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NEW YORK – Years before Stan Verrett was delivering daily sports news and highlights, the longtime ESPN anchor roamed the halls of the predominantly Black St. Augustine High School in New Orleans, Louisiana, as a student from 1979-1984.
Verrett exudes pride and passion when he talks about his alma mater. His mother, a college professor at Dillard University in New Orleans, wanted him to go there for the “intense academic honors program.” His father, he said, was big on the “discipline and the pride with which St. Augustine men carried themselves.”
Verrett said there was something about being a St. Augustine Purple Knight that always resonated with him. Looking back, he describes his experience there as “truly wonderful,” and “everything that a young man, particularly a young Black man, needed from a high school experience.” He said the academic rigors, and a concept called “purple pride,” prepared him for both college and his career.
“What it means is we’re the Purple Knights, that’s our mascot, and purple pride means that no matter what it is that you do that is affiliated with St. Augustine you do it to the best of your ability and that stayed with me,” Verrett said. “I’m always representing St. Augustine no matter what I do, where I go, what I achieve, and that’s always top of mind not just for me but for all of us. It’s a lifetime experience graduating from that school.”
St. Augustine was founded by the Josephites in 1951.
After graduating St. Augustine Verrett went on to Howard University, a historically Black college (HBCU), where he graduated in 1989 with a degree in journalism. He joined ESPN as an ESPNEWS anchor in 2000 and has been with the company ever since.
What follows is more from a conversation Crux had with Verrett about St. Augustine, and the important role it and other schools like it have in society today.
Crux: At St. Augustine the “Code of the Purple Knight” states that a Purple Knight is a man of Christian virtue and honor, is loyal, is a man of character who values courage and honesty and who values and respects all life, God, and his teachers, and it continues from there. How are those values lived out on a daily basis by students, teachers, and alumni like yourself?
Verrett: The interesting thing about it is that I’m not Catholic and there were numerous other students there who aren’t Catholic. My family is Lutheran, but even coming up in a different religious tradition, or even if you’re not particularly religious at all, the morality and the sense of discipline, the sense of caring and empathy, really all of the values that have been espoused by righteous people throughout history whether they’re religious or not is in keeping with that code.
And so the code at St. Augustine comes from the Catholic tradition, but it’s timeless in its righteousness and I think that’s what resonates with the students, their parents, with the alumni. That there is a certain code of behavior that you have to meet as a St. Augustine man.
How important is an institution like St. Augustine, and others that serve not just young Black men and women, but minority men and women in general and anyone that comes from a difficult socioeconomic background?
Well, I don’t think that there are enough of these kinds of institutions.
There are specific things that you deal with as a Black teenager, as a young Black man, that are specific to that experience and that sense of nurturing, that sense of investment in my success that I got at St. Augustine was important. I knew the people educating me cared about me. They were invested in my success. It was the purpose of their being.
These people are serious about helping you to grow and they are specifically catering their presentation of this education to the needs of young Black boys from a variety of social and economic situations. I knew some very well-off families who are St. Augustine from top to bottom and I know some families from the projects who are the same way and it all meshed together because there was this overarching theme of people excelling because you were a representative of that tradition.
So, when you became a St. Augustine man you not only inherited a tremendous legacy. You were also charged with adding to that legacy for the next generation that came along so that they could feel the same sense of pride based on your achievements. If that kind of message could be copied and manifested in other schools and other academic institutions, I think Black America would be better off and by extension America would be better off.
You said that there might not be enough of these kinds of institutions. As you may know, the number of Catholic schools in the U.S. is declining and many of the closures are majority-minority schools, and/or in lower economic areas. How can people help preserve these institutions, like St. Augustine, nationwide?
I think there’s a two-pronged approach. One of them, and it’s something that I stress to my fellow alums, is that ultimately we are responsible for keeping the tradition and physical presence of St. Augustine alive. It’s up to us to make sure that we keep the school vibrant, and thriving, and there’s a financial component to that and also the actual presence. I can’t be there physically present because of my career, but I contribute financially and there are other people who are there who may not be in a position to contribute financially as much as they would like to but they’re there physically every day working with the kids and contributing however they can.
So, there’s the approach where it’s alumni taking care of the school themselves. Then there’s the bigger picture, which is exposing the mission of St. Augustine, exposing the success of that mission, and then getting people to understand how productive this is for our society in general.
We hear a lot of talk about the destruction of the family and all of these different concepts and there’s some validity to that, but the kids are still here no matter what we think about how they were raised. No matter what we think about their family situation. None of that matters when you start to think about the fact that the kid is still here. So society overall needs to look at that kid and say ‘we’re going to create an environment for this child that helps put this child on a better path even if it was born on a bad path, and that we’re going to invest in this child because it’s better for all of us. And we waste so much human potential by failing to invest in young people particularly when they start off on the wrong path and we can do better at that and institutions like St. Augustine are one facet of the answer.
You mentioned earlier that you’re Lutheran, and many of the other students at St. Augustine weren’t Catholic either. What do you make of the Josephites’ commitment to helping students and families of all different backgrounds?
I think the Josephites in particular, that’s a part of their mission is in fostering better outcomes in the Black community through their stewardship, and God bless them because they do a great job and their commitment is total. They’re all in and it made a difference in my life. It made a difference in the lives of both of my brothers.
Along with Catholic Schools Week it’s also the first week of Black History Month. You also attended Howard University, a Historically Black College and University. Why did you decide after you graduated from St. Augustine to attend Howard University? And then what is unique and special about HBCUs?
I grew up in Louisiana and as much progress as we’ve made as a society just in my lifetime there was still the nastiness of racism. Now, New Orleans can be a bastion of civility when it comes to race because people in the city, as in lots of cities around the country, learn to live together, learn to work together. So it wasn’t as bad as it could have been, but I knew it was there and I did not want that issue to affect my college experience.
I have so many friends that went to non-HBCU colleges and had great experiences, but they will tell me that it’s not like Howard, it’s not like St. Augustine and I think it’s because the Black experience in America is such a unique experience.
I learned how to navigate the world as a Black man in America from my experience at St. Augustine and later at Howard University and I don’t know that other non-specific institutions that don’t have this particular mantra could have done that as well and so that’s why they matter so much. When I walked on Howard University’s campus everything there was mine. It belonged to me. It was for me. It was there for me and people like me and so, just like I did with St. Augustine, I left Howard University with a great sense of mission because now I was carrying the flag of Howard University as well with everything that I did and so it only amplified the effect that St. Augustine had on me earlier.
Follow John Lavenburg on Twitter: @johnlavenburg