Spencer High graduate rises from Columbus public housing to college president

mrice@ledger-enquirer.comJuly 28, 2013 

Kevin Rome beat the odds stacked against him while growing up in Farley Homes, a Columbus public housing complex.

He graduated from Spencer High School. He graduated from Morehouse College.

He earned a master's degree and a doctorate. He became a successful college administrator.

He was a rising star in the academic world.

So when Rome became president of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Mo., this year, he couldn't help but reflect on how far he had come.

"I wouldn't have believed it," he said. "The sad thing is that people have such low expectations for many kids who end up in those situations, and they don't push them to seek opportunities.

"… It's like you're not human. People don't see beyond your plight or status. They assume you're ignorant or not intelligent."

'Engine of opportunity'

Rome, 47, is the second-oldest of five siblings, raised mostly by a single mother, who divorced when he was in fourth grade.

"I knew very early in life that education would be the engine of opportunity for me to rise above my circumstances in life," he said. "Fortunately, I have a very supportive family that pushed me to do well in school. … My mother, she could have quit and let our situation define our future, but because she was so positive, it influenced our thinking."

Rome is a thinker and tinkerer. His mother, Barbara Porter, recalled when Rome, as a 7-year-old, fixed a broken radio by taking it apart and putting it together again -- without all the parts.

"But it started playing again," she said.

Rome also is a shepherd. As a teenager, he often brought home friends who didn't have a place to go.

"He always looked out for others," Porter said.

Patrice Luttrell, one of Rome's cousins, said he insisted on proper behavior.

"He didn't want you to get in trouble," said Luttrell, a pharmaceutical saleswoman in Columbus. "If you did something he thought wasn't on the up-and-up, he would tell an adult.

"It makes it seem like he was a tattletale, but he was just going by the rule book."

Rome attended Dimon Elementary, Marshall Junior High and Jordan High, then transferred to Spencer after his sophomore year.

Former Spencer science teacher Mike Edmondson, the 1990 Muscogee County School District Teacher of the Year, remembers Rome being "smart as a whip and such a pleasant guy, a quietly observant guy."

He said he isn't surprised Rome ended up a college president.

"I wouldn't have doubted that, not at all," said Edmondson, who concluded his 34-year MCSD career at Northside High and will start teaching at Brookstone School in August. "He just had that -- even as a 16-year-old -- that calm demeanor. He wasn't a showy guy. He was able to really be a scholar. He was a genuinely focused young man. You knew he was going to be someone someplace somehow."

Class of 1984 friend Teddy Dicks was co-editor of Spencer's yearbook with Rome, who dated Dicks' sister.

"He was smooth," said Dicks, now a sales analyst for SunTrust Bank in Atlanta. "He's not the kind of guy you'd think would get the girls, but he'd get the girls you wouldn't think. He was shy, but he handled his business."

Change agent

Thanks to federal financial aid and student loans, as well as loans from relatives, Rome attended Morehouse College. He intended to become a lawyer, but pursued college administration because "there were things that could have been done differently, and I believe, if you want to change something, you make it your goal and you do it yourself."

He saw administrators "maybe not invested in the success of the students" and vowed to work against that perception.

"For me, you do whatever it takes for students to be successful," he said. "My goal as an administrator is to look at a situation and find a way to say yes to what a student is requesting, when feasible. I think many times, when a student wants to do things that aren't typical, the response is usually no."

Rome soared through his profession with increasingly responsible jobs, from Georgia to California to Texas to Indiana, back to Georgia and then to North Carolina. And he developed ideas for atypical initiatives.

During his five years (2008-13) as vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management at North Carolina Central University, Rome created a support program for minority male students. Established in 2009, the school's 100th year, the Centennial Scholars Program and Male Initiative has grown to 540 students. Fifty-five of the original 57 students stayed in the program all four years, their combined grade-point average increased from 2.2 to 2.8, and 38 of them graduated on time this spring, with another 12-15 on track to graduate in December, said Jason Dorsette, the program's director.

The American College Personnel Association named it the 2013 Outstanding Male Program of the Year in March.

Despite his success, Rome remains humble, Dorsette said. He eats in the cafeteria with students and personally and promptly answers emails.

"He's real," Dorsette said. "He hates being called Dr. Rome. He says he's just Kevin. When you are speaking with him, he really engages in the conversation. He doesn't make you feel like he has something else to do. He's just a man of integrity."

Dorsette laughed when he revealed that "Dr. Rome, he is tight with the dollar. I mean, he loves fishing, so he's been talking about getting a boat, but he's concerned about the maintenance cost. I'm like, 'Dr. Rome, you are financially secure. Why hold onto this money like it's going to end?' And he just said that it's because of his upbringing."

Focus

On Jan. 18, Rome was named the 19th president in the university's 147-year history. He took office June 1, succeeding Carolyn Mahoney, who retired in August. The 62nd and 65th United States Colored Infantries and their white officers founded the historically black college in 1866 for the benefit of freed slaves.

"I really want to focus on retention and graduation rates," Rome said. "It's always been my desire in my career to focus on success of African-American males and to focus on financial stability. I also want to focus on the overall student experience. My goal is for students to not only excel but enjoy the collegiate experience."

Rome was selected over two other finalists: Bernard Franklin, an executive vice president with the NCAA, and Rosalind Fuse-Hall, executive director of Title III programs at Florida A&M University.

Greg Gaffke, co-chairman of Lincoln's presidential selection committee, explained why Rome was the top choice.

"We felt he was very passionate toward the student experience," Gaffke said. "He has the leadership, the budgetary priorities and the experience."

Gaffke expects Rome to help Lincoln increase enrollment from 3,300 students to its goal of 5,000.

"I see him interacting among the students and taking a leadership role in recruitment," he said.

Sacrifices

Rome understands his journey is unusual, but he wants it to be more common.

"I think anyone can do what I did coming from Columbus, regardless of their circumstances," he said. "I would encourage anyone to make the sacrifices they need to get higher education.

"Unfortunately, many people get too concerned about loans and the cost of higher education. So we may think we're saving money by not going to college, but in the end you actually lose."

Rome has advice for those facing disadvantages.

"Don't ever allow your current situation to define your future," he said. "You may be poor, you may be young, you may be black, whatever, but working hard pays off eventually."

KEVIN ROME

Age: 47

Hometown: Columbus

Current job: Lincoln University president since June 1.

Experience: University of Georgia, residence director, fraternity adviser, financial aid counselor, 1989-91; California Polytechnic State University, coordinator of student development 1991-92, academic development specialist 1992-94, education and training specialist 1994-96; University of Texas, assistant dean of students for student services 1996-99, assistant dean of students for campus and community involvement 1999-2001; Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, assistant vice chancellor, 2001-04; Clayton College and State University, vice president of campus life, 2004-05; Morehouose College, vice president for student services, 2005-08; North Carolina Central University, vice chancellor for student affairs and enrollment management, 2008-13.

Education: Diploma, Spencer High School, 1984; bachelor's degree in English, Morehouse College, 1989; master's degree in college student personnel with an emphasis in counseling, University of Georgia, 1991; doctoral degree in higher education administration, University of Texas, 2001.

Family: Met wife, Stefanie, on a blind date in Los Angeles, where he traveled from Austin, Texas, to be a contestant on TV game show "Wheel of Fortune" and won about $6,000 in 2000; 8-year-old twins, Kevin Jr. and Kendel.

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