Alan Page stepped up to speak Friday morning the way he has stepped up so often, first on the football field as a Vikings defensive tackle, then in the courtroom as a Minnesota Supreme Court justice.
But this time was different. This time, Page was standing in an auditorium in the middle school that now bears his name, in front of wide-eyed youngsters who were awe-struck to hear from him live and in person.
To thunderous applause at an all-school assembly, Page welcomed students to the new Justice Page Middle School in southwest Minneapolis.
“I must say, I like the way that sounds,” he added, referring to the school’s new name.
It’s rare when students successfully campaign to change their school’s name. Rarer still are times when a newly minted building’s namesake is alive to witness the dedication.
The magnitude of it all seemed to hit Page as he spoke about the importance of perseverance and the power of democracy. Students had pushed to change the name from Ramsey Middle School — named after Alexander Ramsey. Ramsey was the first governor of the Minnesota Territory and the second governor of the state, but he also called for the extermination of the Sioux Indian tribe, now known as the Dakota.
The school board approved the name change in time for the last day of school in June.
After Friday’s ceremony, Page said he was touched that the community thinks he’s worthy of such an honor.
“Words really aren’t adequate to explain how I feel, how honored, how humbled, how …” Page said, pausing as he took in the moment.
The sea of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders at Friday’s assembly sported royal blue “Justice Page” T-shirts. Some had fastened paper bow ties to their shirts in honor of Page’s signature accessory.
“We’re just bringing in what we didn’t have before but what should have been there,” said seventh-grader Lillian Richman, who was involved in the school’s renaming effort last year.
Parents, too, were struck by the significance of the event and the example Page has set for students.
“Why not be a Supreme Court justice? Why not be the president?” said Joe Calvillo, father of a sixth-grader. “He’s the example of when people say you can be anything you want. Why stop at a Hall of Fame athlete?”
Fun and games
The middle school pulled out all the stops for the assembly. The band led a singalong that featured a new school song. Superintendent Ed Graff and Principal Erin Rathke praised Page and his accomplishments, and they patted students on the back for pushing for the name change.
“We heard kids, they were like, ‘I want to go to college now,’ ” Rathke said before the assembly started. “It was the buzz of him.”
The ceremony ended with some fun and games: Students from each grade competed to toss the most stuffed rhinos through yellow-and-blue hula hoops, while Page helped keep score. The eighth-graders won.
Friday marked the end of the first week of the new school year and the second time Page had visited in a week — he was there for the first day of school Monday to greet students.
Page was an NFL MVP and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, then became the first black justice elected to the state Supreme Court, where he served until 2015. He has long supported education through his Page Education Foundation, which he runs with his wife, Diane. The foundation has granted more than $12 million in scholarships to more than 6,000 students in the past 30 years.
“We can follow in his footsteps and be a leader,” said seventh-grader Sophia Dipaola.
A few other schools in Minneapolis have been renamed in recent years, mostly because of program changes.
Before the speeches and applause Friday morning, Page made a wardrobe choice. He was originally suited up in his lavender shirt and Page Foundation purple bow tie, then opted for a blue shirt instead to match the school’s colors. Then he reached for his pink bow tie with white hearts on it.
“I thought, ‘You know, this is going to be a day of warmth and love and good feelings,’ ” he said after the assembly.
“The day lived up to the tie.”