There will be a memorial service in Lexington on Saturday for Robert F. Sexton, the advocate for better schools who died Aug. 26 after an 18-month battle with esophageal cancer. He was 68.
Described as a "celebration" of his life, the program will begin at 1:30 p.m. at the Mitchell Fine Arts Center at Transylvania University. The public is invited.
One of our great social reformers and a political liberal and progressive when many Kentuckians disliked those who seemed such, Sexton was an even-tempered idealist, a college history professor in his early career who turned public-policy advocate and engaged the outside world with plain language intended to persuade rather than offend.
I admired him immensely. The best words to be spoken at this memorial will call for more citizens to follow his example and, as he urged graduates in a commencement address this spring, to become involved in solving problems — from the grass roots to the state Capitol.
As the voice of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, Sexton was a champion for three decades of the movement that was instrumental in securing passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act (KERA) in 1990.
The 100-member committee was named for its first chairman, Edward F. Prichard Jr., a legendary political figure whose disgrace in a voting scandal in his youth was overcome in late life by his visionary crusade for schools.
Six years after Prichard's death, Sexton helped the Legislature craft KERA, perhaps the most sweeping educational reform in the U.S. Then, as the Prichard Committee's first and only executive director, he battled for the next 20 years to keep the cause alive — first by recruiting leaders and funding for the committee, then by defending KERA from its critics and urging lawmakers to add improvements, such as pre-kindergarten, a program still languishing for lack of tax support.
Indifference or outright hostility to academic progress has always been an issue in Kentucky. Historian and Prichard Committee stalwart Thomas Clark wrote that "whatever pioneering immigrants lugged across the Appalachians in the late 18th century, they seem not to have brought along a burning zeal to educate their children."
But Sexton took the long view. "If you are doing this work (for better education) you want to be an optimist," he told a reporter. As the commencement speaker for Bellarmine University only a few months before his death, Bob proudly noted significant gains from KERA that have moved Kentucky from the bottom to almost the middle rank of U.S. schools.
Nevertheless, "average" must not be the goal for Kentucky kids "when prosperity today depends on education and the brain power it creates," he said.
Improving schools is a challenge for elected leaders, as wealthy CEOs like Bill Gates or Oprah Winfrey. The need, he said, is for "all other people who roll up their sleeves and decide on their own to help their churches or their schools or their clubs solve problems."
To improve the schools, Bob was a "social entrepreneur," as his wife Pam described him, engaged in a civic life so extensive that a listing fills three pages ranging from small-town Rotary Club talks to lectures at Harvard.
The national boards he served on suggest how far from Kentucky he ranged to share his experience and find grants for his committee.
From his sick bed in the last months of his life, he wrote newspaper columns on the need for pre-school investments and warned that the latest spare budget was "another step backward for Kentucky's kids."
On an afternoon in late August, he asked his assistant to notify the papers that he had a comment on Kentucky's loss of millions in the federally funded Race to the Top competition. Two reporters did reach him, but before any others could call the next day, Kentucky had also lost him.
Who would doubt that Bob Sexton, the young Louisville high school football captain and class president who went to Yale could have been a success in business, the professions, or politics? But he never ran for elective office. He didn't invent a new machine, create a financial empire or head a corporation.
Instead, he tackled our most important challenge: how to help our children become competitive in a knowledge economy.
He never claimed that the end was in sight, but who denies that he made a positive, inspiring difference?