The Lives We Lost

Public education’s losses in 2021 were staggering. COVID killed more than 1,000 educators nationwide.  Here’s a report from one state, Kentucky.  

Many thousands more left public education rather than continue working in situations that threatened their lives. One in four American teachers reported considering leaving their job by the end of the last academic year, in a survey taken in January and February by the Rand Corp., a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization. That’s “more than in a typical pre-pandemic year and at a higher rate than employed adults nationally,” the report explained.  Pre-pandemic surveys found that one in six teachers were considering leaving the field. 

I could not find reliable data on the number of students who succumbed to COVID nor information about children left without parents because of the pandemic, but there were far too many stories like this one about 10-year-old Teresa Sperry, a 5th grader in Suffolk, Virginia,  

COVID also caused a spike in suicides among the young.

And in 2021 we also lost these nine men and women, all of whom cared deeply about America’s youth and public education:  

First, the Teachers We Lost:

There may be people who weren’t charmed by Vartan Gregorian or awed by his accomplishments, but I’ve never met any. He was quite simply one of the most remarkable people I have ever known: Generous, smart, hard-working, tireless, ethically upright, funny, and more. Vartan improved everything he touched. He saved the New York Public Library, built Brown University into an intellectual jewel, and led Carnegie Corporation of New York, a major foundation, in new and challenging directions. As the New York Times put it, he was “A brilliant historian and educator, he led Brown University and the Carnegie Corporation, but his crowning achievement was the revival of the New York Public Library.”

I hope you will take the time to read his obituaries here, here, here, and here, but in case you don’t have the time, here’s a paragraph from one of them: Dr. Gregorian was a fighter: proud, shrewd, charming, a brilliant historian and educator who rose from humble origins to speak seven languages, win sheaves of honors and be offered the presidencies of Columbia University and the Universities of Michigan and Miami. He accepted the presidency of Brown University (1989-1997), transforming it into one of the Ivy League’s hottest schools, and since then had been president of the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a major benefactor of education.

That’s from The Times. Here’s a bit from the Wall Street Journal: With help from new friends including Brooke Astor and David Rockefeller, he raised $327 million from public and private sources. He discovered that New Yorkers would compete to pay large sums for the honor of sitting next to authors at library events. That helped pay for humidity controls to protect books, scrubbing of blackened facades and restoration of elegant rooms that had been chopped up into cubicles.

A Stanford graduate, he was also an inspiring teacher (at San Francisco State University; UCLA; the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Pennsylvania).  Vartan was also a thoughtful and graceful writer.  I treasure a signed copy of his very readable autobiography, “The Road to Home: My Life and Times.” 

Vartan Gregorian died in New York City in April.  He was 87.

I wish I had known bell hooks, who was only 69 when she died in December.  She was a groundbreaking author, educator, and activist; her analyses of the intertwining of race, gender, economics and politics helped shape academic and popular debates over the past 40 years.  What a loss, but what a life she led…..

James Loewen, the historian who wrote “Lies My Teacher Told Me” and “Sundown Towns,” died in August after a long struggle with bladder cancer.  Jim, only 79 when he died, made every day count. You can read about his life and accomplishments here

Here’s one critical piece of his biography, from Wikipedia: Loewen attended Carleton College. In 1963, as a junior, he spent a semester in Mississippi, an experience in a different culture that led to his questioning what he had been taught about United States history. He was intrigued by learning about the unique place of nineteenth-century Chinese immigrants and their descendants in Mississippi culture, commonly thought of as biracial. Loewen went on to earn a PhD in sociology from Harvard University based on his research on Chinese Americans in Mississippi. (And he returned to teach at Tougaloo, an HBCU.)

