Merlene Davis: Douglass School Alumni Association honors former principal with scholarships

Herald-Leader columnistFebruary 8, 2014 

  • IF YOU GO

    What: "Keeping the Spirit Alive" luncheon and silent auction, hosted by the Douglass School Alumni Association, to raise funds for the Theda VanLowe Scholarship Program.

    When: Noon, June 14.

    Where: Ramada Lexington North Hotel and Conference Center, 2143 N. Broadway.

    Tickets: $30. Deadline is May 25.

    Information: Call (859) 293-2054 or write to the Douglass Alumni Association, P.O. Box 13002, Lexington, Ky 40511.

The Douglass School Alumni Association wants more people to know about the woman who demanded the very best from them by using a rod and a helping hand.

"Many a child did not drop out of school because of her encouragement," said Alice Jackson, a former student who graduated in 1950. "Girls would get pregnant, but she encouraged them to come back and graduate."

Robert Robinson, president of the alumni association, agreed, and added, if you misbehaved, you'd feel it "on the back side."

Former students who met with me all agreed that Theda VanLowe, who served as principal of Douglass School for 32 years, believed education was the key to the success of black people who lived under suffocating segregation at that time.

VanLowe became the school's second principal in 1930, a year after it opened as the school for black students who lived in Fayette County.

Born Theda Hoskins in Mercer County in 1890, VanLowe graduated from Kentucky State Industrial College, now Kentucky State University, with majors in music and history, and she earned a master's degree from the University of Denver. She taught in Kentucky schools for 10 years before becoming principal at Douglass.

"She took interest in the children and especially, from what I could remember, the males," said Mary Crawford, another former student. "She didn't let those boys drop out of school. Some of those you wouldn't have believed would have graduated, did graduate."

Most of the former students I spoke with are nearing 80 years old if they haven't already passed that milestone, and yet, their eyes lit up and voices lilted when they spoke of VanLowe.

But for all the accolades and fond memories, the first descriptor put forward was always "stern." From what I can detect, you didn't mess with VanLowe. In fact, students nicknamed her bulldog.

"She was very stern," said Tay Seals, 79, and a 1952 graduate of Douglass. "Basically the entire faculty was like that. They took her lead."

Admitting there may be a bit of exaggeration in his memory, Seals said he recalls sitting in the school's small gym and turning to someone to say something. Before he could say anything, however, 'Tay Seals!' would come out of nowhere.

"I hadn't even started to talk," he said, remembering being silenced by an authority figure.

VanLowe didn't give any quarter to her grandson, Robert Shy, either.

A drummer living in Chicago, Shy said he and some other boys lit a "great big firecracker" in the hallway of the school.

"She found out I was involved in it and took me out of school," he said. "I couldn't practice or do anything. I had to do chores. I didn't get any passes."

VanLowe's only child, Frances VanLowe Shy, died at an early age when Robert Shy was a toddler. He lived with his father in Michigan for a few years, but then returned to Lexington to live with his grandmother.

When he practiced drums at home, Shy said, VanLowe would close all the doors and let him "hammer" away. It was her way of encouraging him.

She also encouraged Alice Jackson, 80, who graduated early in 1950 and went to business college. She said VanLowe called and asked her to come back and be the school's secretary.

"I did everything," she said. "I had to do bookkeeping, scheduling, banking, bulletins and programs. I did it all."

But that didn't mean her education was over. Jackson said she continued with classes at Kentucky State and through correspondence. Jackson said VanLowe insisted on a higher education for the teachers and staff.

Ella Bosley, 92, and a 1940 graduate, became the PTA president at Douglass, a position VanLowe didn't want her to take lightly.

Bosley said VanLowe sat her down and explained she wanted the parents and teachers to interact and work together.

"She wanted the parents respected," Bosley said. "A lot of the parents weren't educated people. She didn't want the teachers to feel they were better than the parents."

VanLowe also wanted the children to feel good about themselves. She asked Bosley to start a free lunch program at Douglass a couple of years before the federal government set up its program. There also were clothes and hygiene products on hand for children who didn't have such a luxury.

"She said she didn't believe in 'cheap notoriety,'" Bosley said. "She wanted people to do something from the heart, not to elevate themselves. Do it for a purpose."

And that's exactly what Margaret Givens did. Givens, 80 and a 1953 graduate, married in the 10th grade and was pregnant in the 12th. She was going to drop out, but VanLowe told her the other students understood where babies came from.

After giving birth, and while she was in the hospital, Givens called VanLowe and asked her to name the baby.

"Ms. VanLowe said it would be an honor and a privilege," Givens recalled, and named the girl Theda VanLowe. Now Givens has a granddaughter also named Theda.

VanLowe "was like a mother and an aunt to me," Givens said. "She encouraged me to stay in school and graduate."

Not much is known about VanLowe's private life other than she became a Scientologist later in life and was cremated after her death. Both moves were unusual in Lexington's black community in those days.

Being fiercely private, Seals said, may have contributed to her running the school so solidly.

"She was your teacher, not your buddy," he said. "And that was the same way she treated her peers. That was a different day and time when teachers had a lot better hold of the class."

"She was dedicated to her students and to Douglass School as a whole," Crawford said.

And her former students still appreciate that. In fact, the reason the alumni association exists is to give out scholarships in VanLowe's name to continue her push toward a better education.

The group gives out five $200 textbook scholarships, one at each local high school. Every third year, however, when the association hosts its reunion, it gives out two $500 scholarships. The next reunion is in 2015.

Meanwhile, the association is hosting a luncheon and fundraiser for the scholarship on June 14, in honor of former Douglass basketball players and cheerleaders. Tickets are $30. VanLowe is one part of the good ol' days worth celebrating.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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