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UCLA alumnus and community leader John Caldwell dies

John Caldwell

By Samantha Masunaga

May 31, 2012 1:01 a.m.

John Caldwell, UCLA alumnus, Los Angeles attorney and longtime leader in the UCLA Black Alumni Association, died May 18 of cardiac arrest at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, after fighting kidney failure since August. He was 52.

Caldwell was seen as a student leader and mentor early on in his college career. He would frequently reach out to first-year students from the black community and encourage them to maintain strong academics and equally strong connections to their hometowns, said Mandla Kayise, the university relations chair for the UCLA Black Alumni Association and one of Caldwell’s friends.

Though Caldwell was only one year older than Kayise, he was already seen as a legendary peer counselor who was the epitome of a well-rounded student. He was thriving in his history major, developed good relationships with the administration and knew many of the undergraduate student government leaders ““ all at a huge public university.

“He was a model for how a student could come into that environment and maximize their ability to take advantage of those resources,” Kayise said. “He tried to share that example with African American kids and students from all backgrounds ““ any students who were finding it really hard to find their place, students looking for more.”

Part of his advice to younger students was getting involved with politics. In line with his love of history, Caldwell had a strong sense of politics and was adamant that black students run for undergraduate student government. He threw his hat into the race during his first year with a homemade sandwich board announcing his candidacy for general representative.

Though his campaign was unsuccessful, he put his energy into helping others’ political aspirations by creating the Third World Coalition, a campaigning group that supported minority student candidates.

In 1981, Caldwell’s coalition helped elect Sam Law, the first Asian American USAC president. A few years later, the organization helped Bobby Grace, now a current candidate for Los Angeles District Attorney.

“John was the most brilliant political strategist for student government that USAC has ever known,” Grace said. “He was UCLA to me because he was such a dynamic figure. He shaped my world as to my cultural view and political view.”

This political activity was closely tied to his passion for history. Caldwell’s diligence in academics was rewarded with the UCLA Center for African American Studies award for achievement in history, according to an obituary in the Los Angeles Sentinel. However, he was always able to localize his knowledge, and he often connected historical events to current issues in the community.

One of these issues was the apartheid movement, which was a system of legally enforced racial segregation in South Africa from 1948 to 1994. Though Caldwell had already graduated by the time the issue came to the forefront, he encouraged current students to take a stand, said Van Scott, UCLA Black Alumni Legacy Scholarship chair and one of Caldwell’s friends.

“John mentored a lot of us to be leaders in the community,” Scott said. “Through his guidance, he helped us to push the envelope and look beyond … to understand that we can do even greater things.”

With his personable demeanor, optimistic attitude and candid opinions, Caldwell developed deep relationships with many of the people he worked with, especially Kayise.

Whether it was debating which of the Star Trek captains resembled them most or having intellectual conversations about books or films, the “gang of two” had a close friendship.

“I think I’ve had, for most of my life, leadership qualities that John helped to bring out,” Kayise said. “He’s kind of like an older brother ““ he had an old soul.”

Caldwell was born on Sept. 26, 1960 and grew up in Los Angeles. He attended Fairfax High School and entered UCLA in 1977, where he eventually graduated magna cum laude and received the most distinguished undergraduate and outstanding senior awards.

After graduation, Caldwell headed to the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, where he founded the Thurgood Marshall Society for black law students and also helped form an undergraduate Black Student Alliance.

He then returned to Los Angeles and opened a law office in Leimert Park, where he was active with the Merchants’ Association, an organization that serves both the business and cultural community in the South Los Angeles city.

He also launched two unsuccessful races for city council, one in his home 10th district and one in the 8th district against then-incumbent Mark Ridley-Thomas.

Caldwell is survived by his sisters, Cherry Young and Jennifer Caldwell, a nephew and a niece.

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Samantha Masunaga
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