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Mississippi Delta has many stories to tell

By BETH J. HARPAZThe Associated Press

CLARKSDALE, Miss. The Mississippi Delta has no shortage of museums, historic attractions and clubs devoted to the blues. But visitors will find the region has many other stories to tell, from the cotton plantations where African-American families worked and lived in desperate poverty to culinary traditions that reflect a surprising ethnic diversity. THE BLUES TRAIL AND MUSEUMS

You can’t miss the big blue guitars marking the famous crossroads of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale. This is where, according to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to learn how to play the blues. Roadside signs for the Mississippi Blues Trail make it easy to find other sites as well, from Clarksdale’s Riverside Hotel, where Bessie Smith died, to the Dockery Farms cotton plantation in Cleveland, where many pioneering bluesmen lived, worked and made music, among them Charley Patton, Roebuck “Pops” Staples and Howlin’ Wolf.

A sign in a field at Clarksdale’s Stovall Plantation notes that Muddy Waters’ songs were recorded here in 1941 by musicologist Alan Lomax as he collected folk music for the Library of Congress. The sharecropper’s shack that Waters lived in has been restored and relocated to the nearby Delta Blues Museum . In Indianola, the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center pays tribute to King’s life and legacy. He’s buried there as well. These museums and others use photos, artifacts, videos and other exhibits to explore the blues’ roots, beginning with African musical traditions brought to the South by slaves. Because Delta cotton plantations were relatively isolated, musical styles developed here uninfluenced by trends elsewhere. But eventually many African-Americans who barely eked out a living working for white landowners in the decades after the Civil War migrated away from the South, seeking economic opportunity elsewhere along with an escape from segregation and racial terror. Muddy Waters left the Delta for Chicago in 1943. B.B. King left Mississippi for Memphis, where he got his big break at radio station WDIA. These and other bluesmen were worshipped by 1960s music giants like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones. “Muddy Waters’ music changed my life,” said Eric Clapton. As the title of one of Waters’ songs puts it, “The Blues Had A Baby And They Named It Rock And Roll.”

CAT HEAD, CLUBS AND FESTIVALS

Stop in Cat Head, a Mississippi blues music and gift store in Clarksdale, for a chat with owner Roger Stolle, a blues fan who moved there to “help pull the blues scene together in a way that would get people to come.” Local clubs stagger their schedules so you can hear live music every night. Stolle keeps a list online of who’s playing where .

Clarksdale’s best-known club is Ground Zero, co-owned by actor Morgan Freeman and Clarksdale Mayor Bill Luckett, but blues fans may be disappointed by party-vibe bands playing songs here like “Sweet Home Alabama.” A more interesting venue is Red’s. Don’t be fooled by its rundown appearance and tiny, informal living room-style interior. Red’s showcases under-the-radar, brilliantly talented musicians like Lucious Spiller whose performances will make you realize why the blues still matter. Delta festivals include the Sunflower River Blues & Gospel Festival, Aug. 11-13, and the Oct. 12-15 Deep Blues Fest. Next year’s Juke Joint Festival will be April 12-15, 2018. FOOD, LODGING AND CURTAINED BOOTHS

Mississippi cuisine isn’t just catfish and barbecue. Doe’s, in Greenville, where a security guard watches over your car as you dine and walks you to the parking area when you leave, is known for steaks the size of your head and has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation. Chamoun’s Rest Haven in Clarksdale, founded by a Lebanese family in the 1940s, serves some of the best kibbe you’ll find outside the Middle East. At Larry’s Hot Tamales, ask owner Larry Lee to share stories of how Mexican tamales became a scrumptious Mississippi staple. For upscale bistro fare like ceviche and roasted vegetables, try Yazoo Pass in Clarksdale.

