Longtime Ky. education expert Robert Sexton dies

Robert F. Sexton, Executive Director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Submitted photo June 1, 2010.
Robert F. Sexton, Executive Director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence. Submitted photo June 1, 2010.

Robert F. Sexton, the longtime executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence and a leading force for education reform in Kentucky for three decades, died Thursday night at the University of Kentucky Medical Center following a long battle with cancer.

He was 68.

A Louisville native, Sexton had headed the Lexington-based Prichard committee since its creation in 1983, expanding it from a grassroots group of interested individuals into a nationally recognized, non-partisan advocacy organization for education. The organization was named after its first chair, Kentucky education advocate Edward F. Prichard, Jr.

The Prichard Committee said in a statement Friday that it will "honor his legacy by continuing the important work that framed his career of public service."

Gov. Steve Beshear said that while many Kentuckians might not realize the extent of Sexton's contribution, "it is not an exaggeration to say that Bob Sexton has influenced and enriched the education experience for generations of students. The most fitting memorial ... will be for us to continue to build on the enduring legacy of quality education he has left us."

Across Kentucky, political leaders, colleagues and friends remembered Sexton Friday as an advocate who pushed tirelessly for educational reforms, but he always did it in a calm and reasoned way.

"He understood that burning bridges didn't do anybody any good," said Helen Mountjoy, former state education and workforce secretary. "There was no important education initiative in Kentucky over the past quarter century that did not have Bob's fingerprints all over it. The remarkable thing was that he never took 'no' for a final answer. He never gave up. If you didn't agree with him today, he would be back tomorrow.

"He didn't care if you were a Republican or a Democrat, rich or poor. If he thought you should be involved in improving public education, he would figure a way for you to be involved."

Former Gov. Paul Patton, now president of Pikeville College, called Sexton "one of the unsung heroes of Kentucky" and said Sexton's work with the Prichard Committee had been essential to passage of the 1990 Kentucky Education Reform Act.

"I don't think we would have had KERA without the Prichard Committee," said Patton, who chairs the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.

Kentucky School Board Chairman David Karem said Sexton had been an island of calm and civility in often stormy public debates over the direction education should take.

"He was a premier advocate for the school children of Kentucky," Karem said.

"He never pulled his punches, never got heated about it ... but he stood firm on what he knew was right for kids. This is a loss for the children, but it's also a loss for the kind of civility Bob projected. In this day and age, when you have to look high and low for civility, that's a sad loss."

Kentucky Education Secretary Terry Holliday issued a statement praising Sexton's "unswerving dedication," and called him a "friend both on a personal level and because of his efforts to improve the lives of Kentucky's children."

Lois Combs Weinberg, a Prichard Committee member and longtime education advocate from Hindman, called Sexton "an awesome figure for the last 30 years in Kentucky education circles."

"Kentucky school children have lost their premier advocate and champion," Weinberg said. "He was huge in what he was able to accomplish ... but he also knew how much further we have to go. He was still fighting and planning and working ... to ensure Kentucky would continue to make progress."

State Senate Education Committee Chairman Ken Winters, R-Murray, said Sexton will be remembered most for keeping Kentucky focused on education.

"He kept drawing public attention to education, not just the legislature or the state Department of Education, but all of Kentucky," Winters said. "He tried every means to see that we didn't forget the most important commodity we have, our young people. I think that's what he'd want to be remembered for."

Gene Wilhoit, a former Kentucky education commissioner and now executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers, said Sexton was "a consistent voice for education reform over numerous years and numerous administrations."

"He was a champion, with the ability to present harsh truths and never back away from them," Wilhoit said. "The reforms he helped put in place will live on as a tribute to his life."

Sexton was probably most widely known for directing the Prichard Committee, but he was active in numerous other areas.

He earned a bachelor's degree at Yale University, and completed a doctorate in history from the University of Washington. He was a visiting scholar at Harvard University, and at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. He went on to become an administrator at the University of Kentucky and professor of history.

Sexton helped found the Kentucky Governor's Scholars Program, the Kentucky Center for Public Issues, the Commonwealth Institute for Teachers, and the Commonwealth Institute for Parent Leadership, a group that helps parents become more active in education. He was founder and president of the Kentucky Center for Public Issues, and he chaired the Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington. He authored the 2004 book, Mobilizing Citizens for Better Schools.

Sexton received many awards for his work, including honorary degrees from Berea College, Georgetown College, Bellarmine University and Eastern Kentucky University.

Sexton is survived by his wife, Pam; children Rebecka, Robert, Ouita Michel, Paige Papka and Perry Papka; and granddaughters Willa Dru and Lily Kathryn. Memorial plans are pending. Milward Funeral Directors is in charge of arrangements.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader