EDITOR’S NOTE: In observance of Black History Month, the Newport Plain Talk will once again feature several profiles of Tanner School alumni.
Esther (Houston) Vassar
I have come to realize that where one ends up is certainly determined by where she started and the routes that she took to get there. I want to give you an abbreviated road map to explain how I came to rest for a moment in the many places that I have had the privilege of occupying during my life and career.My
life and I suppose my vision for my future began in Newport, Tennessee. I grew up in Newport, an eastern Tennessee town, just at the bottom of the Great Smoky Mountains: then it was a town of segregated schools, drug store soda fountains, housing, and churches. Newport was a town of Tennessee State Fairs, tobacco growers, and “colored” and “white” signs on bathroom doors and water fountains.I am the youngest of the four children of Irene and Floyd Houston. Sophie Ellen Irene Smith Houston, my mother, was a brilliant woman who playfully gave her children directions in French (based on her almost two years of junior college), quoted Paul Laurence Dunbar and Langston Hughes poems as she cleaned house, washed dishes, or cooked dinner. Irene—wife, mother, PTA President, member of the Eastern Star Women’s club, substitute teacher, and maid. Floyd Wesley Houston, my father, was a man who had to choose work and survival over a high school diploma; a man who drank a lot of liquor in his days, went to work as an automobile mechanic or a janitor for a chemical plant every day, and provided for and educated four children with those efforts -in spite of immense obstacles. Ironically, it was in this environment and this family that I first knew and realized that I could create my own vision and version of and for my life. And further irony is that from the evils of a segregated society, grew my little community of family, friends, teachers, and preachers—folks that nurtured my sense of self worth and provided adults who served as mentors and protectors of the children in that community. Ironically, it was because of the evils of a segregated society that my parents determined that their children would realize some of the dreams that they themselves were unable to enjoy in their own lives and they were wise and strong enough to allow us to pursue our dreams. As mentioned earlier, I grew up in Newport and graduated from Tanner School. I attended Tanner School from first grade through high school, graduating during the 1960’s, a part of one of the most socially and morally revolutionary periods in America history.As
I reflect on the events that have shaped my life, it seems that it was a perfect storm of events that made the life that I have lived and enjoy possible. I was blessed to have Irene and Floyd Houston as parents; that I had Margaret as an older sister, with whom I lived during the summers so that I could work during the summers in Hartford, Connecticut; that I had Sylvia, better known as Squibb, the next oldest sister, who made the choice to remain in Newport and keep me informed about my friends, my family, and especially about the health of our parents; and I feel so blessed to have had the experience of Tanner School, which represents the history of my family and the families of so many others who grew up in Newport.You
see, the ‘Tanner experience’ is a part of my DNA. It was Tanner and teachers like Mrs. Mae Leeper, Mr. Douglas, Professor Rakestraw, and Mrs. Irene Smith who taught me so well that I was able and qualified to successfully compete in a world of people who came from larger and better-equipped schools. These teachers, without science labs or extensive libraries, helped me and many others to develop and execute our visions for our futures. These teachers helped the young people who were educated at Tanner School to look at the world outside of Newport and make us believe that we could capture a part of that world and make it a part of our lives. They made us believe in ourselves and in our abilities; they made us believe that no matter how far reaching our dreams or visions of success were, we had the ability to turn those dreams into reality.In
Newport and at Tanner, I learned that hard work and perseverance paid off and that I could turn dreams into a wonderful reality and a wonderful life if I just worked hard enough. In Newport and at Tanner, I was taught that character is not just a nine-letter word, but that character is the very core of one’s being.From
my parents, my community, my hometown, my school, and my small and protective community, I learned that generosity of spirit and a dedication to service should be an important part of one’s life. These life lessons directed my life and career choices in this world, and those life and career choices have served me well. I attribute the essence of who I am today to those generations of leaders and heroes both famous and unknown who left a legacy of struggle, dreams, hard work, determination, and unselfish sacrifice, which served as a pathway for future generations.I still marvel at the fact that my parents allowed me, their youngest-their baby, to attend Howard University in Washington D.C. …..Washington and Howard, a city and a University that my parents never even saw or visited until their youngest child graduated in 1967. Yet they had enough faith and trust in me to allow me to attend this school where nobody we knew ever attended in a city that was totally alien to both them and me.The