To learn more about culinary traditions in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South, visit the Southern Foodways Alliance website. Delta accommodations range from motels to the Alluvian, a luxury boutique hotel in Greenwood. The city, once a major shipping point for Delta cotton, is also where the movie “The Help” was filmed. Today Greenwood is headquarters for Viking Range, the kitchen appliance manufacturer, and a Viking cooking school (classes fill up fast so book ahead). Other Greenwood spots include the excellent Turnrow bookstore and the tasting room for the Winery at Williams Landing, which specializes in wines made from Mississippi-grown muscadine grapes. Pick up a bottle for dinner at Lusco’s, a BYOB restaurant famous for whole grilled pompano fish and for curtained booths that offered cotton traders privacy for business deals, romantic liaisons and alcohol consumption. A unique lodging option in the Delta is spending the night in a preserved sharecropper’s shack at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale or at Tallahatchie Flats in Greenwood. Some travelers may find the concept offensive as a sugarcoating of the misery experienced by those who had no choice but to live this way. But for others, a night spent in a rustic cabin that rattles with the howling wind or shakes to its foundations in a thunderstorm may evoke the very vulnerability that makes the blues so haunting.

The Beatles, Rolling Stones and Elvis: For Alabama radio pioneer Dan Brennan, life was a Shower of Stars

“Ladies and gentlemen … the Beatles.”

How many people have been able to say this at a concert, facing a roaring crowd? In Birmingham, we know of only one man who’s had the honor: Dan Brennan, a former radio host, station manager, concert promoter and prime mover at WVOK-AM[1]. Brennan, now 86, introduced the Beatles at the Gator Bowl[2] in Jacksonville, Fla., when the Fab Four played there on Sept. 11, 1964. The 8:30 p.m. show — which happened in the windy aftermath of Hurricane Dora[3] — came courtesy of WAPE-AM, a radio station owned by the Brennan family.

To be honest, Brennan doesn’t precisely recall what he said to the audience that evening, just before the mop-topped John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr took the stage. But he’s sure the introduction was brief, wasting no time as Beatlemania raged.

“I didn’t stay up there too long,” Brennan says, laughing. “It was quite a thing.”

But the moment was indelible for one of his daughters, Debbie Brennan Bartoletti. She remembers her father’s words with startling clarity, along with the thrill she experienced while sitting in the front row.

“The level of excitement was unbelievable,” Bartoletti says. “There was a police line for the Beatles to run through, and the stage was built up so people couldn’t get to them.”

Despite her young age — she was 7 that year — Bartoletti felt another emotion at the Gator Bowl: extreme pride. Her very own father was on stage, standing close to four of the most famous musicians in the world. Thousands of Beatles fans were ready to twist and shout in the Southeast, and the Brennan clan had made it happen.

“People were going crazy, and you couldn’t hear anything because the girls were screaming so loud,” Bartoletti says. “It didn’t matter. It was just the coolest thing.”

The Beatles were paid a fee of $50,000 — a hefty sum in those days, Brennan says — and in the thick of the civil rights movement, the band’s contract specified that they wouldn’t perform for a segregated audience. Brennan also remembers that Starr requested reinforcements to the stage area near his drum kit, because strong gusts lingered after the hurricane.

“Ringo had a riser above the stage, and of course this is all outdoors, and the winds were blowing up to 70 miles an hour,” Brennan says. “Ringo said, ‘I’m not getting up there unless you build me a bannister around this thing.’ So we had to delay the start of the show about 15 minutes or so while the carpenters came out and put these rails together. I think we had at least 15,000-16,000 people there.”

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Looking back on it, Brennan realizes that bringing the Beatles to the Gator Bowl was a milestone event — one firmly enshrined in Beatles lore and noted by Ron Howard in his 2016 documentary, “Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.”[4] (The Beatles’ popularity in the U.S. exploded in 1964, and that year’s tour was a watershed moment for the band.)

At the time, though, Brennan was simply doing his job, helping the family’s radio stations[5] to connect with listeners in a vivid, concrete way. Yes, the Beatles’ performance was “a really big show,” as Ed Sullivan would have said. But it was one of many concerts organized by the Brennans, as they sought to cement listeners’ loyalty to WVOK in Birmingham, WBAM-AM in Montgomery and WAPE in Jacksonville.

“We started in 1947, and if you think about it, you didn’t have very much television in those days,” Brennan says in a recent interview. “And that made a big difference, because people didn’t have the opportunity to turn on the TV set and see these artists, after they’d been buying their records. So it was a deliberate attempt to identify with people, and to recognize that they were requesting these songs. That’s how we put together our shows. We would always find the artists who were very popular with our audience, and we would try to get them, and we usually were successful.”

