University of Pittsburgh
April 10, 2005

Pitt Alumnus, Trailblazing Educator Helen S. Faison to Deliver 2005 Commencement Address

Commencement set for 1 p.m. May 1 in Petersen Events Center
Contact: 

Robert Hill

412-624-8891

Cell: 412-736-9532

PITTSBURGH—Generations of public school students, teachers, principals, school board members, and education writers have concurred: During her 55-year career, University of Pittsburgh alumna Helen S. Faison has proved herself to be a remarkably accomplished and widely admired educator, with a litany of professional "firsts" to her credit, among them:

• In 1968, she was named the Pittsburgh Public School District's first female high school principal as well as its first African American high school principal;

• In 1983, Faison became, as deputy superintendent, the district's then-highest-ranking woman; and

• As interim superintendent from early 1999 to mid-2000, her skilled, dignified, and politically shrewd leadership of the Pittsburgh School District won nearly universal praise. She was the first Black to lead Pittsburgh's schools.

"Few people in this city have been respected as much" as Faison, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette opined in a Feb. 10, 2005, editorial. Last fall, the newspaper named her the region's most influential person in education.

On May 1, Faison will share life lessons with graduating students in one of the larger "classrooms" in Pittsburgh: Pitt's Petersen Events Center, located on Terrace Street in Oakland. There, in a ceremony scheduled to begin at 1 p.m., Faison will deliver the University's 2005 commencement address and receive an honorary doctoral degree from Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg and Provost James V. Maher.

"One of the points I plan to impart to graduating students," Faison says, "is that you can take it with you—that is, what you have learned and experienced at the University of Pittsburgh will serve you in the next phase of your life and well beyond. I have certainly found that to be true in my own life."

"In this country, access to a top-quality education has long been viewed as the key to building a productive and rewarding life," Chancellor Nordenberg notes. "Over the course of her distinguished career—as a teacher, administrator, and professor—Helen Faison has worked tirelessly and effectively to ensure that our schools are providing all of their students with the best possible experiences for learning and for growth. The fact that Dr. Faison built the foundation for her own life of impact by earning three Pitt degrees is a source of great pride within the University community."

A Pittsburgh native and 1942 graduate of the city's Westinghouse High School, Faison received the Bachelor of Science degree in education in 1946; the Master of Education degree in 1955; and the Ph.D. in educational administration in 1975.

Pretty impressive for a one-time "seventh-grade dropout," as Faison sometimes refers to herself jokingly in conversations with schoolchildren.

Temporarily leaving school after the seventh grade was not Faison's choice—far from it. But at the time she completed that grade, the two-room school she was attending in rural Lowesville, Va., did not offer classes to Blacks beyond that point. "The following year," Faison says, "my father arranged for me to live with a family in a nearby town, and I stayed with them Mondays through Fridays, attending the eighth and ninth grades there." On weekends, Faison lived with her maternal grandmother.

Born Helen Smith, in Pittsburgh on July 13, 1924, Faison grew up in the city's Homewood-Brushton section until age seven, when her mother became seriously ill with tuberculosis. "That was a sure death sentence back then," Faison remembers. "My mother knew she wasn't going to live much longer, so she packed herself, me, my four-year-old brother, and my one-year-old sister off to stay with our grandmother in Virginia. Both my mother and my father were from Virginia originally, although they were from adjacent counties and hadn't known each other growing up. They met and got married in Pittsburgh."

When Helen and her siblings were living with their mother and grandmother in Virginia, their father stayed behind in Pittsburgh to run his coal sales business. "Eight years later," Faison says, "following my mother's death and after my dad had remarried, my siblings and I were brought back to Pittsburgh to live with my dad and our new stepmother."

Helen excelled as a student at Westinghouse High and was accepted into the University of Pittsburgh's freshman class for fall 1942. But the week that Helen graduated from Westinghouse, her father died suddenly from hypertension and kidney failure.

Orphaned, Faison confronted the challenge of paying for college. "I had no idea how I was going to afford attending Pitt," Faison says. "My father was just 42 when he died, and he'd had very little life insurance." Tuition at Pitt at that time was only $10 per credit, or $300 per year, "but that was more money than I could possibly pay," remembers Faison.

To Faison's rescue came her high school French teacher, who got the ball rolling in a process that led to Faison winning one of the state-funded college scholarships awarded in those days by Pennsylvania state senators. The scholarship was for a total of $1,000 over four years. To pay the balance of her tuition, as well as for books and transportation, Faison worked a series of part-time jobs during the fall and spring; during summers, she was a full-time housekeeper and babysitter.

"One of the things I learned during my undergraduate years was to juggle a lot of different responsibilities—school, work, looking after my little sister and brother," Faison says. "Those are skills that have served me well ever since.

"Pitt was a very different place at that time," Faison recalls. "This was during World War II, and you would see a lot of uniformed soldiers on campus—more women than male students, too, because so many men were serving overseas. There were few cars on the streets; most students rode the streetcar to classes, and three tokens cost 25 cents. One thing I remember vividly is that very little of the Cathedral of Learning, where most of my classes were held, was actually finished. In most of the classrooms, the walls were still bare and unplastered. Fortunately, the physical conditions had no bearing on the excellence of the University's educational offerings."

