Green is gone but not forgotten

  • Article by: COREY MITCHELL , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 17, 2011 - 2:39 PM

On May 27, city and school leaders will honor the trailblazer who didn't let a rough childhood chart the course of his life.

At Crystal Lake Cemetery at 38th and Penn in north Minneapolis, the words are etched on Richard Green's gun-metal granite tombstone: "If it is to be ... it is up to me."

His hallmark phrase is carved into Jasmine Johnson's psyche and soul.

Since she was a toddler, Johnson has watched recordings of Green's speeches, gleaning wisdom and insight from the grandfather she never met.

Green rose from a stint in reform school and life in the hardscrabble north Minneapolis housing projects to earn a doctoral degree from Harvard University and become the city's first black school superintendent in 1980.

The tough, but necessary, decision to close 18 schools early during Green's tenure in Minneapolis were the kind of bold moves that landed him the top job in New York City, home to the nation's largest school district.

He died there in 1989 at age 52 of complications from asthma, 14 months after taking the job.

Mayor R.T. Rybak has declared Friday, May 27, as "Richard Green Day" in Minneapolis, honoring the former superintendent and trailblazer on what would have been his 75th birthday.

"I'm just surprised after all these years that they'd remember him," his widow, Gwendolyn Green, said. "I'm very humbled."

Johnson will read a proclamation and reflect on her grandfather's life during a noon ceremony on May 27 at his namesake school, Richard Green Central Park School in south Minneapolis.

From the time she could walk, she'd toddle around the halls of Green Central with her grandmother. Now she's following in her grandfather's footsteps as a student at Augsburg College, the place he earned his undergraduate degree. He died two years before she was born.

"People expected excellence" of me, Johnson said. "I used to have anxiety attacks."

She didn't relax until Paul Houston, a Harvard classmate of her grandfather's, advised her to forge her own path, not dwell in her grandfather's shadow.

"If it is to be ..."

Whether he was standing behind a podium or sitting at the kitchen table, Green constantly preached the values of public education, his daughter, Kelley Green, said.

He would badger her friends, and dates, about grades and their plans for the future -- often to her chagrin. After "hello," the questions "Where are you going to school? What are you doing with the future?" soon followed, she recalled.

But it was done out of love, Kelley Green said, because he pushed to prevent young people from making the missteps he made.

Some residents still remember Green as the man who shut down Central High, Marshall University and West High schools.

"He was highly criticized," said his niece, Chanda Smith Baker, the president and CEO of Pillsbury United Communities.

As a child, Smith Baker didn't understand the magnitude of his appointment as the leader of his hometown school district and later the nation's largest school district.

"I really didn't know what it was, but I liked how it felt and looked," she said. "I have a better, stronger, clearer picture of his accomplishments now."

Shortly after Green's death, the Council of Great City Schools established the Richard R. Green Award Program to recognize superintendents and school board members who exemplified his commitment to urban education.

"He was much too young to go," said Judy Farmer, who served on the Minneapolis school board when her old friend was superintendent.

Though he had a reputation for being arrogant and forthright, Farmer recalls Green's heartfelt closed-door speeches moving colleagues and staff to tears.

Until his death, he championed public education's potential to address such societal ills as poverty and unemployment.

"He was very determined that we have high standards for everybody," Farmer said. "We were asked to do what the rest of society didn't have the guts to do."

Rosa Bogar, a retired Minneapolis schools employee who spent the end of her career at Green's namesake school, lobbied Rybak's office for the proclamation.

Bogar is asking people who attend the May 27 ceremony to sign a banner she plans to deliver to the Richard R. Green School of Teaching in New York, where city leaders also named a multi-acre playground in his honor.

"He's missed," Kelley Green said, "but he's not forgotten."

Corey Mitchell • 612-673-4491

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