Man of the people

Sunday, January 5, 2003 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 2:05 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

KALAMAZOO, Mich. Down the dirt roads of his segregated city, Elson Floyd walked home and cried.

Next year, his white friends would board airplanes and fly north to college-prep schools, leaving North Carolina and the town of Henderson, like uncaged birds. But Elson? Today at school, his eighth-grade teacher refused to help him apply to those faraway academic institutions.

All his life, he’d been working toward this. Study and learn, his parents told him. Poverty had forced them to quit school before ninth grade, but Dorothy Floyd vowed her sons wouldn’t share the same fate. Study and learn.

For the children of a bricklayer and tobacco-factory worker, it was the best chance to rise. And Elson did. He could read before kindergarten. He borrowed books from the segregated Dunbar Library and practiced arithmetic in sandbeds outside his house. He taught CPR to neighborhood kids, trekked 3 miles to a segregated grade school and helped his younger brothers with their homework because his parents could not.

Monday is his first day as president of the University of Missouri system. In addition to overseeing four campuses, he will have to confront one of the UM system’s worst budget crises in history and deal with a tuition lawsuit that could cost $400 million.

As president, he will live in a mansion on Providence Point, but his character still reflects the two-bedroom house built from the salvaged bricks of old buildings where he grew up.

Floyd’s family, colleagues and friends say those childhood lessons about hard work, learning, faith and compassion have endured, like a birthmark.

“Elson wants to be the son (his mother) wants Elson to be,” said Dick Richardson, a former provost at the University of North Carolina.

When Floyd wakes at 5:30 a.m. to work or run or swim, he does it because Elson Sr. roused his four sons out of bed every day to do chores.

Floyd remembers growing up “not viewed as a person” in the segregated South, so now he focuses on treating everyone with equal respect — janitor, student, university elite.

And just as the crying eighth-grader sought his mother’s help and advice more than 30 years ago when he was left behind, 46-year-old Elson Floyd again called on her when the UM system offered him the job, and asked: “What do you think about it, Mama?”

Floyd has the hands of an athlete, construction worker and politician. They are broad and rough, as if still callused from the summers he slung mortar and hauled brick with his father. Creases veer across his palms like canals, and he shakes hands as if he’s still catching footballs — clamping down, holding on.

His open hand doesn’t just rise in greeting. It bursts from his side as if pulled from nowhere, like a bird from a magician’s hand. The Floyd handshake is famous at Western Michigan University, where he has been president the past four years.

He walks across campus and greets students, asks about their classes and says, “What can the university do better for you?”

Students talk about Floyd like he’s their cool older brother. He high-fives them at football games, invites student leaders over for barbecues — he has an apron warning: “Beware of me and my cooking” — and has earned the nickname “Flo-dog.” Flo for short.

“He makes you feel very at ease, very confident in his abilities,” said John Knowles, Western Michigan’s student-government president. “He doesn’t put on any facades. He’s a man of the people. He’s one of us.”

At university parties, he lingers after the guests leave and talks to the student catering staff. He thanks them one by one and cracks jokes. He claps his hand onto a shoulder or pats a back, and sometimes he’ll embrace a person he’s met just once, closing them into his strong swimmer’s arms.

Elson Floyd’s hugs are back-slapping friendly, but also strangely intimate.

“He was your best buddy within a few minutes of talking to him,” said friend Ed Sackley, a staff member for Kalamazoo U.S. Rep. Fred Upton.

Floyd is a walking spotlight now, but he remembers North Carolina in the 1960s, when he was treated like another invisible black kid.

“It is impossible to ever forget coming up in segregation,” said Louis Felton, pastor of Kalamazoo’s Galilee Baptist Church, where Floyd attends services.

“He lived during a time when he saw signs coming down that separated us from lunch counters. He saw the barriers fall.”

In Henderson, a town 37 miles northeast of Durham, Floyd lived on the black end of High Street, a gravel road that smoothed into pavement when it entered the white end of town. His parents always worked, but food sometimes ran low, so Dorothy Floyd would trek to a relative’s house and ask someone to slaughter a hog so her boys could eat.