Never a shrinking violet, Jim regularly circulated information about his speaking engagement to a wide circle of friends and acquaintances. He used this to pull in more invitations because he was determined to spread his message: that America needed to stop lying to itself about its own history, particularly when it comes to race and racism.  I wish I could remember when Jim and I first met, but somehow we began corresponding fairly regularly. When he discovered that I had grown up in Darien, Connecticut, he loved reminding me that Darien was the quintessential Sundown Town, a place where Black people were not allowed after dark.  When I protested that we lived on a working farm of 23 acres and had Black and Russian families living with us at, Jim would let up….but only slightly.  

One quick story: The year I turned 70 I began commemorating my birthday by biking my age. Then, in 1977 I asked readers of this blog to donate (at least) $77 to their favorite charity–if I made it.  As it happened, Jim was in New York and we met for lunch a few days before my June 14th birthday.  He knew about the challenge and said, with some fanfare, that if I did make it, he would donate $77,000 in my honor!  

I thought he was kidding, but he wasn’t….

Sure enough, he donated $77,000 to Tougaloo College, the HBCU in Mississippi where Jim had taught.  

(It didn’t diminish my gratitude or pleasure when Jim told me that he gave Tougaloo $100,000 every year, part of his royalties from “Lies My Teacher Told Me.”)

If you haven’t read “Sundown Towns” or “Lies My Teacher Told Me,” please do. And The New Press has also issued a version of the latter aimed at younger readers.

Shirley McBay, who in 1966 became “the first Black person to receive a doctorate from the University of Georgia, and who went on to be a leading voice for diversity in science and math education, died on Nov. 27 at her home in Los Angeles. She was 86.”  Please read her obituary in the New York Times.

People in the world of education knew Robert Moses because of The Algebra Project, which he started in the 1980’s to teach struggling high school and middle school students mathematics, but Bob Moses was much more than an inspiring educator.  He was a Rhodes Scholar, a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Award winner, and a Civil Rights leader who was arrested in Mississippi for helping Blacks register to vote, all before starting The Algebra Project.

I deeply regret that I never reported on The Algebra Project or met Dr. Moses, who was ‘press shy,’ as this elegant PBS obituary put it. 

Moses was born in Harlem, New York, on January 23, 1935, two months after a race riot left three dead and injured 60 in the neighborhood. His grandfather, William Henry Moses, has been a prominent Southern Baptist preacher and a supporter of Marcus Garvey, a Black nationalist leader at the turn of the century.

But like many black families, the Moses family moved north from the South during the Great Migration. Once in Harlem, his family sold milk from a Black-owned cooperative to help supplement the household income, according to “Robert Parris Moses: A Life in Civil Rights and Leadership at the Grassroots,” by Laura Visser-Maessen.

While attending Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, he became a Rhodes Scholar and was deeply influenced by the work of French philosopher Albert Camus and his ideas of rationality and moral purity for social change. Moses then took part in a Quaker-sponsored trip to Europe and solidified his beliefs that change came from the bottom up before earning a master’s in philosophy at Harvard University.

Moses didn’t spend much time in the Deep South until he went on a recruiting trip in 1960 to “see the movement for myself.” He sought out the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta but found little activity in the office and soon turned his attention to SNCC.

“I was taught about the denial of the right to vote behind the Iron Curtain in Europe,” Moses later said. “I never knew that there was (the) denial of the right to vote behind a Cotton Curtain here in the United States.”

The young civil rights advocate tried to register Blacks to vote in Mississippi’s rural Amite County where he was beaten and arrested. When he tried to file charges against a white assailant, an all-white jury acquitted the man and a judge provided protection to Moses to the county line so he could leave.

He later helped organize the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which sought to challenge the all-white Democratic delegation from Mississippi. But President Lyndon Johnson prevented the group of rebel Democrats from voting in the convention and instead let Jim Crow southerners remain, drawing national attention.

Disillusioned with white liberal reaction to the civil rights movement, Moses soon began taking part in demonstrations against the Vietnam War then cut off all relationships with whites, even former SNCC members.

