One can only wonder how Frank Mickens, former principal of Boys & Girls High School, accomplished so much and touched so many in so short a time on earth. Many answers rest with “Mick” who passed on Thursday, July 9, here in Brooklyn. Just as many are alive in the memories and the work of his heirs, warriors all, intent on carrying out the central premise of Mickens’ “will”: to motivate and encourage young people to move beyond failure, to learn, to act, to be the best self.
“And that is his legacy,” said teacher Felix A. Melendez, looking out over The High’s weight room as young athletes exercised on professional equipment.
“On Friday, I received so many text messages and that evening students, people who knew him put together their own memorial, that evening. Nobody told them, nobody called them together; they amassed in front of the school building and across the street in Fulton Park with candlelight.
“He also touched thousands, and they, in turn, touched thousands more,” added Melendez alluding to the nearly 50,000 students, not including guardians and caretakers, reached by Mickens, during his 18-year-tenure. “He knew each and every one of his students by their names.”
Melendez, who entered “The High” two weeks after his family transplanted to Crown Heights from the Dominican Republic in January, 1993, quickly decided he was “in the right place”, when he saw Mickens loudly urging students to get out of the hallways and into their classes: “I looked past the bark, and heard passion.”
Melendez, who describes himself as a then “basketball rat,” went on to graduate from Albany State University with a degree in Spanish and Urban Education and, at Mickens’ urging, earned a Master’s in Special Education at Toure College, and two years later a Master’s in School Administration from the College of St. Rose in Albany. Now he has settled back into his high school alma mater as a dean, coach and instructor. “I will be here for a while.”
Donnie Harris of The High’s custodial staff for more than 22 years and considered a Mickens “right hand,” graduated from “The High” in 1976, and returned to the school as a school aide in 1978. He says the school may enjoy the incredible distinction of being the high school in New York City with the most alumnae returning to teach, work or administer including teachers, assistant principals, cafeteria/kitchen, security and custodial staff.
Donnie knew Mick as a social studies teacher, dean and “Kangaroos” basketball coach. “His teams’ games, sold out, standing room only.” But when Mick became principal in 1985, it was Donnie and the late Carl Blackman who got to see where Mick found time to get to know his students, especially the ones who were coming up from behind, as most improved.
“We opened the school with Mick no later than 6:30am, every morning. Every night he would tell Carl to stay with him ‘a little later, I’m leaving around 8.’ He would never leave until about midnight. Every night. He went through students’ report cards and records to see who’s most qualified for Most Improved Student. He never stopped thinking, and some of us wondered if he ever slept. Even from home, Mick would be working out a solution, or talking to someone about ‘his kids.’ ”
Ideas discussed with Donnie and Carl in the late hours became now-famous pearls of wisdom designed to motivate ‘his kids’ on banners he commissioned Max Signs to create: “Pride and Joy,” “Crown Jewel of Bed Stuy,” “It’s better to be prepared for an opportunity and not have one than to have an opportunity and not be prepared,” ‘Never Forget Your History,” “Dress for Success,” “Who’s School? Our School.”
A week before Mick’s passing, Donnie was looking into having Max, now relocated to Atlanta, to fashion new posters, in response to neighborhood demand for them.
Other Mick-motivators included the famous buttons. Every new sign brought a new button. Most improved and Honor Roll students got buttons AND fabric book bags in the school’s coveted red, black and white colors. But these were just tokens. Mick donated profits from his numerous speaking engagements and from the sale of his book to scholarships. He managed to assure that everyone got something at graduation, that’s if they were motivated. He even gave out jobs to those who needed extra money – if they were trying.
“And there were Honor Roll dinners, Student of the Month programs, and he sold bottled water. But all the profits went back to the students and the school. That’s what made him happy: students who were trying to succeed. What upset him most was when he knew a kid had potential, could do well, and didn’t apply.”
Under his watch, leaders who knew about inner power and the importance of harnessing it came by the school. People like Stevie Wonder, Nelson Mandela and Gregory Hines. But perhaps the most “Constant” celebrity motivator was Mick himself. “He didn’t get police to patrol up and down Fulton Street to make sure crowds of students kept moving, every day, from 2:11 – 2:30. Instead, he attached a strobe light to his Volvo and sat in his Mickmobile at Fulton & Troy. He did that for years until he retired in 2004.”
