Robert F. Sexton was remembered Saturday for the several decades he spent lobbying for better schools for Kentucky children, sometimes in the face of public apathy and official hostility.
Sexton, who died Aug. 26 at age 68, following a long battle with cancer, was executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and a leading force for education reform in Kentucky as well as nationally.
Several hundred people attended a memorial service for Sexton at Transylvania University's Mitchell Fine Arts Center. Leaders in academia, business, government, the arts and the news media lined up to speak about Sexton's legacy, as did his widow, Pam Sexton, and his five children. Gov. Steve Beshear and others sent videotaped tributes.
"Bob was trusted by all factions in the education community," said former Lexington Mayor Pam Miller, a past chairwoman of the Prichard Committee, an independent nonprofit group that pushes for continuing school improvements in Kentucky.
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"He was frequently the only person who could assemble different powerful interests on an issue," Miller said. "Why? Because they could see his sincerity and his determination to move beyond pettiness toward the larger goal. He was not afraid to criticize and point out shortfalls, but he was never mean."
Attendees spoke of Sexton's great sense of humor and generosity, the big and little gestures that he made. For example, when he saw a friend climb precariously onto her kitchen table to change a burnt-out light bulb, a sturdy stepladder arrived at her home the following week with his compliments.
However, they said, Sexton wasn't a pushover. He recognized that politics was crucial to his goals, and he knew how to play that game. He won over politicians without compromising his principles, they said. He shared his vision of a well-educated Kentucky through his frequent presence at the state Capitol, constant interviews with reporters and appearances at public forums around the state.
"One of the characteristics that made him such an effective leader was his optimism," Miller said. "Bob Sexton had faith when others did not that the public, if awakened and informed, would demand better schools."
A Louisville native and Yale graduate, Sexton guided the Prichard Committee from its start in 1983, when it couldn't afford to pay him a salary, through its greatest triumph in 1990 as the General Assembly passed the Kentucky Education Reform Act.
KERA, as that law is called, required the legislature to provide better and more equitable funding for public schools across the state. New tests would track the learning progress of students. Some educators unhappily referred to it as the "Kentucky Early Retirement Act," and some Frankfort politicians have attacked various aspects of it, but KERA remains on the books 20 years later.
Sexton believed that KERA was a start, not a conclusion, his friends and colleagues said Saturday. The law simultaneously had to be defended and improved upon and used as a model for other states to follow, they said.
Getting Kentuckians and their elected leaders to provide the money needed for good schools was a continual struggle, one that now must continue without Sexton, they said.
"On his watch, every level of education in Kentucky has benefited from reform. Standards have been raised," said Sam Corbett, current chairman of the Prichard Committee. "Who would have expected that, especially of Kentucky? Well, Bob Sexton did."