In a way, there have been more famous speakers – like Hank Aaron and Dick Vitale – to keynote the yearly breakfast for donors of the Charlotte Housing Authority Scholarship Fund.
But at Tuesday's 25th anniversary celebration of the fund that has sent hundreds of the city's poorest teenagers to college, former Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt was perhaps the perfect choice to share his message.
His life came from the same beginnings as those who have used the scholarship fund to stretch and dream – and achieve.
“These young people are me,” Gantt told more than 300 fund donors, graduates and supporters at uptown's Westin Hotel. “They relish a real sense of the journey through life, and they absolutely love stretching and pushing the limits.
“They, for the most part, never – ever – perceive themselves as underdogs.”
The scholarship fund, started by John Crawford of Charlotte in 1983, has spent $2.5 million to send 450 students raised in public housing to college.
Like those students, Gantt lived his early years in Charleston's public housing.
His father worked three jobs to care for a family of seven. His parents – neither had a high school diploma – required two things of their five children: Go to church and excel in school.
And along the way, they cast off an optimism and confidence that Gantt “soaked up” and that allowed him to “push beyond the social and legal constraints” of the early 1960s.
“I always found their optimism remarkable,” Gantt said. “In a segregated South, making a laborer's wage with five children, they somehow had a vision for their children that was bigger than their pocketbook.”
You know what happened next: Gantt twice broke the color barrier – at Clemson University in 1963, where he earned a degree in architecture, a discipline “not common to African Americans,” he said. Twenty years later, he became Charlotte's first and only black mayor. Twice, he lost races for the U.S. Senate against the late Sen. Jesse Helms. And his architecture firm has put its stamp on award-winning buildings in Charlotte and the Carolinas.
Each of the fund's recipients, he said, had someone to push and teach them that perseverance and courage could carry them beyond the limits of low expectations “that society unfortunately set for them.”
“It's a basic value of those who beat the odds – you have to have confidence in who you are,” Gantt said.
One man who beat the odds is fund graduate Monteic Sizer, who grew up in Southside Homes and ultimately earned a doctorate in psychology.
A practicing psychologist, he works with hurricane victims in Louisiana.
Tuesday Sizer raised the fund's theme of “giving a youth a chance” and spoke eloquently of its ripple effect.
“When you give a youth a chance, you give a marriage a chance,” he said. “And when you give a marriage a chance, you give a family a chance. And when you give a family a chance, you give a community a chance …”