More than 70 guests attended a tribute to Dr. Joseph C. Sommerville, UT professor emeritus in the Judith Herb College of Education, at the Association of Black Faculty and Staff meeting held Nov. 7 in the Law Center McQuade Law Auditorium.
UT colleagues; former students from as far away as Chicago; Toledo city government officials, including Mayor Paula Hicks-Hudson; family and fellow church members; community stakeholders and friends all gathered to honor Sommerville, who retired from the University in 1992 after 22 years.During his tenure, Sommerville was chairman of the Department of Education and served on numerous UT committees. Additionally, as a superannuate professor, he taught courses in administration until 1997.
Several months ago, when the Association of Black Faculty and Staff sought to rename its annual student scholarship, it decided to forgo dedicating it to a nationally known African-American leader. Explained Dr. Anthony Quinn, current association president and assistant dean in the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, “We realized we didn’t need to go out of town to find a hero. Instead, we are renaming the Association of Black Faculty and Staff scholarship in recognition of Dr. Joseph Sommerville.”
During tributes, former students praised Sommerville for his approachability, consummate professionalism and gentlemanly demeanor. Stated one, Paul Raczkowski, “Dr. Sommerville gave us practical lessons to use as educators, not just concepts to apply in the classroom.
“He really appreciated what we faced every day — ‘hormones walking in tennis shoes,’” Raczkowski said jokingly referring to teenage students. “He preached to do only what’s best for students. Period. That’s something a lot of people today should still remember.”
Dr. Crystal Ellis, former superintendent of Toledo Public Schools, said, “Joe Sommerville will live on and on and on in the lives he’s touched. I’m just glad we’re honoring him while he’s still with us.”
In addition to Sommerville having the association’s annual scholarship named in his honor, Toledo Councilwoman Cecelia Adams also presented him with a special resolution from the city. Further, the pastor of Sommerville’s church, the Rev. James Willis, declared that Sommerville’s ongoing contributions give credence to the old adage, “I’d rather see a sermon any day than hear one.”
Indeed, since retirement, Sommerville actively continues community, fraternal and educational service, despite declining health. He has served on the Toledo-Lucas County Public Library Board of Trustees, and also was the first president of AARP Ohio for nearly six years. More recently, when UT launched Brothers on the Rise to help at-risk African-American and Latino students, Sommerville was among the first in the community to answer the call for mentors. He also continues to be a Sunday school teacher, as well as chairman emeritus of the Deacon Board of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church.
Sommerville is a graduate of Morehouse College in Atlanta — where he was an undergraduate student when the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. also was enrolled — and the University of Michigan. He recounted in a recent video that documents his life — recorded with Dr. Willie McKether, vice president for diversity and inclusion — that when he lived in the South, he saw much violence over civil rights issues, such as houses being fire-bombed when homeowners were known supporters of African Americans.
Witnessing such hate crimes during his youth, Sommerville has dedicated his life to the success of students, especially underrepresented students, which also is the mission of the Association of Black Faculty and Staff.