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How Dr. Perry Ward Transformed Lawson State In His 33 Years as President

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Dr. Perry Ward, Lawson State Community College President, will retire at the end of this month after 33 years on the job. (Marvin Gentry, For the Birmingham Times)
By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times

For more than three decades, students, faculty, alumni, and the wider Birmingham community have known one leader at Lawson State Community College—Dr. Perry W. Ward.

In 33 years as president, Ward has seen thousands of students enroll at and graduate from the institution. The irony is he never saw himself as an educator.

“The folks up in heaven were looking down on me laughing and saying, ‘He has no idea what he’s going to be involved in,’” said Ward, who retires effective August 31.

“Years later, here I am, involved in what I thought I never wanted to be involved in, but I absolutely love it,” he added. “It’s been a wonderful career that I have enjoyed. I don’t know what else I could have done that I would have enjoyed this much.”

In a letter announcing his retirement last month, Ward said it was a difficult decision but now is the time to “explore the opportunities that may exist in Chapter II. … It’s been a real struggle to make the decision to leave one of my true loves in life.”

Ward is only the fourth president in LSCC’s 72-year history; his predecessors were Dr. Theodore A. Lawson (1949–1971), Dr. Leon Kennedy (1971–1978), and Dr. Jesse J. Lewis (1978–1987). Under Ward’s leadership, the school rose to national and international status.

The Birmingham Times recently had the chance to sit with Ward on the LSCC campus to discuss his education in Birmingham City Schools (BCS) and at Miles College, his first day as president at LSCC, what advice he’d give his successor, what he plans to do once he retires—and, of course, the one visitor who will always be part of his legacy.

President Obama Visits

Ward said he knew the college was doing the right thing when President Barack Obama paid a visit to the campus in March 2015.

“We get this call in 2015 about a senior White House official that wants to visit the college, so they spoke to our public relations [PR] team,” Ward recalled. “About 15 or 20 minutes later, our [PR department] called me back and said some White House officials want to [come to LSCC] to meet with and speak to people. I’m just thinking, ‘Yeah, so what?’”

Ward didn’t really take it seriously until around 5 p.m. the following day, when about four or five black SUVs pull up. Out jump these ladies and gentlemen “who weren’t smiling or laughing,” he said. “They were very serious, and they wanted to know about the college’s facilities, communication devices, cameras, internet, everything we had.”

Those ladies and gentlemen were Secret Service agents, who stayed on LSCC’s grounds from that Friday until Thursday of the following week, checking out the campus facilities. During that time, Ward and his staff learned that President Obama would be coming.

“We had about 2,000 tickets to give away, so [LSCC Director of Public Relations and Community Affairs Geri Albright] and I became the two most popular people in Birmingham. We had people all the way [back] from our kindergarten years calling us saying, ‘We heard you have some tickets, and we’d like a couple.’ The pressure was phenomenal.”

The day President Obama was scheduled to speak, the line for the afternoon speech began to form around 9 or 10 that morning and was wrapped around the building to get into the gymnasium, Ward recalled.

“At about noon, they opened the facility, and within about an hour everyone was in place,” he remembered. “[President Obama] came in directly from the airport. There were signs on the roadway. There were signs in the community when he came through. There were signs in the gym. It was a big deal. He came in with the Secret Service, and everybody in the gym was screened and checked. He probably got in about 1:15 p.m. and stayed until about 5:30 or 6 p.m.”

Ward said he and about five others got the chance to have a one-hour meeting with the president.

“He was very easy to talk to, very comfortable and down to earth, and he has a great sense of humor,” Ward said. “He came because he loved community colleges and wanted to do a press conference at a community college. Of all the ones in the U.S., he chose [LSCC]. … It was a confirmation of what we’d been doing. If it weren’t, he wouldn’t have come.”

Accomplishments

President Obama’s visit was one of several highlights during Ward’s three decades at the college. His tenure has seen new facilities and technology, a merger with Bessemer State Technical College, which became the LSCC Bessemer location in 2005; increased student enrollment; and numerous national recognitions—including being named among the top five community colleges in the nation by Washington Monthly, a bimonthly magazine of U.S. politics and government based in Washington, D.C.

In addition, few nursing programs in the country compare to LSCC’s.

“There are 42 nursing programs in the state of Alabama, and [LSCC] was recognized as number one in 2018,” Ward said. “There were years when all of our graduates would pass the [National Council Licensure Examination (NCLEX), a nationwide examination for the licensing of nurses]. That’s like winning the national championship.”

LSCC’s enrollment has increased from less than 1,000 when Ward began to more than 5,000 now, with students from Florida, Texas, New Jersey, and other places around the U.S., including Puerto Rico. LSCC alumni have gone on to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), Miles College, Samford University, Birmingham Southern College, the University of Alabama (UA), Tuskegee University, Auburn University, and many other renowned institutions.