The resulting concerts — which evolved into a series called the WVOK Shower of Stars in Birmingham, the Big BAM shows in Montgomery and the Big APE Convention in Jacksonville — became enormously popular with radio listeners. In fact, it’s safe to say that music shows produced by the Brennans, focusing on rock ‘n’ roll, Top 40 pop and country, defined the concert experience for an entire generation of fans in those cities. The Rolling Stones. The Who. Elvis Presley. Roy Orbison. The Beach Boys. Johnny Cash. The Byrds. The Animals. The Hollies. Carl Perkins. The Four Seasons. The Righteous Brothers. Jerry Lee Lewis. The Lovin’ Spoonful. Tommy James & the Shondells. Rare Earth. The Grass Roots. Canned Heat. Iron Butterfly. Neil Diamond. The Troggs. Patsy Cline. The Carpenters. The Buckinghams. Herman’s Hermits. Paul Revere & the Raiders. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Gary Puckett & the Union Gap. Bobby Darin. The Young Rascals. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The Louvin Brothers.

These are just a few of the acts presented by the Brennans during the 1950s, ’60s and early ’70s. In most cases, the concerts were multi-act affairs, featuring the hottest names the radio stations could secure. Tickets were priced at $1.50-$5.50 per show, Brennan says, and artists’ fees usually ran about $300-$7,500 per act. If possible, the Brennans liked to present the same lineup of artists in all three cities over a single weekend, offering three shows in Birmingham for the Shower of Stars, one in Montgomery for the Big BAM and one in Jacksonville for the Big APE. Some of the concerts took place in a single location — most often, Jacksonville. But in the stations’ 1960s heyday, shows usually kicked off on Fridays in Montgomery at Garrett Coliseum and moved to Birmingham on Saturdays at Municipal Auditorium (now called Boutwell Auditorium). Music lovers would line up at each venue, some arriving hours in advance, then rush inside to secure their favorite general-admission seats.

“Me and my girlfriends would get up at — holy moly, 6 a.m. — and get there long before the show ever started,” said Connie Peek, a former Shower of Stars regular, during a 2003 interview with The Birmingham News. “We’d camp out at the door, on the steps and wait. We’d get hamburgers and bring them back, with someone always holding our place. We’d be there from the crack of dawn until midnight.”

A devoted fan looks back at the Shower of Stars concerts in Birmingham[6]

Brennan, headquartered in Birmingham, rode herd over the Shower of Stars and was the primary talent buyer for the concerts, along with his other duties at WVOK. (The station’s nickname, “the Mighty 690,” referred to its spot on the AM dial.)

Dan’s brother, Cyril Brennan, who lived in Montgomery, held several titles during his tenure at WBAM: chief engineer, station manager and program director among them. He also helped to choose and line up some of the concert talent. Another brother, Bill Brennan, was the undisputed chief of the Jacksonville station, and had houses in Montgomery and Jacksonville. According to Dan, the only surviving brother, it was Bill’s decision to offer $50,000 to the Beatles for their appearance at the Gator Bowl. The band’s management initially asked for 85 percent of the ticket proceeds or $25,000, whichever was greater, Brennan says.

“My brother, he was always a little bit of a gambler,” Brennan says. “Bill said, ‘Well, if anybody makes any money out of it, it’s going to be me.’ And so he gave them — the only show in the whole country that did this — we gave them a flat $50,000, which was pretty good in those days. That was a lot of money. And they accepted it, but we did get the total amount of the gate that came in. And if we hadn’t had (Hurricane Dora), we would have made a lot of money.”

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All three Brennan brothers were ambitious businessmen who worked as a team. But speaking in general terms, each also had a specialty: Bill the visionary entrepreneur, Cyril the tech-minded pioneer, Dan the key concert producer and a smooth, recognizable voice at WVOK. (His moniker on the air: Dan the Music Man.)

“I remember we used to have people come out to our station on the Bessemer Superhighway,” Brennan says, “and they would tell us that our transmitter — we had a 50-kilowatt transmitter, and it was pretty close to their homes — and they said, ‘Well, I’m picking you up on my coffeepot.'”

