When Mike McNelly was 6 and his family stopped for the night at a roadside motel in the Deep South, he was thrilled to see a sign promising a TV in every room. This was a lot better than home.
But then his father saw another sign in the lobby - "No Coloreds Allowed" - and turned to leave.
"As we walked out," McNelly said, "he pointed to the sign and said, `Michael, that's wrong. We're not staying here.' We drove well into the night before he found a place that was appropriate. It did not have a TV."
For McNelly - an Irish kid from Boston - that night propelled him on a quest for equality through his three years in the Navy and 26 years on the Anne Arundel County police force to his two jobs today, as head of a group that protects laborers and president of the county school board.
He assumed the school board presidency Wednesday and already has set two priorities: making the board meetings shorter and making the school system fairer.
He has seen the data that show the disparity in test scores between white and black students. He also knows that the county's best schools post test scores in the top 10 percent of the nation, while the worst schools score in the bottom 15 percent.
"I mean every single child - whether from poor or wealthy neighborhoods, of whatever race - deserves that opportunity to succeed," he said, adding that Anne Arundel has a way to go. "The numbers tell you that."
But while McNelly, 56, heads a board that oversees a 75,000-student school system, he is quick to say that he is not an educator. He said he will leave that to the professionals.
"My responsibility is making sure I get the best educational people I can find and let them do their job," he said.
He's quite confident that new schools Superintendent Eric J. Smith, who left Charlotte, N.C., after six successful years and started in Anne Arundel on July 1, can do the job.
"I looked at him and said if we're not successful, we've only got ourselves to blame because we have all the tools," McNelly said.
McNelly is a sailor and part-time poet and, true to his Irish heritage, a great teller of tales. A picture in his Camp Springs office shows him regaling another big gabber - former President Bill Clinton, whom he met when Clinton was visiting a county elementary school.
His time with the Navy in Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, and aboard the USS Boxer prepared him for what he faced as a police officer. "Early on in my life, prior to being a policeman, I knew what it was like to see and carry body bags," he said.
He retired from the police force in 1995 to take up fishing, but grew restless and soon joined the Coalition for Fair Contracting Inc., a nonprofit group that monitors major Washington construction sites for labor-law violations. He is the group's executive director.
"We help the little guy who has no advocate, who's being taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors driven by greed," he said.
Despite waging these battles on behalf of workers and students, McNelly likes to think of himself as an easy-going guy. The license plate on his 1996 Mustang convertible reads, "EASYLSM."
"Easy like a Sunday morning," he interpreted. "I like what it says about an attitude."
It also speaks to the feeling he gets in southern Anne Arundel County, his home of 15 years. He and his wife, Deborah, have two children - a son who is a chef in Chesapeake Beach and a daughter who is a junior at Southern High School.
Fellow board members, who unanimously elected McNelly president last week, replacing Carlesa R. Finney, praise him for his responsiveness to parents and students and his grasp of complex issues such as construction budgets.
"He's very conscious of input from the community," said board member Paul G. Rudolph.
The staff, meanwhile, say they look forward to expedited board meetings. McNelly has long been frustrated with late board meetings and is often known to say, "This board member turns into a pumpkin at midnight."
McNelly traces his commitment to the community to his father, who was a major in the Army and often brought home young soldiers for Thanksgiving dinner and other holidays.
He said his father taught him to respect others, and himself. "He told me, `Remember one thing: You've gotta face the guy in the mirror every morning when you shave, and I never want you to be ashamed when you see that face.'"