In January of 2020, a newspaper approached me a unique proposition.
If I returned to sports stringing as a freelance writer, my teenage son — a young talented photographer — could also freelance with the camera.
It was a no-brainer.
We did the father-and-son sports coverage for the entire 2020-2021 sports season.
On Aug. 23, we were scheduled to cover our first sporting event of the 2021-2022 high school sports season: a high school volleyball game between Harrisonburg High School and the Waynesboro Little Giants.
Before my son snapped a volleyball photo, I told him to grab a picture of the older gentleman talking with a Waynesboro parent in the stands.
It’s someone my son knows well. It was his grandfather, Ron Lassiter.
Ordinarily, seeing my dad in the stands of a Waynesboro High School sporting event wouldn’t be picture-worthy. He’s been doing that for as long as I can remember. After all, this is his alma mater. He was part of the graduating class of 1968.
But this time, the circumstances are different.
Dad’s not just a fan this time.
He’s a part-time administrator at Waynesboro High School on an interim basis.
We still haven’t even touched the craziest part of the story yet.
In ninth grade, my dad wasn’t allowed to go to Waynesboro High School. Blacks and Whites were still segregated under a separate-but-equal policy.
“This is an opportunity I never saw coming,” dad said. “In my wildest dreams, I wouldn’t have seen myself back in the high school as even a substitute teacher.”
Talk about full circle.
I tell my son to get a really good picture.
Because boy do we have a story to tell.
On Aug. 10, my dad was dressed in a short-sleeved white Nautica shirt. As I was preparing to drive my own kids to their first day of school, I grabbed a picture of dad on his first day of school, his first time in an educational setting in 46 years. I posted it on social media with a short caption like, “A different back-to-school story.”
Lots of people liked the picture. Many posted their well-wishes for my father, and the editor of the newspaper where I freelance asked me if I wanted to write a column.
My immediate thought was no.
In the past, I had written a Father’s Day column on my dad. He’s the best man I’ve ever known; a rare person whose private life even outshines his public life. That column included my favorite vignette about my dad growing up. He slept in a car in Kentucky to help me get to a basketball exposure camp. He was all the way in on every dream I’ve ever had.
I didn’t want to write a sequel, but then a few things changed my mind.
As dad and I both get older, I want more of his story captured in print. I wanted to interview him for this story so that I would always have the voice recording of our talk. I also want my great grandkids to be able to Google my dad.
The second reason I changed my mind is because it’s an important story, and I’m in a unique position to tell it. And the final reason is because it’s a chance to share our family’s history with my son. As I capture the words, he’s capturing the pictures.
We’re deep-diving into my dad’s story together.
Starting at Rosenwald
My dad grew up in a home at 264 Shiloh Ave., a literal stone’s throw from Rosenwald, the K-12 school Black students in Waynesboro attended during segregation. I’ve read extensively on segregated housing practices in Richard Rothstein’s “The Color of Law,” but dad didn’t talk about it a ton growing up.
Another reason I wanted to do the story.
My dad grew up one of 10 children, with no silver spoon in his mouth. At school at Rosenwald, however, he never felt out of place.
“Everybody was like me,” dad said. “Everybody came from the same neighborhood. You never got the feeling of advantage or disadvantage, financially or economically. There were always some kids that seemed to have a little more, but basically everyone was on the same economic status.”
From an education standpoint, dad’s teachers were concerned that he obtained a top-notch academic and real life education.
“Looking back on it, they were really concerned about you getting the knowledge that you need to make it in life,” dad recalled. “I just wished I would have listened more. I didn’t know that I would one day own a house, so I didn’t always listen to the stuff Mr. Sharon was trying to teach us.
‘I’m about to go out do something with a T-square. He was trying to teach us what a T-square was for, and I wasn’t paying attention. Things that make sense now sounded foreign to me when I was growing up.”
When school was over, the sandlot baseball games at the Rosenwald field would be fully integrated.
“We played in the neighborhood with white kids,” said dad, who started the grasp of the idea of segregation in first grade. “They were just never in our school. At Rosenwald, white families were on the street to the left, and black families were on a street to the right.”
