UMES is 'the Moses of our time'

September 21, 1996|By Gregory Kane

PRINCESS ANNE -- They jammed every seat in the Ella Fitzgerald Center for the Performing Arts at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore: the 1,100 freshmen, the largest class in the school's history, the sophomores, juniors, seniors and grad students.

The faculty was there too, along with assorted administrators, alumni, guests, a superb singing group of university secretaries called Voices of UMES Women and even us slimy media types. The occasion was ostensibly a convocation commemorating the 110th anniversary of the school's founding. But there was another purpose: The entire UMES community was saying goodbye to one president and hello to another.

They were seated together on the stage. Dr. William Percy Hytche, in his cap and gown of maroon and gray, has finally called it quits after 36 years at the school that started out as the Delaware Conference Academy on Sept. 19, 1886, and later would become the Princess Anne Academy, Maryland State College and eventually UMES. He took the podium, to the cheers of the audience, to praise his staff and students.

"[We have] the finest staff you will find anywhere in this country," Hytche said proudly. He then went on to praise each class, and had the most inspiring message for the seniors.

"You're the top of the line. You're getting ready to go out there. ... Wear the UMES badge with dignity and pride." Hytche said a few more words before concluding with his most poignant line.

"I leave after 36 years a very happy and grateful man."

Dr. Dolores Spikes, president of Southern University and A & M College System based in Baton Rouge -- the country's largest HBCU (historically black college or university) -- will take over as UMES president in January. Like Hytche, she has undergraduate and graduate degrees in mathematics. They both taught in public schools before moving on to college, and both served on the President's Advisory Board on Historically Black Colleges and Universities. With such a solid academic background in a field as stodgy as mathematics, you'd think Spikes wouldn't be much of a speaker. You'd better think again.

"It's all right to have a little church this morning," Spikes said in a strong, resonant voice -- with just a touch of Martin Luther King Jr. in it -- that filled the auditorium. She was referring to the Voices of UMES Women's rendition of "Order My Steps" that moments earlier had brought the crowd to its feet. Spikes then praised UMES as a school that provided "second chances and a nurturing environment to thousands of students. ... Historically black colleges like UMES have been called the Moses of our time, leading thousands to higher education and a better life."

Of her immediate predecessor, Spikes said: "[We] have been good colleagues and friends through the years. ... The tremendous work and legacy of William P. Hytche will not be diminished."

At a post-convocation luncheon, Hytche gave me some idea of exactly what that legacy was.

"Prior to the 1979-80 school year, [UMES] had not had a new program in 33 years." So Hytche got to work adding them -- an environmental science major here, a hotel/restaurant management major there, a construction management program -- until the school had 24 new programs. Some of those majors are only available at UMES, Hytche added.

Today, 93 percent of the UMES faculty has an advanced degree. When he became president, "you couldn't walk from one end of the campus to the other without getting your shoes muddy," Hytche recalled. New pavement and lighting have taken care of that problem. Another problem he encountered in 1975, when he became acting president, was the school's total lack of involvement with the Princess Anne community.

Hytche wrote a letter to 28 Princess Anne residents asking them to be on an advisory board for the school. To his surprise and delight, all accepted. The result, Hytche claims, has been wider acceptance of UMES in Princess Anne.

"I was in a restaurant when I overheard a woman talking," Hytche said. "She didn't know who I was, but I heard her say to some people, 'Before you leave you must go over to see our university."

Spikes sees herself not as a replacement for Hytche, but as one who will continue his work and be a bridge between him and her replacement. One challenge she faces is getting more black men into college.

"A student asked me about that just last night," Spikes said. "We need to get [black men] into college and out of jail." But even the 75 percent of young black men who are not in jail or on parole need to be reached and somehow prodded into college, the doctor contended.

Amen to that.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Pub Date: 9/21/96

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