Updated: August 20, 2013 11:08PM
James Piggee was just a teenager when he left Gary to attend Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C.
His mother put him on a bus, gave him a $50 bill, and said simply, “Boy, go be something.”
Fast forward several decades and the now 74-year-old retired Gary Schools Corp. administrator has echoed his mother’s sound advice to thousands of high school students across the country.
Go be something.
For 27 years in a row, Piggee has coordinated a bus tour during spring break, with visits to dozens of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs, from Grambling to Howard. The now nationally known program started humbly with one bus and 35 students in 1986.
Since then, more than 6,000 high school students have taken a ride on the program to help select a college, with roughly 90 percent of them graduating with a degree. Many of the “black college bus tour graduates” have gone on to prestigious jobs across the country.
“Mr. Piggee has been facilitating this tour for as long as I can remember,” explained Gary Mayor Karen Freeman-Wilson. “He puts his heart and soul into helping young people go to college.”
“Mr. Piggee,” as everyone calls him, is the best kept secret outside of Gary. But within the city everyone knows him or knows of him, from school kids to the mayor’s office.
“The tour has had a lasting impact on countless Gary school graduates,” Freeman-Wilson added. “In fact, several members of my leadership team are alums of the tour and actually went on to attend historically black institutions.”
Piggee, a former Gary teacher, coach, and administrator, recently returned from his latest bus tour with 135 high school students through several southern states. Nearly every one of those students — most from Gary schools — received a full-ride or partial scholarship to a historically black college.
“I don’t care what kind of college they get into — black, white, whatever — as long as they attend college,” Piggee told me during a visit to his Gary home. “My parents stressed to me how important education is, and I’m stressing it to these young students.”
The cost to students for the coveted week-long bus tour is $500, which is a deal considering its proven results for college hopefuls. Often, that fee is sponsored by a teacher, business, or fundraiser.
‘Best tour in the country’
“Everyone knows Mr. Piggee,” said David King, an 18-year-old West Side High School student who was accepted to the fabled Morehouse College in Georgia. “When he comes into school, everybody knows he’s there to help us.”
King was allowed to leave school early to meet with me at Piggee’s home, along with fellow West Side senior, Alanna Hearon, 18, of Gary.
Both students took part in the recent bus tour earlier this month, and both are considered the cream of the crop among the city’s high school graduates.
“It was perfect for me,” replied Hearon, who earned a full-ride scholarship to Alabama A&M University.
“Everyone was really focused,” added King, who is the first African-American president of the Indiana Association of the Students Councils.
That bus tour went through Kentucky, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, totaling 13 colleges, with 14 chaperones and strict rules with curfews.
“If anyone acts the fool, they go home,” said Piggee, who’s been known to send a student or two back home because they didn’t behave.
Several years ago, while serving as a Lew Wallace High School assistant principal, Piggee filed a U.S. Department of Justice discrimination complaint against a Louisiana hotel, claiming it backed out of an agreement to lodge 132 black students.
“This is the best college bus tour in the country,” he told me squarely. “I take it seriously. This is my high, working with and helping young people.”
Each trip takes months of organization, thorough coordination, and costs tens of thousands of dollars. This past bus tour cost more than $60,000, with too little sponsorship from Northwest Indiana businesses, corporations, or foundations.
How does Piggee swing it each year?
“I beg, borrow, and steal from whoever is willing to help,” he said with a shrug.
Some of his annual sponsors include NIPSCO, Legacy Foundation, Meijer, Methodist Hospitals, First Midwest Bank, and the city of Gary. But none of these donors give enough money, I say, considering the importance of this program to our area youth.
What about other regional corporations which, you would think, would be on board this popular and productive bus tour program? Piggee, the son of a preacher, just smirks, rolls his eyes, and looks up to heaven in disgust.
For those readers who are interested in becoming a part of the bus tour through sponsorships or volunteering, contact me or call Piggee at 771-1992.
As the former head of GEMS, Giving Education Meaningful Substance, Piggee’s tidy home in the Tolleston section of the city is filled with meaningful items of substance, from copies of “Jet” magazine on a coffee table to intriguing artwork on the walls.
“All I care about is that these students get exposure to college and learn about the scholarships available to them,” he said. “What they do with that education and experience is up to them.”
David King already plans to serve as a chaperone for next year’s bus tour.
“Even if I have to drive there on my own,” he told Piggee, who applauded in gratitude.
King told me, “Mr. Piggee is the reason that a future president of the United States will be coming from Morehouse College.”
Who will that be?
“Me,” he said matter of factly.
Mr. Piggee could only smile.
Connect with Jerry via email at email@example.com, voice mail at 713-7237, Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In, or jerrydavich.wordpress.com.