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L.A. Schools Chief a “Rare One”

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Times Staff Writers

As a young student attending Prairie View A&M; University during the turbulent late ‘60s, David L. Brewer III had a singular confidence in his abilities: He was “the rare one,” he told his dormitory mates, a little bit different than others and perhaps destined for great things.

It is instructive, said his friends, that while some may have thought him cocky, no one thought he was joking. That confidence and strong sense of self are likely to be put to the test soon as Brewer goes about the task of managing and reforming the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Brewer’s selection Thursday as the new superintendent of the nation’s second-largest school district was in many ways a gamble for the board.

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A long-serving military commander, Brewer has no experience in school administration. But in interviews Friday, Brewer, his family and friends all emphasized how his love and respect for education infuse every aspect of his life.

Both his parents were educators, as is his wife, Richardene, or “Deanie,” a middle school teacher. In 1999, he founded the David and Mildred Brewer Foundation, named after his mother and father, to provide scholarships for African American students.

“I’m a third-generation college graduate,” Brewer said. “My grandparents went to Tuskegee. My aunts and uncles went to college, my parents went to college -- education was understood. There was never any question or doubt that that was what I was going to do. I didn’t have to have the epiphany.”

Brewer is medium height, lean and looks younger than his 60 years. A fitness aficionado, he rises at 5:30 a.m. to hit the weight room and treadmill. And even in exercise there are lessons to be learned, for in Brewer’s estimation, a sound body makes a sound mind.

He is described as thoughtful, deliberate and unflaggingly confident, but with a warm humanity that can bring together people at odds. He can reel off the self-help and motivational books that have informed his philosophy -- books such as “How Good People Make Tough Choices” -- and in the next breath regale listeners with a story about the time years ago when the Brewer family appeared on the game show “Family Feud.”

As a Navy vice admiral and chief of the Military Sealift Command, he was in charge of providing combat supplies for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and support for victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. But he also found time to visit classrooms, colleagues say, to give pep talks to youngsters about staying in school and keeping out of gangs.

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“He had a passion for working with and educating children that wasn’t really in the job description,” said his former chief of staff, retired Capt. Michael Seifert. “He would go to various schools and talk to children -- with his own formula for success: Good habits plus goals minus drugs equals success -- and he would proceed to embellish and ad lib,” Seifert said. “He will bring leadership and the experience of being able to work with diverse groups, and he will be able to absolutely relate to students.”

One of his Navy functions was as vice chief of the Education and Training Command, which supported sailors’ academic and personal development. As head of the Sealift Command, he was chief executive of a $3.1-billion enterprise and managed a fleet of 120 ships worldwide. According to Seifert, the admiral racked up more than 1 million frequent flier miles in his travels.

All of that likely impressed the school board members who chose him, but what really stood out were his “warmth, humanness and passion,” board President Marlene Canter said. “The thing that blew us away, that I was looking for, this man is a convener, a collaborator, and we need that now at this point in time.”

Brewer was born May 19, 1946, in Farmville, Va., and raised in Orlando, Fla. As a black youngster in the segregated South, he endured taunts because of his color. But he was also a child of privilege. His paternal grandparents graduated from Tuskegee Institute in 1913, taught by its founder, Booker T. Washington. His parents met at Tuskegee, and both became teachers -- his mother, a home economics major, taught in elementary schools for 40 years. His father taught “commercial dietetics” (cooking as a profession) in high school. A building at Jones High School in Orlando was named after him. He died last year.

“David 3,” as Mildred Brewer calls him, “had everything a child would desire” growing up in Orlando. “He was brought up in an intelligent, educational environment ... very morally,” she said.

They had so many books in their home when he grew up that friends and neighbors used to send their children to the house to do homework because it was like a library.

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Today he is still a voracious reader, Deanie Brewer said. “That’s about the only real hobby he has. That and watching football,” she said.

They have been married for 29 years. She currently teaches in Loudoun County, Va. But she spent most of her career teaching in public schools in San Diego, where David was stationed and where their only child -- a daughter, Stacey, now 26 and a lawyer in New York -- was born.

Brewer has a master of arts degree in national security and strategic studies from the Naval War College as well as a bachelor of science degree from Prairie View A&M; in Texas, where he was known for his high energy and a love of life. He was part of the first Navy ROTC class to graduate from a historically black college, and he and a group of fraternity members enlisted at the height of the Vietnam War.

His fraternity brother Ken Hinson rose to the rank of Navy captain. Hinson and other classmates remember being surprised that their friend went on to attain one of the top navy jobs -- not because Brewer wasn’t accomplished or talented but because he spent several initial years working to recruit other blacks into the Navy rather than in the kind of shipboard service that usually accompanies promotion.

His subsequent rise might well bear relation to his tenure as chief of Los Angeles schools.

“He was sort of behind the power curve, but he made up ground quickly,” said Hinson, who now works as a program evaluation specialist for the Fairfax County, Va., school district. “I’ve never known anything that he didn’t set his sights for that he didn’t reach.”

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carla.rivera@latimes.com

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Voices

‘I know he’s my husband, but this was a great choice.’

DEANIE BREWER

a teacher and his wife of 29 years

--

‘It’s harder today. Children are not like they used to be. But David was raised to be his own man; he can handle anyone.’

MILDRED BREWER

his mother and a schoolteacher

for more than 40 years

--

‘There is something to be said about a high-ranking retired military official getting this job, especially when you have a problem like the district has. I think his hire probably makes sense.’

HERB WESSON

L.A. city councilman

--

‘My hope is that Supt. Brewer, knowing everything he’s coming into, is open to collaboration not only with the mayor, but with parents and community-based organizations. It’s true he has no education background, but I think the most important part is for someone to be an executive, and he comes with that.’

LUIS SANCHEZ

executive director of

Inner City Struggle

--

‘The thing that blew us away ... this man is a convener, a collaborator, and we need that now at this point in time.’

MARLENE CANTER

president of the

Los Angeles Board of Education

--

‘He has extraordinary qualifications, and it will be interesting times ahead. I think that there is every reason to believe that [the mayor and the new superintendent] will work very well together, because they’re both professionals.’

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JAN PERRY

L.A. city councilwoman

--

‘Hopefully, [Villaraigosa] will meet the admiral and think well of him and work with him. But if he doesn’t, we could be facing more political drama.’

JEFFREY PRANG

West Hollywood councilman

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