Black scholarship program helps `people in the middle'

Mo. foundation rewards the academically average

November 09, 2003|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ST. LOUIS - Don't even dare dream about college, a guidance counselor warned Leonard Woodson. With your mediocre academic record, you'll be lucky to survive high school.

The counselor was wrong. It took Woodson an extra semester, but next month he'll graduate from Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., with a B average - and no college debt. All his costs were covered by a St. Louis foundation that rewards academically average students in financial need.

And the St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation requires them to maintain only C-plus grades to keep their scholarships.

"It took me two hours to do what my fellow students could do in an hour, but I learned to survive in the world," says Woodson, 22. Unable to keep up taking notes, he recorded lectures and played them back in his dorm room.

Woodson is one of about 50 graduates of St. Louis-area high schools who have received full scholarships to historically black colleges and universities since 1998. The foundation raises the money, in part, by sponsoring an annual football "classic" between black college teams, devoting the proceeds to scholarships and other charities.

"Average kids don't get a chance because everybody gives to the cream of the crop," says Earl Wilson Jr., a retired IBM executive who established the foundation a decade ago. "It's our way of giving back to the community."

Wilson, 71, began his IBM career as one of the company's first black salesmen. He says he understands students in the middle. "Myself and many of my colleagues were average students or worse," he says. "People at the extremes get help. People in the middle don't."

Lawrence A. Davis Jr., chancellor of the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, whose Golden Lions play in the annual fall classic, agrees. "The world is run by average people," he says. "We reward people who can run fast, jump high and throw balls through holes. The least we can do is help those who might not be academic stars but who are willing to work hard."

"It's the trickle-up theory," says Sylvester Brown Jr., a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Brown defends Wilson against charges from another St. Louis writer that he's "creating dumbness" by so generously supporting less-than-stellar scholars.

"I'd much rather see Earl spend $10,000 on one scholarship than give $1,000 scholarships to 10 students," says Brown. "What he's saying by doing it this way is that we have enough faith in you to support you for four years. You have no financial worries. All you have to do is focus on being great."

The foundation distributes application forms to high school guidance counselors, and uses radio and print advertising to get the word out. Winners are chosen by a committee of educators and others who review the applications and interview applicants. "I stay completely out of the selection process," says Wilson. Sixteen recipients are currently attending college through the program.

Since the foundation began giving scholarships five years ago, the champion recipient is Dedree Smart, 23, who went to Howard University in Washington. "I have been so blessed," she says. "There's no way I could have afforded Howard. I didn't have to worry about anything financially, so I could concentrate on my grades. I went from a low B average in high school to graduating magna cum laude."

Smart earned her degree last year and is back in Missouri, working as special events coordinator for the state's public university system. "I am so elated, so grateful and so proud of my baby," says her mother, Delores Smart.

Wilson says the foundation carefully monitors the scholarship program. "The ones who finish college almost always get better grades" than they did in high school, he says.

"These are the late bloomers," says Irving Clay, 78, a former city alderman who sits on the foundation's board. "I and Earl, we grew up in tenements about 10 blocks from here. We all know what it's like to struggle. We know late bloomers."

But the scholarship program has had its failures and setbacks. About 40 percent of recipients have washed out, and since Smart's graduation, the foundation has dropped Howard and Virginia's Hampton University because of their high, private-college tuition.

Then, too, some scholarship recipients "haven't so much as said thank you," Wilson says. "That's a real disappointment." He expects them to send him an invitation when they graduate, and he wants all recipients - and their parents - to sell tickets to the annual classic.

In addition to the football game, which Wilson estimates has generated $3.5 million in 10 years, the foundation raises money through charity golf and high school basketball events. Last year, it opened a $2.8 million sports complex near downtown St. Louis that includes a computer laboratory for after-school tutoring and a "Walk of Fame" featuring prominent local African-Americans.

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