Dad’s family moved to East Main Street when he was 11, and the integrated baseball games moved to Patrick’s Trailer Court. The Bellamys, The Hobsons and McCarthys would come down from Winchester Avenue, and the white kids would come out from the trailer park.
“Again, you see the racial divide,” dad said. “One on side of the trailer park was all Black families, and one the other side was Wayne Manufacturing and the white families.”
In 1964, The year before Waynesboro City Schools fully integrated, the two schools participated in an exchange program. Dad’s sister, my aunt Barbara, was one of the Black students who went to Waynesboro one year ahead of everyone else. A few white kids came to Rosenwald for the final year.
Dad went the following year as a high school sophomore.
“There was just a lot of anxiety,” dad said. “You have to remember these were still racially tense times. In 1965, there was a lot of racial tension. And then all of a sudden you’re talking about leaving a school of 200 students from K to 12 to a school where there are more than 200 kids in the freshman class, there was a lot of anxiety. The transition was probably easier for me. By that time, I had moved to East Main Street and had a lot of white friends.”
Back to school
This is one column on my dad, not a book on my dad.
It feels weird to fast forward the story ahead from 1968 to 2021. It skips over dad getting drafting into the Army, being stationed as a medic in Germany, marrying my mom, graduating from James Madison University in Harrisonburg and working in juvenile probation for 43 years.
The probation work was not a job to my dad. It was a life calling. His work in that field deserves its own column (or a book). I never thought he’d leave. Jobs are easy to quit. Callings are not.
And I wasn’t at all surprised that when the school system asked my dad to pinch hit, he quickly unretired himself (although, comically, he’s still retired from paperwork).
“I saw the need to give back to the community,” dad said. “Any time you feel like you’re not totally equipped to do a job, there’s some hesitation. But as your sister says, ‘God doesn’t call the qualified, he qualifies the called.’”
Growing up, there would be times where dad had to carry a beeper. The court service unit always designated someone to be on call in case of emergencies after normal business hours.
Dad’s biggest revelation in stepping into a part-time administration role on an interim basis is that administrators are always on call.
“I think the biggest surprise to me is how hard the administration works, especially during this COVID time,” dad said. “Nobody leaves work before 5:00 p.m., and most of the time later. Then they work afterwards. (Principal) Brian (Stamm), Katie (assistant principal Kathryn Ford) and (assistant principal and athletic director) Jeremiah (Major) email each other about what needs to happen the next day at 10:00 pm at night. Nobody knows they are still working.”
School of hard knocks
My mom is actually the one in the family with all the college degrees. She has a master’s degree in education and a seminary degree.
“The two biggest impacts on my journey were going into the military and your mom,” dad said. “When I went out the military and I went back to college, your mom was already teaching. She was the person that said, ‘this is what you need to do.’ You already know that your mom’s really smart. The areas I lacked in were her strengths.”
Dad doesn’t think anyone who saw his high school transcripts would believe he graduated from JMU, or that he’s serving as interim administrator at his alma mater.
“If you looked at the transcripts, you would have said, ‘there’s no way he’ll ever get into college, and there’s no way he’ll ever get out,” dad said, bursting into laughter.
What dad does have is a doctorate in lived experience. In the juvenile probation field, he’s spent 43 years dealing with people that weren’t always eager to see him.
That’s prepared him well to handle situations that arise in the school.
“It taught me to communicate with people in adverse situations,” dad said. “The same respect you have to show in probation, you have to show the kids. Kids are big on respect. ‘Are you really here to support me? Or is this something you’re going to say?’ And whatever you say, you have to follow through with it.
“If you want to help people who are averse to your way of thinking, you really have to show them respect and give them some idea as to why you’re thinking the way you’re thinking without being offensive.”
Making a difference
It’s simply not in my dad to sit still.
After 43 years of probation work, he took a part-time job painting. In probation work, people would often come back decades later and let my dad know what a difference he made. With painting, however, he could see the results of his work immediately.
It was a nice change of pace for a season.
Now, however, he’s back in a position where only time will tell the difference he’s able to make.
“All you really need,” dad said, “is for one person to come back and say, ‘You really helped me.’”
Chris Lassiter is a sports writer for The News Virginian.