Although perhaps known to America as the charismatic host of his own long-running talk show, Montel Williams is also a passionate advocate for the nation’s public school system, and is currently volunteering as an advocate for the National School Board Association’s Stand Up 4 Public Schools campaign. On Feb. 26, Examiner spoke exclusively with Williams and NSBA Executive Director Tom Gentzel on several topics, including Williams’ own experience with public education, his standout moment from “The Montel Williams Show,” and why he’ll never do “Dancing with the Stars.”
Tom, what does the National School Boards Association do to help local school boards?
Gentzel: Well, I’ve got to start by saying what a local school board is. It’s folks just like you and folks in the community who are not necessarily education experts. I’ve been at this for 35 years and I’ve met folks from every walk of life you could possibly imagine. What’s really great about this, I think, is it really reflects the fact that public education is, at its heart, a community enterprise, so it takes local leadership to make that happen and that’s why school boards are so important.
So our job, as a national organization working with state affiliates, is to make sure these local school board members have the resources, the training, the information they need to be successful, and to help them to engage the larger community to support public education.
I have several kids in school. How can I, as a parent, be involved with Stand Up 4 Public Schools effort?
Williams: Let me jump in here and help you with that. What you can do is get involved with your local school board association meetings. Show up. Go to the school…. What has to happen is we have to have this entire country understand that we are all individual stakeholders in what has been the most successful corporation, entity in the history of America. The public school system. Most people don’t know that –and I just found this out recently– it employs more people than any other corporation in this entire country.
It’s been one of the most successful at doing what it does because remember, for the last, what, 100 years or more, it’s educated 80 percent minimum –sometimes 90 percent– of our entire population. Every president, CEO of every corporation across the country –some of them may have gone to private schools– but the majority of them went to public schools. So this is a successful organization that needs to be supported, especially at a time when so many people are trying to denigrate this organization with false information. So part of the reasons why I’m involved is so we get some real truth to what’s going on in our public school system.
Gentzel: If I could just add something to that, people don’t think of this much, but what we’re teaching in high schools –most of the school districts around this country right now– was college level material a generation or so ago. So we’ve really upped our game in terms of what we’re teaching kids, the quality of the education, all of that, despite budget cuts, despite all these challenges, despite efforts by some businesses to profiteer off of the public schools. That’s why this became so important, and why we’re so pleased Montel is helping us carry this message around the country.
Montel, your resume is really long and impressive. You started off in Baltimore; I’m a Marylander too, [from] Montgomery County. How do you feel your education there and subsequent time in the military prepared you for a career in the entertainment industry?
Williams: Well, you know, I really never set out to be in the entertainment industry. I was born in Cherry Hill, the biggest ghetto in all of Baltimore. As a matter of fact, it was the location of the first Superfund Cleanup site in America. So I was born about a block away from one of the most toxic dumps in this country. But fortunately my parents moved us into the suburbs. I grew up in Anne Arundel County in a little black enclave called Morris Hill and was bused to school my entire school career.
It’s because of that basis that I’m as successful as I am today…. But my public education didn’t just prepare me for entertainment. I have a degree in general engineering. I have a minor in international security affairs. I have a degree in cryptology. I have a degree in Russian. I, right now, run five companies. I have a bio fuel company. I took my first company public… a medical device company. I have a direct response company. I have a food company. All of this is in this brain because of the basic education I got in public schools…. I hope by being involved in Stand Up 4 Public Schools, I make sure the rest of America understands that this is why this country’s going to be successful right now and into the future.
I understand that there’s a website out there. Tom, can you tell me about that?
Gentzel: Yeah, standup4publicschools.org. We put that out there to give a lot of good information about what’s actually happening in public education and to provide some good arguments to counter the critics and to really just encourage people to get involved…. You can also go to our website as an organization, nsba.org.
You’re preaching to the choir. I’m a product of public schools, my kids are in public schools, I interact with our local school board. Now Montel, I have a few more questions for you. This one may be a little hard because I know you hosted [so many] episodes, but do you have a memorable moment from hosting “The Montel Williams Show”?
Williams: Okay, watch this. The true number I hosted was 3,680 shows. I had –watch this– over 38,000 guests– seated in the primary seat beside me because we averaged eight guests a show. When I look back and try to figure out that one guest, it’s really tough for me, because I think we did some things during the tenure of “The Montel Williams Show” that were groundbreaking and some things that were really public interest, but I can’t walk away forgetting one story that just sticks out. I put it in my compilation show for the end.
I had a man reach out to me, from London, who had seen the show [and the reunions]. He was a Holocaust survivor. He thought his entire family had died, but he was trying to see if he could get some records about where his family was. [I]n the talk show world we had some tools and techniques that people didn’t have, so we started digging, and I’m not kidding you, his twin brother that he thought was dead had survived and moved into a community two and a half miles away from where he lived. That’s one of my favorite shows because I brought the brother back and then I found the other one and reunited them on “The Montel Williams Show”. If I ever did anything in television that I would say I was so happy I did, but could’ve done a little differently: I flew the brother in here on Friday, we taped the show on Monday, and I wouldn’t let him see him til Monday because I had to have that reunion. But the crazy thing about it they never would’ve reunited had they not reached out to a television show.
One last thing before I have to go, and it may sound a little silly and frivolous. I love “Dancing with the Stars.” It would give you an amazing platform to get all of your messages out and it would also show people that you cannot pigeonhole anyone with Multiple Sclerosis. Would you ever consider doing something like that?
Williams: Can I tell you, and this is the truth, I have been approached by “Dancing with the Stars” no less than five times. Here’s the one problem that I have: I do a very good job of concealing a lot of my symptoms, but… I have a left leg issue. It’s not just a mechanical issue; my left leg, at any given time, could do anything it chooses to do. And though I could train at it, do the steps a million times, I could get on that stage and this leg could shoot that way and I’m flat on my face. I don’t want to show that. If you saw me in normal life, I’m capable of doing almost everything there is, but I haven’t [run or danced] since I was diagnosed.