Moses worked as a teacher in Tanzania, Africa, returned to Harvard to earn a doctorate in philosophy and taught high school math in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Later in life, the press-shy Moses started his “second chapter in civil rights work” by founding in 1982 the Algebra Project.”

Moses believed that math literacy was ‘the next phase’ of the struggle for civil rights.  “Education is still basically Jim Crow as far as the kids who are in the bottom economic strata of the country,” he said in 2013. Moses believed that algebra in particular was a critical “gatekeeper” subject because mastering it was necessary in order for middle school students to advance in math, technology, and science; college was out of reach without it. 

By design, The Algebra Project takes students who score the lowest on state math tests and aims to prepare them for college level math by the end of high school by doubling up on math courses for the four years of high school. Participants have consistently scored better on state exams than non-participants, often by wide margins. 

Dr. Moses died in July. He was 86. 

If you’re a reader and have children or grandchildren, books published by Scholastic are probably an important part of your life.  For this you can thank Richard Robinson, who took over Scholastic, his father’s magazine company, and transformed it into a children’s book publishing giant.  Think “Harry Potter,” the “Hunger Games” Trilogy, “The Magic School Bus,”  “Goosebumps,” “Captain Underpants,” “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and “The Baby-Sitters Club,”to name a few.  

Robinson, who told the New York Times that  he considered reading a civil right, prided himself in “reviving books and promoting narrative storytelling as a muscular rival to video games in the competition for children’s attention.”

“Publishing the ‘Harry Potter’ books has changed the company and made it more visible,” he told The New York Times in 2005. “But what everybody feels the most about Harry Potter is that it brought kids to the reading process who had never been readers.”

He was fun to be around, quick to grin, and full of good stories.  He taught public school early in his career, served as head of the Association of American Publishers, and led the capital campaign for the Manhattan Children’s Museum. 

Dick Robinson died in June in Chilmark, Mass., on Martha’s Vineyard, of an apparent heart attack. Off island, he lived in Greenwich Village. He was 84. 

Next, the Advocates:

Eli Broad was best known for his devotion to the arts and to the city of Los Angeles.  Although public education was just one of Broad’s many interests, the billionaire committed a great deal of energy and money to it. In 2002 he created the Broad Prize ($500,000 in college scholarships) for the year’s most outstanding urban school district. The Prize was awarded with great fanfare at a gala event in either Washington, DC, or New York City for 13 years, and, like the Oscars or football’s Heisman Trophy, the finalists all showed up. Then–roll of drums–the envelope was opened.  

However, the Prize eventually lost momentum, largely because not enough urban districts were actually showing improvement, something I wrote about in “Addicted to Reform.”  

When Mr. Broad concluded that prizes weren’t going to change urban education, he suspended the annual award and put his energy and money into charter schools.  This made him even more controversial, a status that did not seem to concern the combative billionaire. I was among the critics.  Even so, I was seated with the Broads at a dinner and tried to persuade Eli and his wife, Edith, that the term ‘charter school’ had become meaningless because many state laws allowed grifters and con artists to open charter schools and (legally) rob public treasuries blind, but the Broads weren’t having any of it. 

Eli Broad died in Los Angeles in April. He was 87.

​​Denis Doyle died at eighty-one on December 2 in Los Angeles, his home in recent years. I was privileged to know Denis during my years in Washington. He was smart, funny, curious, and generous.  Checker Finn published a warm tribute recently, and I hope you will take a few minutes to read it.  You can find it here.

Denis was more than willing to take on education’s sacred cows, as he did in 2004 when he asked the question “Where do public school teachers send their own children?”

His research proved what a lot of people suspected: “Across the states, 12.2 percent of all families (urban, rural, and suburban) send their children to private schools —a figure that roughly corresponds to perennial and well-known data on the proportion of U.S. children enrolled in private schools. But urban public school teachers send their children to private schools at a rate of 21.5 percent, nearly double the national rate of private-school attendance. Urban public school teachers are also more likely to send their children to private school than are urban families in general (21.5 vs. 17.5 percent).” 