“I taught him to go to school, and he did,” Dorothy Floyd said. “He’s always been a very smart boy. He was always trying to do something in the community.”

Floyd’s mother also taught him about God. She took him to Mount Mariah Methodist Church and hoped the sermons would inspire Floyd to become a preacher. They never did, but he remained deeply spiritual.

In high school, he would sit on his bed for hours, reading the Bible and meditating. Floyd still goes to church nearly every Sunday, but he is quick to say, “Those are my values and not necessarily the values of others. I respect others’ decisions in that regard.”

Floyd grew up around a quiet racism. He was not taunted or attacked, simply disregarded. He went to segregated schools and libraries and sat in the Embassy movie-theater balcony reserved for blacks.

Few people nodded or said hello in the streets of Henderson, a city of about 13,000 during the 1960s.

“He was never in a position where he could look past people, but he was looked past many times,” said Lynn Turner, a reporter with the Kalamazoo Gazette who has covered Floyd during his Western Michigan tenure.

Now, Floyd tries to reach out to everyone he meets. “The core of this man is that he’s able to embrace all people,” said Walker, a former Western Michigan faculty member who was on the committee that hired Floyd.

Floyd’s friendliness isn’t just personality — it’s also strategy. Upton said Floyd wasted no time greeting and making friends with Michigan lawmakers. Floyd said he’ll do the same in Missouri.

But Upton and a dozen other people stress this: Floyd’s caring isn’t a façade. He takes pictures with politicians, but he and his wife, Carmento, also send cards and visit the hospital when an acquaintance’s parent falls ill or dies.

“He’s never playing a game,” Upton said.

As 500 students and rioters burned furniture in the street, as a car went up in flames, as police rapped on their riot shields like tribal drummers, Floyd somehow had to be a leader.

A March 2002 party in a student-heavy Kalamazoo neighborhood had erupted into a riot — the second one in six months. Floyd and city officials walked through the melee at 3 a.m. His eyes were dark and hard, and he told a reporter he was “bereft of ideas.”

Being a leader was so much easier at Darlington School, where Floyd got his first taste of formal leadership. After scoring well on a standardized test, Floyd received a full scholarship to the private Georgia boarding school in Rome, Ga., and attended his last two years of high school. He was the school’s first African-American graduate. He made a mark. Varsity football captain and all-state lineman, varsity track, president of two clubs and vice-president of two more.

Now, when colleagues dissect Floyd’s personality, they say he is calm and collected, always listening. He meets constantly with students and faculty and will cobble together panels to discuss issues like the riots, an engineering park, the student commons. He rarely takes notes or takes sides during the discussion.

Former classmate Steve Moreno said Floyd showed the same equanimity in high school. He mediated arguments and defended kids who were the target of pranks or taunts.

Floyd would say to their bullies, “These are people, too.”

“Being the smooth guy in the suit — that’s not a real big change,” Moreno said.

Floyd took special care to look out for a boy two years younger named Eric Hansen, the school’s only other African-American student, said David Deaton, Floyd’s former roommate.

“There was a lot of racial tension in town at that time,” said classmate Michael Free. “Being one of the first African-Americans, that was a challenging undertaking for him. But he fit right in.”

Floyd has said race doesn’t influence his approach to running a school, and he doesn’t want it to tint people’s views of him.

“He does not cast himself as a black leader, but as a leader for all people,” Felton, his pastor, said. “The first thing you notice about Dr. Floyd is not his blackness, but his leadership.”

His friends and teachers said race was never a divider at Darlington. Floyd wrapped his arms around his friends’ shoulders and walked through the halls with them. He played games with the young daughters of George Awsumb, an English teacher at Darlington. He taught his friends dance moves, and they conspired during church to find dates for him.

“That entire school became a surrogate family to me,” Floyd said. “They played a significant role in my life and development.”

But few got an intimate glimpse into his life or knew more than the basics about his family. Many of Floyd’s friends said he guards carefully the private corners of his life and mind.

Floyd and his wife, Carmento, have tried to keep their children, Kenney, 19, and Jessica, 17, as far from the spotlight as possible.

