Curman Gaines wanted each student who attended a St. Paul public school to succeed no matter their race or socioeconomic background.

Gaines, the first person of color to serve as superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, died Oct. 10. He was 81.

Gaines was remembered as a popular school administrator who advocated for higher achievement of minority students and those from low-income families, as well as teacher accountability. He was said to be a gentleman who took time to listen to people's concerns without prejudice.

"He had high regard and respect for everybody," said friend W Rayford Johnson, who was hired as a high school band conductor when Gaines first started working in the school district. "He did not criticize people. He was always encouraging, uplifting and positive. And he loved the students, and he showed that at every opportunity."

Gaines was born in the mill town of Zimmerman, La., on June 1, 1940. His family later moved to Alexandria, La., where he grew up, the son of a Baptist minister, with five brothers and five sisters.

He earned his bachelor's degree in 1963, from Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., and would later earn his master's there and his doctorate from the University of Minnesota. He started his teaching career in Lake Charles, La., before he was recruited by Mabel Evans Cason, the associate director of personnel for St. Paul Public Schools, who had a sharp eye for talent and was responsible for recruiting many Black educators to work in St. Paul, including Johnson and Gaines. Gaines was hired in 1970 as a science teacher.

Over his decades in public education, Gaines held numerous positions, including assistant commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Education, before he was tapped to be St. Paul's superintendent from 1991 to 1998.

"We want a district where every kid will learn at a high rate," Gaines told the Star Tribune in 1991 when he was about to assume the role. "And every child should have success at an early age. It's up to us and the teachers to find ways to do that."

Gaines would meet monthly with Johnson, who led the St. Paul Alliance of Black School Educators.

"When you have that awareness [like Gaines did], you know where the problems were and how they were generated, and he was one who would come up with solutions and was not afraid to do so," Johnson said.

Current St. Paul Superintendent Joe Gothard said in a statement on Gaines' passing, "Those who knew him say he had a way of helping people feel good about their work and themselves, both students and staff."

When Gaines left the school district, he moved to Atlanta and worked at the private firm Sylvan Learning Systems until he retired and moved back to Alexandria, La.

Gaines also served on the Southern University board of supervisors.

Gaines, admired in professional circles, had a quiet demeanor, often just smiling and listening, Johnson said.

"My dad taught me to respect people no matter their faith, race or socioeconomic background because you never know who you are speaking with," said his daughter Yolanda Gaines Peterson. "Also if people show you who they are, believe them and keep them in front of you not behind you. That way you know where they are."

Gaines is survived by his wife of 58 years, Maxine Berry Gaines of Alexandria, La.; daughter, Yolanda Gaines Peterson of Charlotte, N.C.; sisters Ruth Brown of Shreveport, La., and Joyce Clark of Fort Worth, Texas; brother Donald Gaines Sr. of Alexandria, La., and three grandchildren. Services have been held.

Nicole Norfleet • 612-673-4495