A role model for overcoming the odds

Some of you may remember the name Leon Stennis, The Vindicator’s former religion editor and reporter.

For those who don’t know him, let me introduce you to a man who has overcome some daunting personal challenges to achieve a lifelong goal — earning his doctoral degree in English at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which he received last month.

Here are just some of the odds he has overcome in his life to achieve his doctorate:

He was reared in poverty in the rural South by a single mother in a family of five children.

He rose up from a segregated Little Rock, Ark., which he will speak to in a few moments.

He overcame the death of his first wife, Juanita, which thrust him into becoming the sole provider for his three children.

He labored, studied and overcame some setbacks for 61/2 years to obtain his doctorate.

Stennis, who turned 69 on Mother’s Day, refers to himself as one of the “Little Rock Nine Hundred,” as opposed to being one of the “Little Rock Nine,” who made history by desegregating the city’s all-white Central High School in 1957.

That action prompted others in the South to initiate efforts to further implement the U.S. Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education ruling. Violence occurred in Little Rock as a result of school desegregation, prompting President Dwight D. Eisenhower to dispatch federal troops to quell it.

Nine hundred is Stennis’ estimate of the number of black students affected when Arkansas Gov. Orville E. Faubus closed all four of the city’s high schools — three white and one black — in 1958, in an attempt to block the federal court-ordered desegregation of Little Rock Central.

Stennis recalls that many, if not most, of the white high-school students attended private schools that were set up as a result of the school closings.

“I remember that history, and I have the emotional scars caused by my family’s impoverishment and the stress from racial tensions to prove it,” Stennis says. “I was one of the casualties of the civil-rights movement then, but now I consider myself a success story from the movement. Unfortunately, so many students that I knew, including two of my sisters, were not as blessed with good outcomes,” he adds.

Stennis believes the difficulties of the impoverished conditions his family faced in John Barrow, then a rural suburb of Little Rock, in those days contributed to the mental and physical health issues that his sister, Odessa, faced before her death in 2009.

He attributes the death of one of his other sisters, Betty Lou, in the 1950s, from pneumonia and diphtheria to his family’s poverty. Poverty, he says, was tough on everyone in John Barrow. The year of missed schooling, he said, made it tougher.

After a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1959, Stennis was able to resume his schooling as a 10th-grader, a year behind some of his classmates, at Little Rock’s all-black Horace Mann High School.

He then told me about another event that had a lasting impact on his life.

During the 1959-60 school year, his English teacher told him, “Just go ahead into the Army,” when he did not do a research paper on the origins of jazz, because the male teacher “apparently felt that I would never succeed academically.”

Embarrassed by his family’s welfare status and lack of transportation, Stennis failed to tell his English teacher why he did not do his research paper. After admonishing him, his teacher had him transferred to a remedial English class.

Stennis also suffered a near tragedy when a male student put a belt around his neck and tried to choke him at an all-black high school in Wrightsville, Ark. He also witnessed the results of a fire in an all-black boys industrial school in which 21 young men died, including one of his classmates.

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said that which does not kill us makes us stronger.

Stennis said those negative incidents would become a driving force to help him accomplish positive things in his life.

After completing 11th grade in Little Rock in 1961, he moved to Youngstown, where he graduated from East High School in 1962. He later served with the Navy and Navy Reserve for six years, attaining the rank of journalist second class.

He earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 1973 from Youngstown State University and a master’s degree in English from YSU in 2000. He has worked in health-care administration, journalism, public relations and university administration.

I met Leon in 1976 when I began my career at the paper. He left the paper in 1992 to accept a position at YSU, where he later served as coordinator of diversity initiatives.

After retiring from YSU in 2005, Stennis was accepted into the literature and criticism doctoral program at IUP in Indiana, Pa.

He is the father of three adult children, Leon Jr. of Youngstown, and Leenisha J. Stennis and Pamela Stennis Sarratt, both of Columbus. He lives in Youngstown with his wife, Cheryl Hutchins-Stennis.

He told me he plans to pursue an adjunct- teaching position in literature or composition at the university level and try his hand at creative writing, including writing either a memoir or a novel about his family’s ordeal during the Little Rock school- desegregation crisis.

“After being blessed to survive or overcome so many obstacles in my life, I hope I can still do something to make at least a minor contribution to the betterment of our society,” he said. “In that regard, I hope I can be a role model to someone else.”

Dr. Stennis, you already are a role model.

Ernie Brown Jr., a Regional Editor at The Vindicator, writes a monthly column. You can contact him at ebrown@vindy.com

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