Our Friend Willie
NEA Trailblazer Willie Givens Worked at Central High in Little Rock
Education support professionals (ESP) have lost a leader. The education community has lost a friend. The world has lost a fine human being.
I learned about the death of Willie Givens from an e-mail that was sent across the country on September 5 by Laura Montgomery, president of the National Council for Education Support Professionals (NCESP):
"It is with great sadness that I report to you that Willie Givens, a trailblazer for ESPs, and retired member of Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association passed away today. Willie served as an NEA ESP at large director and on many NEA standing committees."
The e-mail was sent on the NEA ESP ListServ. Soon thereafter, e-mails started coming in from all parts of the U.S. expressing grief, admiration and pride for having known this beloved member of the ESP community.
New Jersey Education Association member Riche Malizia articulated how many of us felt about Willie: "He spoke softly and said what he felt and knew was right. He worked in an historic building and made that place shine and sparkle.
I passed through Little Rock High School once during the Southern Regional Conference. I felt proud of my ESP family, especially Willie for making that building shine to honor its importance. [He did not] take or look for credit. Thank you, Willie Givens. You are missed, my friend."
I have met some fascinating individuals through almost 30 years of involvement with NEA. With Willie, I struck gold. In 2007, I attended the NEA ESP Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. My roommate was Willie Givens.
I found him to be one of the nicest gentlemen I had ever met. He told me he was the head custodian since 1974 at the historic Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas.
After talking with people at the conference, I felt like I was the only person in attendance who hadn't met him. When I told ESPQ Organizational Specialist Rafael Rivera that I was rooming with Willie, he said: "When Willie speaks, people listen."
I soon learned that Willie was one of the founding fathers of NEA ESPs. After years of helping to organize ESPs at the local, state and national levels, people respectfully referred to him as a trailblazer.
I cherished my personal time with Willie in Nashville, but he was so modest that it was hard for me to find out what he actually had accomplished. Little by little I learned about his childhood while in segregated Little Rock during the 1940s and 50s.
Willie was enrolled at an all-Black high school in North Little Rock (1954-1958) when the federal government sent in troops to protect nine Black children trying to gain admittance to Central High School. It was an historic moment for Arkansas and the nation. Here's what Willie told a reporter from NEA Today (May, 2004 issue):
"I was going to S.A. Jones High School, an all-Black school in North Little Rock, when all the trouble happened at Central High. Some kids were saying, 'I wish I had been picked to go to Central.' Some others said, 'I'm glad it wasn't me because I couldn't have taken all that abuse'' Then in 1974, I went to work at Central High as head custodian. I felt good to be working at a historic school.
By the time I got there, people got along. They did things together-basketball team, drama club, band. You still have some people who are just raised to dislike, but there are plenty of other students who are not going to let anything happen.
The race ratio is about 60 to 40 Black-Whites and it's not changing much.' My three children all graduated from Central. One of my grandsons is on the Central basketball team and plays in the band, and he's going to graduate this year"
Lived a Full Life
Willie did a lot for NEA members and the education community, but didn't dwell on it. He was a former vice president of the Little Rock Classroom Teachers Association, chairman of the negotiation team for ESPs, and co-chair of the budget committee.
For 10 years he served as state president of ESPs, Arkansas Education Association (AEA), and was a delegate to the NEA Representative Assembly for 20 years. He belonged to the NEA Black Caucus, and was the first Black male to be elected to the NEA Board of Directors as an ESP.
I was surprised to learn that he played tennis, and played it well. Willie was inducted into the local A. B. Calvin Athletic Hall of Fame for being All District in tennis. As a member of the first tennis team at Jones High School, he won a state championship in the doubles competition. He also played on the school's JV basketball team.
As an adult, Willie was active with the Second Baptist Church and president of the Little Rock Spiritual Gospel Group. He was married to his wife, Ethel, for 45 years. They had three children, seven grandchildren, and eight great grandchildren.
ESP pioneer, loving father and husband, loyal friend and esteemed colleague -- whatever you want call the man from Little Rock, Willie was one of the granite figures of NEA. His influence will be timeless and his presence will be missed.
(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is a custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at email@example.com).
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.
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