Dr. John B. Ervin

Nationally renowned black educator, scholar, and author, Dr. John B. Ervin (1916-1992) committed his life to the education of all people. He knew the power of education in his life, and he saw it as a preparation for a full and more humane life, a life of leadership and service committed to the improvement of the human condition. The story of John B. Ervin, born in Birmingham, Alabama, and reared in Kent, Ohio, is one of achievement and determination in the face of discrimination.

In the early 1930s, John B. Ervin graduated from high school in Kent, Ohio. He was only 16 and an exceptional student, but he had little hope of attending college. His father, an illiterate railroad worker, had died recently; he had two younger siblings; and his mother, struggling to get by, was doing housework for a Kent State University dean.

This dean took an interest in Ervin and paid his freshman tuition. Ervin excelled at Kent State while also working at jobs on campus. By the time he graduated, he had repaid his benefactor. After teaching for several years, he went on to graduate school at Columbia University. 

In 1950, Dr. Ervin received his doctorate from Columbia University and trained teachers for a number of decades. In 1968, Dr. Ervin was invited to Washington University in St. Louis as dean of the School of Continuing Education, becoming the first African American to hold a dean’s position at the University. He held leadership positions on boards of numerous St. Louis organizations, including the Danforth Foundation, St. Louis Children’s Hospital, Saint Louis Art Museum, and the United Way. Presidents Ford and Carter appointed him to the National Advisory Council on Extension and Continuing Education. He was also a life member of the NAACP. Dr. Ervin published a number of articles on education in professional journals. He also served as vice president of the Danforth Foundation from 1977 until his retirement in 1986.

A beloved member of the University community, Dr. Ervin was deeply respected for his honesty and integrity. He is best remembered for his commitment to excellence, his engagement with the community, and his efforts to bring diverse people together to heal divisions among them.

"John Ervin had a distinguished career, but that wasn't what made him so special. It was who he was. He was a man of character as well as ability - a man who combined intelligence with wisdom. We all went to John with difficult problems; we knew that he would be honest. We also knew that John was a man of high ideals and good will, which would steer us toward what was best."

-William H. Danforth

Chancellor Emeritus, Washington University in St. Louis

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