Serious child, driven leader

Joe Hairston brings vigor, aggressiveness to Balto. Co. schools

`Carrying a commitment'

March 19, 2000|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

When Joe Allen Hairston was a small child, his mother would peek into her son's room to make sure that the quiet in there preceded no storm.

He was always a calm and serious child.

Today, at his home in a wooded suburb of Atlanta, Hairston's thinking retreat is a sun porch and a wicker rocking chair.

Like his mother, Hairston's wife, Lillian, likes to check on him. He's still quiet. Still serious.

"He's always been like that," said Lillian Hairston. "It's not a personality trait that he can change. He's not bubbly, bouncy and perky."

But Hairston is far more complex than his studious exterior lets on.

Behind the calm veneer, Hairston is all verve and drive -- a powerhouse of aggressive strategies and intellect who doesn't tolerate skeptics and shrugs off critics, people who know him say.

Hairston's record of turning around underperforming schools in Prince George's County and Clayton County, Ga., won over Baltimore County school board members, who appointed him the county's first black schools chief at a meeting last week.

Hairston, 52, has said he is eager to return to Maryland -- the state where he attended college and played football, wooed his wife, raised two sons, and started teaching 32 years ago.

Excelling in the classroom was a requirement for Hairston. His parents -- his mother was a housewife and hospital aide; his father, a U.S. Navy officer and World War II veteran -- wanted their children to be well educated.

At the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, a predominantly black campus, Hairston watched civil rights marches from the sidewalk. Although he believed in the activists' message, he didn't want to risk expulsion or arrest.

"Those were the days when it didn't take much for the police to throw the dogs on you," he said, recalling his university years from 1964 to 1968, a time when Princess Anne was rife with racial conflict.

"For black families at that time, the only way you could improve yourself was to have an education, and so that became very important," said Lillian Hairston, who graduated from the same college.

Joe Hairston teaches similar lessons about the value of education to students -- black and white. He believes that dedicated study can unlock any door.

Hairston was born May 26, 1947, and took his first steps in the Danville, Va., home of his maternal grandparents -- a cotton mill worker and a plasterer. As a child, he didn't think it was odd to have an outhouse or bring water to the house in buckets.

A few years later, his father moved the family -- Hairston, his twin sister, Jo Ann, and his mother -- to the U.S. Navy base in Norfolk, Va., and life changed. The family had indoor plumbing and other modern amenities and enjoyed a middle-class existence.

But when the family moved to a Navy base in Jacksonville, Fla., during the 1950s, Hairston discovered that whites and blacks lived in different worlds.

Different worlds

In Florida, Hairston, his twin sister and a younger sister, Deryl, attended segregated schools. To this day, he recalls boarding a school bus and sharing the ride with a white playmate who also lived on the base but attended a different school.

"On base, we were all friends, but off base we attended separate schools," Hairston said. "That was this country called America."

When questions about race arose at the dinner table, Hairston's father, Tomy, sent a strong message: "Never allow anyone to treat you [as] less than a human being."

Hairston took his father's words to heart and passed them on to his sons, Jahmal, 27, a doctor in residency at the University of Cincinnati Hospital, and Jason, 22, a recent business and marketing graduate at the University of Maryland, College Park.

His sons have the same initials as their father -- JAH. "Wherever they went, I wanted people to know they were mine," said Hairston.

Hairston's father's Navy career brought the family back to the Norfolk area in the late 1950s, and Hairston enrolled at Crestwood High School -- an all-black campus -- in Chesapeake.

George W. Quarles Jr., who coached Hairston when he played football at Crestwood, said students there were driven to succeed.

"The kids were hungry for participation and were also hungry for anything you could do for them," he said.

Hairston was serious about everything he did, Quarles said. "He was always a reliable person. Sometimes kids would go around and steal a cigarette or puff on a cigarette, but I never saw any evidence of that kind of behavior with Joe Allen."

Aggressive on the field

On the football field, Hairston was aggressive.

"I can recall the first time we put him in a game," the 75-year-old retired coach said.

"This guy clipped him, and [Joe] hurt his ankle. He came out and said, `Let me get back in, coach. Let me get him.' We had to hold him out and tell him we don't do things like that."

Nearly killed

A collision with an opposing ball carrier on a rain-slick field nearly killed Hairston before his 18th birthday, Quarles said.

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