The ‘Lion of West Garfield Park’

A man who looked into our brown eyes and saw us as educable in whose eyes, each time we reached some new milestone, we saw delight and pride.

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John Fountain (left) with Paul J. Adams III as he received the Loretto Hospital Spirit of Achievement Award.

Provided photo | Omero “Matt” Morales

This week’s column is a version of John Fountain’s tribute given this week to present Paul J. Adams III as this year’s Loretto Hospital Spirit of Achievement Award recipient

“It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” —Frederick Douglass

If Frederick Douglass was the “Lion of Anacostia,” then Paul J. Adams III is the “Lion of West Garfield Park” — a modern-day abolitionist, seeking to free our people from the chains of poverty and miseducation that consign too many to hyper-segregated isles. That leave countless souls lost, languishing, stumbling in the dark.

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Without Paul Adams, there would be no Providence St. Mel School, which continues to embody his vision of the best vehicle for helping to set so many black boys and girls free. That for the last four-plus decades has sent 100% of its graduates to this nation’s top colleges and universities.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear Mr. Adams’ roar, proclaiming Providence St. Mel his domain. Pronouncing to those who trample the castle’s greens as they walk past: “Hey, stay off my grass!”

I can see him, standing with no fear. His brown eyes penetrating. His proud woolen 70s Afro his mane. Standing — every day the same. Protecting students from the cruelest elements on the city’s West Side. Instilling in all who entered the castle’s doors: Providence St. Mel pride.

I can still see this lion of a man standing — his soul rooted in the Middle Passage and red clay Alabama dirt. Standing--inspired by Dr. King’s dream. Standing —shaped by Emmett Till’s murder and Jim Crow hurt. Standing — determined to be the change he wanted to see. Standing — committed to the eradication of injustice and inequality.

Cemented by his belief in the transformative power of God and education. Stubborn in his will to impact the trajectory of a nation: One child, one school, one heart, one mind, one day at a time …

So when the Archdiocese declared in 1978 that it would forever close Providence-St. Mel’s doors, the lion roared. From near and far they came to embrace Mr. Adams’ vision of educating the poor.

Of ignoring the statistics and naysayers who labeled us the so-called “Permanent Underclass.” Of imagining ghetto schoolchildren sprouting up someday like St. Mel’s emerald green grass.

Of raising the bar of expectation and not accepting excuses to fail. Of providing the tools and instruction to excel.

And here we are, 41 years later, St. Mel still standing. Still believing. Still achieving. Still equipping children with academic wings to soar. Still defying the odds. Still succeeding at what “they” still say cannot be done: Educating all of America’s daughters and sons.

As a boy once who found my way to Adams’ castle, some things I will never forget. Among them: That for some, he was Father — a stern and yet loving surrogate of men who had abandoned us — a mentor, a rock. Steadfast. Unmovable. A black man who stood, stayed, stuck.

A man who looked into our brown eyes and saw us as educable in whose eyes, each time we reached some new milestone, we saw delight and pride. Keeper of the gate. The man who could make green grass grow — even on the West Side.

And I stand here this evening, representing a long trail of doctors, lawyers, engineers, educators and plain “good citizens” to testify that Paul J. Adams III has impacted our lives unto generations.

This is his legacy: Countless inspired lives and educational transformation.

And this is the bedrock upon which the Providence St. Mel dream rests: That to help save our lives one man was willing to give his.

It is with great honor and pride that I present to you … the man I call, Dad — Paul J. Adams III.

Email: Author@johnwfountain.com

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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