Via a longstanding partnership with the Benns family, the Brennans also extended their reach to Chattanooga, the home of WFLI-AM. That radio station had its concerts, too, dubbed Jet-Fli Spectaculars, at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Auditorium. But in the minds of Alabama listeners, WVOK and WBAM ruled supreme, and the stations were closely linked by their concert series. Four dates per year were standard — in winter, spring, summer and fall — and total attendance topped out at 15,000 people for each three-show stint in Birmingham. Garrett Coliseum, in contrast, could hold 10,000+ for a single performance in Montgomery.

“We never had a flop,” Brennan says, “but we had some shows that were a little bit bigger than others. We occasionally wouldn’t fill all three seatings in Birmingham, but I don’t think we ever had one that was less than about 70 percent full, with all three together. … I don’t know, I guess people got to trust us. They would buy so many tickets in advance, we didn’t have to worry about whether they were going to come or not.”

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Brennan and his wife, Clara, who handled ticketing, estimate that one-third of the tickets for any Shower of Stars date were purchased on faith, before the lineup was ever announced. Fans would mail their orders to the station, requesting a specific showtime, and the envelopes often included suggestions for artists they’d like to see.

“We had a room set up at our house that had little cubbyholes, like a post office has, and Clara would be back there, stuffing these envelopes, and getting the tickets,” Brennan says. “(Listeners) would tell us what they liked and didn’t like. I remember some of them telling us they came to every show that whole year.”

One of the most powerful Shower of Stars events happened on May 7, 1965, when WVOK brought the Rolling Stones and the Beach Boys to Legion Field. The 7 p.m. show — billed as a music battle between the England and the United States — also included the Righteous Brothers, Marty Robbins, Sonny James, Skeeter Davis, Del Reeves, Archie “Rindercella” Campbell and Cannibal and the Headhunters. The Beach Boys were fresh-faced headliners that night, riding high on the success of hits such as “I Get Around,” “Surfer Girl,” “Surfin’ U.S.A,” “Help Me, Rhonda” and “California Girls.” The Rolling Stones were closing the gap quickly, though, with a tougher, bluesier songbook that included “The Last Time,” “Play With Fire” and “Time Is On My Side.” At this point, Mick Jagger and his pals were poised to release “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” their first international smash. Competition was evident between the two bands, Brennan says, as the Beach Boys returned for their splashiest date at the Shower of Stars, and the Stones made their Birmingham debut on their first U.S. tour.

“One of the the things we had to do, in order to provide bathroom facilities for all of the artists, we had a bunch of RVs, recreation vehicles, and they were all over the field out there,” Brennan says. “I remember the Rolling Stones came up to me, and they said, ‘You don’t really expect us to get into the same RV that the Beach Boys are in, do you?’ I said, ‘Well, you’ve got a choice here. You can either do that, or you will not have a place to change. If you have one, it’s going to be way down the other part of the field.’ They agreed to do it, but they were on one end of it, and the Beach Boys were on the other end of it. There was a little jealousy there.”

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Shower of Stars audiences were accustomed to seeing a mix of rock, pop and country acts on stage, and the lineup for every show had a pecking order. But with two hotshot rock bands on the bill at Legion Field, the twangier acts faced a tougher crowd and some of the musicians felt like underdogs.

“Marty Robbins came up to me, and he looked so sad,” Brennan recalls. “He said, ‘Dan, I like to play for you here in town, but I don’t want you to ever book me on a show like this again. They didn’t come to hear me; they came to hear the Rolling Stones.'”

WVOK used Legion Field as a test case that spring, Brennan says, to see if the Shower of Stars could work at Birmingham’s largest venue. (In 1965, Legion Field could seat more than 68,000 people.) As Brennan recalls it, the Beach Boys were paid $7,500 for their performance, and the Rolling Stones received $5,000. Fees for the other acts were in the $300-$400 range, he says. Tickets cost $3 apiece. The football stadium posed a few extra challenges, Brennan says, from seating assignments to sound quality to weather preparation. By today’s standards, his solution to the latter problem seems charmingly old-school.

“We had to import parkas, raincoats from Taiwan, so that was our rain insurance,” Brennan says, laughing. “We gave everybody who came a free rain parka. We had enough left over that, for a lot of our promotions after that, people would get free raincoats.”

Brennan estimates that 16,000-17,000 people came to Legion Field for the show, fulfilling the radio station’s mission but falling short of blockbuster status. The concert later gained a secure foothold in Alabama music history — fans here still ooh and aah about it — but it wasn’t a money-making proposition.

