Dr. Levi Watkins: The Father Who Taught Me How to be a Strong Man
Updated: Sep 6
By Donald V. Watkins
©Copyrighted and Published on June 16, 2019
My father was Levi Watkins. He was president of Alabama State University from 1962 to 1981. In 1962, my father took a small, neglected, unaccredited, all-black state college in Montgomery, Alabama and grew it into a fully accredited university in record time. This was the second time my father accomplished this remarkable feat in a four-year period with a small, unaccredited, black college. The first time occurred in the late 1950s when my father served as president of Owen Junior College in Memphis, Tennessee (which is now LeMoyne-Owen College).
My father died in 1994. I salute Dr. Levi Watkins on Father’s Day 2019.
All of the steps I have taken in life have been guided by my deep and abiding love and respect for my father and mother.
We don’t get to pick our parents, but God gave me two of the best parents who ever walked the earth. For this, I am eternally grateful.
My father was my best friend, my spiritual leader, my role model, and my hero. He taught me how to be a strong man, how to respect women, how to deal effectively with bullies and bigots, and how to stand up for what is right, even when I have to stand by myself.
Our family looked up to my father and he never let us down. He was the patriarch of the Watkins family and he always led by example.
As was the case with my paternal grandfather, Adam Watkins, my father groomed each one of his three daughters and three sons to become loving and caring community leaders. He loved to inspire, motivate and support the younger generations. To him, education was the surest pathway to a better life.
My father never stressed the accumulation of material things. Instead, he stressed a healthy respect for humanity and a mastery of knowledge, skills and abilities. To father, service to humanity was the cornerstone of greatness. Even then, it must be rendered with compassion, kindness, humility, and a thoughtful consideration of the circumstances of others.
Modesty ran through my father’s veins. Many of his good deeds were never mentioned outside of our immediate family. Father believed that a person’s collective body of good deeds, not braggadocious words, should define his/her legacy.
I admired my father for his consistent and quiet strength. He worked long hours as an educator to provide for his family and to enhance the quality of life for thousands of students and communities for decades. Ordinary citizens and people of substantial public influence sought his wise counsel on many occasions. In public and private, he worked with the same humble integrity and innate dignity. In father’s world, everybody was entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.
Although my father was recognized as a leader, scholar, and very thoughtful man, there were times in our community that required extra vigilance to keep our family safe. Each one of us endured the tough racial environment in the Deep South, including hostility, scorn, rejection, loneliness, and physical dangers inherent in the southern culture of the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. We were trained to use adversity and obstacles as opportunities to exercise our minds and to build our endurance.
During these challenging times, our parents maintained a wholesome and loving family life; taught us how to rebound from adverse circumstances with resilience; and sustained our family’s honor and solidarity against those who constantly tried to destroy it.
My parents gave their personal best to us each day. They set high standards in their conduct, accomplishments, behavior, and speech. They expected the same from us.
My parents exhibited quiet bravery, strength of character, and clarity of purpose based on a certainty of their own worth. They anchored their own destiny, as they saw it, and by example helped their children do the same. We thrived under their honesty and integrity to fulfill the worth of our own potential.
Many of us who are motivated to enter public service follow in the footsteps of dedicated family members who walked that path before us. Our immediate family's strong calling to public service extends to other family members, close friends, and numerous community leaders.
We work every day to inspire, inform and maintain the highest standards of public service and ethics in government in these pivotal new times. Public service is an honor and should be treated as such at all times.
Throughout the course of life, one document has guided us on our journey. It means more to the Watkins siblings than anything else in our possession. It is titled, “Certificate of Birth”, and it lists Lillian and Levi Watkins as our parents. There are only six of these certificates in the world and I hold one of them. No matter where I go or what I do in life, I will always be Lillian and Levi Watkins’ ambassador to the larger world, and I will always strive to represent them well.
PHOTO: On December 15, 1966, Governor George Wallace celebrated Alabama State University's accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. It was a monumental achievement for a small black college in Alabama during the 1960s. Today, Alabama State is a doctoral degree-granting institution that enjoys Level Six accreditation, along with The University of Alabama and Auburn University. Levi Watkins believed this result was achievable in Alabama in the 1962 and led the way.