IN REMEMBRANCE OF SHIRLEY RODGERS, WARRIOR EXTRAORDINAIRE Sunrise 1949 – Sunset 2018
Longtime Lansing Board of Education officer and passionate advocate/change has left the Lansing area with a tremendous void. She died at the early age of 69 years of age.
She was elected to the Board of education in November 2007 where she served as treasurer. Shirley had also served as past president of that board and retired from the Lansing School District’s business office after thirty years of dedicated service. Her love for Lansing students was enduring as evidenced by her recent involvement with the district’s Junior Board.
According to Superintendent Yvonne Caamal Canul, “no one has been a more dedicated, loving supporter of the Lansing School District than Shirley Rodgers.” She grew up in the Saginaw Michigan area and attended Michigan State University, where she helped charter the MSU Black Alumni Association and served as its president during its infancy. Her advocacy
Courtesy Photo-Lansing School District
included the Ingham County Road Commission, the Tri-County Regional Planning Commission, the City of Lansing Public Service Advisory Board and the Lansing Community College Board of Trustees.
I first learned of Shirley’s powerful advocacy when being considered for employment with Lansing Community College in 1988, after 10 years of service with General Motors. Shortly before my final interview with the Human Resources Director and the college President Phil Gannon, a terrible thing happened. Shirley Rodgers was verbally assaulted by a fellow board member, David Diehl, who teased her about going to “nigger heaven” if she wasn’t a “good girl.”
Shockwaves hit the Lansing community before the news became public. The NAACP, where I served as an officer and executive committee member, was up in arms. The situation mobilized a multi-ethnic advocacy group called The Coalition for Community Concerns that immediately began an investigation into the college’s equity in hiring practices. They believed comments used in this context by the institution’s leadership with no repercussion was indicative of limited numbers of African American faculty and staff to provide an equitable, all inclusive learning and professional environment for its patrons.
The Coalition called for dismissal of the board member as well as President Gannon, who appeared to condone the trustee member’s insensitivity by not publicly reprimanding or calling for Diehl’s dismissal. Meanwhile, the community rallied in support of Rodgers who silently persevered as cries of discrimination and racial injustice
Shirley Rodgers with colleagues being honored for Educational Excellence at the Chronicle's Annual
"Hometown Heroes" Community Awards Banquet-Photo Courtesy of Gaudi Photo
led to pressure for Gannon to step down. He remained relentless in tightening the reins of Lansing Community College, which he founded in 1957. Reportedly Gannon ruled with an iron fist and was loyal to his friend David Diehl which soon led to the
demise of both leaders.
The year was 1988. I rushed back from Memphis, Tennessee, after burying my sister-cousin in blizzard conditions for my final interview on February 22nd. It mattered not that I was out of town for bereavement. If I wanted the job, I was expected to be there at 8:00 a.m. on that day and I was. The interview was tense and mildly confrontational to say the least. Gannon made mention that he “understood I represented a public interest group” but wasn’t succumbing to pressure from outside entities in hiring “anyone.” He was speaking of my active involvement with the Lansing NAACP.
However, thanks to the Shirley Rodgers debacle and intense community pressure, I was hired. I knew, though, that it would be a rough road to tow and it was. Several other black professionals were hired within a few months. They were Dr. Willie Davis, Rita Bunton and the late John Pollard. As forerunners to this new wave of diversity, we all encountered very tumultuous times that took its toll on our health. John Pollard eventually died from the stress induced cancer toxin. Shortly thereafter, Trustee Diehl resigned from the LCC Board of Trustees as President Gannon relinquished his reign from the college that he founded and built into a stellar organization.
One news report indicated Shirley died of “natural causes” but she was only 69 years old. Some would still consider her to be a relatively young woman. As I reflect on her decades of frontline advocacy/leadership, which I observed from afar through the years with great admiration, I contend that Shirley Rodgers died from the stress of fighting institutional racism and social injustice. She had a dogged determination and was relentless in every pursuit she tackled.…and for African Americans that is as natural and American as apple pie.