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Commentary: How renowned educator Charles Akins changed my life

I find it hard — and easy — to pay tribute to Charles Akins, who passed away last week. His funeral is Friday.

He was my teacher, mentor, colleague, supervisor and dear friend of rare quality and grace. In my opinion, Webster’s Dictionary needs additional language to fully describe him. Webster’s defines “grace” to be in forms that include divine love, clemency, reprieve and sanctification by the grace of God. From Day One, after meeting Charles over 50 years ago, I detected that our Creator had given the world a very special human being.

My first taste of Charles’ grace was received in his civics class at segregated “old” Anderson High School. He creatively prevented lapses in students’ attention through tactics like asking “John” to get “Henry” to tell “James” that he needs to cite the year the U.S. Constitution was written. This unique, no-doze prevention strategy tightened mental attention — and cheeks in seats, too. Failures were few, thanks to divine love.

He knew that quality-of-life stakes were very high for his students for the same reasons he was confined to teaching in an all-black school. Segregation in the workplace existed as well as it did in schools, and Charles stressed the need to get prepared. Whether he knew it or not, he was preparing himself to attract an unprecedented career opportunity far beyond prevailing norms.

Charles was appointed to be the first principal at the “new” Anderson High while I was obtaining a degree in architecture, followed by career growth in providing built facilities. After my employment with the city of Austin, I joined Charles at Austin ISD, where I became director of its construction-management department. By then, he had already been promoted to assistant superintendent.

Encouraging and complimenting me continually, his ever-present love and confidence in me made a difference. So did the element of his grace that empowered clemency and reprieve. My management of $210 million in the 1980s did not come without the gnashing of teeth and other provocations that generally accompany big spending. Cool-headed as usual, Charles always remained trademark civil.

Eventually succumbing to the entrepreneurial itch, I hesitated and pondered over joining an established firm owned by two Anglo males meaningfully older than myself. Charles smiled encouragingly and said, “Those are some good people.” I trusted Charles and have enjoyed my career and growth to president of BLGY Architecture. The strength of Charles’ reprieve trait influenced my comfort toward ignoring ethnicity and not rejecting persons because of the history of infractions of others.

Shortly after joining BLGY, I chaired a group that planned Charles’ citywide retirement party. My subcommittee chairs loved him like I did — and what a cash-cow draw he was! Use of city of Austin Convention Center: free. Use of a limousine: free. The minimum sum required for listing of donor name in the event program was $50 dollars. One sweet, retired school teacher wanted so badly to have her name among donors, I held her hot check until her retirement stipend arrived.

At least 1,350 persons attended and provided $45,000 for event expenses and a scholarship in Charles’ name. He and I being the last to depart, he looked at me and said, “Let me enjoy this a little bit longer; I’ve never ridden in a limousine unless somebody died.” Charles and his wife, Estella, have since mailed to my home free movie passes every Christmas in appreciation.

I visited Charles during his last days. Estella announced my presence through several attempts. After more than 30 minutes — and in heart-breaking condition — he mumbled a barely audible statement that almost dropped me to my knees.

I found myself apologizing to Estella for tearfully “losing it” upon hearing his only words spoken during my visit: “a fine young man.”

Yes, that is sanctification by the grace of God, revealed in disappearing breaths of life itself. I am grateful beyond description for having crossed paths with — first and foremost — this member of our human race. I pray that all of us will strive to maintain grace and make our world a better world as he did.

Hawkins is president and CEO of BLGY Architecture.

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