Even when it was covered by a mask, Betty Norwood’s smile radiated Friday.
Norwood waited in the bleachers at the school in which she taught for 24 years and watched as staff, middle schoolers and parents assembled for a schoolwide celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — an annual event Norwood is credited with starting more than three decades ago.
In 2022, the pandemic prevented Norwood from attending the 31st event, but technology allowed her to witness her legacy from home in Ottawa.
“I’m just happy to be back. I miss the kids so much,” Norwood said in an interview Friday at Billy Mills Middle School.
“I’m appreciative of the fact that I did leave a legacy that they want to continue to live on. I remember when we were here, we had the biggest program, presentation of the whole district. We were proud of that, in the fact that our young people embraced that.”
Norwood taught English, reading, study skills and other classes before retiring in 2013 when the school was known as South. In 2018, it was renamed to honor Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills, Oglala Lakota (Sioux).
At South, Norwood founded the student club Women of Color and Brothers-n-Harmony – a legacy carried on by resource teacher Kim Fuller in the form of S4EE (Students for Equity Excellence), and most recently, Power of Cougars.
“The club that I sponsored was inclusive of anybody who wanted to be a part of it,” Norwood said. “There’s only one race. That’s the human race. We’re all together.”
Principal Andrew Taylor kicked off “Together We Can be the Dream” by recognizing Norwood and soon-to-retire teacher Jill Jevens for making the tribute possible, year after year. The event gives students, staff and community members a space to honor King with music and inspirational messages.
Scott Robinson conducted the BMMS Cougar Band as it performed “… Like a Mighty Stream” by Johnnie Vinson. The piece was commissioned and dedicated in 2015 with a grant from the Lawrence Schools Foundation.
Narration by choir teacher Garrett Viets, interspersed with solemn and hopeful musical sections, wove together a story of King’s life from birth to death and his influence beyond.
“Sadly, bloodshed has too often been a part of the struggle for civil rights,” Viets read. “Horrifying images of night sticks, tear gas, snarling dogs, bombings and riotous mobs still trouble us today.”
King was assassinated April 4, 1968 in Memphis. He was 39.
Parts of the narration came from King’s 1977 posthumous earning of the Presidential Medal of Freedom citation.
“He gazed down upon the great wall of segregation and he saw that the power of love could bring it down. He made our nation stronger because he made it better. His dream sustains us yet,” Viets concluded.
Others receiving recognition Friday included BMMS retiree Gwen Wedd and alumnus Anthony Harvey Jr, who gave the keynote speech.
Harvey thanked Norwood for the way she supported students.
“Ms. Norwood was the most influential person when I was here,” Harvey said. “Through sickness, through health, Ms. Norwood was always the same person 100% of the time. Ms. Norwood was respectful to everybody, didn’t matter who you were, where you come from. Doesn’t matter. Ms. Norwood treated you how she treated every single other person in this building, and I thank you for that.”
Harvey’s message focused on the influence of family, friends and the community throughout his life. He recounted how his dreams have evolved over time with experience and growth.
Recently Harvey kicked off the 7th and 8th grade boys basketball season as head coach at BMMS. He graduated from Lawrence High School in 2016 and then attended Newman University in Wichita, where he also played basketball. He earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice there in 2020, according to Newman University Magazine, and went on to train with and join the Lawrence Police Department.
Harvey encouraged students to respect each other and their teachers — even if they don’t like them. Someday, you or someone you love might need their help or expertise, Harvey advised the youth.
Harvey told the crowd “anything’s possible” and to keep chasing their dreams no matter how old they are but to remember where those dreams took root.
“I dreamt of being a professional basketball player and I ended up being a middle school basketball coach and a police officer,” Harvey said. “But above all that, I’m a young Black man in the community I grew up in and I’ll never forget East Lawrence, South, Prairie Park Elementary, Lawrence High or Newman University, where I came from.”
Harvey briefly shared the mic Friday with his dad, Anthony Harvey, and childhood friend Ja’Darius “JD” Woods.
The elder Harvey encouraged the crowd to continue King’s dream by staying in school and doing something positive every day. He wrapped up by telling students to go home, hug their parents and “let ’em know how much you love ’em.”
Woods told the crowd he and Harvey had a dream to give back to the community in which they grew up by coordinating shoe and coat drives. The pair hosted their third consecutive Kicks 4 Kids shoe giveaway in the summer, and they’ve also raised money to benefit LHS’ Interpersonal Skills and Unified Sports programs, Van Go’s programs for young people, and Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence.
Norwood, Harvey and Woods share space in BMMS’ Reasons to Believe, which hangs in a common area at the school. Plaques honor them individually. A poster nearby notes the honor’s significance and reads in part, “These individuals are all a shining example of how great our school is, how richly diverse our community is, and how they are all a reason to believe in both.”
Also performing during “Together We Can be the Dream” were the BMMS Choir and Cougar Chorus, directed by Viets, and the LHS choir, under the direction of Duane Dunn. They joined for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” commonly referred to as the Black National Anthem, and “The Star Spangled Banner.”
The event was emceed by BMMS eighth graders Chelsea Oparaji and Sammy Robison.
Taylor took the mic one last time and dismissed his students for the Lawrence school district’s three-day weekend. King’s birthday is observed as a federal holiday on the third Monday of January every year.
“The Harvey family proved today, JD Woods proved today, two things,” Taylor said. “Decide what that dream is, go do it, and you can always come home. Let’s have a good weekend.”