Upon earning her bachelor's degree, Faison applied for teaching jobs, "but the only offers I got were from schools in the South," she says, "and I couldn't leave the Pittsburgh area because I had to help look after my sister here. So, I worked for three years for the Allegheny County Board of Assistance as a caseworker."

In 1950, nearly four years after she'd first applied for a job with the Pittsburgh Public Schools—and four years before the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed segregated public schools in its landmark Brown vs. Board of Education ruling—Faison was hired to teach social studies and English in the district's Fifth Avenue High School, a now-closed school in Uptown Pittsburgh, adjacent to the city's predominantly African American Hill District. She was among the district's few Black teachers at that time.

Faison became a counselor—the Pittsburgh School District's first Black high school counselor—in 1960 at Westinghouse High School, her alma mater, later advancing to vice principal there. One of the students she counseled at Westinghouse was Erroll B. Davis Jr., who today is chair, president, and CEO of Alliant Energy Corp., a Madison, Wisc.-headquartered energy services provider with subsidiaries serving more than three million customers.

"Dr. Faison had a profound effect on my life," Davis says. "After my good, but not great, freshman year in high school, she took me aside and suggested in no uncertain terms that I could do much better, that I was wasting my talents, and that I should get to work now. I think I may have gotten one mark lower than 'A' the rest of the way in high school. I am indebted to her for her caring concern and stimulating motivation."

In 1968, Faison became principal at Fifth Avenue High School. Two years later, she was named an assistant superintendent. In 1983, she was further promoted to deputy superintendent.

Faison retired from the Pittsburgh Public Schools in 1993, the same year that her husband, George W. Faison, died. The following year, she became a visiting professor in the education department of Chatham College and then the department's chair. In February 1999, Faison was named director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute, a partnership involving Chatham, Carnegie Mellon University, and the Pittsburgh Public Schools, aimed at enhancing the training provided to city schoolteachers. But Faison took a leave of absence from her director's job midway through 1999 after city school officials asked her to serve as interim superintendent while they searched for a replacement for Dale Frederick, who had resigned.

She served as interim superintendent until June 2000 and proved to be such a "steady hand on the wheel" (as former superintendent Richard C. Wallace once described her) that some wondered aloud why Faison never had been offered the job on a permanent basis.

"Yes, I've heard people say that I was unfairly overlooked for the superintendent's position," Faison says today. "But the truth is, I've never had any desire to be superintendent, not on a permanent basis."

But if she'd been offered the job?

"Well, I might have been foolish enough to accept," Faison says, smiling slyly. "But I certainly never went looking for it."

Currently, Faison is cochairing the search for a new, permanent superintendent to succeed John Thompson. Alan Lesgold, dean of Pitt's School of Education, says he can't think of a more qualified educator to help lead the search. "There is virtually no important activity related to the K-12 world of education in Pittsburgh where Helen Faison has not been available as an adviser and a serious participant," says Lesgold, who has known and worked with Faison for the last 34 years. "She is both an irreplaceable source of advice on educational issues and one of the area's strongest moral forces in education."

Faison resumed her duties as head of Chatham's teachers institute upon stepping down as interim superintendent of the city's schools in 2000. She continues to serve Pitt as an emeritus trustee and as a member of the boards of visitors of the University's education school and College of General Studies. Among the Pitt honors Faison has received are selection as a Legacy Laureate and the Pitt African American Alumni Council's Distinguished Alumnus Award. In 1993, the University established the Helen S. Faison Scholarship in the School of Education. Her many other awards have included being named a Distinguished Daughter of Pennsylvania and making the 1989 Executive Educator 100, an annual list of the nation's top educators.

Just as the blue-and-gold University of Pittsburgh lamp on Faison's office desk at Chatham serves as a reminder of her alma mater, so do the phone calls that Faison regularly gets from Pitt: invitations to University events, reminders of trustees meetings, and so forth. Nevertheless, Faison was puzzled by a series of phone messages she received from Chancellor Nordenberg. "I'd spoken with the chancellor before, of course," says Faison, "but I couldn't think why he would be calling me rather insistently. Then it occurred to me that he must be calling to recommend a candidate for the superintendent's job."

When Faison and Nordenberg eventually did reach each other by phone, Faison mischievously asked Pitt's chancellor: "So, you're interested in being superintendent of the Pittsburgh Public Schools?"

"Never in a million years," Faison confides, "did I suspect that he was calling to invite me to be the speaker at Pitt's commencement. It's a wonderful honor, certainly not one that I ever could have predicted back in 1942"—when Helen Faison was an apprehensive yet determined Pitt freshman with dreams of becoming a schoolteacher.

More than six decades later, Pitt education school dean Lesgold observes: "Dr. Faison really is 'Ms. Education' in this region."

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