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Rousing Keynote Speaker at King Day Ceremony

The Kendall School choir performed for the crowd on Monday at West Rocks. Credit: Leslie Yager
The Kendall School choir performed for the crowd on Monday at West Rocks. Credit: Leslie Yager
Though Monday was a paid holiday for many, Bruce Morris, director of Human Relations at Norwalk Public Schools urged the community to consider Martin Luther King Day as "a day on" rather than "a day off."

To that end, hundreds filled the West Rocks Middle School auditorium on Monday to honor the accomplished leader who would have turned 85 on Jan. 15 had he not been assassinated in 1968.

The keynote speaker, Dr. Duane Dyson, had been approached by BOE member and Committee Chair Rosa Murray, who had gone to Norwalk Hospital in time for Dyson's graveyard shift in the Emergency Room and invited him in person to speak.

Dr. Dyson emphasized the importance of both self-reliance and the value of role models, recalling how he had been headed down the wrong path when he was younger.

"I might have been inmate number whatever. It could have been a different path. I was stabbed and I was shot at, and spent a brief time incarcerated," said Dyson adding that the physician who put him back together changed his life. 

Dr. Dyson, who also founded and leads the Violence Prevention Institute, emphasized that one encouraging person can make a difference in a child's life.

"Create your own future," Dyson urged the crowd, pointing out that the government spends $60,000 a year to incarcerate a person, but has cut spending on programs like pre-school. "Locking people up and throwing away the key is not the answer. And affirmative action is all but dead."

Dyson paused mid-way through his remarks to look out on the audience of mostly African-Americans and ask if any children wanted to grow up to be a doctor. 

A child named Miles raised his hand and Dyson invited him to the podium, putting his doctor's coat on the boy. A girl named Zaire and a boy named Jeremy followed suit, each having a turn trying on Dyson's doctor's jacket.

"You have no idea how one statement to one child can make a difference," Dyson said, recalling how he had put his coat on a young boy years ago, and that boy is now a doctor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. 

Dyson, who said he was the product of a single parent home, also emphasized the importance of child care and pre-school. 

"Some of our children's parents need help. We need to support these child care organizations with time and money," Dyson said. "Many parents don't have the luxury of a nanny or parent who can stay home."

Lamenting the disparity in health between African-Americans and the general public, Dyson said African-Americans suffer from heart disease, stroke and hypertension disproportionately and that problem is compounded by the shuttering of health care facilities at what he described as "an alarming rate."  

Dyson addressed the level of violence among African-Americans.

"What's the leading cause of death for African-Americans between 15 and 24?" he asked. "It's murder. One out of three will look forward to going to jail. ...What are we doing about it? We're being reactive instead of proactive in emergency medicine...It seems as though every gun shot and every knife wound I take care of here at Norwalk Hospital has an African-American or Latino face." 

"The good news is that we have bright and productive children who, if given the guidance will go on to lead wonderful and productive lives," Dyson said before issuing one last reminder of a collective obligation to the next generation and receiving a standing ovation from the crowd. 

After the keynote speaker, the boys and girls of Kendall Elementary School choir, directed by Dr. David Metzger, brought the crowd to their feet, as did the talented Jazz Combo from Norwalk High School. 

Mayor Harry Rilling delivered a Martin Luther King proclamation and mentioned he was proud to have attended West Rocks Middle School himself, as did his three children.

Other officials in attendance included Norwalk Schools Supt. Manuel Rivera, BOE Vice Chair Artie Kassimis, State Rep. Chris Perone, State Senator Bob Duff, members of the Board of Education, the Norwalk NAACP president Darnell Crosland, Common Councilman David Watts and several Pastors.

Related Story:
Service Awards Presented to Norwalk Students at Martin Luther King Day Celebration

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