Tumult and progress marked 1964, the year George Comer ’68 graduated from high school in Gary, Indiana. That was the year of the Civil Rights Act. The Harlem Race Riots. The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution. But that fall, amidst political unrest and seismic social change, Comer stepped onto Calvin’s campus with a clear sense of vocation, a dedicated work ethic, and a strong faith he hoped would guide him over the next four years.
Comer first heard of Calvin through his sister and brother-in-law, who lived within walking distance of the Franklin campus. Since Grand Rapids had a robust African American community, Comer assumed Calvin would, too. Plus, the university’s strong academic reputation appealed to him. But Calvin’s conservative culture and predominantly white student population caught Comer by surprise. As one of only three black students on campus, Comer frequently shared his point of view with classmates. “Many of the Calvin students had not had an opportunity to interact with blacks. We would have little sessions, and I would talk about the black experience.” Still, Comer considered transferring. Looking back, he’s glad he stayed. “Calvin pushes for diversity,” he says, “and they’re sincere about it. They made every effort to make me feel comfortable.” Comer cites “being able to feel like I belonged, that I wasn’t going to be treated differently” as the reason he remained.
Comer graduated from Calvin in 1968, turning down a graduate fellowship at the University of Michigan to return home, marry his childhood sweetheart, Sarah, and begin his career. He spent forty-four years in the Gary community schools, first teaching English and drama. After six years, he moved into administration. By the time he retired as assistant superintendent in 2012, he had held nearly every administrative position in the district. Over the span of his career, Comer became known for his ability to move into any role and get a job done.
Dedicated and innovative, Comer helped Gary’s students reach their full potential, piloting programs to enhance student learning and encourage parent engagement. Comer developed a partnership program with Indiana University called Competitive Edge, where high schoolers took summer classes in the sciences. For many participants, Competitive Edge was their first experience on a college campus. “That was sort of exciting to me.” Comer says, “Many of the kids were extremely well prepared in the Gary system, but because they have the steel mills there, which is good money, there just wasn’t that feeling of ‘Hey, I want to go off to college.’” Another successful program employed primary school parents and tasked them with strengthening parent engagement in their local schools. Comer notes, student performance increased when parents participated in their kids’ education.
Growing up, church and family played vital roles in Comer’s life. That legacy lives on. Comer says he’s proud of his three children who built careers in education and healthcare. He’s proud to have loved two good women. His first wife passed away in 1992. His second wife, Mary, is the longest tenured administrator in Gary’s public school system. And he’s proud of his faith, because he says, “It keeps me humble.” Today, the Comers remain active in their community and church, investing in local students’ lives with time and financial support. “I just enjoy being around kids. It keeps me young,” says Comer, who teaches Sunday school, helps his wife coach the St. Timothy Community Church Bible Bowl team, and still attends school sports and fine arts events.
Looking back on his career and its many highlights, Comer doesn’t reflect on himself for very long. Instead, he remembers the students’ lives he touched. “If you really want to have an impact on children, go into teaching. It’s more than just delivering content. Sometimes it’s more of a personal kind of thing.” He hopes, above all, he changed the minds of kids who felt they weren’t talented enough to compete with the best students. “I hope the one thing I did was to convince them that they could.”