DANVILLE — Alice Payne can’t remember a time when her parents didn’t impress upon her and her five siblings the importance of education.
Her parents, Wilbur and Alice; their parents; her father’s brother; and her mother’s 12 siblings went to college and earned, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree.
“They raised us to know that we were going to college, too,” Payne said of her teacher-father and teacher-turned-librarian mother. “It wasn’t a choice. It was a done deal.”
In turn, Payne always shared that message with the young people she crossed paths with and supported them in their efforts to set and reach their academic goals — first as a counselor at a community center in Indianapolis where she volunteered during her summers in high school, then as a Danville school district teacher and principal, later as director of the Laura Lee Fellowship House in Danville — and during much of that time — as an Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority member.
For her enduring service to students and her community and sorority, which continues today, the Danville woman is this year’s recipient of AKA Epsilon Epsilon Omega’s Living Legacy Award.
The nearly 43-year member and other award winners will be honored at the chapter’s 19th annual Pink Panache scholarship benefit gala in Champaign on Friday.
Payne was nominated by Dionne Webster, Urbana schools’ director of family engagement and supports. She met Payne when she attended Danville High School and Payne sponsored Y Teens, a club aimed at empowering African-American teen girls and helping them become better students.
“She was a great role model,” recalled Webster, who credits her former sponsor with the reason she pledged the sorority. “She was a diehard member and always talked about it.
“She always did things that went above and beyond the school walls,” continued Webster, who recalled times Payne hosted parties for club members or took them on field trips. “She’s continued to do that. ... I just think she embodies the ideals of the chapter, which is community service and sisterhood.”
* * * *
Born and raised in Indianapolis, Payne knew at a young age she would follow her parents into education. After graduating from Tennessee State University, she taught for 2 years in the Indianapolis public schools system until she and 500 or so non-tenured teachers got their pink slips due to budget cuts.
That’s when Janet Alexander, her best friend from college, who taught at Danville, told her the district was looking for African-American teachers.
“I came here and never left,” Payne said with a laugh.
She taught at the old Daniel Elementary School and then South View when it was a middle school for 6-8 students, where she started a chess club and coached track in addition to sponsoring Y Teens. Then in 1994, Payne, who had earned her master’s degree and administrative certificate, became an administrative intern and then assistant principal at North Ridge Middle School.
In her nomination letter, Webster joked that Payne was known for “having a tough exterior, but a kind heart. She was always willing to assist anyone in need with a smile.”
Payne said she was just old-school. She required students to stand up by their desk when they gave an answer, remove their hats in the classroom and say “Yes, ma’am” or “No, ma’am.”
In turn, the teacher addressed her young charges as “miss” or “sir,” and treated them with respect. She was also liberal with hugs.
“Some kids don’t get them at home,” she said.
* * * *
Payne later served as principal at the old Douglas and Cannon elementaries before capping her 35-year career in Danville as principal of Meade Park Elementary.
The fall of her last year, Payne was recognized by the Illinois State Board of Education and Illinois General Assembly for helping Cannon and Meade Park, both of which were under-performing schools when she took the reins, make significant improvements.
Behind the scenes, she rallied staff to collect school supplies, clean clothes, winter coats and hats and food or snacks for children who needed them — only after digging into her own pockets first.
After retiring, Payne volunteered by reading to kindergarten and first-grade students at Mark Denman Elementary and mentored two new principals. Later, she agreed to step in as director of Laura Lee, which provided after-school programming for low-income youth, and ended up staying for three years.
Beyond her day job, Payne volunteered at the First Presbyterian Church food pantry, served on the Danville Public School Foundation board and co-sponsored AKA’s signature youth enrichment program, called ASCEND (Achievement, Self-Awareness, Communication, Engagement, Networking and Developmental Skills) in Danville, among other things.
She’s still promoting higher education as the sorority’s scholarship chairwoman. Last year, the group awarded $19,000 in scholarships to eight students.
“It’s so important to empower our students,” Payne said. “When you look at the statistics, in the next 10 to 15 years, it’s not going to be enough to have a high school diploma ... or a GED. We need to help them get to the next level.”