Centenarian Carl Connor's dedication to education remembered

Tuesday, February 8, 2011 | 6:00 a.m. CST; updated 3:53 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 8, 2011
Photos of Carl Connor and his wife line a table in Connor's home on Wednesday at the Terrace Retirement Community.

*CORRECTION: Lloyd Gaines was not admitted to the MU School of Law. An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated his enrollment status.

COLUMBIA — There is a sign on the door of room N 202 at The Terrace Retirement Community that says: "Smile. Make someone happy today."

Inside lives a man whose impact and influence, according to many who know him, has been profound.

The centenarian club

According to the Dec. 1, 2010, U.S. Census Bureau report, there were 71,991 centenarians across the country — 61,749 were women, 10,242 were men and 3,650 were African-American.

The number of centenarians has increased since 2000, when the Census Bureau reported 50,454 100-year-olds.

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Carl Connor celebrated his 100th birthday on Jan. 20. He has dedicated his long life to education, garnering admiration and praise from family, friends, students and educators alike.

"I think what is phenomenal is thinking about the times when he lived and how he devoted his energy to spreading others' horizons," said Fran DeMaster, resident service coordinator at The Terrace.

Connor wanted only to become a teacher and help others, setting out to achieve his goal after graduating from Douglass High School in 1929. Connor and his three siblings, William, Orey and Estelle, hoped to attend MU, where his parents Minor and Elizabeth Connor worked.

But the four were turned down because of the color of their skin.

*Nine years later, the university denied enrollment of another African-American student, Lloyd Gaines. Gaines hoped to attend the MU School of Law, and his case went to the United States Supreme Court. The court ruled that the university could either admit Gaines or open a separate but equal facility. The state chose the latter and opened Lincoln University in Jefferson City. Gaines was never admitted to MU.

For Connor, the denial of admission proved disappointing, but not discouraging.

"He was a man who had, early in life, set his goal and stayed with it, even with his adversity," said Connor's friend Eliot Battle. 

Connor and his siblings instead attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, where Connor received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1934 and met his wife, Octavia, a fellow aspiring educator.

After graduation, Connor began teaching adult education language classes at night, but it was during a trip to Hayti, Mo., that he found his calling. 

African-American children in Hayti attended school in split sessions, picking cotton during harvest time and going to school during the off-season.

"I decided it was detrimental to our children," Connor said of the school setup.

The day after his arrival, Connor met with the superintendent of Hayti's only school and was offered a teaching position in the Missouri Bootheel town. After two years in Hayti, Connor became principal of the existing school, Hayti Negro High School, which encompassed the first through 10th grades. But Connor began advocating for a four-year high school for black students, and he later renamed the expanded high school Hayti Central High School.

The school often went without necessary supplies, receiving used books that were marked up and passed down, Connor said.

"I knew it was wrong, but we always had that," Connor said. "It's still going on today, for that matter." 

Schools were legally segregated by the persisting "separate but equal" doctrine handed down in the 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson. Connor never took part in civil rights legal action until a Missouri law was passed that allowed only three textbooks for each student in first through eighth grades. Through Connor's persistence, the school was able to obtain newer books, said his cousin Carolyn Allen. 

"Education is very important to him," said Connor's cousin Charles Allen. "That has been his field all his life."

Connor did not limit his influence to the classroom. With permission from the parents of his students, he organized class trips to Lincoln University, Des Moines College and Memphis, Tenn.

"He instilled in them there was more to life to what they had originally been exposed to," Charles Allen said. 

Connor moved from Hayti to Boonville in 1942 and remained there until 1953. He continued to teach, was a principal and coached boys' and girls' basketball at Sumner School, an African-American public school that is now used as a community center.

The black schools would later close in Boonville as integration began, and African-American teachers began filling positions that didn't require teaching degrees, such as cleaning chalkboards and delivering books. Connor said he was asked to stay on, but said he was not told in what capacity he would continue to work at the school. 

"I had a friend in Springfield," Connor said. "They gave him a job doing nothing." 

As a result, Connor moved to Kansas City. He held several teaching and administrative positions there and retired from Southwest High School in 1980. 

Today, the bond Connor forged with past students remains strong, with many of them going on to become doctors, lawyers and teachers. Connor and his wife considered the students their family, although they never had children of their own.

"He was a fatherly figure, a person who knew each student as individuals," Battle said. "There is nothing but love between them and him."

Connor receives telephone calls and greeting cards every week from past students, Charles Allen said.

As celebrations of Black History Month kicked off Feb. 1, Connor believes the time can be used to study the contributions of African-Americans to American culture — contributions on which Connor's students and friends say he had a powerful impact.

"He saw so much change in his life, and worked to bring about so much change," said former student Dan French. 

But it might be hard trying to tell Connor that.

"Here's a person who put others first," DeMaster said. "Someone who didn't make a lot of money, but gave so much of himself."

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Delcia Crockett February 8, 2011 | 10:13 a.m.

This is an inspiring life story. Perhaps some writer can read this story and turn it into a book-length biography to pass on to all our future generations, so that they can read and see how a great person can triumph any negativity that a life trek could possibly bring, passing through any point of injustices done to them in an attempt to hurt or smother them and the reality of whom they are in ability and talent that far exceeds the low-crawl of society predators. This person is an inspiration to anyone and everyone who will read it, and they will get a full view of the times and events through which he passed, and yet rose above it all, to become someone others could aspire to be. Amazing person! Great story!

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Edward Smith June 20, 2011 | 2:55 p.m.

I was a student at Sumner High School when Mr. Connor was principal and I participated in a ceremony to honor him in 2008 in Boonville. I remember the day they closed Sumner High School my class was the last 8th grade class at the school. A lot of my friends were not happy about attending Boonville High School, because we knew there would be hard times for Black students at the school. I remember Principal Connor as an individual who was concerned for the students under his tuteledge, and the other teachers I had at Sumner were also dedicated to the students. Mr. Connor and the teachers always stressed that the students at Sumner were just as talented as any other student from any racial group. If one could go back and get a history of those students who finished at Sumner High most went on to be fairly successful. I believed the foundation that I received was instrumental in me achieving a Bachelors and Masters degree and becoming an Assistant Dean, a Director, and a Coordintor in various programs at a number of colleges. I shall never forget Mr. Connor and all of my heroes at Sumner High School. As our school song stated, "my dear Sumner High the dearest school I know; I will search everywhere but none can compare to my dear Sumner High." those words have remained in my memory for over 50 years.

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