Q&A: King award winner Ruppert Downing

Q&A: King award winner Ruppert Downing

Ruppert Downing got to meet Martin Luther King Jr. when he was a teenager attending the segregated Phenix High School in Hampton, Va.

Fifty-plus years later, Downing today will receive the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Outstanding Achievement Award at the 14th Annual countywide celebration held in the civil rights icon's honor.

A retired University of Illinois social work professor and married father of three, Downing, 76, sat down with staff writer Tim Mitchell to talk about his biggest influence, Dr. King's legacy and more.

Tell us about the day you met Martin Luther King.

Phenix High School was a segregated school for African Americans. In those days, the city of Hampton did not own a high school for black students. So a building was rented from Hampton University for our high school. One of the biggest celebrations for us each year was for Emancipation Day, which commemorates the demise of slavery. One year, while I was in high school, Dr. Martin Luther King came to speak to the students on emancipation. It was right after the bus boycott in Montgomery, Ala., that was sparked by the arrest of Rosa Parks.

After he finished the talk, I remember people rushing to greet him, so I went up there, too. As I was waiting for my turn to shake his hand, I remember Dr. King saw a senior citizen with a walker. He asked the crowd to step back so the woman with the walker could come through. His concern for the senior citizen spoke very loudly to me. He always had time for the common people.

How did you learn he had been killed?

I remember watching it on the news and hearing about his assassination. Martin Luther King did dangerous work, but he also did great work.

Would you say that Dr. King is the person who most influenced your life?

No, that would be my father. I grew up in Hampton, Va. My father was a victim of polio, but he didn't allow his condition to affect his career as a shoemaker and shoe repairman. You could walk into his facility, and he would measure your feet and make shoes for you. Not many people do that any more today.

He never let having polio prevent him from accomplishing things. As I go through life, I am constantly reminded of my father's courage and support. My parents were a great motivator. They never asked if I planned to go to college. It was always what college was I going to.

Did you always want to be a teacher?

No, when I was in school, I was more interested in the sciences, and I was politically active. I was involved with different clubs at Phenix High School, but I best remember playing the clarinet in the band. I graduated in 1957. After I enrolled at Purdue University, I took a sociology class from a Professor Meister. The class involved doing internships, and I took my internship at a sheltered workshop for people with developmental disabilities. From that day, I knew that social work would be my field of interest. I got majors in sociology and political science.

How'd you end up in the Army?

I was drafted in 1962. I served in Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri; Fort Jackson, South Carolina; and Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. I served as a social work specialist. I worked in the mental hygiene clinic doing counseling. At Fort Leavenworth, I worked in the prison as a social worker. That prison was for the worst offenders from the Army.

How did you end up teaching at the UI?

I got a master's degree in social work at the UI and then worked for Family Service, which is a private social service agency. I provided family life education. I met with families at Burch Village and Lakeside Terrace to help them address issues with raising children. A family's parents can go a long way to influence how their children will grow up. As a result of my experience with social work, I joined the UI in 1969.

What kind of volunteer work do you do?

I have volunteered with the Frances Nelson Health Center, and I was chair of their board for a while. I am currently involved with a committee at Cunningham Children's Home. Every week, I lead a chapel service as the Illini Heritage Rehab Center. I serve as a mentor to young people at the First Church of God in Champaign. I also volunteered with Empty Tomb, Jesus is the Way Prison Ministry and Children's Home and Aid. It is important to help people who return to regular life from the Department of Corrections.

I also served as a social worker for Unit 4, doing counseling and school social work in the elementary, junior high and high school levels. There are always disadvantaged people of different kinds, whether it be poverty or discrimination.

What is the key to counseling?

It is important to always listen with the third ear. I know we only have two. In other words, what people tell you may not be the whole problem. Listen for the ugly facts.

What is Martin Luther King's legacy?

First of all, he emphasized being the best that you could be. He was not one for money or publicity. He genuinely cared about helping people, not because they had status of any kind, but because they had a need. He would respond to that need.

If you go

What: 14th Annual Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Countywide Celebration

When: 4 p.m. today

Where: Hilton Garden Inn, 1501 South Neil Street, Champaign. The event is free and open to the public.

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ssmithro wrote on January 16, 2015 at 10:01 am

BURCH Village -- named for Nathaniel Burch, a Champaign HS football player who dropped out in 1943 to join the military.  He became an airplane mechanic and was killed in an accident in 1945 at Davis Field in Tucson, AZ.

FRANCES Nelson Health Center -- see http://www.promisehealth.org/history for her bio.

Mike Howie wrote on January 16, 2015 at 10:01 am
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Thanks for your note, though I'm sorry you had to write it. Both have been fixed.

Mike Howie

online editor