Wallace Williams grew up poor, one of seven children raised by a single parent. He didn't realize it at the time, but his childhood was preparing him for his destiny in life.
Williams, the giant bear of a man who has presided as principal of Rogers High School for 18 years, will retire from that position at the end of the month. The former Washington State football star says he's always felt a special bond with Rogers students, many of whom have backgrounds similar to his own.
"I remember when I got the job, I felt like I was coming home, getting close to a community like the one I grew up in," Willams says. "You don't have to be rich economically to be rich with other things. In terms of relationships, in terms of spirit and in terms of community pride, these kids are rich."
Williams, a black man who has spent the majority of his life as an educator in a lily-white city, says he's enjoyed the opportunity to spend his career at Spokane's most racially diverse high schools (including Lewis and Clark for 12 years). Of course, poverty and the challenges connected with single-parent families are not unique to minorities at Rogers or any other school, and Williams has empathy for all students dealing with those issues.
"I was the oldest child," recalls Williams, who grew up in Bakersfield, Calif. "My mom was not a professional woman. She worked hard from job to job to provide for the family.
"I didn't want for anything, even though we probably never took a trip more than 100 miles in either direction of Bakersfield. It's easy for me to identify with these kids ... we have a lot of single-parent kids here. I didn't have that stable, All-American family. I came out OK through the grace of God and the love of my mother."
If Williams' love and appreciation for his mother is readily apparent, so is his affection for Rogers High. Williams says he considered staying on one more year as principal, though he's already qualified for full retirement benefits and plans to work out of the Spokane Public Schools office for one year in dealing with student retention. Williams says he decided to step aside now, however, so that incoming principal Carole Meyer (who comes from Havermale Alternative School) can prepare properly for the massive construction upgrades that begin next year at the aging Rogers facility.
"There's a lot of rich history and tradition that remains here," Williams says. "I'm awed by the pride in the community, the people and the school.
"People care about the community, the purple and gold and each other. One thing I'm impressed with is the giving of the people. It seems like the ones who have the least give the most, whether it's the March of Dimes or the Vanessa Behan Crisis Nursery or the annual coat drive.
"It's inspiring to see what the kids do. It just shows their passion and caring for each other and the community."
Williams, who lives on the South Hill with wife Adrian (a multicultural specialist in the counseling department at Spokane Falls Community College), is sensitive to the negative impressions held by some outsiders in regard to Rogers and the Hillyard community.
"We have so many great students," Williams says. "People equate poverty with lack of achievement. Those things don't go together. We have students from here who are at Harvard. We have a girl who got a scholarship at Yale. We have students at Notre Dame and" -- he smiles broadly -- "the best school of all, WSU!"
Williams' son, Jeremey, turned down some of the most prestigious football schools in the country to head from Ferris to WSU to help transform the Cougars into a Rose Bowl team. Jeremey, with a master's degree in hand, just landed a manager's position with a wholesale foods outlet in Seattle. Williams' other child, Stephanie, earned a master's degree at the University of Maryland and works as a city planner in College Park, Md.
"I've been blessed," Williams says.
Unfortunately for Williams, Rogers' sports teams have rarely been blessed with the type of athletic success he enjoyed. Williams was a late cut by the NFL's San Diego Chargers in 1971 and spent the 1972 season with Portland in the old World Football League.
"One reason we struggle in sports is because there's so much specialization in sports now," Williams says. "When we grew up, we played three sports. Now people specialize and play [one sport] year-round. It becomes a matter of economics. Those kids travel all the time."
Asked if he had any regrets about his time at Rogers, Williams says he had none. Later, however, he adds: "One regret I'm going to have is that when you find that special thing and then you have to leave it, it's very difficult. I remember that line in a Temptations song, 'A taste of honey is worse than no taste at all.'
"I'm going to miss this place."