“It cost enough that we were lucky to come out with just enough and break even with it,” Brennan says. “It was a promotional thing for us. We didn’t make any money.”

WVOK would produce another show at Legion Field before the station left the concert business — the Osmonds and Springfield Revival appeared there on Aug. 15, 1973 — but for the most part, Municipal Auditorium remained home base for the Shower of Stars.

Dan Brennan, center, backstage at the Shower of Stars with with Paul Revere & the Raiders. Hal Hodgens of WVOK is second from left. (Photo courtesy of the Brennan family)

The Brennan kids were popular during the concert years, as you might expect, and Bartoletti says she, her four siblings and her cousins were fixtures at the WVOK shows, seated in the front row. They had easy backstage access, as well, and would confidently sashay throughout the venue.

“There was a little office backstage, and I remember seeing my father and uncles back there with a security guard,” Bartoletti says. “They would be paying the acts, literally, in cash. Cyril’s wife Louise would make us outfits for the Shower of Stars, and we’d have on these big bell bottoms. We were very obnoxious to the security guard, who was the nicest guy, and of course, we would go in and outside all the time.

“We all felt very privileged,” Bartoletti says. “To go to the concerts was huge. It was everything. And not just the concerts, but the whole experience building up to it. It was the most important thing in our lives. Rock ‘n’ roll had just started, and you were right in the middle of it.”

Brennan’s memories of the shows are less starry-eyed and more businesslike, as befits the man who booked the acts, paid the bills and tallied the proceeds. He never asked for autographs. He didn’t insist on photos. He never collected concert posters, handbills or other pieces of memorabilia. But Brennan does have many stories to share — about preventing a fistfight between two stars who wanted the closing spot in Birmingham, or example, or puzzling over two entertainers who showed up in Montgomery, both claiming to be country singer Bobby Edwards.

“There was a little one, and a big one, and we didn’t know which was which,” Brennan says. “Cyril’s idea was, ‘Tell them to sing, just a little bit, and make sure that we get the right one.’ So they both sang a few bars of the song, ‘You’re the Reason I’m Living,” and we still couldn’t decide which one was the real one. I said, ‘Cyril, what do you think we ought to do?’ He said, ‘We’re going to put both of them on.’ So I went out and introduced Bobby Edwards, and he sang songs, and I came back about half an hour later, and I said, ‘Now, here’s Bobby Edwards!’ And didn’t ever explain to the people what had happened. I’m sure they were totally confused.”

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One of Brennan’s favorite anecdotes concerns a young Elvis Presley, making waves and jostling for position before a concert on Dec. 3, 1955, at Garrett Coliseum. Roy Acuff and his Smoky Mountain Boys were the headliners that evening, and the bill included Kitty Wells, Johnnie and Jack, Fred Wamble, Jack Turner and Buddy Hawk.

“Elvis was an opening act,” Brennan says. “That was before he became very big. He showed up about five minutes before his show was to go on. His clothes were all rumpled, and he said, ‘Dan, I need to go on later in the show. I’ve got to change clothes and everything.’ I said, ‘Well, this is Roy’s show. If it’s all right with him, it’s all right with me. We’ll have to ask him.’

“We went over there and asked Roy, and he said, ‘No, we’re not going to do that. He pulls this at every one of our shows. He wants to go on late in the show.’ I said, ‘Elvis, I’m sorry, but we can’t accommodate you, because it is his show.’ Things changed a little bit after that. I think he could call his own shots.”

Brennan had many encounters with celebrities over his three decades as a concert promoter, but says he never felt famous — not even when he was widely regarded as a household name in Birmingham radio. By nature, talent and inclination, Brennan was entirely suited to the family business; thousands of fans knew his voice and remembered his name. This might have swelled a lesser man’s head, but for Brennan, it was all about connecting with the listeners.

“I felt that I was lucky to be able to have the kind of job I had,” Brennan says. “It was rewarding, because people seemed to respond to some of the things I was doing. I was very happy with doing the work I did. It was important to us.”

Brennan bid farewell to concert promotion in 1973 — a necessary business decision, he says — and for Birmingham music lovers, it was the end of an era. The Brennan family sold its stake in AM radio a few years later, and he moved on to WRKK-FM, an album-rock station known as K-99. Brennan left the radio business for good in 1982.

