One of the luckiest days of my life was when Duke University President Nannerl Keohane asked if I would be interested in working on converting the former nursing dorm on the corner of Trent Street and Erwin Road into a visionary center suitable to the legacy of Dr. John Hope Franklin. Interested? I was ecstatic. John Hope (as he insisted I call him) has been my role model since adolescence, when I first read From Slavery to Freedom. Long before I came to Duke, he was my exemplar of the serious humanities scholar who had made a difference in the world. His work as a historian, in Brown v. The Topeka Board of Education, had contributed to the end of segregation. His subsequent work had been directed to such causes as the anti-apartheid struggle, slave reparations and underfunded public schools. He set the standard for how the life of the mind, when relentless and true, can be a weapon of social change that, in his words, is “more healthy and constructive than the exchange of bullets.”

Words are barely adequate to express my gratitude for his abiding belief in the relationship between scholarship and activism, between humanistic research and social change. I tried many times to tell him what he meant to me, and ended up, each time, utterly tongue-tied. I’ve talked to many others who felt similarly miniscule in his presence. When Karla Holloway, then Dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences, and Bruce Kuniholm, then a fellow Vice Provost, and I began poring over architectural plans and budgets, and meeting with faculty, students and other administrators to create a “center of centers” to honor his legacy33,000 square feet of seminar rooms, conference spaces, meeting spaces, art galleries and offices, with state-of-the-art communications technologywe felt that we had finally found something worthy to express our debt to him.

But we were apprehensive. We knew that John Hope was conscientious about the deployment of his name. He carried his name, like his person, straight and tall in the world. He always represented. Previously, he had rejected the idea of having a center for African-American studies named after him, insisting he was a historian of America and the worldnot only of African-Americans. He argued that any history that ignored the contributions of African-Americans was partial and weak, just as any scholarship that failed to acknowledge racism’s violent past of slavery and segregation and its continuing material and psychological costs was inaccurate and inadequate. He was a good, responsible historian, not just an African-American historian, he insisted. He would permit his name only on a center that encompassed his wide principles.

We were nervous when we showed him the proposal for the John Hope Franklin Center for Interdisciplinary and International Studies that would include a central John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute, a space for serious, sustained reflection, scholarship and public programming. Our description called the Franklin Center “a consortium of programs dedicated to the idea that knowledge should be shared … fueled by the commitment to address problems that have faced humanity for centuries.” We paused, waiting to see if he would lend his name to such a building. He smiled, “That should cover it,” he joked, both modest and amused that we were worried it wasn’t enough.

He had a marvelous laugh, as expansive and generous as he was. As a practice, he said what he believed whenever it was the right time to say it. He maintained a lifelong sense of outrage over racism and injustice, over any violation of human rights worldwide. And yet he always insisted that “Hope” wasn’t just his middle name but also his motivation. He refused to waste time in pettiness and resentment, and dismissed disciplinary in-fighting as “stupidity.” He took the time to talk to any child, to anyone he met anywhere, on the street, in a grocery line, at a restaurant, but didn’t want to waste a second on unproductive academic whining. Maybe that’s what kept him hopeful.

The last time we had dinner together, a week after President Barack Obama’s inauguration, he marveled that he’d lived to witness a black family move into the White House. He used the word “miracle.” Perhaps. But also, for John Hope, just deserts.

Clear-eyed, focused, seriously radical hope: How did he manage that for 94 years?

One day, back when the Franklin Center was under construction, he joined us on a tour of the site. The architect handed out hard hats and led us through the welter of dust and cacophony of hammers and buzz saws. This was in 2000, so John Hope was well into his 80s, and we edged past holes yawning a full story below. We were terrified he might hurt himself, but he proved as nimble as any of us. A murmur went through the building that the elderly gentleman in the tie (did he go anywhere without a dapper tie?) was the person after whom this new center would be named, so the workers were deferential as he came through and, being John Hope, he stopped and introduced himself to each one, shaking hands with all and even complimenting one group of workers on their meticulous plastering. The look of awe in their faces was one I recognized.

When we arrived at the conference room, one of the construction bosses offered John Hope a magic marker. It had become a tradition to have visitors sign spaces in between the beams. Wallboard now covers this bit of history, of course, but someday, when the building is torn down, the signatures will be there, preserved for posterity.

He wrote his full, neat autograph. Then, grinning impishly, he scribbled: “John Hope Was Here!”

He certainly was. And, for that, our world is a far better place.

Formerly Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies, Cathy N. Davidson is an English Professor and the John Hope Franklin Humanities Institute Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University.