For Susan Uchitelle, quality education for all children is always worth fighting for | St. Louis Public Radio

For Susan Uchitelle, quality education for all children is always worth fighting for

Sep 21, 2009

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 21, 2009 - On hot summer days in Clayton during the '40s, the clop-clop sound of the horse-drawn milk wagon on Arundel Place brought with it a rush of children, all racing to catch the driver and ask for ice. In this crowd of eager youngsters was a girl no taller and seemingly no stronger than the rest, but her friends remember that she'd usually outrun everybody and then bring back enough ice to share with them.

Even today, at age 75, her friends say Susan Uchitelle remains just as competitive about winning and equally as compassionate about reaching out to others as she was during those lazy summer days of her childhood.

Most people probably know Uchitelle as a petite, soft-spoken woman, dressed in business suits and heels and committed to many area arts and education programs. Away from the public eye, friends say she has an adventurous side -- as comfortable in running and hiking attire as she is in business suits. Uchitelle's competitive spirit extends to testing herself in marathons, mountain climbing, cross-state biking and other tough sporting events that friends say she pursues with the same energy and enthusiasm that she pours into community projects.

For years, because of her leadership in the voluntary desegregation program between St. Louis and St. Louis County school districts, her name has been linked to the region's goal of giving the underprivileged more access to equal educational opportunities.

She embraced this mission in a big way after she had completed her own education. She spent two years at Smith College before transferring to the University of Michigan, where she earned a bachelor's degree, followed by a master's at Harvard. She then worked as a teacher in Newton, Mass., before moving back to St. Louis with her husband, Ben.

Back in St. Louis, she earned a doctorate from Washington University and worked as assistant superintendent in two county school districts. She later was appointed one of the 10 state-level supervisors in the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. Her territory covered school districts in several counties in the St. Louis region.

Desegregation case changed her life

Uchitelle was moving up when the St. Louis desegregation case cropped up in St. Louis and eventually forced her to take stands that weren't always popular. The case involved a lawsuit filed in 1972 by Minnie Liddell over school segregation in St. Louis. Uchitelle was deeply disturbed by the way the St. Louis School Board handled the Liddell case. Minnie Liddell wanted one of her sons to attend a neighborhood school, but because the school was overcrowded, he was sent to a school outside the neighborhood.

"He was bused to a white school where he and other African-American students were kept totally segregated, classrooms, lunchrooms, playground, bathroom facilities, everything," recalls Uchitelle. "And then they would go home at the end of the day."

As the case wound its way through the courts, Uchitelle found herself entangled in a political fight between the court, which was moving toward remedies for school segregation, and then-Attorney General John Ashcroft, who opposed many of the remedies. Although Ashcroft's supporters praise what they say was his principled stand, opponents accused him of blocking black children from access to equal education.

Notwithstanding Ashcroft's opposition, five districts -- including Clayton, Kirkwood, Pattonville and Ritenour -- eventually became the first of 16 St. Louis County school districts to participate in what became a far-reaching regional voluntary desegregation program.

Uchitelle was appointed the first director of the committee in charge of the voluntary plan. But a state official informed her that she would never get another state job if she accepted the court's appointment, according to Gary Orfield, a court-appointed adviser in the deseg case. Others, such as William L. Taylor, cofounder of the Citizens' Commission on Civil Rights, and Ralph G. Neas, president of People for the American Way, have also mentioned the threat, which allegedly came from Ashcroft.

At any rate, Uchitelle resigned her state job to follow her conscience.

During the court proceedings over desegregation, Uchitelle says attorneys for Missouri made "some really unnecessary comments about me personally," such as why she didn't send her children to city schools. The judge, though, admonished the state, saying the case wasn't about Uchitelle's three children but about the fate of children receiving inferior education in city schools.

"She was caught between duties to her employer and to the court," says Steve Skrainka, an attorney and close friend of Uchitelle. "She had a really difficult time and she had a lot of guts to do what she did."

Uchitelle got the deseg job in part through an unsolicited recommendation to the court from Orfield, then a University of Illinois professor and court adviser who did extensive research on school segregation. Bringing together public and school officials, some of whom were openly hostile to desegregation, was a tough assignment.

"She handled the pressure remarkably well," says Orfield, now co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA. "You don't expect an upper middle-class suburban woman to get involved with this extremely political and racially polarized issue.

"But she had an inner calm about herself, an ability to bring people together, a commitment that was very strong that gave her the tools to pull it off. That's why she was widely respected. She wasn't dramatic, just got the job done."

