Longform

Michael Sorrell Revived Paul Quinn College (and Almost Died Doing It)

"You're saying I died?"

Michael Sorrell was lying in a bed at Methodist Hospital. It was September 14, 2008, and he had been unconscious for the better part of 72 hours. His chest had been sliced open, a battery-operated cardiac defibrillator implanted above his ribs. A nest of wires snaked in and out of his arms and torso.

Iron Man. He felt like Iron Man.

"What happened?"

Doctors tried to explain. He had suffered from a cardiac episode, they said. His girlfriend, Natalie, was by his side. She tried to explain, too.

She had been there that night, at his house in Oak Cliff. She awoke to Michael lurching in the bed, drowning in air. She dialed 911 and pressed her lips to his, forcing air into his lungs and thrusting against his chest the way she learned working summers at the pool in high school. She watched the medics place paddles on his chest to shock his heart. Still, he flat-lined. She looked at his lifeless face and his ashen bald head as they lifted him onto a stretcher and wheeled him down the driveway.

Really, though, his chart said it best.

Michael Sorrell. Sudden cardiac death. Patient had to be revived.

"Death?" Sorrell asked, seething. There were too many reasons why he couldn't die. He was tall and strong and smart and handsome. He had Natalie, who would soon be wearing the ring he'd already picked out. And he had dedicated the last 18 months of his life to Paul Quinn College, South Dallas' Historically Black — and Historically Corrupt and Historically Broken — college. He'd come on as a temp, as the interim guy, and had ended up as The Guy. His changes were just starting to take hold.

"How is this now my life?"

The doctors weren't sure. He might've had a genetic predisposition to an irregular heartbeat, but there was no way to check. His mother, his father and his grandparents were all dead. The doctors agreed that stress was a factor. Too much work, too little sleep. He was only 41, but his heart just gave way.


A year and a half earlier, on a warm spring morning, Sorrell exited Interstate 45 South onto Simpson Stuart Road in South Dallas. He passed a boarded-up gas station and a neighborhood of small, dilapidated houses and made a right onto the driveway that led to the Paul Quinn campus. It was 9:30 on his first day as president. He didn't want to be there any longer than his 90-day term, but he was still anxious. He pulled up a hill.

He noticed the abandoned buildings first. They were everywhere, boarded up, glass smashed out and lying on the ground, tall patches of foliage growing on the roofs. They were visual reminders of the campus' past: For 27 years this was Bishop College, a historically black Baptist school that provided thousands of African-Americans with an education and delivered many of them to Jesus Christ.

Then came the jackals. Embezzlers siphoned thousands of dollars, and the school finally collapsed in 1988. The property was auctioned for $1.5 million to Comer Cottrell, a black mega-millionaire who made his fortune in hair care. Cottrell donated the land to Paul Quinn College, a historically black school down the road in Waco.

Paul Quinn is the oldest historically black college west of the Mississippi, originally founded in 1872 by African Methodist Episcopal preachers. But like Bishop, the school had stumbled financially. Its president promptly moved its 1,000 students to Dallas, where it would theoretically have more students, and more money, from which to draw. But it couldn't populate the buildings, and it couldn't afford to do what probably should have been done: blow them up. So on that March morning, the school's abandoned buildings greeted Sorrell as sentinels, witnesses to two schools' dysfunction.

He took a tour of the grounds. He started in the dorms, where he found rooms with holes in the walls. Not cracks or punctures, but large, gaping holes in the drywall that had been punched through with fists, furniture and bodies. What students he found were mostly still in bed. No wonder the campus felt deserted.

I wouldn't let my son live here, he thought, even though he didn't have a son. He had grown up in Chicago, an upper-middle-class kid whose parents both owned businesses. His father owned a barbecue restaurant and was dedicated to his store, working or sleeping through all but one of his son's varsity basketball games. His mother owned a social work agency. She was the one who stressed education to Sorrell and his sister.

Sorrell, 6-foot-4 and well built, was recruited to play basketball out of high school. He was the first member of his family to eschew Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs, for a "white school," starting at Oberlin, the liberal arts mecca in rural Ohio, and going on to Duke for his master's in public policy. The day of his graduation, his mother hugged him and held him close.

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Greg Howard