by Martha Bogart
Fred McKissack died last Sunday, and the world just isn’t the same place without him. Fred was one of those men that you always hear about on the news when they die—he was so nice, so friendly, such a good heart, etc. etc., except—Fred was the genuine article. I don’t think I have ever met a better human being than Fred. He and his wife, Pat, helped us here at CSD to create the New Links to New Learning videoconferencing program from scratch. This was at a time, back in 1998, when if you asked someone to do a videoconference, the response was, “A what?” But, CSD had received a grant from Southwestern Bell and Ruth Block’s task was to get schools interested and participating in videoconferences with students. She approached Pat and explained what she wanted to do—provide students with videoconferences from children’s authors—and Pat and Fred were immediately in. They didn’t know what it was, exactly, but if it helped kids, they were going to do it.
And do it they did! Those first videoconferences were scary—Would the equipment work? Would the school personnel be able to dial in? What should the programming and content delivery look like? Would the kids like it? Would they learn anything? But from the very beginning, the author visits were magical. The camera would zoom in, and there would be Pat and Fred, smiling and talking, and answering questions from children about the books they had written, how they got their ideas, their writing process, how they went about researching for each book, which book was their favorite, and so much more. How wonderful to be speaking directly to the authors of a book they had just read right from their classrooms, no matter where they were in the world! And eventually, as we worked together to perfect the process, the students even got to do some original writing and have it critiqued by real authors.
No videoconference would have been complete without their signature sign-on—a map of Missouri with a star on the city of St. Louis. Pat would say that they were from Missour-ee, and Fred would say that they were from Missour-ah. Then they would explain that people living on the east side of the state used the French pronunciation with an “e” on the end, while people on the west side used the Native American pronunciation with an “ah” on the end. The kids got a kick out of it, and I never tired of that intro.
So many wonderful programs, it’s hard to pick a favorite. Like the one where the kids developed a service project after they read Messy Bessey, and they collected toys and clothing they no longer needed to donate to others. Or, the study of winter holidays around the world students did after reading Messy Bessey’s Holidays. Fred was the main presenter of the research process that he went through when he and Pat wrote Christmas in the Big House, Christmas in the Quarters, a wonderful book that takes place on a plantation during the Christmas before the start of the Civil War. Then, there was the summer reading program we did with the St. Louis County Library where every student got a signed copy of Nzingha: Warrior Queen of Matamba. Children came to several branches of the library, and we did multipoint videoconferencing with Pat and Fred who were broadcasting from CSD.
Fred was in his element when he talked about the research process. He emphasized the use of the library and the reference librarians, and he talked about primary sources and all of his and Pat’s trips to various locations around the globe to gather first-hand stories and information that formed the basis for much of their books. He also loved to talk politics and was up on current affairs and the state of the union. I remember having long talks with him that were interesting and insightful—with lots of laughter in the mix! Fred was a real gentleman, and a truly “gentle” man.
What a role model Fred was to young African-American boys! Here was a brilliant, funny, sweet man who had traveled the world, written books, researched in libraries all over the place, and yet was so approachable and willing to talk to kids and answer their questions no matter what they were.
We will miss you, Fred. Thank you for all that you did for CSD, for the children of our region, and for embracing new technology and taking risks. God speed, my friend.