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Belated tribute: Howard Haworth worked for education in Charlotte until his death

Howard Haworth
Howard Haworth

I seldom have an emotional reaction to a meeting agenda, but Thursday’s North Carolina Board of Education session brought a shock.

A resolution honoring Howard Haworth, a former state board chair and a fixture in Charlotte education circles, had been added. It was the last two words that stunned me: “In memoriam.”

I knew Haworth had gone through a couple of rounds with cancer, but I fully expected to keep getting calls from him asking me to talk over the latest batch of education data.

Haworth died Nov. 18 at 81. I had missed his obituary in the Thanksgiving flurry.

I met Haworth in 1996, when he was a Children’s Defense Fund board member and I was covering family issues.

But I really got to know him in 2003, when I was a newbie education reporter. Haworth and Ken Harris asked to meet with me to discuss North Carolina’s testing system.

At that point both had distinguished careers behind them. Harris, who died in 2009, had been mayor of Charlotte and a state senator. Haworth had led Drexel Furnishings and been state commerce secretary under Gov. Jim Martin.

Both of them, as state Board of Education chairs, had helped create a testing system that was winning acclaim as scores kept rising. With No Child Left Behind demanding similar testing nationwide, North Carolina stood out as a leader.

But Haworth and Harris wanted me to sound an alarm. The state had set the bar for passing reading and math exams too low, they said, with the agreement that the board would bump up the rigor once the system got off the ground. Now no one could bring themselves to stop celebrating and make the tough move.

They had the numbers to back up their assertions. I wrote the story, and time proved them right.

I lost touch with Harris, but Haworth remained a regular caller. He hated to see educational data spun for political purposes or reported without sufficient analysis. I knew a call from Haworth would take a healthy chunk of time, but it always brought sharp insights and encouraging words.

Haworth attended CMS meetings even after his cancer diagnosis. He advised several superintendents. His approach embodied the phrase “critical friend” – he couldn’t gloss over bad news, but it was clear his motivation wasn’t playing “gotcha” but demanding the best for students.

The last few times I spoke with Haworth, he was worried that celebration over rising graduation rates would distract from the need to make sure those graduates have the skills they need for adult life. He was on target, as usual.

At Thursday’s Board of Education meeting, Eric Davis, a member of the state board and the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board, read a proclamation calling Haworth “a man of greatness, kindness, wisdom and generosity.” It thanked his wife, Patricia Haworth, for sharing her husband with those involved in education, business and civic endeavors.

Add journalism to that list. In a speeded-up world, talking with Haworth always required me to take a breath, slow down and think a little deeper. That’s a gift I’ll miss.

Ann Doss Helms: 704-358-5033, @anndosshelms

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