by Mikel Kwaku Osei Holt
The first time I observed Brother Bob Smith in action, I knew within seconds he would have a profound impact on my life.
Actually, not just on my life, but that of my children, and the children of our village.
It was May 1989 and I was attending Harambee Community School’s eighth grade graduation. Brother Bob was the commencement speaker. But unlike past speakers who stood rigidly at the podium, quoting a few famous celebrities and encouraging the students to give their best in high school, Brother Bob, a short, almost non descript Black man with a soft voice and gentle mannerisms encouraged the students to stand as he walked among them talking about ‘family’: the Christian family, the village family and a new family they joined as part of a sacred journey they had embarked upon.
He gave each of them a silver dollar, and extended into their hands a long rope, as he guided them into a large cycle in front of the stage.
The Capuchin monk then talked to them about discipline, high expectations and how each of them was gifted beyond measure. The rope that connected them was symbol of a communal tie that each of them belonged to. As such, they can forever rely on each other and the community to motivate, inspire and support them on their journey.
Brother Bob was the principal of Messmer High School, which was located but a few blocks north of Harambee, but a world apart in terms of tested academic innovation and advanced curriculum. Harambee students were strongly grounded in an Africentric foundation, parental involvement, and a strong core of the academic basics.
Messmer was a Catholic school, and as I was not Catholic, I didn’t fully comprehend what that encompassed. At the time I was a tad bit apprehensive, given the stories I heard about strict discipline, nuns smacking students on their hands, praying in Latin and threats of eternal damnation.
But as Brother Bob finished his presentation, I looked across the auditorium at my 13-year-old son Malik (who was a seventh grade host for the graduation ceremony) and I knew he was going to Messmer, and would be in good hands. I knew also that Brother Bob and I would form a bond of our own, one that will seal a lifetime friendship, and somehow his leadership would change the course of education in Milwaukee.
I was right on all accounts.
A few years before the commencement exercise, citing financial considerations and what some interpreted as an abandonment of the central city, the Catholic Archdiocese announced a decision to close Messmer High School. Brother Bob, then principal, refused to let the school go under. He and alumni organized a committee to save Messmer and through hard work, contributions and a dedication that is rarely seen in Milwaukee, they resurrected the school, building on its foundation what was to become the central city’s premier private school, an example of educational excellence that has received national recognition.
The school’s educational philosophy was simple, if not revolutionary by today’s standards: High expectations (no excuses), nurturing teachers who teach out of love for teaching and children, a challenging college prep curriculum and a no non-sense discipline policy.
And oh yes, God, first, second and last.
When the school choice program was initiated in 1990, Brother Bob took the bold step of submitting an application for Messmer. Since Messmer was no longer affiliated with the Archdiocese, the application easily sailed through initial scrutiny, until a state bureaucrat “found evidence” it was indeed a sectarian school.
The application was eventually rejected because a state bureaucrat found a cross outside the auditorium, and noted that each day the school started its activities with a prayer.
But Brother Bob would not be deterred. He challenged the law and worked to have then Governor Tommy Thompson expand the school choice legislation to include sectarian schools, asking the question, ‘How is prayer a burden to poor people?’
With powerful friends in high places on the Democratic and Republican sides of the aisle, Brother Bob (and the school choice coalition that supported him) eventually prevailed.
Whether realized or not, the school choice movement has initiated a new chapter in the annals of American history and the civil rights movement. Polly Williams wrote the first chapter. Brother Bob wrote the second. I was fortunate enough to serve as griot, telling the story as it unfolded.
It wasn’t just his political activism that drew me to Brother Bob; nor was it merely his philosophy and spiritual calling that impressed me. It was his dedication to purpose, his total commitment to low-income children.
I have stood with Brother Bob Smith the man, the visionary, for the past three decades. I have known few other individuals who are as committed to the cause of education—maybe Howard Fuller, Tyrone Dumas, Polly Williams—as Brother Bob. He has not sought fame, or fortune, but accomplishment. He believes that all Black children are gifted and can achieve, that they are special gifts from God, placed here for divine purposes.
Brother Bob asked me to join the Messmer board two years after I enrolled my son at the school in 1992.