Dan Brennan, center, with the Grass Roots. The rock band played several times at the Shower of Stars and appeared at one of the last few shows in the concert series, in July 1972. (Photo courtesy of the Brennan family)

Although he admits to an occasional pang of longing, looking back on his previous career, Brennan is far from retired. He founded his own company, Brennan Video Productions, in 1982 and he continues to work there, transferring VHS tapes, old films and other retro footage to DVDs.

“We’re big on memories,” Brennan says. “I always had an idea about saving memories for people, and using the media that was becoming available, and that’s what led me into this.”

Still, for radio listeners who tuned into WVOK back in the day, Brennan will always be Dan the Music Man. And the Shower of Stars concerts still linger in local memory.

“Times have changed so,” said a wistful Peek, the Shower of Stars devotee. “In those days, you could go to a concert and there was only one back door. The bands would come in cars — just plain old cars — and they’d get their guitars out and walk past you. It’s not like now, where they have secret tunnels and drive right into the auditorium.”

Brennan, who understands the pull of nostalgia, says he’s heard similar sentiments from many Birmingham folks who came of age at the Shower of Stars. His concert series rocked their worlds and shaped their music tastes, in tandem with WVOK. In Brennan’s view, that’s a satisfying legacy.

“I don’t have any regrets,” he says. “What’s that Frank Sinatra song? ‘I did it my way.'”

References

  1. ^ WVOK-AM (wvok-memories.tripod.com)
  2. ^ Beatles at the Gator Bowl (jacksonville.com)
  3. ^ Hurricane Dora (www.jaxhistory.org)
  4. ^ “Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years.” (thebeatleseightdaysaweek.com)
  5. ^ the family’s radio stations (brennanbenns.wordpress.com)
  6. ^ A devoted fan looks back at the Shower of Stars concerts in Birmingham (www.al.com)

Tested by circumstance, one school superintendent candidate stood …

The chairRoy S. Johnson

Maybe it wasn’t fair. Four seemingly decent people showed up in Birmingham this week to sit before the Birmingham City Schools board and state their case for becoming the next school superintendent. They came to answer questions, to showcase their passion for education, their leadership qualities and their vision for reviving a beleaguered school system.

They came to pitch themselves for a gig some find loathsome and fruitless, but others deem to be a beacon of opportunity in a rising city in dire need of higher quality public schools. They knew they’d be tested, and not just by the phalanx of school board members sitting on nine very hot seats. But also by the rabble of passionate “stakeholders,” as they’re respectfully called, who, frankly and clearly did not want them here. Because they’re not from here.

Still, Dr. Garrett L. Brundage, Dr. Ronnie A. Dotson, Dr. Lisa N. Herring and Dr.

Dr. BrundageRoy S. Johnson

Regina D. Thompson all showed up in Birmingham. Showed up to be grilled and scrutinized. Show up to be tested.

But not like this.

The bomb threat

At 11:10 a.m. on Tuesday, Herring, chief academic officer for Jefferson County Public Schools in Louisville Ky., was still settling into the leather seat poised before the board inside BCS headquarters downtown.

Dr. HerringRoy S. Johnson

She spoke confidently and emphatically, saying she wanted to make the BCS the “best school district in the nation” before answering the first few inquiries from a list of 14 questions the board had prepared–questions about on strategic planning, management style, budget experience and, perhaps most important, managing relationships with the board, teachers, parents, elected officials, business leaders and all others who claim a stake in our schools. Just a couple of hours before, Brundage, an assistant superintendent at the Rockdale County Public Schools just outside Atlanta, was in the same chair, spouting, somewhat nervously at first, his own thoughts. A few hours later, Dr. Thompson sat there, too, speaking confidently and comfortably, using the same language as the others, the language of educators, peppered with words like curriculum, collaboration, conflict, and community.
And data, lots of data.

But at 11:10, a security guard quietly ambled into the board room and told everyone we had to go. Some knucklehead had called with a threat to bomb the building.

