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A life's work cultivating young minds

Charlie Watson, educator, loves to till the soil, just as he nurtured his students' futures.


© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 28, 2001

[Photo: Paul Jerome]
Desiree Ross, 18, stands with Charlie Watson, 87 who is tutoring her in math and science. Watson started teaching in Apalachicola in 1951 and retired from the Franklin County School District in 1986, but still tutors kids.
APALACHICOLA -- Charlie Watson sits on his front steps during a hot afternoon, talking about the tomatoes and peppers and flowering plants he cultivates around his brick home.

Even though his degree from FAMU is in vocational agriculture, he says he never had a chance to use it professionally. He gets as much joy as he can from planting around the house where he has lived since 1956.

A big, gold, gleaming car with tinted windows pulls up along the curb; out leaps an excited young woman in jeans and white V-neck T-shirt.

She approaches, a shy smile on her face, and offers her hand to Watson.

Does he still do math tutoring at the recreation center?

Not anymore. When his wife got sick, he gave up the twice-weekly, two-hour sessions tutoring 20 to 30 students.

Is there any way you could help me prepare for a placement test? she inquires. She just graduated from Apalachicola High School. She has set her mind on entering Gulf Coast Community College in Panama City, and she wants to be as sharp as possible.

Of course, Watson says. He will be glad to help if she will come to the house.

Charlie Watson has been helping Apalachicola's black students solve their math problems and life's plights for half a century and then some. Among the hundreds of youngsters he has mentored are a few notables, including Fred Humphries, the outgoing president of Florida A&M University.

Humphries' father died when he was 8, and he remembers the tough times while he was being reared by a single mother with five children. Watson was an important influence in his life.

"I got part of my thinking from Charlie Watson and from my mother and some of these other people down there (in Apalachicola) who did extra-special things," Humphries says.

"Charlie earned his paycheck in the normal classroom activities. But he stayed after school to help you to know more. He did not have to take you aside and talk to you about what he thought."

From 1951 to 1989, Watson taught math and science in the Franklin County School District.

At 87, he freely gives of himself to receptive young minds. Desiree Ross, 18, who showed up at Watson's doorstep to register for tutoring help, will be in good hands.

"That happens pretty regularly," he says of the young woman's appearance. "Somebody who wants to know and is willing to put forth the effort. They come by to see if I would take the time to try to help them. And I always do. It's a frequent occurrence, not just isolated. No charge."

His most cherished memories of a full teaching career are from the days he spent in classrooms at the all-black Quinn High School, "loading up" students such as Humphries with the "extras."

In the days of racially segregated schools, blacks often used second-hand books, their classrooms had few ancillary teaching materials, and math and science instruction was limited to basics.

"While the other two (white) high schools taught algebra, biology, chemistry and physics," Watson says, "we were told that black kids had the mind for only the preliminary and fundamental material."

Charlie Watson made up two curriculums: one for his bosses, another for the classroom.

Limited resources, however, were not a deterrent to Watson and the students whose minds he coached.

He remembers going out in the woods to catch butterflies for his biology classes and asking students to gather moss from the local cemetery for lab experiments.

One advantage back then was class size, says Watson, who graduated from FAMU in 1951. He had about 15 students. "You could focus on the individual needs of everyone, both the fast and slow learners," he says.

Fred Humphries was a fast learner. He graduated and was valedictorian of his class, an achievement that made Watson proud. He became a chemistry professor at FAMU and later was named president of Tennessee State University. Watson was thrilled.

When Humphries was named FAMU president 16 years ago, Watson felt a crowning triumph for having been involved in his formative years.

"I knew he was going to be successful," Watson says, "but that was beyond what I had imagined for Fred."

Former Quinn High School principal Willie Speed says Watson played a pivotal role in helping shape young Humphries.

"He really influenced Dr. Humphries," said Speed, who become assistant superintendent of Franklin public schools and last year wrapped up two four-year terms on the School Board.

Watson's admiration for Humphries' accomplishments has less to do with his role in helping shed light on the college president's early path. What gladdens Watson's heart is the fact that Humphries proudly proclaims that he came from humble beginnings.

"He is not ashamed of Apalachicola," Watson says. "He has not turned aside from his upbringing."

Apalachicola, with its mere 3,000 residents, is the center of the universe for the retired educator. He had ample opportunity to abandon the coastal rural community for the bright lights.

He recalls attending a summer institute in Illinois many years ago. His roommate from California received a call promoting him to a junior college and was told to find an immediate replacement.

"He asked me about it," Watson says, "and I wouldn't take it, even though the salary was three times as much as what I was getting back here. I said, "No, I am going back to see if I could help some other kids down there.' "

Humphries appreciates Watson's influence on him but says he appreciates most that the elder educator has not slackened in his longstanding concern for the educational advancement of black youths in Apalachicola.

"Charlie's commitment was to black students like it is today," he says. "(He's one) of a lot of good people in my community who weren't afraid to step up to give a helping hand."

- A version of this story appeared in FlaVour, a quarterly life and style magazine for people of color in Florida. Paul Jerome, its editor and publisher, is a copy editor at the Times.

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