Fort McCoy News Feb. 24, 2017

History month speaker: Education key to success

STORY & PHOTOS BY AIMEE MALONE
Public Affairs Staff

Education is the key that can unlock success, and it's important to help children find reasons to succeed, said guest speaker Willie Larkin at the Feb. 9 Fort McCoy luncheon honoring African-American/Black History Month.

Larkin, who has a doctorate in agricultural education and worked in higher education for more than 40 years, is a member of the Dane County Chapter of the NAACP and serves as co-chair of the Education Committee. He also is a member of the Madison, Wis., chapter of the 100 Black Men of America.

"I believe strongly in education, but as I've looked at the education system in our country, it is in crisis," Larkin said. "I want to talk about how we can collectively work together to make it better.

Willie Larkin, former president of Grambling State University in Louisiana, speaks to Fort McCoy community members during the installation’s observance of African-American/Black History Month on Feb. 9 at McCoy’s Community Center.
Willie Larkin, former president of Grambling State University in
Louisiana, speaks to Fort McCoy community members during the
installation's observance of African-American/Black History Month
on Feb. 9 at McCoy's Community Center.

"Education may be the new civil-rights issue that's coming before us, and it's not just black kids," he said. "It's the nation. We used to be No. l in the education of our citizenry. That's not the case anymore. … You lose when you're not educated."

To give the audience members a better idea of how education had helped him, Larkin shared a few stories about his childhood in Alabama and Georgia.

"I grew up on a sharecropper farm, and I hated it with a passion," Larkin said. "I used to go to bed every night and pray, 'Lord, I know you are omnipotent, but you've made a terrible mistake. Please, deliver me from this place.' And then I'd wake up and still be on that farm.

"I started to believe that education was the key that could propel you to whatever you wanted to accomplish or do in life," Larkin said, and he became determined to continue his education.

"It's amazing how your academic performance in school starts to get better when you have a purpose in mind," he said.

"I wanted to get away from there, so I became the smartest kid in school."

His father, however, loved farming and expected his Family to continue the tradition. Larkin said his father was angry when he told him he was going to college, asking, "What do you need college for?"

Larkin said his mother put her foot down, stood up to his father, and said, "This boy is smart. He is going to college." It was the only time he'd seen her stand up to his father. She also supported his dream by squirreling away money and giving it to him for college. By the time he started school in 1969, he'd accumulated $600.

He said he and his wife, who also has a doctorate, know what education can do for young people. Their educations have taken them throughout the country to six universities over the span of their careers. Their children have worked for Fortune 500 companies. So they've made it their goal to work with both parents and students to help them understand the value of a good education.

One school he works with in Madison has a project called "Soar."

Willie Larkin, former president of Grambling State University in Louisiana, speaks to Fort McCoy community members during the installation’s observance of African-American/Black History Month on Feb. 9 at McCoy’s Community Center.
Willie Larkinspeaks to Fort McCoy community members during the
installation's observance of African-American/Black History Month.

"They have 12 kids who have been deemed incorrigible," Larkin said. "Before you can teach them other things, you've got to say to them, you're special. You're one of a kind.

"What are your dreams? What are your aspirations? A lot of times, it's hard for them to envision themselves being in any other kind of situation than the one they're in," he said.

"I grew up in the deep South," Larkin said, and he lived through the civil-rights era. "But I never let it affect me in a way that would make me bitter, make me angry, or allow me to lash out at others." While he was never a marcher or protester, he said he's worked to improve things by creating opportunities and encouraging people to pursue their dreams.

Sometimes, even when at-risk students do well or start improving in school, they don't get the validation and support they need at home, Larkin said. He and other volunteers try to provide that support for them and encourage their parents or guardians to do the same.

To teach students in the Soar program what they need to succeed, Larkin uses the acronym CHAMPIONS — commitment, heart, attitude, motivation, perseverance, intelligence, optimism, never give up, and service. He said it's important to find something that motivates you, commit to it, persevere through obstacles, be optimistic about your chances, have heart, and keep your attitude positive.

