“I flunked kindergarten, and by the time I was 12 believed the system didn’t work and rules weren’t made for me,” says Willie Amison, former Kansas University football player, school principal, now educational consultant at KU’s Equal Opportunities Center, president of Amison Consulting and organizer of Lawrence’s “Can We Talk?” program.
“I could easily have traveled down the wrong path.”
His sixth-grade teacher changed that.
“Mrs. Mallott saw my potential,” he says. “She said she had high expectations for me and every student in her class. Through her, I experienced first-hand that it’s people who make the difference, not the systems. Without good relationships we don’t learn.”
Amison’s family moved from Itta Bena, Miss., to Sandusky, Ohio, when he was 5. His parents worked hard at several jobs to make ends meet. Amison, his five siblings and many cousins spent hours playing outdoors. They found ample opportunities to bend the rules until they encountered Mrs. Mallott, then mended their ways.
Amison says football and track coaches also had a positive influence; they had high expectations and treated him with respect.
“At the time it was fashionable for men to have long fingernails,” he says.
“One of the coaches took me aside and quietly said, ‘I’d get those fingernails cut.’ I did. It’s the way he spoke.”
He was recruited by Pepper Rodgers and played wide receiver and cornerback at KU from 1967 to 1971. He says coaching staff treated him well and encouraged and modeled good team relationships.
With help and encouragement from mentors, Amison overcame initial challenges of balancing study and sports. He graduated in four years with a Bachelor of Science in education, then taught fifth-graders at Pinckney School. That followed with stints as principal at Riverside, East Heights and Kennedy schools.
He received an master’s degree in educational administration from KU in 1974 and a doctorate in curriculum instruction in 1992. He transferred to Lawrence High School in 1997, was assistant principal for seven years and joined KU’s faculty in 2006.
He started a mentoring program during his time at LHS.
“It was important for me to dialogue with students,” he says. “They have their views, and I wanted to involve them in decision-making.”
He says this process was a good segue into the “Can We Talk?” program that he, Craig Butler, Ed Brunt and Bud Stallworth developed after attending the 2009 national summit “Courageous Conversations.” The summit explored ways to develop the relationships and skills needed to help eliminate racial educational disparities.
“Can We Talk?” groups, open to all students, and supported by district officials, are held at Lawrence and Free State high schools and Central Junior High School. They focus on building relationships and encouraging students to achieve their full potential.
“My whole life has focused on relationship building,” says Amison, who’s been married to his wife, Nancy, for 23 years.
“Low opinions and expectations of students can influence them to behave that way. I did poorly in school until someone believed in me. I want to help encourage all young people to achieve their potential and become good citizens.”