DECATUR — When Howard Buffett told former Sheriff Jerry Dawson that he wanted to name a new Civic Leadership Institute after him, Dawson demurred at first.
“He hung up on me,” Buffett quipped at the announcement of the new venture on Tuesday at the Children's Museum of Illinois, though he added that part was embellishment. However, Dawson is a humble man and didn't want to agree, but Buffett talked him into it.
“I'm not going to say 'no' to a man like Howard Buffett,” Dawson said.
Buffett is the son of investor Warren Buffett, CEO of the holding company Bershire Hathaway. The company's newspaper division since June 2018 has been managed by Lee Enterprises Inc., the parent company of the Herald & Review.
The Jerry J. Dawson Civic Leadership Institute will provide Decatur Public Schools students a program to raise awareness and encourage careers in public service: law enforcement, nursing, paramedic, firefighting, government service, and the law.
The Howard G. Buffett Foundation has given Decatur schools a $2.3 million grant to support the program for eight years, and a $400,000 scholarship fund which will be administered by the DPS Foundation so Decatur students can go to Richland Community College to begin preparing for those careers.
“There used to be a nobility in service,” said Brian Byers of Neuhoff Media. He added that he hopes the institute will teach students in high school that there still is nobility in service, and encourage them to pursue it.
Superintendent Paul Fregeau, who started his career as a law enforcement officer before switching to education, said the institute and the ideals behind it are close to his heart.
“The institute is an incredible opportunity for kids in a lot of ways,” said Josh Peters, director of curriculum and instruction–secondary. “For kids who want to explore a career path that is in the public service arena, we've got all of those incredible career path opportunities at Richland and scholarships to support that, but we also have all of our internships and all of those programs that students have available to start exploring them.”
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Preparations and preliminary work will begin almost immediately, Peters said, and the Civic Leadership Institute will kick off fully in August. Like the Dwayne O. Andreas Ag Academy, students will be able to take classes in civic leadership and get hands-on experience, too, with opportunities inside and outside of school.
For students who don't plan on a career in public service, Peters said, classes and activities will be offered to help them understand those careers, their importance, and why people choose them. Every student will eventually have some contact with an elected official, a paramedic or nurse or law enforcement officer.
“Knowing where that person's coming from will be good for them and for the community,” Peters said.
Dawson said that when he was a law enforcement officer, he was assigned to transport juvenile offenders to other communities when Decatur's facility closed. During those rides, he got to know the young people and some of what caused them to go wrong.
“They can be saved,” he said, “if we can turn around attitudes and get them to look at these as viable career options. It's not a job. It's a career.”
Buffett is also anxious to show young people that staying in Decatur is possible. They can have fulfilling careers and a good life here. He said he hopes the program is so successful that DPS Foundation will contact him and ask for more scholarship money.
“There's a lot of hate, viciousness and frustration in the world today,” Buffett said. “We need young people to understand there are also great opportunities.”
10 times we were proud of Decatur schools
Contact Valerie Wells at (217) 421-7982. Follow her on Twitter: @modgirlreporter