A Learner For Life

March 19, 2007
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GRAND RAPIDS — The life-long educator became a fledgling freshman a year ago when the City Commission appointed him to represent the 3rd Ward after sitting commissioner Robert Dean decided to run for the state House.

And the year’s worth of learning has been an eye-opening experience for 3rd Ward City Commissioner Elias Lumpkins.

“I’ve learned that the city of Grand Rapids is a huge corporation. The budget is much larger than I anticipated and some of the challenges that we are struggling with are mind blowing,” he said.

“I think the budget and understanding the different funds have been one of the steepest learning curves for me. I have some understanding of it now. I’m beginning to connect the dots because we have an outstanding staff — from the administrative staff right down to the people who are responsible for keeping the facilities clean and operating.”

It was Dean who first approached Lumpkins about throwing his hat in the commission ring. But it was Lumpkins’ wife, Ruth, who spoke the magic words that encouraged him to seek the post. He said she was really persistent about him going after it.

“After getting encouragement from her, I began talking to some other people. I began to talk to people who had worked in the area of politics and who knew some of the challenges the city faced. After doing that research and praying about it, I decided to apply,” he said.

Lumpkins, a bright, confident and soft-spoken man who possesses an interesting sense of humor, is a product of the city’s public school system. He attended Franklin and Sheldon elementary schools and graduated from South High School. The people he crossed paths with during those formative years inspired him to pursue a career in education.

“I was blessed. I had some outstanding teachers, some good mentors, and I still have contact with some of them,” he said.

“Many of them were (inspirations). Many of them were teachers, administrators, and they encouraged me to pursue a college education.”

And he did that in a big way. Lumpkins earned degrees, including a master’s degree in teaching and administration, from Grand Rapids Junior College (now Grand Rapids Community College), and from Michigan State and Wayne State universities. He credits Dr. James Hoffman, who recruited him to MSU, with convincing him to teach elementary school at a time when very few men did that. He taught at Henry Elementary, before becoming principal at South Middle School.

“That led to a lot of us becoming teachers and educators,” he said of Hoffman’s efforts.

Lumpkins said meeting Hoffman was just one of the many breaks or, as he called these opportunities, “blessings” he has had in his career. But perhaps taking a job at Calvin College was his biggest blessing because it put him on a career path in higher education, which then led him to Grand Rapids Junior College in 1978 as director of special services.

“I developed an Upward Bound program there. Then I moved to director of financial aid. It was there that the dean of student services, Dr. Alan Jackson, took an early retirement and President (Richard) Caulkins asked me to become the dean of student services at the time,” he said.

“From there I worked on counseling, job placement and things of that nature. Eventually I began to work with Cedric Ward and the Board of Trustees to develop a diversity program. I think that really opened up some other avenues for us.”

That program has grown, and six months ago it became an essential part of the Woodrick Institute for the Study of Racism and Diversity, which offers the city’s most noted two-day diversity workshop. Lumpkins retired from GRCC nearly seven years ago after 19 years as the school’s dean of student and alumni services. In January, GRCC named him the “Giant Among Giants,” the top honor of the college’s annual awards that pay tribute to African-Americans.

“Very few people come along with his heart; he’s definitely a special guy,” said Donovan Brittan, a GRCC graduate who has served on the school’s alumni board. “He does what he does because of the impact he has on students’ lives. I learned from him that it is important to enjoy what you are doing.”

Ruth is also a retired educator and administrator and, by the way, a current commissioner. She taught English at Union High School until she became the librarian there. She went on to become the librarian at Creston High School and then Ottawa Hills High School before she took over the post of directing library and media services for the entire system. Today, she serves as a library commissioner.

“Becoming a librarian was something she always wanted to do. It came out of her childhood experience. She had met librarians and admired the work that they did. She loves books and reading, and I’ve learned a lot from her,” he said.

“We met during a teachers’ strike. The Grand Rapids Teachers Association had a social activity to keep the spirits up and that’s when I met her.”

Elias and Ruth have two adult children, Eric and Erin. He also has two sons from his first marriage, Michael and Patrick, and has three grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

Lumpkins was born in Redwood, Miss., and came to Grand Rapids at the age of 6. In his spare time, he reads, goes to the movies, travels with Ruth, and watches as much sports on the tube as he can get away with. He threw the shotput in high school, and played tackle on the South High and Junior College football teams.

“I love sports, but I was never an outstanding athlete,” he said. “They were good teams and I made some outstanding friends. I get a lot of cards, telephone calls and notes from former classmates.”

As for his immediate future, well, that took care of itself a few weeks ago when he said he was a candidate for the seat he has held since last March. When the Business Journal spoke with Lumpkins, he was running unopposed. He made that point known at a recent meeting of the Grand Valley Metro Council, where he and City Manager Kurt Kimball represent the city, and he jokingly asked board members if they could “keep people from running” against him.

But with the primary election less than five months away and the candidate filing deadline less than two months away, Lumpkins isn’t taking anything for granted.

“I’ve put together a committee to look at what challenges and issues are out there in the city. I’ve got one perspective. But I think I can enrich the process by expanding the people at the table. I’ve got a good, diverse committee that has helped me put some good ideas together,” he said.

“We’re working now to try to capsulate that, put it into words and on paper, and conduct a successful election campaign. At this point, based on the information that we’ve got, we’re looking at three themes, or bullet points: communication, collaboration and commitment.”    

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