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Washington University professor bridges divide between students and community

Leona Meeks and Bob Hansman
Bram Sable-Smith | Beacon intern | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2013: Just north of Dr. Martin Luther King Drive, on the west side of Goodfellow Avenue, a tall white sign depicting a smiling young black woman welcomes visitors to Mom’s Kitchen. Inside, the considerably older and still recognizable woman chuckled as she hugged each of the 26 Washington University undergraduate students as they entered the restaurant recently.

“My bouquet of roses is beautiful this year,” Leola Meeks – the Mom of Mom’s Kitchen – said to the group.

“Bouquet of roses” is Meeks’ name for the students who visit her restaurant each semester at the end of their tour of the Wellston Loop with professor Bob Hansman. After more than two hours of walking around the neighborhood they stop at Mom’s for a soul food dinner.

“[The students] enjoy it,” Meeks said of the visits. “Sometimes they bring their families back here when they graduate.”

The Wellston Loop is one of the neighborhoods for the peculiar tours on which Hansman takes the students in his "Community Building, Building Community" course. In each of the neighborhoods, Hansman presents the students with the social and architectural history of the area. He keeps a binder filled with notes, maps, and pictures that he uses to provide specific stories to the students.

Then something unusual happens. As his students watch in fascination, front doors in the neighborhoods swing open and residents emerge to enthusiastically greet “Bob!” and his students.

The group spends anywhere from five to 30 minutes at each house. Then, as a central component of the course, each student is linked with one of the residents and will spend a significant amount of time over the semester with that person.

“It’s funny,” Hansman said. “The final project is essentially to make a friend.”

‘So hard to talk about'

Hansman is also known for giving bus tours to classes and groups of students other than his own. Tours – which he describes as “information, information, information” – take students on a bus from Washington University, down Jefferson Avenue past what was once Mill Creek Valley, into the abandonedPruitt-Igoe site, past the old Homer G. Phillips Hospital, and eventually to Ivory Perry Park. The park, mere blocks from Washington University’s Danforth Campus, was the site of a devastating and fatal attack on a 10-year-old Rodney McAllister by a pack of wild dogs in 2001.

At Ivory Perry Park, standing under a tree to shelter from the rain, a student turned to Hansman and said "I heard a rumor that you were beat-up by the Ku Klux Klan.”

“Oh jeeze,” Hansman replied as he smiled and bent over in embarrassment. “Yes, it’s true. Maybe let’s focus on the park and I’ll tell the story about the Klan on the bus home if I have the energy.”

Some of that energy, and emotion, went into telling McAllister's story. He  paused painfully often, explaining to the students, “This is so hard to talk about.”

Later when he did relate the Klan story it was almost by rote:

The Klan dragged Hansman and a friend into an alley on a Sunday afternoon. Hansman had been canvassing for civil rights in Lawrence, Kansas. “What we didn’t realize,” he said, “was that we had set up outside of the Klan’s headquarters.”

The beating left him bloodied and angry. He was determined to press charges until his lawyer's office was bombed following the arrest of the Klansmen responsible. “Then I got the hell out of there,” he said.

Hansman explained that he hadn’t set out to get beat-up by the Klan. He told his own story nervously but with a grin. Honesty is the card he holds and the honest truth is that Hansman may be more astounded by the stories and feelings of others than by his own.

That is not to say that Hansman’s own stories are not astounding to others. Take, for instance, the results that usually follow his City Faces presentations.

City Faces is an art program Hansman started in 1994 in the Clinton-Peabody public housing development. The program has grown over the past 20 years to include a Washington University student organization whose members assist with homework and mentoring for the program at the Al Chapelle Community Center. At the start of every year, the new crop of student volunteers hears the story of how the program began.

A student approached Hansman in tears following this year’s presentation, offering his services as a tutor and mentor. “He’s going to be good,” Hansman said of the student.

