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One Man, One Little School, One Big Dream

This article was originally published on Sept. 15, 2023 by John W. Fountain, Providence St. Mel School class of 1978 alum, as a birthday tribute to the school’s founder, Paul J. Adams III. It is shared here with permission.

A photo of the Providence St. Mel School gym, which has the words "We Believe" painted on the brick.

Two words emblazoned across the wall of the gym at Providence St. Mel embody the school’s spirit, “We Believe.” Photo by John Fountain.

Grass, emerald-green, lush and alive. Proud blades that point toward the sky. Perfectly manicured, this grass glistens beneath the sun. That was nearly 45 years ago.

And yet, for as far as I could see the other morning, standing outside the yellowish-brick castle in the 100 block of South Central Park Avenue on Chicago’s West Side, the grass still shimmers in the wind and golden sunlight—a simple symbol of promise, pride and hope, more than four decades since I first laid my eyes on it.

I don’t recall exactly the first time I saw the lawn outside Providence St. Mel, or Paul J. Adams, III—the man responsible. It must have been sometime in 1974—back when Afros and bell-bottom pants were signs of the times and the struggle to lay hold on the American dream still seemed ever elusive for Blacks in America, and we were singing James Brown’s “Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m proud.” What I do recall clearly is the notion that grass wouldn’t—couldn’t—grow on the West Side: too poor, too ghetto, too far from the fertile soil from which sprouts the stuff of American dreams.

Back then, in neighborhoods like Chicago’s impoverished K-Town, where I grew up and had been dubbed by the Chicago Tribune as part of America’s permanent underclass, the “American Millstone,” there was plenty of evidence to suggest that might be the case: broken glass, bald lawns and vacant lots, blight, poverty and despair that flowed like a river of hopelessness.

Back then, I remember the sprinklers outside Providence, the crystal spray that doused Mr. Adams’ lawn endlessly. How, as a high school freshman, I quickly learned one of his most important rules: Don’t step on the grass, or else pay a fine.

To some, it might have seemed ridiculous or severe to impose a penalty for something so infinitesimal. It might also have seemed difficult to fathom how something as simple as grass might be proof enough that some things others deem impossible—with a little planting, watering and vision—might indeed become possible.

Paul J. Adams III at JSF's Chicago reception for grantee partners in September 2023. He is wearing a black suit and has short, dark curly hair and a goatee.

Paul J. Adams III at JSF’s Chicago reception for grantee partners in September 2023.

As a poor kid whose father had deserted me by the time I was 4, I was the kind who, like many children from similar backgrounds today, was written off by researchers, given my demographics of having been born Black and poor, and raised in the urban ghetto—hopelessly predestined to an unalterable mortal existence, never to rise. Without my mother’s decision and sacrifice in 1974 to send me to Providence St. Mel, which set me on a different path than so many of my childhood friends, I might have succumbed to the death of dreams that eventually entombs those dreams too long deferred. Maybe not.

This much is not debatable: That for more than four decades, Paul Adams and Providence St. Mel has helped lead poor Chicago children to the Promised Land of educational success and that since 1978 every one of the school’s graduates has been admitted to a college or university.

This much is also clear these days:

That for at least the last 45 years, the Chicago Public School system has largely wandered in the wilderness of “miseducation” and still has yet to fully cross the sea of red-tape bureaucracy occupied by a union that often seems more concerned for teachers than students, and by bureaucrats who, by their failure to fix the system after all this time, leave me wondering whether they ever really want to.

At 13, I saw Paul Adams as a lion of a man, his proud woolen Afro as his mane, and every square inch of Providence, including every blade of grass, as his domain. More importantly, I found inside the school’s walls a safe-haven from the perilous streets of my neighborhood. I found educational opportunity and the expectation of success. I found through one man’s vision sufficiency to dream. In Adams, I saw a Black man filled to the brim with integrity, character and commitment. An unyielding Black man who was not only willing to stand for the education and future of Black children, but also willing to fight, even to give his life for our good.

He turns 83 today.