Founding mothers

Special to The Times

“We had one family ... " Emily Ware begins, then realizes she needs to check a fact with Margaret Williams, who’s visiting this morning.

“Remember that lady, she had two children, she either committed suicide or fell down -- “

“No,” Williams corrects, “she was in an automobile accident.”

“Was that it?” Ware says. “But, anyway, she died, and here was this boy ready to go to college. And we had never heard of a shower for a boy” -- she cackles fondly at the memory -- “but we bought underwear and socks and sent him off to college. How far back was that?”


“Thirty years,” Williams estimates.

“And he became a pharmacist,” Ware says.

Ware and Williams, two widows who live in Watts, have been stepping in to help needy teenagers go to college since John Kennedy was president and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was making his “I Have a Dream” speech. Forty-two years ago, they and two dozen other Watts parents banded together to create an enrichment program for Jordan High School students.

Today only five of the Project Jordan founders are alive, but they still work hard enough to raise about $6,000 a year to give $100-a-month college stipends to five recent Jordan High grads attending Talladega (Ala.) College, Los Angeles Southwest College, Los Angeles Trade Tech, UCLA and Sacramento State.


Many of these students are recently emancipated from foster homes or from families with scarce resources for miscellaneous college expenses. “They need to be able to go to the laundry, the movies, that sort of thing,” Ware says.

The founders know they can’t go on forever. Ware is 89. Williams’ age is none of your business. (“Who was that woman who owns that big cosmetic company?” Williams asks good-naturedly. “Mary Kay? Mary Kay says a woman who’ll tell her age will tell everything.”) So they’ve been grooming three younger Jordan alums to take over the program, “so we can fade out,” Williams says.

They formed Project Jordan in 1963, when their children entered Jordan High. The parents sought out the principal and asked how they might help him. He told them he was concerned that black students were scoring lower on the SAT because, as Ware puts it, “they were falling short on the cultural side” -- life experiences that put students in touch with the outside world.

The parents started field trips for about 40 children. “Some of them had never been on a university campus,” Williams said.


“Some of them had never been out of Watts,” Ware added. “We took them to see the ‘Ramona’ pageant in Hemet, took them several times to the Laguna Arts Festival. We asked [black opera singer] Marian Anderson if she could perform at school.” (She couldn’t, but she did invite the children to a performance with the L.A. Philharmonic and invited them to chat with her backstage.) The parents took the children to a traveling display of Kennedy’s memorabilia. They also joined forces with a new UCLA program that sought to tutor disadvantaged students on weekends.

“They wanted to do the boys,” Ware said. “They said black boys did not succeed as well as the women. Well, I had no boys, so after a couple of years at leaving my kids at home on the weekends, my husband said, ‘This is not going to work.’ So we went coed.”

The program was in its second year when the federal government’s War on Poverty made more funds available for tutoring and field trips for children in poor neighborhoods. The federal Upward Bound program -- which used college teachers and students to tutor high school students, much like Project Jordan had done earlier at UCLA -- relieved parents of the transportation burden. By its fifth anniversary, half of Project Jordan’s parents no longer had children in high school but were still committed, raising $5,000 to buy band uniforms. An annual fashion show became the primary fundraising event, continuing until three years ago.

Ware was a local elementary school teacher in the days where your teacher might walk from campus to have lunch at a student’s house. (“One of my requirements for parents was, if your child was in my class, you had to volunteer one day a month.”) Williams is still teaching -- she’s a sewing instructor at the Locke/Jordan adult school.


They flip through a scrapbook that Ware recently compiled -- letters written on manual typewriters and duplicated on mimeograph machines. There is a letter dated Oct. 31, 1994, in which Ware pointedly upbraids a student who did not comply with Project Jordan’s requirement for each semester’s transcript to be mailed to Ware. “This is no trick or treat letter,” Ware’s letter began. “I am for real and you should know this by now.”

“Our scholarship committee chairman,” Williams observes, “can raise hell when she gets ready.”

In 1968, The Times printed an article about the 5-year-old program. A well-to-do Westsider read the story, sought out Project Jordan and offered $1,000. Soon his annual contribution, delivered with his wife at the project’s annual Christmas brunch, rose to $1,500. Last year the 87-year-old donor, who spoke on the condition his name not be printed, made his 36th consecutive contribution. “My wife and I firmly believe that education is about the only real path to improving your status in society,” he said.

One of the three younger Jordan grads helping Project Jordan is Diane Gray, who lives in Colton and works as court service director for Riverside Superior Court. “I am [what I am] today because of them,” the Whittier College grad said of Ware, Williams and the other parents. “You didn’t want to let them down.” She graduated from Jordan in 1973 and graduated from Whittier College four years later.


Linda Miles, class of ’67 and now career resource advisor for the Los Angeles Unified School District, knew Ware originally as her brother’s sixth-grade teacher. “Emily Ware is the reason I have [a LAUSD] employee number,” Miles said. “She encouraged me to become a teacher’s aide when I was at Jordan.... We will always keep hope alive within the organization.”

A simple thought made Project Jordan last, Ware said: “Since our area had such a bad reputation, we were determined to prove it isn’t where you live that makes you, but who you are.”