JULIUS WAYNE DUDLEY, a professor of history at Salem State College, north of Boston, wondered what he could do with boxes of excess history books that had accumulated in his department.
At first, recalling his own upbringing in a small rural town in Georgia, he thought of shipping them to poor areas of the American South.
Then he had a better idea: a book drive for South Africa.
Dr. Dudley has had a long and intense interest in the struggle to overturn the apartheid system of racial segregation. Through phone calls and correspondence with friends in South Africa, he is sharply conscious of the tasks facing the new government of Nelson Mandela - not least of which is to enhance educational opportunities for the black majority.
``It'll take several years, maybe a couple of generations, to undo the damage'' caused by apartheid, Dudley says.
But even a small-scale effort to help that process along is worthwhile, he concluded as he got the book drive under way last year. One shipment of 2,000 to 3,000 books has already been sent. Another, of 7,000 to 8,000, is on the verge of departure.
The books didn't all come from Dr. Dudley and his colleagues at Salem State College. The indefatigable professor - whose fields of interest range from Tudor England to Africa to African-American history - has recruited help from many high schools and elementary schools in the Boston area and from his contacts in the academic world.
Inner-city schools, like Boston's Madison High, as well as private schools like Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., have pitched in - some 35 schools in all, Dudley says.
A key ally was an old friend in Cape Town, McKinley Young, who is the African Methodist Episcopal bishop for South Africa and Namibia. With the help of Bishop Young's staff, Dudley was able to set up distribution channels for the books and ``avoid government red tape as much as possible.''
Shipping costs are a hurdle, about $50 a box, but there are ``creative'' ways to deal with that, Dudley says. He has received donations from individuals and clubs locally, and he has hopes of getting help from foundations as well.
Enthusiasm for the project, both in South Africa and here, has been heartening, Dudley says.
He has a sheaf of letters from South African schoolchildren. One, from a youth in the town of Redelinghuys describes his family's hard life as tenant farmers. He'd like to pursue his studies, he says, but may have to work in the fields instead.
``English is a big headache for me,'' the letter concludes. ``I would appreciate it if you can help me by sending books to us.''
``He's the same boy I used to be,'' Dudley says, as he reminisces about some of his boyhood years on a farm near Smyrna, Ga.
As he talks with American schoolchildren, parents, and teachers about the book program, he says, there's a ``yearning'' to see South Africa's move toward democracy succeed. People are interested ``for the cause of liberty, not solely South Africa,'' he says.
A delegation from the Shore Country Day School, a private elementary school in Beverly, Mass., recently visited Salem State's campus to deliver their part of the second shipment of books.
The school's students had packed the boxes and had drawn pictures and written messages to introduce themselves to the South African youngsters who will use the books. ``The students were so great and so aware,'' Dudley says.
Along with the book donations, the project is also intended to help students in South Africa and the United States strike up pen-pal relationships. And those relationships should extend to correspondence between teachers and principals, too, Dudley says.
* Readers interested in Dudley's book drive for South Africa can contact him or leave a message at his Salem State number: (508) 741-6286. His address: Dept. of History, Salem State College, Salem, MA 01970.