Tuesday, March 27, 2012
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William Fleming honors legacy of distinguished alumni

Various parts of the school now carry the names of those whose lists of accolades began there.

Billy Cannaday (center) shares a laugh with old friends Gene Jones (left), principal of William Fleming High School, and George “Killer” Miller, a retired coach and teacher at William Fleming, during a reception at the school Monday evening where parts of the school were named after distinguished alumni, teachers and leaders.

Eric Brady | The Roanoke Times

Billy Cannaday (center) shares a laugh with old friends Gene Jones (left), principal of William Fleming High School, and George “Killer” Miller, a retired coach and teacher at William Fleming, during a reception at the school Monday evening where parts of the school were named after distinguished alumni, teachers and leaders.

The bell rings and William Fleming Principal Gene Jones spots a lone student intently staring into a display case.

He walks up beside him and says, "If this is what you are going to be late for, I'll write you an excuse."

The student was standing in awe admiring the accomplishments of astrophysicist and former William Fleming student Beth Brown. She became the first black woman at the University of Michigan to earn a doctorate in astronomy and went on to work as an astrophysicist for NASA.

"Now look at what she did," Jones said. "Now what are you going to do?"

Brown was one of the distinguished William Fleming alumni honored Monday evening in a dedication ceremony. The event honored five individuals and one organization by dedicating parts of the new $57 million school after them. Dozens of community members, teachers and former students attended.

Brown has a large display case in her honor, and the science and pre-engineering hall is now named after her. She died in 2008 of a blood clot affecting the lungs.

The school's main lobby is named after Billy Cannaday, the first black state superintendent and current dean of the School of Continuing and Professional Studies at the University of Virginia.

The William Fleming Media Center is dedicated in memory of Marilyn Curtis, former Roanoke School Board member and community leader, and the field house was dedicated in honor of the Northwest Recreation Club.

The visual and performance art wing was rededicated to Alyce Szathmary, area fashion guru and business owner.

Cannaday said he went into the education field to repay his teachers and coaches at William Fleming who taught him many life lessons.

"I am a product of their efforts," Cannaday said. "These are some of the people that impacted my life the most. I wanted to be like them."

Cannaday said he was "surprised," when Jones contacted him about the dedication.

Jones said he chose to name the main lobby of the school after Cannaday because of the span and impact of his career. The dean was superintendent for Chesterfield County schools and superintendent of Hampton schools. In his tenure as state superintendent, his initiatives included expanding access to pre-kindergarten education and raising the status of career and technical education.

"It's great for kids to see these names on the wall and their accomplishments and know they walked the same halls as them," Jones said. "The kids need to see their history, and what better way to do it with a beautiful new building?"

Frances Brown, Beth Brown's mother and chairwoman of the Dr. Beth A. Brown Science Foundation, arranged her daughter's display.

"She would be surprised to have such an honor," she said. "But she deserves it, she worked so hard for what she achieved. She's been honored in so many places, but this is where it started."

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