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Unlikely friends fight for those on the outside of privilege

Robin Chenoweth
Thu, 2018-12-06 06:00

Seeing couple interact with the namesake of their latest gift is like watching a feel-good movie

From the outside, theirs is an uncommon friendship.

James L. Moore III is in his 40s, has a PhD and is black. He has an impressive title after his name: Vice Provost for Diversity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer at The Ohio State University. He grew up in South Carolina, on a street where every person he encountered was a cousin, aunt, uncle or grandparent. His Southern drawl is trance-inducing.

The woman who held his hand is in her 80s. Missy Weiler is smart as a whip, has lived her entire life in the Midwest and is white. Her husband, Bob, was at the table, too. He’s soft-spoken and astute, talks about the power of relationships. Nothing about this couple tells the casual observer that the man is one of the most successful developers in the history of Columbus.

Still, the Weilers just gave more than $800,000 to create the Dr. James L. Moore III Scholars Program. The fund will support undergraduate students transferring from Columbus State Community College to Ohio State each year. Moore and his team will select 10 scholars annually.

But as they shared a meal, the professor was feeling humbled that the program bears his name.

At the core, the same

The Weilers live in the same house they built in 1957, shortly after they married. When their four children were young, they could have sent them to the most exclusive schools in the country. They chose instead to enroll them in Columbus City Schools.

For years, Missy Weiler volunteered weekly at Ohio Avenue Elementary School, tutoring young children to read. Bob Weiler served on the Columbus Board of Education for seven years and helped cofound I Know I Can, which provides millions in grants to college-bound students from Columbus.

And that’s where these unlikely friends find themselves on very common ground. All three are passionate defenders of lifelong education. They all want to bring the educational opportunities they had to people who find themselves on the outside of privilege.

“We believe in the power of education,” Moore said. “We believe that it is transformative and to some degree redemptive.”

At breakfast, Moore told them about the moment he learned of the Weilers’ gift. The memory pricked his emotions.

“My wife was crying. My children were crying,” he said. “I had to think on it for a weekend. Wow. Somebody thinks enough of me to name this program after me?”

Missy Weiler grabbed Moore’s hand.

“That’s the highest name we could give it,” Bob Weiler said.

Humble dynamism

Indeed, Moore has budged more than a few mountains in his tenure at Ohio State. He was named EHE Distinguished Professor of Urban Education after pioneering the college’s work in the field, focusing research on college admission of African American males. As executive director of the Todd Anthony Bell National Resource Center, he and his team have mentored scores of black males as they navigate the unfamiliar and sometimes overwhelming aspects of campus life. He administers the Weiler Scholars Program, also funded by Bob and Missy Weiler, for African American males studying to become teachers.

Though he was named vice provost in May, Moore continues to lead education abroad trips to study education systems in Brazil. A number of students making the trip are first-generation undergraduates who have never traveled overseas.

“I love the coaching that I’m able to do,” he has said. “I’m hearing their aspirations, their goals, the challenges that they’ve had in life. Their families support them as much as they can but may not be able to provide all the insights about the next level. My team and I add value.”

He practices tough love with students, strictly admonishing them when their GPAs dip too far. But he’s also been known to pull money out of his shoe and give it to a student who ran short while traveling in Brazil.

“What’s amazing is that he’s doing all this worldwide work that is so important and so meaningful, yet, he retains his youth and his beauty and his humbleness and his caring about individuals,” Missy Weiler said.

Cultural capital

They would clone James L. Moore III if they could, the couple said, because his work helps reverse — or even rewrite — the cycle of education disparity.

“We have a very uneven playing field in this country,” Bob Weiler said. “Missy and I never had to have a financial worry. The fact that we talk about (the United States) as a country where there is equal opportunity — those are strictly words.”

“James is encouraging and helping those who are themselves going to be leaders in the future,” he said. “Many (of his students) will go back into the schools as educators. We’re seeing that once a parent goes to college, the odds of their children going to college increases proportionately.”

Education researchers call that boost “cultural capital” — insights about how to read a syllabus, when to seek help from faculty, how to apply for financial aid. Moore and his team at the Office of Diversity and Inclusion help students navigate these potential quagmires.

Despite aid packages that now cover tuition for Ohio State students who qualify for Pell Grants, other costs create barriers to higher education. Room and board, books and professional development cost students thousands. Those named Weiler Scholars at Columbus State Community College — a program also funded by the Weilers — are eligible to become Moore Scholars at Ohio State upon transferring. They will receive grants to fill in need gaps, as well as mentoring, tutoring, wellness services and financial literacy help. The program will be housed in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion.

Ties that bind

“Were you ever Jimmy growing up?” Missy Weiler asked.

“They called me Jamie,” Moore said.

“I love that. It takes away the bow tie,” she replied, remarking on his signature neckwear.

Their conversation often goes to family, another common value. Moore’s mother died in 2011, just before he met the Weilers. A beloved grandparent had also passed.

“You all represent the fabric of what they tried to teach me,” he told them. “Try to be a good person and put more on the table than you take.”

Work hard. Be the best you can be, but not necessarily better than someone else. Take pride in your craft. Be inclusive. These are messages Moore instills in students.

They are also messages that resonate with Bob and Missy Weiler. All of which is to say, people are people. Black or white. Christian, Muslim or Jewish. Rich or poor. Their common humanity — and the depth of their conviction — binds together Moore, the Weilers and all the students they champion.

“Our motivation has been and continues to be,” Bob Weiler said, “regardless of your background and where you come from, how do we create a situation where optimal success can occur?”

 

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