Mick’s sense of humor was a character all by itself, along with his signature movement inspired anytime, anyplace by the sound of Mc Fadden & Whitehead’s R&B soul anthem, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now!”
But the “star” that really stopped Mick in his tracks was “Love,” graceful as a panther with her smooth dribbling who played the court for the girls’ basketball team at “The High” as keenly as a grandmaster moved along a chess board.
Ruth “Love” Lovelace, at her peak, was one of the top five women basketball players in New York City. She averaged 35 points and 13 rebounds in the late 1980’s. She was All-City Star Player in her Junior and Senior years – the best in New York City. The High lore says when she graduated in the early 90’s; Mick never attended another girl’s basketball game.
She secured a degree in Phys Ed from Seton Hall, and eventually made her way back to The High as a teacher. Within two years, Mick tapped her to be the coach of the boys’ basketball team – a coveted position, but one traditionally held by a man. Breaking convention was nothing new to Mick, but he did it because “Love,” 23 at the time and just four years older that some of her charges, was the best. She learned about it over the PA system along with the rest of the school.
Last night, Coach Love, as was Dean Melendez, was holding court at the school, and doing what Mick used to do. Pulling in a lot of time (daily 10-12 hour stretches), observing the students, and just by the presence helping them through practice and workouts to do their best.
They both talked to Mick about basketball almost daily. Back in ’94, Coach Lovelace accepted the “basketball rat” to be on the team. It was fun then with Mick, a sports lover, in charge.
Now, when the day begins to feel like a grind, both coaches have someone to look to – still – for inspiration. “Mick would go until he couldn’t go any further without taking a day off,” says Lovelace, who also counts as mentors, her parents, Cheryl Lewis, BGHS Assistant Principal, and athletic director Sheila Shale. “When I think about Mick and BGHS administrators and what they have to go through, I get up, dust myself off and keep going.”
“Some days it’s frustrating, you get distracted, but you got to keep going. Like he did. The school embraced me, and took me in,” says Melendez. “I want to do what I’m doing now, and keep doing it. Mick taught me values, the work ethic. Yes, he touched so many. Chris Smith, Coach Love, and now we’re passing it forward; it’s a chain reaction. He could have been bigger in life. He could have done other things, but he made the choice to be in this circle. He is an icon in our world.”
“He had a vision for this community,” adds Coach Lovelace. “He watched its children grow. He knew every kid that attended this school during his 18 years, and he knew their stories and their families’ stories. He had courage and heart. He was about kids, and I was fortunate.
“When he offered me the opportunity of a lifetime, he hit his fist on the table and said with emphasis, ‘Just make sure they get an education, and make sure they go from here to college.’ And I left him feeling I won’t let this man down. His motto was always, ‘support young people; it we don’t, who will? See how it’s all connected.”
We saw how it all connected and Mick’s ‘chain reaction’ in action Tuesday afternoon. A young man entered the gym with a cap on his head. Dean Melendez seemed to materialize into the essence of Mick for just a few seconds. “Hey, you!” he called. “Yeah, you. Remove the hat!” It was straight up, in your face, and very Mick. “Once Mick got me into the classroom, I knew it was where I should be. This is what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
Which is how world class athlete Ralph Green sees Mickens’ legacy. We caught up with Ralph, a graduate of Boys and Girls High School, last night, as he was on the road heading to Utah and then for the U.S. Team Ski Camp in Mt. Hood, Oregon, where he will prepare for the 2010 Special Olympics.
“It’s an honor to be in the midst of a pillar of the community who has passed a rich legacy that has touched so many people and so many lives,” he told us.
“Everyone has a Mick story, and we must continue to tell our Mick Stories. We must tell how he made males, men and gentlemen; and females women and young ladies. And also how he transformed a school nobody wanted to send their children to into something very special. Boys & Girls High School was Mick’s platform to showcase his love for all of us.”