Orfield says hostility toward desegregation was eventually replaced by acceptance. The voluntary program is set to end after the 2013-14 school year. From its beginning in 1981, the plan has touched the lives of more than 68,000 students, about 87 percent of them city children in county schools; the remaining 8,000 were county children attending city magnet schools. Uchitelle remained with the program until 1999.

Supporting Charter Schools as an alternative

"She has tremendous moral courage," says Linda Skrainka, another friend. "The desegregation issue was an example. It was a fierce fight, but she was always very private about the difficulty of any tasks she undertakes. And when she's successful, she doesn't talk about that either, preferring to let others do that."

A recent example of her unwillingness to toot her own horn occurred when Confluence Academy, a charter school of which she was a founder, opened a high school in downtown St. Louis. Confluence serves 3,000 children, and opening the high school, which serves 250 9th and 10th graders, was an important milestone.

At the ceremony, however, Uchitelle remained in the background, a spectator in the audience as political, civic and business leaders took the stage to praise the high school as an asset to downtown and to children seeking educational options.

Uchitelle has become a big fan of charter schools not because she wants to undermine the city schools but because she genuinely thinks competition will make public schools better. She acknowledges that charter schools aren't performing at the level she hopes. But she expects them to improve once they begin to reach children where they are, bring them up to grade level and give them the tools to rise beyond grade level in later years.

Behind the Scenes at the Art Fair

Just as Susan Uchitelle's name isn't listed prominently in material about Confluence, you won't see it displayed prominently at the St. Louis Art Fair in Clayton, ranked as one of the nation's top art fairs. Uchitelle founded the fair, along with her husband, Ben, then the mayor of Clayton.

"She's one of the most inspiring woman I've every met," says Linda Goldstein, a friend of Uchitelle's for 25 years. "She's very down to earth. We serve on the Cultural Festival committee, the group that runs the Art Fair. She's an absolutely amazing woman with great creative ideas and committed to getting things done in St. Louis."

Though Uchitelle obviously enjoys collecting original art, she seemed more than a little pleased to get a relatively inexpensive print for one of her recent birthdays. Perhaps it was the subject of the painting -- equal education -- that delighted her most.

The work by Romare Bearden, depicting a woman and child reading a book, commemorated the 30th anniversary of the Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka school desegregation decision. It was one of the few items she shows off for a visitor.

Always up for an Adventure

Madge Treeger first met Uchitelle at a summer camp when Uchitelle was 9. By chance, they later attended Smith before both transferred to Michigan. Treeger and her husband moved to St. Louis from New York in 1972 and stayed with the Uchitelles in Clayton before buying a home.

"I don't know how these connections happened," Treeger says. "We still kind of laugh about it. But we're very different. She's disciplined, has climbed Mount Kilimanjaro and runs in marathons. I'm lucky if I take a walk in the morning. She's very determined, capable and does lots of things well."

Another family friend, Bernard Stein, calls Uchitelle a "prime mover, working behind the scenes but never taking credit. She sees a community need and works to make things happen."

His wife, Sally Stein, who grew up on the same block of Arundel where Uchitelle lived and chased the milk wagon with her, takes credit for convincing Uchitelle to transfer to Michigan. Sally Stein says she jokingly told Uchitelle that Smith obviously was "an inferior place, since it didn't even have a first name."

Uchitelle has three children: a son who owns a business in the St. Louis area, a daughter who helps women entrepreneurs in Pittsburgh and a second daughter, an internist in New York.

Meanwhile, Uchitelle enjoys her grandchildren as well as friends like Treeger and Stein. She and Stein in particular taken adventures together, including a trip to Antarctica.

"I asked Susie if she wanted to go, and her immediate answer was yes," Stein recalls. "She loves adventure. She has been a runner for years, exercises all the time, always has many irons in the fire. It's kind of what can I do next, what mountain can I climb, literally and figuratively."

Uchitelle lived up to her reputation of risk-taking during the trip to Antarctica. On the way home, their ship encountered a fierce storm with hurricane force winds, Stein said, and the captain ordered everyone to stay in their cabins. Everybody complied -- except Uchitelle.

"Susie went up to join the captain and the first mate to watch them ride out the storm," Stein recalls.

At one point in the trip during calmer seas, while they were floating around in a Zodiac, Uchitelle reached into the water and handed Stein a gift, a chunk of ice.

Just like she used to do when the milk wagon passed through during their childhood days back on Arundel Place.