later. After withdrawing from college and much to the urging of his father, Haley enlisted in the United States Coast Guard. On May 24, 1939, he started his 20-year career beginning as a mess attendant.
Beginning his career as a mess attendant, Haley joined the rating of steward as a Third Class Petty Officer, one of the few ratings that African-Americans were able to join at the time. While serving at sea onboard the Cutters MENDOTA and MURZIM in the Pacific Theater of War during World War II, Haley taught himself the art of letter writing. He would send out approximately 40 letters a week and receive nearly as many. Other sailors began to notice his talents and would pay him to write love letters for their girlfriends. He also practiced the art of story writing. Serving onboard Cutters at sea, Haley would put to paper the sea stories of old, salty sailors.
After the War, Haley pursued his interest in writing and requested that the Coast Guard let him transfer to the journalist rating. While the rating had not yet existed, the Coast Guard recognized his talents and made him the first chief journalist. Until retiring, he served as the permanent assistant to the Public Relations Officer at Coast Guard Headquarters. In 1959 he retired at the rank of chief petty officer with a long list of awards and decorations from his time serving in WWII and the Korean War.
After the Coast Guard, Haley continued to write and hone his journalism skills. He penned the worldwide bestseller Roots, which received the 1977 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and The Autobiography of Malcolm X, which was based on Haley's extensive conversations with the famous minister of the Nation of Islam. He became the senior editor for Reader’s Digest and wrote many famous interviews for Playboy magazine including Miles Davis, Martin Luther King, Jr., and George Lincoln Rockwell.
Since his Coast Guard days, Haley completed much of his writing at sea. He wrote a Different Kind of Christmas, the story of a slave's escape on the Underground Railroad, while onboard a freighter voyage from Long Beach, California to Australia in 1973. Haley worked to promote literacy, adult literacy especially, and participated in programs that encouraged young people to remain in school. Each year, thanks to the famous Coast Guard veteran, eight students, selected based on economic need, are supported from freshman year through graduate school by Alex Haley's Scholarship Fund. Haley spoke fondly of his time in the Coast Guard with timeless statements such as "you don't spend twenty years of your life in the service and not have a warm, nostalgic feeling left in you." His personal motto “Find the good and praise it” remains the cutter’s motto to this day.