As I was already involved in the school choice revolution, he asked me to also share in a spiritual mission, to take up arms in the day-to-day fight to provide quality education to low income children.
To serve the thousands of students who would make that transition from child to adulthood; arming them with knowledge, dedication to purpose and a commitment to community. In a nutshell, Brother Bob asked that I help build an army of Christian soldiers, the “Talented Tenth” as W.E.B. Dubois called them.
I have done so unwaveringly. And aside from my involvement with the Community Journal, it has been the most important aspect of my life.
Literally thousands of Black children have benefited from what we eventually grew to call the “Messmer Way.” They are doctors, lawyers, politicians and businessmen.
Each has a sense of purpose, a vision and continues to hold on to the rope that binds them to the village. Brother Bob put it in their hands.
Last week, Brother Bob announced he was retiring from Messmer High Catholic Schools. Those of us who have watched him knew he couldn’t keep up the 20-hour days operating as principal, president and CEO. Messmer has expanded in the last decade into a small school district onto itself, with four schools and an enrollment of over 2,000 children.
The demands of administrating that district are unrelenting, and the burden was all the more strenuous with the departure three years ago of Principal Jeff Monday, who accepted a calling from his alma mater, Marquette High School.
Around the time of Jeff’s transfer, Brother Bob underwent serious surgery for back and neck problems, but cut short his recovery to take on the added responsibilities of administration left to him. Despite the pleading of the board, friends and parents, he refused to relent, and while the schools’ demand grew his health declined.
Last week I met with him alone in the conference room hours after he made his decision. He was surrounded by religious artifacts, computer equipment and his ever-present aura of contemplation.
His voice was calm and the ever-present smile that defines him was present as he acknowledged he would not be an impediment to the school and children he loved so much. I had to engage in scanning through the newspaper as I listened to him to keep from shedding a tear.
Never in my life have I known or been acquainted with someone who has given so much, tried so hard, fought so mightily for a cause than Brother Bob Smith. Over the years he’s challenged the status quo at every turn.
He fought Black Democrats who put their party before the children. He lambasted governors and congressmen who he felt ignored the needs of children; he browbeat parents who didn’t support their children.
Brother Bob’s legacy is cemented in stone, but also illuminated in the smiles of students whose faces brightened the auditorium as they accepted high school diplomas; the thousands of Black professionals who return to Messmer to thank him and the teachers for shepherding them to excellence; the second and third generation children who enroll with the sure knowledge that Messmer Catholic Schools is their passport to better lives.
Brother Bob took Messmer from an afterthought to one of the most successful central city schools in America.
Over 93% of its students (mostly low income) graduate. Nearly 90% go on to college. Remarkably, Messmer High School is the only high school in Wisconsin where the Black and White cumulative GPA is identical.
There is no achievement gap. Parental involvement is mandatory. High expectations are the norm. Violence, disruption and failure are sins not to be tolerated.
There is a reason why Messmer is recognized internationally. Why educators from Europe, Africa and South America visit to study the school, and why Messmer is the example of excellence used to tout the success of the Wisconsin School Choice Program.
The answer is the Messmer Way, the teachers, the parents, and the village. But it is also Brother Bob Smith.
Brother Bob once said my oldest son, Malik, epitomized what Messmer is all about. I was a single parent when I entrusted Malik to Brother Bob and Messmer.
Under their mentorship, Malk grew into a strong man, spiritually and culturally grounded, with an innate desire to give back. He graduated from college and returned to teach at Messmer.
He was the 2002 teacher of the year. When he died in a car accident, his funeral was held, appropriately, in the Messmer gymnasium.
Over 2,500 of his students and friends attended his homecoming. Brother Bob Smith provided the eulogy.
He spoke of what Messmer meant to Malik, and what Malik meant to the community. He talked about the circle and how it bound all of us together and can never be broken, even if one soul goes to heaven.
Three decades later I fully appreciate what Brother Bob meant when he did the commencement at Harambee Community School.
That’s why I hope and pray his retirement morphs into a sabbatical and he’ll return someday to the mission he loves so much. The circle is incomplete without him.