November 24, 2014

Florida Icon

Icon: T. Willard Fair

President, Urban League of Greater Miami; member, state Board of Education; age 67

Mike Vogel | 9/1/2006

When I came in 1963 to this community, we had a small staff of three people and very few services. Less than 10 years later, we were the largest not-for-profit in Liberty City -- 476 full-time people, 35 part-time people and four consultants. I was the youngest president in the history of the league, and now I'm the oldest.

At the end of the day it isn't how many are in the class; it's the competency and quality of the person that's in front of the class -- because I came from a 1-to-30 and a 1-to-35. Mrs. R.B. Lewis had 27 of us in the first grade. Mrs. Rankin had 32 of us in the second grade. Mrs. Cromwell had about 28 of us in the third grade. Mrs. Humphrey had about 30 of us in the fourth grade. See where I'm going?


T. Willard Fair ? [Photo: Brian Smith]

We had a set of parents who were committed to education for their children, who understood that their role was to prepare the child to be educated. Preparation means send them to school nourished, with high confidence and behavior and respect for their adults.

Public education needs to be fixed. The charter school allows us to force public education to fix itself. This is our 10th anniversary this year. Jeb Bush started with us. He called me one day and said: 'I have some money left over from my campaign, and I want to give it out. United Way said you're doing outstanding work with children in Liberty City.' I thought it was just going to be a photo op. We ended up talking for an hour and a half, and we have been the best of buddies ever since then.

I don't care if your daddy's in jail and your momma's on crack. If you are smart, if you are prepared to apply yourself, if you are willing to postpone certain indulgences and emotions until you can afford to have them, then you can have whatever you want in America today.

If Jeb Bush had not started the FCAT, if we didn't have focus on vouchers and charter schools, there would be no concern about the academic level of achievement of children of color in this state. Absolutely none. I know it because there was none eight years prior to Jeb. Category Five was the lowest-performing schools. They were all black prior to 1990. F schools today, what are they today? They are all the black schools. There is nothing new about that. What is new now is for the first time people are publicly embarrassed. What a great motivator embarrassment can be.

The most significant appointment I've had in my 40-plus years, the No. 1, is to have served for the last seven years as a member of the state Board of Education. When we were marching, we understood clearly that at the end of the day it's all about who makes the rules. I'm making the rules.

I've never been a desk CEO.

I was as serious when I had my afro and my beads and my dashikis as I am now, but that was the politics of protest. I've learned how to be firm but not confrontational. This is the politics of reasoning now.

When my mother started working at night, there was a rule you made no noise on Saturday morning in our house before 10 o'clock. My father tried to explain that to this white insurance man (who came weekly), and he did not want to accept that. My father smacked him off the porch. He said, 'I told you not to come. I tried to tell you kindly not to come.' I said, my daddy is a protector of his family, and you don't know what that means growing up in Winston-Salem, N.C., to see your daddy defend his family to the extent that he would do something that he literally could be killed for. When you are right, you can survive. As a result of that, he became known as Crazy John Fair. So we became Crazy John Fair's children. Given that designation, you get away with stuff. So we would go uptown in Winston-Salem, drink out of the white water fountain and run.

It's all about not giving up. It's all about figuring out what you have to do in spite of the circumstances that surround you. It's not about being popular. It's not about worrying whether -- 'oh you done sold out.' I don't know what you mean by sellout. I will tell you that if you've been watching Jeb Bush over the last eight years closely, more of me rubbed off on him than him on me. I remember when I had the first meeting for him in Liberty City on a Saturday -- he was visibly nervous.

There has been no greater human being in my life. He is an outstanding, compassionate, sensitive politician.

Tags: Politics & Law, Florida Icon, Around Florida, Government/Politics & Law

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