After Cleveland Hammonds took charge of the St. Louis Public Schools on July 1, 1996, he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he was coming into the job as the 23rd superintendent of the largest public school system in Missouri with eyes wide open.
"I know there are great challenges -- I'm not that naive," he said.
Mr. Hammonds brought a measure of stability to the district during his seven years at the helm. He stabilized the district's finances -- an achievement successors could not sustain -- and helped to pass a major bond issue that led to a new Vashon High School and the renovation of five schools. In an environment that could often be fractious, Mr. Hammonds got along well with school board members, parents and the media.
Mr. Hammonds died at Anderson Hospital in Maryville after collapsing Tuesday afternoon on the campus of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
Mr. Hammonds collapsed just prior to the start of his lecture on educational administration. He had been teaching part-time at the university since his retirement as superintendent in 2003.
He was 75 and had lived in Belleville for the past five years. Funeral services for Mr. Hammonds will be Sept. 11.
Mr. Hammonds was born in Louisiana and moved as a child with his family to Alton. He graduated from Alton High School in 1954.
He received a bachelor's degree in history in 1958 from Southern Illinois University Carbondale, followed by a master's in guidance and counseling in 1963 from Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, where he remained active in alumni affairs. He subsequently earned his doctorate from the University of Illinois.
After retiring as superintendent, he returned to SIUE to great acclaim.
"Dr. Hammonds was highly regarded by students and faculty," said Linda Morice, chair of the Educational Leadership Department at SIUE. "He brought valuable experience into his classes. His love of teaching and his desire to remain active, served as an inspiration to those of us who pursue careers in education."
Mr. Hammonds served as superintendent of schools for 28 years, in Inkster; Mich.; Durham, N.C., where he was the state's first black superintendent and Superintendent of the Year; Birmingham, Ala.; and finally St. Louis.
He came to St. Louis from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he had been teaching graduate students since January 1996. His brief foray into university life came after serving seven years as superintendent of Birmingham schools. He had left his job as superintendent there the previous fall after a disagreement with the school board over spending and the hiring of outside law firms.
The career change seemed to be for the best: When Mr. Hammond accepted the job in St. Louis, he told the Post-Dispatch, "I'm returning home."
He was also coming to a school district in turmoil.
Mr. Hammonds followed another long-serving superintendent, David J. Mahan. He inherited a school district weighed down by test scores well below average, many poor students and even poorer parental involvement, violence, high dropout rates and a variety of social issues -- including teen pregnancy.
In 1998, Mr. Hammonds supported changes recommended by the Student Health Task Force regarding discrimination against gay and lesbian students. He also presented his own recommendations for addressing student pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, rejecting calls from the task force and the Mayor's Youth Advisory Board for condom distribution in the city schools. Mr. Hammonds cited Missouri law prohibiting condom distribution and said the Health Department was the appropriate entity for handling the issue.
Like all superintendents, Mr. Hammond was also challenged by the task of working with the Board of Education. His assistant superintendent of schools, John Ingram, said he mastered the art.
"One of the things that served Dr. Hammonds well was his relationship with the board," Ingram said. "At the time, it was a 12-member board and the sheer number of people to relate to made it challenging. Working with board members was one of his major accomplishments."
He also worked well with many outside groups, including area journalists.
Mr. Hammonds elected to carry on a tradition that began with former Superintendent Jerome Jones. Ida Woolfolk coordinated the superintendent's media luncheon meeting, which was often held at St. Louis schools. Woolfolk said the meetings were particularly beneficial to African-American members of the media.
"The luncheons gave African-American papers the opportunity to get information and to ask questions and give their opinions in a relaxed atmosphere," Woolfolk said.
Malaika Horne, director of the University of Missouri's Executive Leadership Consortium, welcomed the meetings. She was representing the St. Louis Argus at the time.
"Dr. Hammonds was a regional booster who engendered trust," Horne said. "He wasn't a cynic, despite the difficulties the system was encountering. He led from behind and he led effortlessly and quietly.
"His skills may have been overlooked when he was serving and may be more appreciated now. We should have tapped into his talents, his wisdom and his experience even more."
His skills weren't entirely overlooked. In 1999, after three years on the job, his contract was renewed for four years. Mr. Hammonds would be the last city schools superintendent to hold the job for more than two years.
Mr. Hammonds was a member of Kappa Alpha Psi and the Anniversary Club, an organization formed around the time of the Civil War. Members celebrate each other's birthdays at dinner each month.
"When he asked what the organization did, I told him 'we don't do anything'," Ingram laughed. "He became a member after only about three months. The club survived over a hundred years because we just have a good time."
The good times continued to roll as Mr. Hammonds retired from the St. Louis Public Schools. He was feted by 300 of his closest friends at the Renaissance Grand Hotel at a party replete with "Star Trek: Nemesis" T-shirts in honor of his sci-fi affinity.
He left after having overseen one of the nation's largest desegregation plans, cutting the dropout rate by 13 percent and seeing improvement in test scores.
As he prepared to be replaced by the short-lived "turnaround" team led by William V. Roberti, Dr. Hammonds reminisced in an interview with the Post-Dispatch about how he remained positive on the job. He called upon his old basketball days at Alton High.
"Just like if you coached a basketball team and you came in every day and complained about how poor they were and how they're no good, that wouldn't be a very motivating atmosphere," Mr. Hammonds said. "I have to try and keep the spirits of the people up while all these folks continue to describe how terrible they are.
"This has been a great ride," Mr. Hammonds said as he bade farewell. "My advice to all of you is never, never give up."
Mr. Hammonds is survived by his wife, the former Yvonne Parks from East St. Louis, whom he met while they were students at SIUC. She earned a degree in vocational education studies. Last week, they celebrated their 51st wedding anniversary.
Woolfolk said Mr. Hammonds' priority was always family.
"When we attended events, he would only taste things so he could save his appetite for his wife's dinner. And he doted on his daughters and grandchildren."
Mr. Hammonds other survivors include three daughters, Deborah Hammonds of Belleville, Rhonda Cantelow of Tuskegee, Ala., and Marsha Walker of Birmingham, Ala., and three grandchildren.
Services for Mr. Hammonds will be at 1 p.m. Sept. 11, at St. Luke AME Church, 414 No. 14th Street, in East St. Louis. Visitation will precede the services at the church from 10 a.m. to 12:45 p.m.
Gloria Ross is the head of Okara Communications and the storywriter for AfterWords, an obituary-writing and production service.
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon.