Educator's Legacy Is Students Who Live a Dream He Was Denied


In his youth, Ernie Roy wanted to be a physician. It was a big goal for a little boy who picked cotton to help his family.

But an unfulfilled dream is not always destined to form a scar, or give rise to bitterness.

Roy instead became a science teacher and then principal of King/Drew Medical Magnet High School in Watts.

Over the years he sent his students into hospitals, and his high school became one of the first in the Los Angeles Unified School District to include hospital rotations in its curriculum.

That practice was Roy's way of showing his students that they had a place in the world of science and medicine. It was his way of ensuring that African Americans, Latinos and others had a better chance than he did.

"He wanted to be a doctor," said his wife, Cassandra Roy, a college counselor at Crenshaw High School. "He said, 'Well, if I can't do it, I can make sure other kids get to have that opportunity.' "

Ernie Roy accomplished that dream, say colleagues and relatives, during more than 30 years in education. The principal died last week of a rare form of cancer at age 57. Roy was a father of two--Michelle Garrett-Munoz, 33, and David Roy, 14--and a grandfather of five.

Roy is being remembered as an advocate of the importance of strong science and medical programs in minority communities.

His students were his best argument: They were kids from Watts and Compton who won top honors at Los Angeles County science fairs. They were high school students conducting research at university laboratories. They are now doctors, nurses, counselors and science teachers.

"Dr. Roy is one of those people who made life easier for so many students, providing the opportunities, providing the encouragement, providing the optimism," said Dr. Penelope Velasco, a graduate of King/Drew high school who is in the residency program at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.

"I feel, with his existence, he enriched, not only my life, but the community as a whole," she added.

Dr. Camille Wedlow, a 1989 graduate now in her residency at the University of Nevada School of Medicine, said her experience at King/Drew "really helped me prepare to go to college."

Former students kept in touch with Roy while in college and afterward. Hearing stories of their success brought him great joy, family members and colleagues said.

Ernie Roy was born Oct. 4, 1943, in Muskogee, Okla. His mother was a maid, his father a hospital orderly. He was one of six children. Roy began working at a very early age to help support the family, his wife said, a fact that would later make him sensitive to the needs of students who had jobs while in school.

Racial integration came to Muskogee just as Roy was entering high school. The schools were mixed for the first time, but the views of some of the faculty remained unchanged.

When Roy declared his intention to go to college to be a doctor, his counselor told him he'd be wasting his time, Cassandra Roy said. The counselor suggested carpentry. Roy instead enrolled at Langston University, a historically black college in Oklahoma, and majored in biology.

Shortly after graduation he moved to Los Angeles and, in 1967, he began teaching at Foshay Junior High School. He was there for 12 years.

Beginning a tradition that would continue throughout his career, Roy taught science and the value of competition. Though his early classes were made up of special-education students, and the school had no funds to support science projects, his students walked away with awards at the science fair.

He founded one of the first high school medical programs while at Foshay, Cassandra Roy said, arranging for students to observe doctors at West Adams Community Hospital.

He got smocks for students to wear at the hospital so they would look the part, and even provided bus tokens to get them there. "This was his vision," she recalled, "to have students have medical experience."

Roy's ability to produce students who bested others at science fairs continued during his three years as a teacher in the magnet program for the highly gifted at Portola Junior High School and, later, at King/Drew. Two of his students' projects were sent on a space shuttle flight in the 1980s.

He was honored by several organizations, including NASA and the Los Angeles County science fair. Roy also was named to the board of the Charles R. Drew University Medical School and the medical school's admissions committee.

Roy was a key player in the founding of King/Drew Medical Magnet High School. Longtime residents of the Watts area lobbied hard for the school, and so did he.

"He wanted high academic standards; that was his big goal," said Antoinette Norris, a counselor at King/Drew and longtime friend of Roy. "The school was the realization of his dream."

High Expectations for His Students

In 1988 Roy left the school to be principal at Dominguez High School in Compton. He returned to King/Drew five years later to shepherd its growth from a modest school of a few hundred students to a stunning facility with an expanded population.

Roy was deeply influenced by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., his wife and colleagues said. If he went out of his way to provide opportunities for students, he also pushed them to live up to his expectations--including looking the part.

Roy was a stickler about appearances: Pull up the baggy pants. Take off the cap.

"He had this belief that black children may not get second chances," said Steven Segal, chairman of the English department at King/Drew. "They had to be ready. They had to be better. They couldn't be equal; they had to be better."

Roy was intense, Segal said, at times funny, at times intimidating. "I came from a more privileged background," Segal said. "I didn't care what the students looked like, if they wore caps or chewed gum, as long as they came to class. . . .

"He said, 'You can't do that. It's nice you think all that, but we need to make them understand how to be professional. They can't afford your kind of privilege.' "

While he was pushing his students, Roy followed his own advice: In 1997 he earned a doctorate in educational leadership.

He never gave up. Even after he learned that his cancer was terminal, Roy kept showing up at school, pushing his students until he simply could not be there any more.

A group of his students will attend his memorial service--dressed neatly in their uniforms. It will be a final show of respect for a man who demanded their best.

The memorial for Ernie Roy will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday at City of Angels Church of Religious Science, 5550 Grosvenor Blvd.

The family asks that memorial donations be made to the Dr. Ernie Roy Scholarship Fund at King/Drew Medical Magnet High School. It will provide scholarships to two graduating seniors.

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