George M. Strickler Jr. was a civil rights attorney who fought to desegregate Southern schools in the 1960s and was pushed out of his University of Mississippi teaching job amid uproar over his work on behalf of Black clients. He died September 2 at the age of 80.

In addition to the loss of so many dedicated individuals, 2021 was a year of lost opportunities for public education. Most school systems and teachers were unprepared for a year of virtual teaching.  And most school boards were ill equipped to do anything except try to ‘get back to normal.’ Although every crisis is also an opportunity, school boards are historically reactive and status quo oriented, and that is beyond unfortunate.  

If ever a time called for ‘thinking outside the box,’ it was 2021 (and 2020 of course).  If you want to go deeper into the issue of missed opportunities, see here and here and here.

While we mourn the losses of 2021, please keep in mind the heroes of 2022, the men and women who teach and work with our children. They need our support.

7 thoughts on “The Lives We Lost

    • My blog was pretty sharp, but he was alive then. I am adverse to speaking too harshly of the dead, but you are correct that he never seemed to be aware of the damage he did when he moved away from the Broad Prize (actually created a Charter Prize, but only for the big chains).


  1. Dear John, Happy New Year! Thanks for this great testimony to the lives and work of a number of education giants. I especially like your last line and your call (as you often do) to remember the teachers and other educators who continue to show up every day, every week. I am reminded of George Elliot’s great observation in Middlemarch: “But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”


  2. Mary,
    That’s so well expressed. Thank you for sharing her wisdom. I hope this finds you and Michael healthy, safe, and optimistic that, with work, we can save our nation from the demagogues. All the best, John


  3. Hi John — this isn’t about your most recent post (though that was a fascinating read — thanks!)

    I’m writing you about Vivian Connell, who you wrote about shortly after she passed away in 2016 —

    I’m taking a break from a 20+ year career as an educator to tell the story of a Holocaust survivor named Abe Piasek. My path was greatly influenced by Vivian Connell, though I never met her — I just saw a 20-minute video of her speaking. I’ll paste more info below, and maybe I’ll see you on Jan 27 when I tell Abe’s story.



    “My Friend Abe” A Holocaust Survivor’s Story

    January 27, 2022 7:00 pm – 8:30 pm Eastern Time (via Zoom)

    Commemorating International Holocuast Remembrance Day:

    Holocaust survivor Abe Piasek shared his story with more than 10,000 people in North Carolina in the final decade of his life. Taken from his family at age 13, Abe survived three years in slave labor camps, as well as a selection at Auschwitz, before he was liberated in 1945. Abe passed away in 2020 at the age of 91, but his story lives on through his friend, veteran high school teacher Steve Goldberg, who tells Abe’s story by weaving video clips of Abe speaking with maps, artifacts and photos that help bring Abe’s story to life.

    Steve Goldberg graduated from Duke and also earned a law degree from Georgetown. After teaching high school students about history for 20 years, Steve is taking a break from the classroom so that he can keep Abe’s legacy alive. Steve has shared Abe’s story with more than 2,200 people in the past 16 months.

    In April 2019, Steve organized a field trip for Abe and his family to join a dozen high school students to visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. As Steve will explain, that trip was inspired by a teacher-turned-lawyer from Chapel Hill named Vivian Connell. Vivian spoke at Beth El in April of 2015 about how, after she was diagnosed with ALS, one of her dying wishes was to bring her students from an alternative school in Chapel Hill to visit the US Holocaust Museum, because she considered it one of the most powerful teaching tools in the world.

    As Vivian wrote on her blog, many of her students “have never even left the area, much less the state, but they are fascinated when we teach about the Holocaust. Many of them have also encountered racism and cultural hatred, and a full day at the USHMM would make a permanent positive impact in their lives.”


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