2008 Harvey E. Beech Outstanding Alumni Award
Zollie J. Stephenson ’84
You can’t get to know Zollie Stephenson from 8 to 5, his son says. You don’t get to know the real Zollie Stephenson until he takes off his jacket and tie and gets down on the floor, on his hands and knees, and crawls after his year-old grandson.
By all accounts, Zollie is a serious guy. He kept the family together after his father died when Zollie, the oldest of four children, was 16. He was the first in his family to get a PhD, but not the last. With every new place he experienced, he shared it with someone in his family.
“He showed us a way of life we never knew,” said his sister Tanya Quick. “The more he learned and gained for himself, he always brought us in to see a different way of life.”
Zollie, who receives the Harvey Beech Outstanding Alumni Award tonight, has traveled a long way from the house in Browns Summit that had no plumbing, where he learned to braid his sisters’ hair after his mother had gone back to school. He has gone from being a student at a Title 1 school to running the federal program that funds Title 1. As director of student achievement and school accountability programs for the U.S. Department of Education, he allocates about $14 billion in federal funds. He raised more than $1.5 million annually during the three years he served as board chair of the March of Dimes chapter that serves Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. A loyal brother in the Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, he has served in leadership positions at the district and national level, including as executive director.
The UNC School of Education honored him with its Outstanding Alumni Achievement Award in 2003, and he twice received the Outstanding Graduate Student Award from the Black Student Movement, in 1982 and again in 1983. Earlier this year, Ebony magazine featured him among its “individuals moving onward and upward.”
Throughout his life, Zollie has mentored. He was born to the role of big brother. He mentored his younger siblings growing up; the undergraduate members of the Black Student Movement Gospel Choir when he was treasurer as a graduate student; and the doctoral students at Bowie State University, where he still teaches a class or two and serves on doctoral committees, sometimes as chair. The accomplishments of his students please him tremendously. One of those students he mentored, Scott Dantley, now acting associate vice president at Coppin State University, appreciates the time that Zollie gives to those still finding their way. “His passion drives his commitment,” Scott said. “Zollie has a way of making you feel like you are the most important person in the world.”
Important enough that, when you strayed off track, Zollie would make sure you got back on, said his friend Gregory Jones ’83, who was one of those undergraduates in the Gospel Choir. “He’d let you know, when you did something that wasn’t quite right, that you needed to get yourself back together and pursue things in the right manner,” Gregory said.
But you don’t want to get on Zollie’s wrong side, his sister warned. Serious and dignified, Zollie still has plenty of salt to him. “He can tell you off,” Tanya said, “and you won’t even know you’ve been told off until you think about it.”
Zollie’s son, Dwayne Hamm, can’t remember a time when his dad uttered an “I told you so.” “He always said, ‘I’m going to give you an option, but you decide what’s best for you,’ ” Dwayne said, “except when it concerned his money.”
Dwayne describes his dad as inquisitive and persistent. “He doesn’t want you to be a quitter,” he said. Zollie encouraged Dwayne, as he did the scores of students he has mentored over the years, to give it his all, no matter what the task. That work ethic has pushed Zollie to the high professional achievements of his career. But his priorities held fast, even with his professional success.
“When he leaves the house, he’s the important director of this big agency,” Dwayne said. “When he comes in the door here, he’s just Grandpa. He realizes that the most important thing is family.”