‘I became a lab animal’

The origins of City Faces go back to the early 1970s, right after his encounter with the Klan, when Hansman was diagnosed with malignant melanoma.

That was the beginning of what Hansman described as “a harrowing 10 years" that saw him in and out of immunotherapy, in and out of remission and, for a brief time, homeless. “I became a lab animal,” Hansman said of his life at the time, “trying out experimental treatments.”

A previous City Faces exhibit includes self portraits and one of Hansman's worked, which is the large framed piece.
Credit Provided by Mr. Hansman
A previous City Faces exhibit includes self portraits and one of Hansman's worked, which is the large framed piece.

When it was over he had become one of the first patients successfully treated for malignant melanoma. But any celebration was short lived, for it wasn't long before Hansman lost a close friend, Larry King, to suicide.

“That’s when I started doing these drawings,” Hansman said. They started as a coping mechanism. Then they evolved. Then they got seen. Soon he was talking to Jim Harris who doubled as an associate dean at the Washington University School of Architecture and wrote art reviews for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“He asked me if I wanted to teach drawing to WashU architecture students,” Hansman said.

The offer was serendipitous for two reasons. Years earlier, when he dropped out of graduate school to begin receiving treatment for his melanoma, Hansman had been studying for his teaching certificate. And Larry King – whose suicide inspired Hansman to begin the drawings that led to this offer – had been an architect struggling to make a living, with dreams of working at the Washington University School of Architecture.

“I’m not one who believes things happen for a reason,” Hansman said, “but I do think you can make something constructive out of them. You can turn horrific events into something good.”

It’s a lesson he began to learn when he was hired by Washington University in 1990. It’s one he continued to learn three years later when he first went to what he calls “the Peabodies” and the year after that when he began City Faces.

‘So proud of this young man'

The City Faces space at the Al Chapelle Center is not particularly large. It is easy to see why the program often spills into other parts of the center. In the main room hang the self-portraits of the children in Bob Hansman's original Clinton-Peabody art program. At its edges are folding tables where the children work with their mentors from Washington University.

Jovan Hansman called two young boys, twins, into the computer room, just off of the hallway that leads to the main room. The twins assumed they were in trouble. Instead, their photos were being taken for the nametags that help the mentors learn their names.

Bob and Jovan Hansman
Credit Provided by the Hansmans
Bob and Jovan Hansman

Jovan Hansman now runs City Faces, a program he first attended in 1994 when his name was Jovan Simpson. He was a shy and quiet 13 year old at the time, and it took Bob Hansman a while to pick him out from the crowd. That would change as their relationship developed.

“Our relationship, I think, is still sort of magic to both of us,” the elder Hansman said. “It started out as teacher-student. Then he moved in and we were roommates. Then it was father and son, and then business partners and best friends.”

On May 15, 2002, after Jovan had turned 21 and could legally sign for himself, the two men appeared before a judge who made official the adoption that had long since transpired. “It was more than symbolic,” Hansman said of the day. “Jovan looked at me and told me, ‘I didn’t need a piece of paper to tell you that you were my father.’”

Since they first met, the two Hansmans have achieved much. City Faces went from being a Missouri Arts Award winning art exhibit to a year-round program. In 2007, the story of their relationship appeared on CBS Evening News.

“People say how great it is what [Jovan] has become since he’s been with me,” Hansman said of his son. “The miracle is what he did on his own before we met.”

“I’m so proud of this young man."

Things do not “happen” for a reason in Bob Hansman’s life. He didn’t “happen” to get beat up the Klan just to tell a story 40 years later. His friend Larry didn’t “happen” to die to make Hansman a professor one day. City Faces didn’t “happen” so that he would eventually adopt Jovan. He has simply done something with what he’s been given.

“I don’t want to put life on a shelf,” he said. “I want to do something with it.”

And so he continues, a spry 66-year-old with a goatee and a heavy metal hoop dangling from his ear, excitedly outpacing his undergraduate students as he brings them through the neighborhoods he loves.

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