laws of segregation created a separate system of higher education for black and white folks. Because I was not allowed to utilize university housing at the University of Tennessee or any other Southern state university, I was destined to attend one of the most acclaimed and respected universities in the world, Howard University. At Howard, I was taught by the brightest and best professors in the world, and I studied with and studied some of the most successful and recognized professionals, educators, and artists in the world: Ossie Davis, Ruby Dee, Oliver Hill, Thurgood Marshall, Sterling Brown, Tony Brown, Roberta Flack, Debbie Allen, Toni Morrison, and countless others. It was Howard University that further reinforced my identity and my self-confidence.But
individual strength alone does not always make for survival and I needed and got help along the way. Just as I had family, teachers, friends, community, and positive reinforcement in my earlier years in Newport, I was blessed to have allies and friends in my life that provided support and reinforcement whenever needed.In
1967, I began my professional career in southeast Washington, D.C. teaching English at Frederick Douglass, Jr. High. During the summer of 1969, I won a summer academic grant to study at the University of Virginia. I took four classes during that summer school, studied under some of the best and most powerful English professors at UVA, earned four A’s, and decided to return during the second semester to attend graduate school. It was during the summer that I met and became friends with Dr. Edgar Shannon, President of UVA and his two assistants, Dr. Bill Elwood and Dr. Jerry Gardner. These were my friends and my allies---my sanctuary so to speak, and it was they who more than offset any of the negatives of my experiences at UVA. When I returned during the second semester of the regular school year, they not only helped make my life and experience more positive but they worked with me to assure that the environment for the thousands of women and the 94 minorities that entered UVA in 1970 met with a much more pleasant welcome than we the fewer than thirty earlier minorities had received. Until 1970, the University of Virginia was almost all male: few women generally, 8 black women graduate/professional students in particular (I was one of those women), 6 undergrad black males, and 13 black male law students. If Howard served as one of my major support systems, then my graduate school days in Charlottesville and the University of Virginia were to serve as the challenges that tested my strength and at times my beliefs in honor and justice. Facing housing discrimination in 1970, being called ‘Zulu’ from passing cars full of white male students as I walked to classes, and having a professional real estate broker who was taking a summer seminar attack a white male fellow graduate student for sitting with me and my roommate during dinner in the cafeteria were all companions to the 15 graduate hours that occupied my mind and my time during my matriculation at the University of Virginia. The visiting real estate broker gave as his reason for the attack on my fellow student that “things sure have changed around here.” All these were the things that can try a woman’s soul and challenge her spirit. However, they did not kill me and as my mother often said: “Honey, if it doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger.” As you see, it didn’t kill me and indeed, it did make me stronger. After graduate school and for the following years from 1972 and 1990, I married and spent rewarding years teaching English at my alma maters (Howard and UVA), Hollins College, The College of William and Mary, UNC-Chapel Hill, St. Augustine’s College, Hampton University, and Virginia Commonwealth University. During this same time, I was mother to my two wonderful children, Banyon and Brenan, and wife to my then- husband, Bobby. During those eighteen years, I taught at Hollins College in Hollins,Virginia from 1972-73 while my husband worked in legal aid in Roanoke; from 1973-90, I taught at Howard University, UNC Chapel Hill, St. Augustine The College of William and Mary, and Hampton University. My family and I moved to Richmond, Virginia in 1983 when Governor Chuck Robb appointed my husband Chairman of the Virginia Parole Board; I settled into teaching at Virginia Commonwealth University, settling 9- and 2-year-old children into appropriate educational programs, accepting a Ford Foundation grant in Atlanta, and a year later, deciding to start an international business between Virginia and Africa.In
May of 1984 my 10-year-old son and I traveled to West Africa to attend an art festival and conference. While in Senegal, I not only connected with the art but with the people and the culture. What I could not commit and lock in my memory and my heart, I tried to bring back with me in the form of the wonderful artistic creations of the people and I wanted to share this experience with my friends in Hampton and Richmond so I purchased many, many gifts to share with them. When I presented the gifts to my friends, they were so impressed that I decided to start an import business. Between the months of May and August, I decided or had a vision to create a business between Virginia and West Africa. The vision was clear: I only needed to acquire a business license, visit the African embassies in Washington to understand the procedure for international trade, create a market for my products, accept orders for the products along with at least a 50% deposit with each order, return to Africa and purchase the items, get the necessary permits to bring the goods back to America, hire a customs broker to clear the items in New York, get the items back to Virginia and deliver the items to the appropriate customer, make a profit, and begin the school year at Virginia Commonwealth University teaching 4 English classes. Miraculously, all of those things really happened. Not without incident, however. But this, in brief, was the beginning of my first business, Vassar Imports.In
