Eugene C. Chandler has vivid memories of growing up on a 40-acre tenant farm in rural Edenton, N.C., in the late 1920s.
Getting up at 6 a.m. and checking the rabbit cages, feeding the chickens and the hogs and milking the cow before walking a mile and a half down a narrow country road to Green Hall Elementary School, a two-room, clapboard structure heated by a pot-bellied stove.
"I hated it," he said of the work on his parents' farm. It continued after school, as he picked cotton, cleared weeds in the peanut patch and tilled the ground with a plow pulled by a mule.
"I saw how hard my dad worked, and at the end of the year there was hardly any money left after he paid the boss - the person who owned the farm. I made my mind up when I was in the fourth grade that I didn't want to be a farmer," he said. "I didn't know what I wanted to be, but I knew what I didn't want to be."
Chandler, whose parents didn't get out of elementary school, saw education as his escape from tenant farming to a better life.
And now, many decades later, the 79-year-old retired Army officer and member of the Harford County Board of Education is being honored with the highest award that the Maryland Association of Boards of Education bestows annually for school board service.
Chandler is this year's recipient of the group's Charles W. Willis Award, which is presented to a school board member who has demonstrated outstanding leadership and made significant contributions to public education.
He uses his experience as a way to demonstrate to students the value of education in opening the door to the good life and in motivating them to do better in the classroom.
Chandler worked hard to get his education, frequently holding two or three jobs at a time to raise money for college, which his parents couldn't afford.
He will tell you about his days as a teen-age bellhop at a hotel in Virginia Beach. He would work his 12-hour shift, take a two-hour nap and then fill for in the 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift for a colleague who didn't show up for work - all in a effort to sock away a few more bucks for college.
"The message I preach all the time when I go into schools and talk with kids," he said Friday, "is that if you have a burning desire in your gut to get an education, it can be done."
Chandler, who lives in Aberdeen, was named to the Harford County school board in 1997 by Gov. Parris N. Glendening. He is up for reappointment this year.
It did not long for him to make his presence felt.
In a letter to the state association nominating Chandler, Terry R. Troy, president of the school board, said that he was critical to the design of a Harford County schools pilot program to eliminate the minority achievement gap.
Chandler calls his work on the county's affirmative-action plan for schools his biggest contribution to education. "I feel very good about that."
He said the plan he sold to the school system was the first such program in the county or state and was one of the first nationwide. "I wanted to try to bridge the gap between minority students and the other students," he said.
He said the plan pointed out the disparities in the system. "Black kids were getting the brunt of the discipline, were being expelled at a higher rate than their percentage of the school system population, and they were dropping out at a higher rate."
He said his plan "offered a road map to overcome the disparity and it included information on what was needed to be done to motivate students to aspire to higher heights in education."
"It's working," he said, "but not to the extent that I would like."
Chandler said he rejected a teaching career because "I wanted a job where I could compete with mainstream America. As a teacher, I knew at that time that I would be relegated an all-black school. I wanted to compete against the graduates of West Point, UCLA, Harvard and Yale."
He said that was his primary reason for making a career out of the military.
It was the military that brought Chandler to Maryland. Trained as a combat officer, he served in the Korean War and served three tours of duty in Vietnam.
He was transferred to Aberdeen Proving Ground as an equal-opportunity officer and special assistant to the commanding general. He left the military with the rank of lieutenant colonel but stayed at APG as a civilian equal employment officer.
Chandler will be presented the Willis Award on Oct. 2 at the President's Dinner during the Maryland Association of Boards of Education annual conference in Ocean City.
Chandler said he was surprised to receive the award and that it was an honor to be mentioned with such names as Alvin Thornton, the former Prince George's County school board chairman who headed a panel that studied how to reduce inequalities in resources between rich and poor school districts. Thornton was last year's recipient of the Willis Award.
Said Chandler, "I'm just a country boy who grew up on a tenant farm in North Carolina."