When Passion Meets Purpose

Source: Spartanburg Journal, Charles Sowell

August 17, 2010

District 7 Superintendent Russell Booker’s passion and devotion got him selected for the next Liberty Fellowship class; those are some of the same traits that saw him tapped for the top schools slot in the city of Spartanburg.

At 40, Booker is a man who loves his job, his family and the community he’s been called to serve. He is an intense man with kind eyes that urge people to talk about themselves and their dreams.

His favorite quote “Relationships are all there is,” is by Margaret Wheatley and sums up his philosophy of schools administration and life.

Jennie Johnson, executive director of the Liberty Fellowship program, saw those traits in Booker when she interviewed him for the program. “He’s a wonderful addition to the fellowship.”

“I know not everybody loves what they do, at least not like I do,” Booker said during an interview in his tiny office at District 7 headquarters. “My wife hated the time she spent in banking and you run into people all the time that don’t really like what they do.”

District 7 is a small school district with slightly more than 7,500 students. Most of the kids (4,300) are African American; 2,500 are white and the rest are made up of a smattering of Asian, Hispanic and other ethnic groups.

In many ways that is not reflective of the city as a whole, according to data from a national real estate relocation Web site. The site reports Spartanburg has just over 19,000 blacks and 18,000 whites in a total population of slightly less than 40,000.

The vast majority of District 7 students are achingly poor, Booker said.

In a city known for neighborhoods like Converse Heights, the disparity is stark.

“At some of our schools 100 percent of the kids are on reduced price lunches,” said Booker.

His biggest challenge as the new superintendent, he officially took over in July 1, is trying to knit together disconnects between disparate segments of the community.

“We have people in Spartanburg who are pretty polarized (politically),” Booker said. “I believe we must find a way to have civil discourse between people of differing opinions. Until we do we won’t deal effectively with the issues that face us.”

Johnson said the Liberty Fellows will be steeped in diversity and in techniques to bridge gaps between differing philosophies.

“I believe in the public schools” Booker said. “I’m a product of Spartanburg County’s schools and one of my greatest challenges is to get that message out into the community.”

He’s optimistic that his two-year stint as a Liberty Fellow will greatly enhance his ability to do that.

Johnson agreed, and added that the only thing Hayne Hipp, the Greenville philanthropist who founded the program, asks of participants is that they go out into the state and apply what they’ve learned. They’re asked to do that for the rest of their lives.

She’s confident Booker will.

Booker’s sure his participation in the fellowship seminars will be a life-changing event.

“I try to learn from everybody I meet,” he said.

Rarely does a day pass at district headquarters when Booker doesn’t stop to speak with Bobby Dillard in building maintenance.

“Bobby’s been struggling with those crape myrtles out there,” Booker said, pointing to blossom-heavy plants right outside his office window. “I didn’t know it, but crepe myrtles are high maintenance plants.”

Booker graduated from Byrnes High School. His parents were not well off but comfortable, mom worked in food services and his father spent 30 years at Hoechst Celanese.

The essentials of life were drilled into Booker’s head early in life. His undergraduate degree is from tiny Wingate University in North Carolina. Booker never owned a car until after he graduated and knew early on in his college career that his calling in life was to be an educator.

He sits on the board at Wingate and holds several other posts with the school.

His post-graduate degrees are from the University of South Carolina.

Booker’s wife, Sheryl, graduated from Keenan High School in Columbia and got her undergraduate degree from Wofford. They met when he was 25 and have two boys, Grant who is 9 and Maxwell, 6.

Sheryl no longer works in banking, but is a stay at home mom who does volunteer work.

Booker’s rise in education wasn’t meteoric, but was nonetheless rapid. He’s worked as a teacher, counselor, coach, principal and district level administrator. He was superintendent of York District 1 before coming to Spartanburg.

Booker credits much of his success as an educator to the people who have mentored him like Jim Ray superintended in Spartanburg District 3, where Booker did much of his early teaching and got his first job as a principal.