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Charles Willie, an architect of Boston’s ‘controlled-choice’ school desegregation plan, dies at 94

Dr. Willie was the Charles William Eliot professor of education, emeritus, at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.Stephanie Mitchell,Harvard Staff Photographer/Harvard University

As Boston looked to move from court-ordered busing to the next step in desegregating the city’s schools, Mayor Raymond L. Flynn called on Charles V. Willie, his former graduate school adviser at Harvard, to help craft a plan.

With Michael Alves, Dr. Willie designed a “controlled-choice” approach that divided Boston into three zones in which parents could list their three top elementary school choices.

“What we were trying to do was bring justice back into the situation, despite the raw nerves that people had during that time,” Dr. Willie told the Harvard EdCast podcast in 2011. “And I think that it worked well because it was fair to everyone.”

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Dr. Willie, whose grandparents were enslaved and who always emphasized “justice and fairness” while working to break down racial and gender barriers, died in his Brighton home Jan. 11. He was 94 and his health had been failing.

As consultants, Dr. Willie and Alves crafted controlled-choice school desegregation plans much like the one they designed in Boston for school districts across the country, from Cambridge to Florida to Seattle.

A professor and activist, a sociologist and one-time leader in the Episcopal Church hierarchy, Dr. Willie covered even more ground than his journey from attending segregated schools in Dallas to teaching at Harvard might suggest.

At every stop, he fought for equality, including when he was the first Black vice president of the House of Deputies for the national Episcopal Church in the 1970s.

He preached the sermon when 11 women who became known as the Philadelphia Eleven were ordained in 1974, a couple of years before the Episcopal General Convention authorized allowing women to become priests.

When the House of Bishops declined to fully recognize the women as ordained, Dr. Willie resigned his post, even though he had expected to become the first Black president of the House of Deputies had he remained.

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“I think Chuck represented the movement inside the Episcopal Church to get it to focus not only on issues like civil rights, but also to understand that issues like women’s rights were just as important, and that the Episcopal Church should be out front, taking steps allowing that to happen,” said Byron Rushing, a former state legislator who currently is vice president of the House of Deputies.

At the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where Dr. Willie was the Charles William Eliot professor of education, emeritus, he was a mentor and a memorable presence for about 35 years of graduate students.

“He truly was a bright and shining light for all he encountered: a trailblazing scholar adept at using his research for the benefit of countless schoolchildren, and a deeply kind person who helped to develop generations of students after him,” said Bridget Terry Long, the graduate school’s dean, for a Harvard tribute.

Flynn said that as a teacher, Dr. Willie “had a way of reflecting on the past as a way of bringing us to the present and expanding into the future.”

“He was in a class by himself,” Flynn added. “I was lucky to have him as my academic adviser. He brought out the best in people — everybody.”

A respected writer of more than 30 books and more than 100 journal articles, Dr. Willie afforded just as much respect to those he mentored, who he never called students.

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“He would refer to his students as his scholars,” said his wife, Mary Sue, musician and longtime organist and choir director at Emmanuel Episcopal Church in Wakefield and St. Elizabeth’s Episcopal Church in Sudbury.

As a faculty adviser and dissertation committee chairman, Dr. Willie “guided my scholarship journey with a critical eye, an open mind, and generous heart,” said Karen Mapp, a senior lecturer at the Graduate School of Education, for Harvard’s tribute.

“We have lost yet another warrior for social justice, democracy, and equity for all,” she added.

Born in Dallas on Oct. 8, 1927, Charles Vert Willie was the third of five siblings.

His mother, Carrie Sykes Willie, graduated from Wiley College, a historically Black college in Marshall, Texas, but as a married woman, she was prohibited from teaching in Dallas. She home-schooled her children until they could take streetcars to school. They had to ride in the back, and the schools were segregated.

His father, Louis Willie, was a Pullman porter whose work sometimes kept him away for three weeks at a time. Though Louis had an eighth-grade education, “the railroad enabled him to really see and know things,” Dr. Willie said in an interview for The History Makers, adding that his work “enabled him to be what I would call a cosmopolitan person.”

Dr. Willie was class president at Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1948 and was part of the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity with Martin Luther King Jr.

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In 1949, Dr. Willie received a master’s from Atlanta University, and he graduated in 1957 with a doctorate from Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs.

He taught at Syracuse from 1950 to 1974, becoming the university’s first Black tenured professor and then vice president for student affairs.

While there, he met Mary Sue Conklin when they sang together in Syracuse’s Grace Episcopal Church, whose choir was not long desegregated. They married in 1962 and had lived in Concord for 44 years before moving to assisted living in Brighton.

He was a bass, she is a soprano, “and we would sing together. We sang duets together for fun,” she said. “We had fun making music together; music was the centerpiece.”

As parents, “they were just very giving in raising us,” said their daughter, Sarah Willie-LeBreton of Media, Pa. “They were incredibly generous, and that’s who they were as a partnership.”

Dr. Willie took time away from Syracuse to direct the Washington Action for Youth crime prevention program at the behest of US Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and he twice brought King to speak at the university in the 1960s during the civil rights movement.

In 1974, Dr. Willie left for a tenured position at Harvard. While he was there, Jimmy Carter appointed him to serve on the President’s Commission on Mental Health.

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After he retired in 1999, for another decade Dr. Willie continued to teach a course called Community Power, Decision Making and Education, “which covered grass-roots action to solve community problems,” according to Harvard’s tribute.

Among his honors were the American Sociological Association’s William Foote Whyte Distinguished Career Award and W.E.B. Du Bois Career of Distinguished Scholarship Award.

In addition to his wife, Mary Sue, and daughter, Sarah, Dr. Willie leaves two sons, Martin of Denver and James of Takoma Park, Md.; a sister, Mary Gauthier of Syracuse, N.Y.; and three grandchildren.

A memorial service in the spring will be announced. A private burial will be held at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord.

Dr. Willie “was really, really clear that a family actually is about providing unconditional love for each other,” said Sarah, the provost and dean of faculty at Swarthmore College.

As a professor and as a father, “he really modeled what it meant to engage in conflict constructively,” she said.

“I think that was incredibly important for us to see as children, that one could be in deep disagreement with someone, one could be really angry with someone, and one could reflect back and see that one had behaved inappropriately or have been aggrieved with someone and still enter into a dialogue and come out on the other end of it.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.