Like many high school students, Milton Edelin wasn’t sure what he wanted to be when he grew up. He also wasn’t sure what he could be.
“As a young Black person in the 1950s, if you were going to be a professional, you’d look to be a lawyer, a doctor, or a dentist — and you’d serve the black community,” Edelin says. “Well, I fainted at the sight of blood, so doctor and dentist weren’t going to work for me.”
Edelin’s strengths were in drawing and math, a combination that led him to consider architecture. On the encouragement of his high school French teacher, Mrs. Hundley who mentored potential college applicants, he applied to Columbia College. He got in.
“Now the challenge was how to pay for it,” he recalls. “My father paid what he could on his postal worker’s salary, my mother was ill, and there were my siblings to care for. I worked every weekend waiting tables and every summer the whole way through.”
After graduating from the College, Edelin enrolled in the School of Architecture. “I look back most fondly on my classmates,” he says. “We spent so much time together doing charettes, working day and night. We bonded very well.”
He was the only Black student in his class, and he became good friends with Jeh Johnson ‘53CC, '58GSAPP, the only Black student in the class ahead of his. (Jeh would also later become his brother-in-law.)
“I didn’t learn this until very recently,” says Edelin, “but when Jeh was drafted into the military mid-year at GSAPP, the dean offered to hold his scholarship for when he returned. He asked the dean instead to give it to someone else in need. I ended up getting it. That scholarship was pivotal for me.” After applying for assistance many past years, I was surprised and thankful.
After graduation, Edelin developed an interest in urban planning. He eventually earned a master’s degree in planning as well, worked for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, worked as staff, associate, and partner in private planning and architecture firms, and completed his professional career in 1997 after serving 18 years as Deputy Director of City Planning for the City of San Francisco.
Meanwhile, he and his wife, Yvonne, were growing a small portfolio of rental properties in the Bay Area. “With my architecture training, I could spot the good houses and buildings,” Edelin says. “I knew what they needed and could draw up the plans for any additions or remodels.”
Yvonne brokered the purchases, screened the tenants, and managed the properties. “We were raising our kids at the time, so it was necessary to be flexible on time management,” says Edelin. “I’d often go in the evenings to do painting and maintenance. We made it work.”