From bad to criminal

This hiring process had already dissolved into can’t-make-this-up as board members publicly feuded, the interim superintendent went to court, and community leaders, district employees, parents and, of course, spotlight seekers running for school board seats this August, all railed that none of the original five finalists put forth by the Alabama Association of School Boards last week as best qualified among the 38 people who completed the application process was from the BCS or the state of Alabama. But in that instant, at 11:10 a.m. can’t-make-this-up became criminal, pathetic and shameful.

And all too real for a city with a legacy of violent bombing tragedies. In that instant, four seemingly decent people suddenly knew what they were getting into. One of them, Dr. Dotson, decided it was all too much and, with sincere regret, pulled himself from the process before he was scheduled to take the seat[1], citing the potential danger to his family and, sadly, a belief that as a white man, he would “never be accepted” as Birmingham’s school superintendent.

And he was probably right. In about an hour- after the dogs sniffed, and police gave us the all-clear to return to the building–Herring sat in the chair again. Understandably, she was a little rattled at the start, as was just about anyone who came back into the board room.

Showing resolve

But she regained her footing and spoke thoroughly and thoughtfully on the touchstone subjects: student achievement and learning (“students are more than just a test that defines achievement; learning is lifelong”); resolving conflict (especially with board members: “I wouldn’t be here if I thought I could not deal with that.”); leadership (“Great leaders want to be coached and be even better.”); and the state of a system with a few schools deemed failing by the state (Herring refused to utter the term, calling them “at promise” instead) and where one in three third-graders are not reading at grade level. (“I see great opportunity in the BCS, but I am concerned about our numbers.”).

Dr. ThompsonRoy S. Johnson

But then, in responding to a question about the depth of her commitment to being Birmingham’s superintendent, she also displayed kind of resolve and resiliency that, fair or not, set her apart.

“Well, we’re here,” she said. “We didn’t break for lunch because we were hungry.”

It was a deft acknowledgment of the bomb threat that lifted the uneasy, heavy air in the room and drew a relieving laugh from board members.

“I hoped you’d laugh,” she said, then added: “I had the full intention of returning to this seat and fulfilling this process.”

Herring then closed her education playbook and began sharing her personal journey.

“I try to deal with challenging situations with grace and courage,” she said. “I thank my parents for that.

“I’ve experienced issues of race that touched me personally. But I had to move beyond the issue and seek first to understand. That was not easy. I think that is what you’re going to need in superintendent, someone meets challenges and seeks to understand. That doesn’t mean I don’t go home and collapse, but I do get back up again.”

Near the end of her presentation several board members lauded her display of fortitude and afterward, she embraced each of them with a comforting hug. I am not an expert on education, so I do not proport to be.

Yet after listening to Brundage, Herring, and Thompson yesterday, I believe the BOE will place the city’s schools in capable hands–hands that not only understand the intricacies of education, of managing a large, urban school system, and of navigating the every-day treacherous nature of working with a school board with a reputation for overmanaging the leaders they hire, principals that demand autonomy, teachers sometimes entrenched in their ways, students whose skills and dreams run the gamut, and a volatile, fractious “community” that includes some (or, at least one) willing to stoop to the depths of criminality. But hands that also understand the magnitude of the task ahead. Each of the three finalists who took that seat before the board on Tuesday showed they are qualified for the task – however you want to measure it.

Most important they all proved they want to be here, where some want them here or not.

Chatter on charter schools

Each of them talked data, collaboration, evaluating teacher and principals, managing budgets and resolving conflicts. They even weathered the third-rail question of the day, from board member Sherman Collins regarding charter schools, the hottest of hot buttons among parents, teachers, administrators–oh, just about everyone–affiliated with the school system. Brundage said charter schools allow flexibility in hiring someone who is an expert in their field but not an educator to be hired for their specific expertise in their field. Herring said, “If they’re legal, they’re inevitable…We have to be ready to compete [with them].”

Thompson, whose interview lasted less than an hour, the shortest of the three, said: “They have their place, and [as superintendent] I am the person who is the gatekeeper to keep them in their place.”

On Friday, the BOE will meet to vote to narrow the field to two–most likely, Dr. Lisa Herring, plus one.

Fair or not.

Watch Dr. Lisa Herring talk about how the bomb threat affected her:

References

  1. ^ decided it was all too much and, with sincere regret, pulled himself from the process before he was scheduled to take the seat (www.al.com)
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