Donald E. Graham, chairman of Graham Holdings Company, was publisher of The Washington Post from 1979 to 2001.
A hero of mine — and of many, many other Washingtonians — died Tuesday.
In the late 20th century, Washington had two great school superintendents, Vincent Reed and his dear friend and successor, Floretta McKenzie. Let me tell you about Vince.
The 14th of 17 children in a family in St. Louis, Vince was captain of the football team at West Virginia State University before coming to Washington as a graphic arts teacher. He was smart, hardworking and a born leader; he worked his way up through the system and became the first African American principal of Woodrow Wilson High School. Before long, he was the assistant superintendent of schools.
In the 1970s, as more than one superintendent came to town and quickly left, it looked to me as though members of the elected school board did not want to promote Vince Reed. Perhaps they sensed that he was tougher than they were. At last, after the particularly embarrassing firing of his predecessor, he became superintendent of D.C. Public Schools.
Addressing everyone who worked in the school system, Vince made clear that he would pursue simple goals: Every school would focus on teaching reading, writing and math above all else. The system was willing to be judged by its test scores — controversial at the time.
The public face of the school system was chaos. Books and supplies were not being delivered to classrooms on time; teachers went unpaid. Vince told me that one of his predecessors had hired teachers without giving them a test of any kind, more or less on a first-come, first-served basis. Vince quickly addressed the chaos and somehow eliminated it. Quickly, the administrative problems were ironed out. Complaints about late pay fell to almost none.
And then, miracle of miracles, citywide test scores started to rise, three years in row.
It seemed too much for the elected D.C. school board, then in one of its craziest periods. (Its president, who had been accused by a colleague of choking him during a school board meeting, was later sent to prison for defrauding a 92-year-old woman of her life savings. He wasn’t the worst.)
I once asked Vince why urban superintendents everywhere seemed to rotate so quickly in and out of their positions. He told me that in his first week on the job, a school board member came to him and noted that an assistant principal at his ward’s high school had resigned; the board member wanted the job for his brother-in-law or campaign manager. Both knew that if Vince said no, there’d be one vote against renewing his contract.
Vince said no.
It became pretty clear that the board — with the exception of Vince’s perennial champion, Carol Schwartz — was trying to get him to resign by turning down his favorite projects. And there’s no question what his favorite was. Vince wanted to create a college-prep public high school in the District: Benjamin Banneker Academic High School. The school board repeatedly turned him down.
After a final refusal, Vince resigned. What ensued was the closest thing to a spontaneous political uprising I have ever seen in Washington. Ordinary people called, wrote and picketed the school board, demanding that it approve the school and rehire Vince.
Then, reluctantly, the board approved Banneker. Vince went on to become the assistant U.S. education secretary and then, thank goodness, joined The Post for 15 wonderful years, during which he started the Agnes Meyer Awards for outstanding teaching in the D.C., Maryland and Virginia schools; an award honoring principals and a principals’ training institute we named for him.
But Vince’s monument is Banneker. Every year since its creation, the school graduates about 100 motivated and well-prepared students, almost every one of whom enrolls in college the following fall.
But that isn’t Vince’s only monument.
He leaves behind the memories of thousands of former students, such as Helaine Cohen of Silver Spring, who wrote to The Post when Vince retired from the paper:
“ Mr. Reed stopped me in the hall during my junior year and asked about my plans for college. I told him that I was going to take a year or so off. He would not allow me to make that decision without a fight. He made suggestions about colleges, he constantly stopped me to follow up on my intentions, he contacted my family and wrote an unsolicited letter of recommendation to be enclosed with my college applications.
“But his persistence paid off. I applied to several colleges, enclosing the letter from the principal who cared enough to take action, who inspired me and believed in me. When I graduated with honors, I knew whom to thank.”
Thank you, Vince. From all of us.