“That part for me is the reason we are here—to create pathways for students, to give them the opportunity to … educate themselves and enhance the quality of their lives and their families,” Ward said.

Humble Beginnings

Ward grew up on Birmingham’s Southside and was born at his parent’s house in Southtown Court.

“My mom didn’t even go to the hospital because they didn’t have any room in the hospital, so I was born at home; the doctor came to the house,” he said. “I grew up right in that area until I was about 12 years old.”

Ward was the youngest of three children; he has a brother and sister.

“My older siblings claimed I was the baby who always got what he wanted, but that was not true,” he said. “We had a lot of fun growing up because there were a lot of kids in the public housing community. That was fun because you always had somebody to play with. Holidays and events like that were always fun.”

Ward’s mother, Mary, was a housewife and his father, Fred, worked for the Housing Authority of the Birmingham District. Ward was educated in the BCS system and graduated from Ullman High School in 1964; he then went on to Miles College, where he majored in sociology. Both schools were pivotal in the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.

“At Ullman, during the Children’s Marches I remember the teachers there were trying to hold the students in place rather than encourage [us] to participate, but they weren’t trying too hard,” Ward said. “A football player, probably about 300-plus pounds, was one of the first ones to take part in a demonstration. He led the students out, and we knew the teachers were really excited about that. We also had street watchers, people who would take shifts from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. to thwart people who might throw bombs or Molotov cocktails around the neighborhoods. … I participated in the marches, as well as with the street watchers.”

At Miles, Ward enjoyed working with, helping, and giving back to people because there “…was an opportunity to do that,” he said.

“Other things, like mathematics and science, didn’t have a place for me,” he added. “[Through] sociology, social work, psychology, and those things, I really enjoyed being able to give back, help people, and make a difference.”

After graduating from Miles College in 1968, Ward landed a position with the Birmingham Urban League as a job developer and community organizer.

“My degree in sociology really helped me because [the Urban League] was about helping people advance themselves through education and job and workforce development,” he said.

From there, Ward enrolled at the UA School of Social Work for his master’s degree and stayed for another three years to complete his doctoral studies. In February 1975, he started working with BCS and graduated from UA with a doctorate in education administration in higher education. He remained with BCS for 12 years, holding various positions.

‘Apply At LSCC’

“A lady called me one day and said, ‘You should apply for the job at [LSCC]’ … because the president position was open. I said, ‘Well, that’s good. I hope they find somebody good. I don’t have enough politics for that,’” Ward said.

After that call, Ward left town on business for a few days to a trip to New Orleans, Louisiana. When he returned, the woman called again.

“She said, ‘I’m not going to tell you again: apply for the position.’ So, I said, ‘Yes, ma’am,’” he said.

Ward was among about 60 applicants, and he eventually made it to the final three. He went to Montgomery, Alabama, where he interviewed with the chancellor of the Alabama State Board of Education and was appointed by the late Dr. Ethel H. Hall, the first African American to serve as vice president of the board of education.

“It was an honor to be selected by her because she had extremely high standards, and she expected people to live up to those standards,” Ward said. “She led the way in giving me a chance and an opportunity to accept the position [at LSCC].”

Ward’s first day as LSCC’s president was on June 12, 1987—and he immediately started prioritizing what needed to be done.

“We didn’t have a lot of money or a lot of ways to get things done, so everybody had to wear multiple hats,” he said, adding that he spent the first five years getting his team in place and working from dawn to dusk and into the night.

“I’d be back the next morning, and I expected everybody to do that, too,” Ward said.

What’s Next?

Ward, who is in his 70s, has more than earned his retirement, and once off campus plans to do something no one expects.

“I plan to do a little bit of car racing,” he said. “I’ve got a brand new 2019 Corvette C7. When you buy that car, you have a year to go out to Nevada, where you can go race for two days and [have someone] show you how to handle the car. … It’s exciting because the car will get up to 200 miles per hour, and you can do 0 to 65 in 3.5 seconds. I plan to go out to [the track at Birmingham’s Barber Motorsports Park], too. There are enough tracks out there, so you can find and do some exciting work.”

Ward also plans to do some golfing, volunteer work, and chores around the house, pointing out this his wife, Ann, of 47 years “has already made me aware of some things she wants me to do,” he said, adding that he won’t rule out some limited educational consulting “to help out where I can,” but he won’t commit to any full-time work.

As for advice for his successor, Dr. Cynthia Anthony, who was appointed interim president earlier this month, Ward said, “You can be sky high from some things you’ve accomplished or achieved, and in the next few minutes you can be at rock bottom, but you’ve got to push on through it and live to fight another day because the sun will come up in the morning.”