Warren Cherry: Trump, God, or Obama?

Every year for the past twenty-four years, I take the portrait of Warren W. Cherry, for whom Cherry Preschool is named, to the four-year-old classes. While the children have noticed this picture in the school’s front hall, only a few of them know who it is. I do this to keep his name alive and to make sure the kids know something about this inspiring local educator and friend of young children. Here’s the portrait:

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In past years, some of their guesses about who this might be ranged from Martin Luther King to Michael Jordan to President Obama to Abraham Lincoln and George Washington. I know children are not colorblind so I used to think the latter two identifications were due to the fact that there are schools in our community with those names. But this year’s random guesses were something else.

One child shouted out Trump, followed by a second child guessing God. The third guess of Obama made some sense, but Trump? God? Really.

I have to preface my theory about these guesses with the fact that my community is Evanston, an ultra-liberal college town. So why Trump? The teachers and school administrators guessed it was because the man looked important, but my theory is the prominent red tie. I’m sure @realdonaldtrump would have something to say about being misidentified as a black public school principal.

Then there was the issue of God. While Donald Trump sometimes acts in a god-like manner, there is probably another more amusing explanation. When Trump’s face appears on television, this child’s parents may say, “Oh, God.” Preschoolers are very literal, so this little guy took his parents’ word for it. I’m guessing @realdonaldtrump would like this misidentification better.

Of course, Barack Obama makes some sense as a guess from the black boy who shouted out his name. No, they look nothing alike but he saw an important man who shares his skin color. That is a good thing, and being able to tell him about another important African-American gave me great pleasure.

Warren Cherry had a wonderful sense of humor and would have laughed heartily to be confused with Obama, Jordan, Lincoln, and Washington. He would have been humbled to be seen as God or Martin Luther King. But Donald Trump? I’m glad he wasn’t around to hear that comparison.

After his death from cancer in 1990, a scholarship fund was established to honor the memory of this charismatic educator and community leader. As of today, the fund has awarded college scholarships to 164 Cherry Scholars.

As the organization’s website states, “Billy” as he was known by his Evanston Township High School (ETHS) classmates, friends and family, “while popular and active in high school, was not a serious student. Back in the 1950s, few recognized his tremendous potential to lead and to help others realize their potential…Warren “Billy” Cherry went to barber school after high school graduation and had a brief career as a barber before enrolling at Trinidad Jr. College in Trinidad, Colorado. His education culminated in a PhD program at Northwestern University.”

Unlike Trump, Warren Cherry was born into humble beginnings and devoted his life to creating caring and loving school communities and to helping all children achieve. He was the principal of my children’s elementary school, and I always tell people I learned more about education and leadership from his example than from all of the classes I took to earn my Master’s in early childhood administration. Some facts about Warren Cherry that definitely distinguish him from Donald Trump:

  • He was a mensch, the Yiddish word for a good human being with integrity and honor. His approach to all of us, children, families, and teaching staff, lucky enough to be on his “Love Boat” made us feel valued and respected.
  • He lived the Golden Rule and worked relentlessly to create equity and balance in services and access.
  • He served his community.  As a teacher, assistant principal, and finally as principal of my kids’ school, he also found time to serve on the boards of the ETHS Boosters Club, the Girl Scouts, the Justin Wynn Memorial Fund, the Mental Health Association, United Way, the McGaw YMCA and tutored at the Salvation Army. He didn’t just put his name on a board. He came to meetings and actively supported the group’s mission.
  • He brought people together, creating a true community in which staff and parents worked in unity on behalf of the children, his beloved “superstars.” He always had time for a warm greeting and loved to mingle with the children and chat up the parents.
  • He put the needs of people ahead of strict adherence to the rulebook. Warren taught me a profound lesson about true educational priorities.  While he made it clear that he didn’t condone the children stealing books from the school bookstore I ran as a volunteer, I’ll never forget him saying, “There are far worse things to steal than a book.” His empathy for a child who had to steal a book to possess one taught me to overlook minor infractions and bend the rules if the result was good for children.
  • He never put himself above the people he served. Warren was out there walking the halls, putting an arm around students’ shoulders, and even scaring them straight by delivering a loving lecture after they sat on his dreaded red bench awaiting discipline.
  • He appreciated all who worked under him and made sure they felt supported. His faculty reciprocated his love and devotion and passed it on to the children in their classrooms.
  • He was a man whose life path demonstrated leadership, sensitivity, compassion, and love of children. His commitment to our community informed everything he did.

Love and respect. Hands on leadership. Knowing people personally and valuing and affirming them for who they were. This was the glue that bound Warren’s community of students, parents, and teachers. So much of what Cherry Preschool ultimately became reflected this kind and empathic man.

There is a saying that has been part of the preschool since its beginnings: “Creating a caring community starts here.”  Warren Cherry’s impact on the preschool that bears his name was to create a true community in which parents help and support one another. A community in which staff members come to work every day filled with respect for their colleagues and devotion to their students. A community in which all children feel valued and cherished, not for what they do but for who she are.

Even though I am now retired, I bring Warren’s portrait around to the classes so his legacy will live on in the school that bears his name. I think the @realdonaldtrump could learn a lot from this humble man who lived the words “it is more blessed to give than receive.” Above all, he could learn to be a mench.

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