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Life mentors inspire life of mentoring youth

By Virginia de Leon

Throughout his life, Spokane educator Wallace Williams has turned to two sources for inspiration: his mother and his faith.

 “My mom went to church, and I grew up in the church,” said Wallace, who was Rogers High School’s principal for 17 years and is now the director of outreach for Washington State University.

Wallace Williams
Wallace Williams

“My faith life was an extension of my mother, who made sure I grew up with biblical principles. Because of her, I focus my life on my belief in Christ,” he said. “I thank God every day for putting her in my life.”

Throughout his career, he has sought to share that inspiration and motivation with youth and students he has worked with in Spokane schools and now at Washington State University.

Wallace, who is 58 and the father of two grown children, is committed to working with youth and young adults to promote equal opportunities for all children, regardless of race, ethnicity or socioeconomic background.

“My hope for students is that they can become whatever they want to be, that they can overcome the hurdles and obstacles in the way,” he said. “My hope is that they will be able to do something they are passionate about. If we can find our passion, our potential has no limits. My hope is that these young people will find their passion.”

The oldest of seven children, Wallace grew up in a single-parent household in Bakersfield, Calif. To make ends meet and to support her family, his mother, Oletha, always worked two jobs.  She earned a living by working as an assistant nurse’s aide at a hospital, working at a car wash, cleaning houses and creating crafts she would sell.

Her example taught Wallace to be resilient, work hard and lead “a quality life” every single day.

On Sundays, she took her children to a Baptist church, where they found a support network among congregation members.

To help his mother, Wallace started earning money as a teen by working in agriculture, harvesting fruit, packing produce in potato sheds and other farm labor jobs.

Although he had a few high school teachers who sat down with him and told him he was gifted, he didn’t know many people in Bakersfield who went to college. No one told him to sign up for college preparatory classes in high school. Having no role models at the time, he didn’t quite grasp the significance of higher education.

He played sports from an early age and his athletic abilities and prowess, as well as his performance on the high school football team, soon caught the attention of coaches and recruiters from colleges and universities across the country.

When he was 19 and attending a junior college near his home, Wallace received scholarship offers from Stanford, the University of Colorado and other schools. He chose Washington State University because of Jim Sweeney, the Cougar head coach from 1968 to 1975.  Jim traveled several times to Bakersfield and had dinner in Wallace’s home.

Until his first visit to Pullman in January 1969, he had never seen snow. Along with John Hook, a teammate from Bakersfield Junior College and now principal at Mt. Spokane High School, Wallace experienced winter in full force as snow fell on and covered the rolling hills of the Palouse.

He didn’t know much about WSU, but trusted Jim and his mother’s instincts.  So he moved to Pullman. Although he had never experienced the rural atmosphere of Eastern Washington, he immediately felt at home.

 “I worked with a great coaching staff and had this support system wrapped around me,” said Wallace. “I was excited about the educational experience. I felt camaraderie with the whole WSU community.”

He was the first person in his family to go to a four-year university.  In addition to his success in academics, he became the offensive lineman of a close-knit football team that won more games in 1970 and 1971 than teams of previous years.

During those years, he found his calling as an educator.

 “There are key influences in life that help create a vision of what we might want to be,” said Wallace, reflecting on his career. “We start to see ourselves through these role models and mentors.

“Most of the people who were influential in my life were coaches and teachers. That’s why I decided to major in education,” he said.

After earning a teaching certificate for secondary education and a bachelor’s degree in history and physical education, he earned a master’s degree in guidance and counseling from WSU.

For three years after college, Wallace played professional football in the fall and worked as a regional guidance counselor for Spokane Public Schools the rest of the year.  He played for the San Diego Chargers during the exhibition season and was traded to the Portland Storms and also helped establish the World Football League.

 “Sports enhanced my life.  It was exciting and provided opportunities for me to shape myself in positive ways,” he said, “but my mom and faith saved me while growing up amid negative influences of Bakersfield.”

The World Football League came to an end after two years. Wallace yearned to work in schools full-time. He discovered more inspiration from young people in classrooms than from his experience as a professional athlete.

“The motivation to this day for me is seeing kids and young adults become successful,” he said, “seeing them reaching and creating a vision of whatever their life aspirations are and being motivated to achieve, aspire and accomplish their dreams.”

Wallace was a counselor at Lewis and Clark High School for three years and served as Spokane Public Schools dean of students for two years. After earning his administrative credentials from Whitworth University, he was an assistant principal for 12 years and then worked at Rogers High School for 17 years.

During his tenure at Spokane Public Schools, he was able to relate to the struggles of young people, especially students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Students at Rogers were no different than other youth at other high schools, he stressed, but some lacked resources in terms of time and money. Because some came from single-parent homes and their parents worked one or maybe two jobs, some of the students didn’t have the kind of support that was visible at other large high schools.

“I grew up in a similar environment,” he said, recalling his home life and his years at Bakersfield’s South High School.

“All the years I played sports, my mom couldn’t come to games. She had to work or she had to be home with my younger brothers and sisters. I saw myself in some of the students at Rogers. I grew up like them,” he said.

After working at Rogers, Wallace spent a year examining drop-out rates for Spokane Public Schools. He then met Michael Tate, vice president of WSU’s Office of Equity and Diversity, who asked him to use his experience and expertise as the university’s outreach director.

During his two years in that role, his goal has been to increase WSU’s visibility in Spokane, especially in the minority community, and to create a support network to encourage young people to go to college.

Wallace developed a program called POMP – Place of Most Potential. He recruited eight volunteers to work with 80 youth and their parents. The students, who are in the seventh- through 12th grades, meet with the volunteers and him at least once a month so they can talk about their goals and what they need to do now to prepare for college. Students from most of the area’s middle and high schools take part in this effort to create “a college-going culture,” Wallace said.

“The more people they have in their lives to motivate them and talk to them, the more successful they will be,” he said. “College for them is not an option, it’s an expectation.”

Wallace has garnered support from area churches, especially the African-American congregations, as well as local businesses including Wendle Ford, Avista and the Spokane Teachers Credit Union.

POMP also receives support from John Fraire, WSU’s vice president for enrollment management. With the help of the companies and organizations, students have been able to visit the WSU campus in Pullman and learn more about college life.

Wallace’s efforts to help youth and promote diversity also have been supported by his church, Calvary Baptist, the congregation that he and his wife, Adrian, have belonged to for 20 years.

He has been recognized with numerous awards including the YWCA’s Carl Maxey Racial Justice Award, which honors an individual every year for exemplifying the ideals of the late Spokane attorney.

The award he received in 2005 meant the world to Wallace, who as a young football player considered Carl Maxey a mentor and role model.

For information, call 358-7522.

Copyright © January 2009 - The Fig Tree