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Breaking down the barriers

All his life, Ward graduate has been breaking down the barriers
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by Kara Hansen

KANSAS CITY, Kan. — When Bishop Ward High School organizers here were discussing speakers for Black History Month, they considered inviting an African-American sculptor, an African-American author, or maybe the first African-American astronaut in the U.S. space program.

Instead, they just invited Ed Dwight.

In the course of his amazing career, Dwight has been all three — after he broke the color barrier at Catholic schools in the archdiocese by becoming the first black student to attend Bishop Ward High School in 1948.

“My mom wrote letters and petitioned the school for three years before my sister and I came to Ward,” explained Dwight. “There was some static when we first came because some of the students and families didn’t want black people there.”

“But they let us in,” he concluded. And he has since gone on to break down a whole host of other barriers.

Dwight’s visit to Ward on Feb. 27 covered a lot of ground. He visited with an English class about writing his autobiography, discussed with a physics class his years in the Air Force and as an astronaut, and shared with a ceramics class his work as a sculptor.

Finally, Dwight addressed the entire student body during an assembly at which he shared his life story.

His lifelong dream, Dwight told them, had always been to become an artist. But he was encouraged by his father to take a more practical route in his life.

“I had really only taken art classes at Ward, but my dad encouraged me to go to engineering school and one of the Sisters at Ward helped me add math classes my senior year,” recalled Dwight. “They didn’t want me to become a starving artist.”

After graduating from Ward, Dwight went on to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering and then his pilot’s license. He joined the Air Force, and then in 1962, at the age of 27, received a letter from President John F. Kennedy inviting him to become the first black astronaut trainee.

“At the time, I thought he was out of his brain,” said Dwight, laughing. “Black men and women were not allowed to be in space at that time because there was an incredible fear of losing funding for research.”

But with his background in engineering education and his flight experience, Dwight was a good fit for the astronaut program. Eventually, however, Dwight said that much of his work involved speaking to minority students and encouraging them to seek advanced education in the fields of math and science.

Dwight resigned a few years after Kennedy’s death, having never made it to outer space. But after a second career as an entrepreneur, he did make it back to his original passion — art — when, at the age 45, he decided to go back to art school.

Pursuing his childhood dream — even at midlife — paid off for Dwight. In particular, he became widely known in the art community for his use of “negative space” in sculptures.

Dwight has since gone on to sculpt numerous monuments and memorials, such as the Underground Railroad in Detroit; a Dr. Martin Luther King Memorial in Denver’s City Park; a bust of George Washington Williams in the state Capitol in Columbus, Ohio; the Black Patriots Memorial on the mall of Washington, D.C.; the South Carolina Black History Memorial in Columbia, S.C.; and a statue of Hank Aaron at the Atlanta Braves Stadium in Atlanta.

Most recently, Dwight had been commissioned to create a sculpture of President Barack Obama.

Based on his own diverse experiences, Dwight offered some salient advice to the Bishop Ward students he addressed.

“Keeping your options open is important, especially in times of economic downturn,” he told them. “And the more you can operate out of both the left and right sides of your brain, the more likely you will be to become successful.

“You can have all the artistic talent in the world, but if you can’t meet deadlines and balance your checkbook, you’re not going to get very far.”

At the end of the school assembly, Dwight was honored with a gift by the Ward student body. School president Father Michael Hermes thanked Dwight for coming back to his alma mater.

“We pride ourselves on our diversity here at Ward, and we’re grateful for Ed Dwight and his family for leading us there,” he said. “His life proves that all things are possible, and we can do great things in our lives with God’s help.”

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Kara Hansen

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