The Internet hosts a wealth of data about Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, but the district's history is embodied in one frail, 79-year-old former administrator.
Chris Folk retired 18 years ago, but he's never lost his passion for the community and schools he helped shape. From 1958 to 1992, through court battles and changes that threatened to tear Charlotte apart, Chris Folk was in charge of communications for CMS.
"What that meant was that somebody who knew in depth what was going on, and who was resolutely truthful, presented the school system's case to the media, and thus to the public, during a turbulent time," said Frye Gaillard, who covered Folk as an Observer reporter in the 1970s and later wrote a book about the desegregation of CMS.
Until a serious lung infection slowed him down last summer, Folk kept working on special projects for CMS. He led sessions for the League of Women Voters' Civics 101 classes, explaining CMS to newcomers.
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The journalism training that got him into the central offices might account for his standing as the go-to guy for CMS history, but Folk said there's a simpler explanation.
"When I retired, I took a bunch of files with me," he said, smiling.
Folk watches and worries as budget cuts batter the schools. That's one thing he hadn't seen until recently.
But more than most, he understands the crises the schools have already weathered.
"This school system has worked hard to be where they are now," he said. "There's a lot at stake."
A changing city
Folk graduated from Charlotte's Central High in 1948 and returned a few years later as an English and journalism teacher.
He was there in 1957, when Gus Roberts was tapped as the first black student to attend the all-white school, a tiny step toward desegregation.
After a stint as principal of Windsor Park Elementary, Folk became communications director for Superintendent Elmer Garinger, the namesake of today's Garinger High. Folk had a desk in the superintendent's office at City Hall. When the city school board decided to meet, Folk recalled, they'd call the newspaper's government reporter and convene in Garinger's office.
Even then, Charlotte was growing, annexing territory from the county school system. In 1959, voters approved the merger that created Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools. Folk was part of the team that figured out how to mesh everything from pay scales to reading programs.
In 1965, when CMS had a mix of integrated and segregated schools, Darius and Vera Swann sued to challenge their son's assignment to an all-black school. That case led to the court order forcing full desegregation in 1970.
Folk was among the handful of administrators and police leaders who gathered in "the war room" to plan for the start of school in 1970. Opening day was delayed a week, while faculty were trained in how to teach and work with people of the other race.
"We knew it was going to be a very, very tough year, because people were so divided," Folk recalled.
Gaillard's book, "The Dream Long Deferred," recounts the first day of school. Folk left for the office. His oldest son, Chris Jr., was 6; it would be his very first day of school, too.
At 7 a.m., Folk's wife called his office. Someone had just phoned to say there was a bomb planted at the house. "Get your children out," the caller had warned.
Police found nothing, and Folk turned his attention to the bomb threats coming in to schools. Bomb threats, school fights and board meetings jammed with angry citizens became a regular part of life.
From 1970 to 1974, the school board churned through student assignment plans. A panel of citizens determined to make integration work finally crafted a plan that won the court's approval and began a return to stability.
But the political turmoil wasn't over. In 1976, the school board fired Superintendent Rolland Jones at a televised meeting. Folk and three other administrators were tapped for an interim management team. By the time their year in office was over, they joked that IMT stood for "I'm mighty tired."
The team stepped aside for Jay Robinson, a homegrown educator who was superintendent for nine years. He's still remembered fondly, and many now regard the 1970s and '80s as a high-water mark for community pride in a desegregated school system.
Gaillard said Folk deserves credit for CMS's emergence.
"He gave the system credibility at a time when it was badly needed," he said. "I can't think of a single person, not even Jay Robinson, who was more of a rock than Chris."
Folk thought about seeking a superintendent's post elsewhere. But his roots were too deep in Charlotte. He and wife, Mitzi, also an educator, still live in the home they bought 47 years ago.
Folk retired in 1992 as an associate superintendent, but as recently as last summer he was helping CMS answer e-mail. Breathing troubles have kept him mostly homebound or hospitalized since them.
Robert Folk, one of their four children, is now principal of Coulwood Middle School in northwest Charlotte. He remembers being intrigued by dinnertime talks about equal rights and community challenges.
These days, it's popular to dismiss government spokespersons as "spin doctors." But Robert Folk said his dad's support was just as strong in private, through countless shifts in leadership and politics.
"He has never, ever said anything negative about this school system," Robert Folk said. "I've never met someone who is more loyal than my father."