by Matt Soergel -

At a church service Sunday to honor African-American male teachers, the talk turned to the mentors who had made a difference in the lives of some black educators.

For George Maxey, the new principal at Raines High School, it was John Fox, a white teacher who inspired him in third grade, when Maxey lived in a housing project in Brooklyn, N.Y.

For Julius Paden, principal at private Lighthouse Christian School, it was the late Bernard Wilkes, basketball coach at Ribault High School for 30 years.

For Dwayne Thomas, assistant principal at Mandarin Middle School, it was Bud Hicks, who worked as a custodian at his school in Detroit.

The custodian encouraged Thomas, the son of a single mother, to go to school and keep up his grades. He took him to a Detroit Red Wings game. He nicknamed him “Slick” because he tried to slide out of work.

Then he got Thomas a job as a student custodian, working alongside him. “He told me, ‘You’ve got to work hard, and stop being slick,'” said Thomas. “‘Take pride in the work that you do.'”

Thomas, 48, still keeps in touch with Hicks. “The kind of person Bud Hicks was to me, that’s what I want to be for some young male or female,” he said.

Thomas was at Greater Macedonia Baptist Church on Englewood Avenue West for what was billed as A Day of Prayer for Education and Educators in the African-American Community.

Thomas came to teaching five years ago after careers in the Navy and the corporate world. It’s a challenge and a reward, he said, especially when trying to be a positive male role model for students who don’t have many. “We’re trying to be the teacher, the father, the uncle, the friend,” he said.

Maxey, from Raines, said teachers need to challenge students to be better. “Children want structure, they want a place where they fit in, they want something that’s bigger than them. School can be that,” he said.

Paden, from Lighthouse Christian, said teachers are role models in ways big and small. “When I walk in front of them, I don’t say, ‘Put your shirt in your pants,’ and then have my shirt hanging out my pants,” he said. “I’ve got to walk the walk before I can talk the talk.”