A Teacher Who Changed Lives

The following column originally appeared during October, 2022 in several APG of East Central Minnesota Newspapers including the Morrison County Record and Monticello Times

 

A teacher who changed lives

 

Fred Easter transformed thousands of lives – including mine. Over 50-plus years of teaching, mentoring, writing and friendship, Easter encouraged, inspired and challenged students from all backgrounds. After living 81 remarkable years, he passed away on Sept. 24. There’s much to learn from him.

Let’s start with Warren Simpson, who told me: “I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. I came to Carleton College at age 17, in 1966. When I first met Fred, he told me that he had to leave Harvard University after his second year, for academic reasons. However, he returned after a year and was able to graduate.”

Simpson recalls, more than 50 years after that conversation took place, what Easter taught him: “I was having a tough time at Carleton and had never experienced academic failure. The inspirational message I extracted from Fred’s undergraduate experience is that, ‘If I get knocked down (which I now know will happen to all of us in some form or another at least once during our life’s journey), you can always pick yourself up, dust off and keep moving forward.’”

Easter was an incredible teacher. I was one of three white students, along with about 25 Black students, in a Carleton College class that he taught in 1968. He welcomed everyone. We read a book titled “Black Families in White America,” by Black scholar/sociologist Dr. Andrew Billingsley. Easter’s questions to us opened new ideas that had a huge positive influence on my life.

I was raised in Wichita, Kansas, during the 1960s with two strong views about Black Americans. First, I was taught that they deserved equal rights in housing, education, jobs, health care and every other field. Second, I read several books presenting many Black people as “culturally deprived.” They needed “fixing.”

Easter and Billingsley had a different view. They pointed out that many Black Americans had succeeded, despite terrible challenges. This was a time when Black churches were being bombed, Black (and white) teens were being badly beaten for the “crime” of sitting next to each other at a lunch counter or on a bus, and some Black (and white) people were murdered because they tried to register Black people for voting.

Easter asked us to recognize and build on strengths of Black Americans. He readily acknowledged shortcomings that everyone has. He encouraged students to avoid bitterness and self-pity. He inspired us to spend our lives trying to make things better.

Simpson, like many others, did that. He became an attorney, working with corporations such as Cargill, Honeywell, Supervalu, Jostens and GELCO. He also served on numerous nonprofit boards, including the board of The City while Easter was CEO. This was a Minneapolis agency/school serving young people who struggled more in traditional public schools.

According to an email from Carleton’s chaplain, Carolyn Fure-Slocum, Easter had previously spent about eight years serving as, among other things, Carleton’s assistant director of admissions, director of Black Activities, associate dean of students, freshman basketball coach, and lecturer in English. In a history of Easter’s era at Carleton by Carleton grads Benjamin Wood and Sarah Entenmann, now in the college’s archives, other students recall him as the primary reason they entered, stayed and graduated from the school.

He also spent 10 years directing a statewide University of California program promoting math, science and engineering achievement. Simpson recalls “Fred’s strong, unwavering commitment to serving disadvantaged youth and providing them with educational opportunities and support.”

Fred in April, 2022 (courtesy of Warren Simpson)

Easter and I last talked a few days before he died. He was weak from cancer. We talked about the campaign I’ve previously described, in which high school students successfully challenged the state of Minnesota. Attorney General Keith Ellison’s legal brief affirmed that the student’s research was correct: High school students who were laid off due to the pandemic deserved federal “Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.” But it took two Minnesota Court of Appeals rulings before students received what they had earned.

This is exactly the kind of constructive action that Easter urged and modeled for decades. He responded with a huge smile and commented, using one of his highest compliments: “Outstanding.”

That’s the right word for Fred Easter: “outstanding”! A service honoring him will be held at the Skinner Memorial Chapel on the Carleton College Campus on Nov. 5 at 2 p.m.

Joe Nathan, Ph.D., formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change. Reactions welcome: joe@centerforschoolchange.org or @joenathan9249 on Twitter.