Intelligence is also extremely important, but he said that shouldn't discourage people. "Here's the beautiful thing about intelligence: You can create intelligence for yourself by the amount of work, energy, and time you're willing to put into your learning and acquisition of knowledge."

Service is important after achieving success, too, he said. People can't make a difference by visiting an impoverished area once a year; they have to continually give back to their communities.

"We get our diplomas and our nice houses and cars, and we occasionally go to the hood," Larkin said. "That don't cut it. You've got to get your butt over there regularly. You've got to interface with those kids. … Once they know you really care, that you're not coming down there because of some guilt trip, then they'll start to open up to you and you can start helping them."

Fort McCoy Garrison Commander Col. David J. Pinter Sr. presents guest speaker Willie Larkin,  former president of Grambling State University in Louisiana, with a commemorative coin during the installation’s observance of African-American/Black History Month on Feb. 9, 2017, at McCoy’s Community Center. (U.S. Army Photo by Aimee Malone, Public Affairs Office, Fort McCoy, Wis.)
Fort McCoy Garrison Commander Col. David J. Pinter Sr. presents guest
speaker Willie Larkin, former president of Grambling State University
in Louisiana, with a commemorative coin during the installation's
observance of African-American/Black History Month.

While they aren't part of the CHAMPIONS acronym, experience and embracing diversity are also keys to success, Larkin said. Everyone brings something different to the table, and it's important to listen to and learn from other people and their experiences.

"If you and I were just alike, one of us would be unnecessary," Larkin said. "Differences are extremely important, and I hope that you are open to embracing that.

"I know what diversity is all about. I know what embracing differences is all about," Larkin said. His children are both in interracial marriages, one with a white woman and the other with a Sikh Indian.

"When we get together with our Family and our friends, it is almost like an international conference," Larkin said. "It is beautiful because we're all different. We all like and embrace different things, but we love each other and that brings us together as a Family."

He said humor can help bridge the gap between different groups of people. He shared a story about a time he spoke at a Future Farmers of America event in Ohio. The club members were giving away donated door prizes, and when they called his ticket number, he jumped up to claim his prize.

"The person who had the door prize had it slightly behind their back, and I said, 'Give me my door prize! I've never won anything in my life!'" Larkin said. "And then they started slowly bringing it around, and it was a small bottle of … suntan lotion.

"Now, under normal circumstances, that wouldn't be a problem or hitch at all. But I was the only black person in that entire room." He said throughout the room, people's heads sagged and they didn't meet his eyes.
Larkin said he was briefly angry, thinking that he was being mocked. "Then something said to me, 'Lighten up. Enjoy the moment.'"

Shortly after, he was summoned to the front of the room and introduced before his speech. People's heads were still down, avoiding eye contact, and he decided to address the elephant in the room.

"Before I get started with my remarks, please allow me to comment on that wonderful door prize. That … suntan lotion," he said.
Indicating the student who had introduced him, he said, "I want all of you to know that at one time I used to look just like this man before I used that … suntan lotion.

"Here's the takeaway: I could have gotten extremely angry at this situation. No one intended for me to get that door prize; it just happened." But because he was able to turn to situation in a humorous one and poke fun at it, everyone relaxed and they were able to bridge the gap.

Garrison Commander Col. David J. Pinter Sr. touched on the theme of finding commonalities and bridging gaps in his closing remarks, saying that despite growing up in a different part of the country, he could relate to Larkin's farming history. He also stressed the importance of education and diversity to a team's success.

"When we're talking about diversity, we're not just talking about the color of somebody's skin or their gender or their religion," Pinter said. "It's also talking about their experience and their background.

"Education is a lifelong experience," Pinter said. "Education and experience are something no one can take away from you."
The next Equal Opportunity observance is March 16 for Women's History Month. For more information about Equal Opportunity services and events, call 608-388-6153.