New York — When US Housing and Urban Development Secretary-designate Samuel R. Pierce Jr. was a "good halfback on a better than average" Cornell University football team, recalls former classmate Ben Mintz, "he was an achiever, not an activist."
Mr. Pierce, the only black to be nominated by President-elect Ronald Reagan for a Cabinet post, excelled in sports, academics, and in winning friends at college. As the first black to become assistant to the undersecretary of labor, and later as a New York State Supreme Court judge, he always retained his even-toned disposition and appetite for high achievement. An attorney with the New York City law firm Battle, Powler, Jaffin & Kheel since 1961, Pierce's salary reportedly was in six figures in recent years.
But the fact that he hasn't been a champion for black causes doesn't seem to worry most black activists. "We don't expect to be embraced," says Tom Gale, the head of the National Urban League's housing division. "But we do expect to get a fair hearing. We're viewing the appointment as pretty positive."
The tall, resonant-voiced Pierce, a liberal Republican who was appointed by the late Nelson A. Rockefeller to fill two state supreme court vacancies, was not the President-elect's first choice as HUD secretary. But some of his intimates had predicted he would get some sort of major post in the new Reagan administration. But with characteristic humility, the attorney laughed at the speculation.
One of his closest colleagues has been labor mediator Theodore W. Kheel, a partner in the firm where Pierce worked. Mr. Kheel recalls coming back to the office from marathon labor negotiations only to find Pierce still hard ar work. "He's a workaholic," says Kheel. "He's constantly at it. Yet his intelligence, calm demeanor, and sense of proportion were a kind of leveling influence in the firm."
Another quality Pierce is known for is his independent thinking in the face of political pressure. And this perhaps more than anything else is what Mr. Gale and others hope to count on when the winds of the right wing of the Republican Party try and decelerate antidiscrimination progress on the housing front.
Judge Pierce lives on Manhattan's posh Central Park West. But he shows concern about the dire problems of the slums just to the north (Harlem) and is said to favor tenant ownership of deteriorating housing as perhaps the best means of stopping the growth of slums and providing decent places to live for all.
A native of suburban Glen Cove, Long Island, where his father was in real estate, Pierce believes strongly in the future of the nation's cities.