1989, Virginia made history by electing Lawrence Douglas Wilder its Governor. Governor Wilder assumed office in January 1990 and asked me to be a part of his administration in January 1990 as Director of the Virginia Department of Minority Business Enterprise. At that time the head of the Governor’s transition team was Mark Warner, who became Governor of Virginia in 2002 and currently serves as one of the two US Senators currently representing the Commonwealth of Virginia. When I accepted the appointment of Director of the Department of Minority Business Enterprise, I asked what professional qualifications were necessary for this job, and I was told that Governor Wilder wanted someone who owned a small minority business, had experience in higher education teaching and administration, and had successfully established international trade between Africa and the US because he wanted to establish trade and educational relationships between Virginia and the continent of Africa. It just seemed as if this job was a perfect fit for my interests and experiences.From
1990 until 1994, Virginia hosted two African Trade Conferences, one multinational Southern African Conference, the Southern Governors’ African Heads of State Conference, and countless high-level meetings with more than 27 African countries, all during the Wilder Administration. My department, The Department of Minority Business Enterprise, was the lead agency in organizing and executing these initiatives. Additionally, in 1992 Governor Wilder led a delegation of businesspersons and a few staff, myself included, on a seven-country African Trade and Cultural Mission, the first such mission led by a sitting American Governor. At the end Governor Wilder’s administration 1994, I drew upon the many wonderful work experiences that I had as a part of this historic term, to create E.H. Vassar Enterprise, a consulting firm that dealt with fund raising, political consulting, conference planning, business development, and international trade. I operated E.H. Vassar Enterprise from 1994 until 2002.In
2002, Mark Warner, who had been part of Governor Douglas Wilder’s transition team in 1989, was elected Governor of Virginia and offered me the gubernatorial appointment of Commissioner of Alcohol for the Commonwealth of Virginia: a position that I held from 2002-2006 under Governor Warner and was reappointed as Chair by Governor Timothy Kaine in 2006 for his term as Governor. These appointments provided me the opportunity to create programs that supported prevention of underage drinking and alcohol abuse, and to create alcohol abuse prevention programs in schools, colleges, and the military. The programs won national awards and continue today. In 2009, history and destiny once again seemed to direct my life. Senator Barack Obama was elected President of the United States of America, and in the spring of 2009, I received a Presidential Appointment in his administration and served as the National Ombudsman and Assistant Administrator for Regulatory Enforcement Fairness in The U.S. Small Business Administration until I retired in the fall of 2012 after 45 years of public service in Washington, D.C., Virginia, and North Carolina.My
life has truly been blessed with family, friends, and experiences that would cause any human being to rejoice; I certainly rejoice and thank God for the many blessings that I have received during my life. I now enjoy the love of my children and grandchildren- Banyon, Brenan, Isaiah, and Noah; the respect and love of my friends; the memories of a great life of service; and the joy of a warm and beautiful retirement in Florida.I have shared some of my personal experiences to demonstrate how the uniqueness of my experiences directed my life’s vision and in a sense how I directed my life in order to create and control many of my experiences.I suppose certain aspects of the vision for my life, although at times bifocal, have always been crystal clear and unchanged. I knew what my values were; I knew that I had to be prepared and qualified for opportunities; I knew that I had to continue to grow professionally and personally; and I knew I had to demonstrate honesty, dignity, and high integrity in all aspects of my life. So I suppose I am saying that all of my life I understood what kind of life I wanted and envisioned, and the experiences, routes, and jobs that I chose to take helped create that life. So my vision did not include so much a title. My vision was that others and I could see my life as having been productive, generous, and well lived. The bottom line is that vision sees beyond what one merely sees with the naked eye: One’s vision is as limited or unlimited as one’s mind, imagination, and dreams. And if that vision is to be one of honor, it must be grounded in a solid foundation of integrity, self-knowledge, hard work, honesty, and character. And it was Tanner School that helped shape my vision and dreams and prepared me to take advantage of opportunities that God provided.