Floretta McKenzie was remarkably consistent. Whether leading the D.C. Public Schools or sitting on corporate boards or being a wise friend to a young person just getting into school leadership, her hallmarks were great patience, kind but firm correction when needed, deep pragmatism, high ethics, and an ability to spread joy and good humor even in difficult moments. I miss my friend Flo, from whom I learned a great deal simply by observing her move through the corridors of power and influence in the educational, political and corporate sectors she inhabited.
When Dr. Floretta Dukes McKenzie died on March 23, the city and nation lost a truly great leader and educator. But many of us who knew her also lost a terrific friend and wise counselor. While we can read about and remember her public life and achievements in the many articles that have appeared about her, I like to remember her as being the friend and colleague who sat next to me and whispered in my ear on the several boards we shared. We were board members together on the venerable local company known as the Acacia Mutual Life Insurance Company, later merged with Ameritas Life in Lincoln, Nebraska. We also served together briefly on the board of the D.C. College Success Foundation before she retired. She was sought-after for many other boards and served on many, including Pepco and Howard University’s board, and she was the first African American elected to the Marriott Corporation board.
For many years, we were the only two women on the life insurance company board, a terrific group of business leaders intensely focused on industry issues. When I first joined the board, I had to learn how to be a good corporate board member, and Flo taught me much about what was really going on, when and how to agree or disagree, and when to hold my tongue — a look, a gentle pat on my arm would remind me to sit back rather than leap into one bonfire or another. She could speak with eloquence and conviction about issues of diversity and gender equity and social justice, and when she did I could tell that the other directors in the room were paying very close attention to her. She could also speak with equal eloquence on issues of corporate governance and financial responsibility, and she was so respected for her acumen that for a period of time she was our lead director.
Her passion for the education of the children of the District of Columbia never waned. I actually first met Dr. McKenzie when she became the D.C. Superintendent of Schools in 1981. At that time, I was the project director for the Street Law Program at Georgetown Law Center, and I had occasion to meet with her to discuss the program. She was open, supportive and genuinely interested in innovative approaches to improving student outcomes. Like her predecessor the great Vincent Reed, she was eager to find solutions to the many problems that plagued the school system, and she was always a champion for hope in achieving greatness in D.C. education. Before Chancellor Kaya Henderson’s remarkable tenure, it’s safe to say that Dr. McKenzie was the last truly successful superintendent in D.C.
Trinity recognized Dr. McKenzie’s leadership in education with the award of an honorary degree in 1982. I know that she cherished that recognition in the ways that she would remind me of her Trinity “honorary alumna” status from time to time, and she took particular interest in the ways in which Trinity engaged with the students and teachers of the D.C. Public Schools. I also knew that I could always seek her good advice on how to navigate the local political landscape — she always knew so much more than what she would say in public!
Flo McKenzie’s legacy is the model she created for the steady, committed, discrete school leader who focused on the right things — teaching and learning — and avoids the pitfalls of politics. Her example should be a case study in school leadership programs for how to lead with integrity, durability and respect.
Farewell, Flo! We will remember you each day as we strive to improve education for the sake of the children in D.C.