Educate Thyself Brother, And You Will Go Far
Posted on December 12, 2019 by
USA alumnus and recent chairman of the Board of Trustees, Ken Simon followed footsteps to South and then walked his own path.
The way Ken Simon tells it, the future University of South Alabama trustee never had a choice.
“To be honest, I didn’t really choose South. I intended to attend college out of state. But my mother put the kibosh on that plan, and essentially told me where I was going to go; where she and my two older brothers had gone.”
It’s right here where you need to know something about Ken Simon’s mother. Lavonne Simon was the University of South Alabama’s first African American graduate. She and her husband, Lewis, raised seven children in Mobile’s Roger Williams Homes, a public housing complex, but her eye was on a college education. So, nearly 20 years after she graduated as valedictorian at Mobile’s Central High School, she walked with the first graduating class at USA in 1967.
“She was extremely determined,” Simon said. “She had a vision of herself and a sense of who she was and where she wanted to go.”
The fruit didn’t fall far from the tree.
Ken Simon graduated from Toulminville High School – today’s LeFlore Magnet High School – and, following his mother’s directive, enrolled at South Alabama. Like many students before and after him, he had to work to pay for college. He got a job on campus with the grounds department. It was a humble start for a future board chairman.
“I worked all summer planting grass, trimming shrubbery, watering flowers, moving dirt and digging holes,” he recalled. “I expected to feel a sense of embarrassment when I encountered friends and acquaintances. But, oddly enough, I didn’t feel embarrassed. In fact, I was proud of what I was doing. I came to a greater appreciation of the dignity of simple work.”
That work ethic led Simon to try out for the University’s debate team. Why the debate team?
“Ever since high school, I wanted to be a lawyer,” Simon explained. “Yet, I lacked the confidence and skill one needs to be good in the courtroom.” In that same first summer at South, he met the debate team coach, Howard Pelham, from whom Simon’s brother, James, was taking a speech class. They encouraged him to try out for the debate team. He was an immediate success.
“At the beginning, I was terrible,” Simon laughed. “No, not terrible. Awful!”
But he persevered, acquiring what he calls “the fundamental tools of lawyering; research, analysis, argumentation, persuasion and discipline. Moreover, it gave me the tools to overcome my lack of skill as a public speaker.”
Debate team friends, including future Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson Jr., encouraged Simon to join them in the Student Government Association. He did, becoming a freshman and sophomore senator, and later, SGA vice-president and president, the first African American SGA president in the University’s history.
And yet, despite his mother’s example, and despite his debating and SGA successes, deep down Ken Simon still doubted himself. “Am I good enough?” is a question he often asked.
“A letter I wrote several years ago to a professor shows how that question was answered,” Simon elaborated.
“In fact, Professor Walt Darring is a special inspiration, although he never knew it. I wrote to him about an English composition course I took two decades before sending the letter. I explained that I had attended segregated schools all my life. Segregation had isolated me and fueled self-doubts whether I was as good as white students. My initial experiences at USA drove home for me the gap that then existed between black and white educational experiences. I wrote further:
Your class is memorable because of the first composition assignment. I don't remember the specifics of the assignment. I do remember your face and demeanor when you returned the graded papers. You expressed disappointment that, as a group, our writing skills were so deficient. You began calling our names to retrieve our papers from the front of the classroom. I recall several classmates returning to their desks with long faces. I prepared for the worst and walked to the front when my name was called. I mustered the courage to look at my grade and was shocked when I saw the verdict: A-. More important than the grade were the words you sketched in the upper right-hand margin of my paper. You wrote, "Educate thyself Brother, and you will go far." Me? These words were meant for me? Was there a mistake?
I can't tell you the impact of this message. It boosted my confidence and affirmed my self-worth. I know it sounds corny, but I was inspired to do well at South and in life.
Indeed, life has been good. I did reasonably well at South, went to law school, and practiced law in Mobile, Washington, D.C., and in Birmingham. I am not sure if you ever knew my name, but I have drawn on those words you gave me many times. It's time now to thank you for them. Thanks.
“Mr. Darring wrote me back,” Simon continued.
Dear Mr. Simon,
You are right about one thing--I don't remember your face or name. But I do recall the note I scrawled on your paper. An unusual message, it sprang from a gut-feeling that here was intelligence and understanding, and the right words might convey to you the need to develop your potential. So, I tossed the words out into the unknown, and you and they have "gone far;" and now, 20 years later, they return to me in the form of thanks.
Well, it is just in time. I have been teaching English for some 27 years now, and have recently begun to wonder whether it's worth the effort, trying to teach people to read and write in the Age of Television. Your letter seems to say to me: "you never know, Brother, what your words can do for others." You have restored my faith in teaching.
And so the prophecy has been fulfilled; the circle is complete; and now it is my turn to thank you. Thanks.
Simon graduated from South, then graduated from law school. He and his wife, Sabrina, – also an attorney – pursued careers in Washington that included him serving a year as a White House Fellow assisting U.S. Attorney General William French Smith. “From a career standpoint, we both were well positioned for successful careers in the nation’s capital. But from a personal standpoint, something was missing,” Simon said. That “something” was Alabama.
“After our son, Zac, was born, it was clear that he and his siblings to come were unlikely to grow up really knowing grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins unless we headed back South. And after attending a law school class reunion and getting to see many old friends, we decided to come back home. It was a decision we’ve never regretted.” A few years after returning, he was sworn in as a Jefferson County Circuit Court judge. Today, he has his own practice – Ken Simon Law – based in Birmingham.
His lifetime of persistence, success and service was recognized by his alma mater in 2007 with a Distinguished Alumni award and with his 2009 appointment to the USA Board of Trustees.
“As a kid who started in the projects, who attended segregated schools, whose mother made him attend South and whose first college job was watering bushes and laying sod, I have a keen appreciation for the inherent grace, unmerited favor and cosmic irony of my service as a trustee.”