Floyd’s father died of cancer in Sept. 2000. When Lewis Walker, a friend and Western Michigan professor, asked Floyd how he was doing, Floyd told Walker, “I’ m fine. I’m OK. Thank you for your offers, but I’m OK.”

Only a few people close to Floyd knew how hard he was hit by Elson Sr.’s death, Dorothy Floyd said.

To see the deeper Elson Floyd, you have to earn his trust over time, Richardson said.

“You have to mirror-image the things he believes in himself,” Richardson said. “He has to have confidence in your trustworthiness.”

Moreno said, “He keeps his guard up until he’s sure he can trust you. He didn’t like people to know there were emotional connections to them. But underneath, he’s worried about them. You see a very caring, deeply human interest.”

Floyd never planned to devote his life to higher education. Like so many things, his family is why he’s here today.

Floyd had received a degree in political science from the University of North Carolina in 1978 and was thinking about law school. It seemed like a logical next step. But his younger brother was about to begin college, and Floyd wanted to help with tuition.

Floyd had been active in student government at UNC and landed a job as an assistant dean for student life. He rose through the UNC administrative ranks and picked up a master’s degree and Ph.D.

He left North Carolina in 1990 to work at Eastern Washington University, then returned five years later to become executive vice chancellor, where he oversaw the business end of the university.

Floyd landed at Western Michigan in 1998 and created a devoted collection of supporters during the following four years.

“Working with him is like walking in the footsteps of a giant,” said Chris Donathan, one of Western’s legislative liaisons. “I’ve learned more from watching and being around him than in all my classes at Western. That’s no bull——. He rubs off on you.”

When he talks about his boss, Donathan sounds more like a disciple than an employee. Floyd has this effect on students and colleagues — and even on his adversaries.

The people who admire Floyd like his energy and drive and sharp eye for detail. They talk about the way he rises at 5:30 a.m. to swim laps and wakes in the middle of the night to answer stray e-mails. They talk about the time someone changed the margins on Western stationery half an inch — and he noticed right away.

A wide cross-section of university and city leaders reveal few complaints about Floyd’s tenure.

Rick Reinstein, a history major and editor of the Western Herald, said Floyd neglected aging Arts and Sciences buildings as he focused on developing the new research park. Teddy Haarz said Floyd put politics over fairness in dealing with one consequence of the March 2002 riot.

Haarz, 26, a Western undergraduate, was arrested and suspended for nine months after taking a photograph of the riot. Police found an open bottle of rum in Haarz’s pocket.

“I don’t agree with how he handled it, but I have to commend him for sitting down with me,” Haarz said. “He’s very hands-on.”

Western professor and city commissioner Don Cooney said students and faculty are still mystified about why Floyd fired Provost Fred Dobney, who was hired two years into Floyd’s tenure.

But even Floyd’s academic sparring partners, such as Cooney, say Floyd never holds grudges or cuts off debate on an issue.

“We could fight on the issues,” Cooney said.

The hands were busy tonight. It was Western Michigan University’s semester-end bash, but the sleety Dec. 19 night turned into a farewell party for Floyd and Carmento as politicians, friends and university trustees lined up to say goodbye.

After the speeches ended and most of the guests left the gymnasium-turned-ballroom, it was just Floyd and the catering staff.

“OK, guys, what we’re going to do now is we’re going to do a photo,” Floyd tells the students.

He and the students lined up and plastered smiles onto their faces as the photographer’s camera clicked away. From the front, it looked as if everyone’s arms hung slack at their sides. But what the onlookers and the camera couldn’t see is that Floyd locked his left arm around Tong Ee Lim, a Malaysian exchange student. It was a tiny gesture inside a tiny moment, but nobody shared it except these two men, linked together among rows of black and white.

Some of Floyd's Accomplishments at Western Michigan University:

-Oversaw the development of a 265-acre site that became the Business, Research and Technology Park and will hold a new building for Western’s engineering college.

-Improved the diversity curriculum by helping to transform African studies from a small program into a full-fledged department.

-Strengthened ties between Western and the city of Kalamazoo.

-Lead Western’s $125 million capital campaign.

-Increased enrollment by 13 percent and improved the school’s image. The average student’s ACT score held flat at 22, however.

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