Thursday, July 12, 2012

James Ross: More than met my eye

At the James Ross memorial/roast yesterday, I was reminded of the limits of my own perspective.

When the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board appointed Ross to a vacancy in 2008,  my reaction was "James who?"  He hadn't held any of the high-profile posts that would get him on a reporter's radar.  And while I liked him  --  he was hard not to like  --  his one year on the board didn't leave me with a strong impression of what he had accomplished.

Ross died Sunday at 77.  Writing a news obituary opened my eyes to the contributions he's been making to Charlotte since,  well,  about the time I was born.  I went to the United House of Prayer for All People on Beatties Ford Road on Wednesday because I was intrigued  --  not least by the fact that Ross had asked his friends to get together and tell stories about him before he died.  Sadly,  cancer won that race.

Hundreds came to pay their respects. The event was two hours,  and Charlotte City Councilman David Howard tried hard to enforce a two-minute limit for speakers.  It was still hard to fit in everyone who wanted to tell Ross stories.

People talked about Ross and his lifelong friend James Polk,  "two guys from Grier Town" who never stopped trying to make their neighborhood and their city better.  They talked about Ross dealing with race riots and Ross on the golf course.  They talked about his famously lengthy conversations,  his knack for making everyone feel like his best friend and his devotion to helping young people better themselves.

We heard blues and gospel and a Siddha yoga chant  (Ross was devoted to meditation).  There were tributes from an array of local and state officials,  Republican and Democrat.  Several said they'd been on opposite sides of issues with Ross,  but that he could disagree with humor and respect.  Many talked about his independent mind and the value he placed on common sense over ideology.

It was a great reminder that much of the work of problem-solving and community-building takes place outside the realm of official action.  In the brief time that our professional lives overlapped,  Ross always made me smile.  I left his "roast" smiling,  too.  And I left with a deepened respect for all he'd done when I wasn't around to see it.

Eaker with her granddaughter, Kate Gresham
If I may,  as school board members put it,  take a point of personal privilege,  I'd also like to note the passing of Kat Eaker,  a longtime CMS educator and a friend.  She,  too,  was taken by cancer on Sunday.

Years before I started covering education,  Kat enthralled me with her stories of life in the classroom at West Mecklenburg High.  Her passion for helping her students improve their future,  sometimes against steep odds,  was my introduction to the nobility and challenge of a teacher's life.  When I sense my reporting is veering into dry abstraction,  I think about the drama, humor, compassion and struggle in her accounts.

It's a standard I can't match. I'll miss her, and I know many others will too.


Anonymous said...

10:39 Seriously? You use the obituary of a man who gave his living years to the city of Charlotte to make a snarky comment about Project LIFT and the NAACP? Did you not learn respect growing up?

The Big Four Seven said...


Thanks for these wonderful and touching tributes to two of our greatest contributors. I was not with CMS during either of their tenures, but I can tell you that emotion and stories and laughter and tears were abundant regarding both Mr. Ross and Ms. Eaker this week.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this commentary about Mr. Ross and for reminding us of the limit of our own perspectives. That is why we must bridge the communication and interaction roadblocks that leave so many of us wedded to our own prejudices and misconceptions about each other.

Thank you for letting us know about the passing of Kat Eaker, a dedicated professional. We grieve for her family and friends also.

A-A Teacher

The Big Four Seven said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said...

10:39's comment was not only snarky and disrespectful, it was racist.

Ann Doss Helms said...

Amen, 11:35. Anyone who wants to vent about their various beefs, go back to previous posts to find a forum. That one got posted while I was on the road, but I'm not going to allow that tone on this post.

Patso4Teaching said...

Ann, Thank you for the humanity of your reporting. Thank you also for informing us about the passing of Kat. She was a passionate educator who believed in the potential for all students. She was equally passionate about helping teachers reach their maximum potential reaching students. This is how I remember her and will be indebted to her. Kat was zealous about the AVID program and it's life changing impact on first generation college students. I looked into the obituaries and there is no mention. Please keep us informed of the "arrangements" so that we may share our respects to this beautiful woman. My sympathies to you and the families of both of these effectual individuals.

Ann Doss Helms said...

Patso, the obituary will be in Friday's paper. The service will be Saturday July 21, and they've set up a memorial scholarship fund for AVID students. If you don't want to wait, email me at and I'll forward you all the details.

Coffey said...

Kat was my high school English teacher and Journalism adviser at West Meck almost twenty years ago. Her graceful spirit and belief that all children were worthy of a rigorous, challenging, yet interesting education propelled me into a career in teaching. She was truly a role model for teachers and a wonderful woman. Thank you for writing this tribute to such a phenomenal woman.

Anonymous said...

I never met James Ross but I know he supported arts in education programing and Northwest School of the Arts.

I believe Mr. Ross was instrumental in finding NWSA visual art and dance studio space at the Music Factory after the school was no longer able to hold satellite classes at Spirit Square. The dance studio at the Music Factory warehouse is far from ideal but better than no space. For this contribution, Mr. Ross's spirit continues to live and thrive here.

Thank you, Mr. Ross.

- Alicia Durand

Anonymous said...

Thank you for posting this I taught with Kat at West for many years she was a beautiful and gracious spirit. She always had high expectations for her students and our profession. The picture you posted of her is perfect as family was her center. Thank you and Kat you will be missed.