On Saturday, March 4, Orange County Public Schools will induct the second class into its Hall of Fame.

CLASS IS IN. James Gates, professor and director of the University of Maryland Department of Physics Center for String and Particle Theory, has won Scientist of the Year award from the Harvard Foundation. photo/Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun/MCT

Inductee, Dr. Sylvester James Gates Jr., a celebrated theoretical physicist, graduated from Jones High School in 1969.

After high school Dr. Gates attended Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his Batchelor of Science and PhD. He currently teaches at the University of Maryland, and is best known for his work in supersymmetrysupergravity and superstring theory.

Dr. Gates received the National Medal of Science from President Barack Obama in 2013, and he served on the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

“I remember sharing time together in NHS meetings and school activities, he was always quick to let others take the spotlight. We always wanted him because we remember him as the smartest guy in the room and he should be the one representing us,” Marcia Hope Goodwin, high school friend of Dr. Gates, said. “We always pushed him to be out front, but he wanted to pass. He’s become more comfortable with that role over time.”

Each year Dr. Gates returns to Jones High School to award a student who shows promise in math or science with a $1,000 scholarship that he personally funds.

Dr. Gates took a few minutes to answer some questions for BoonePubs. Here’s the Q&A.

BoonePubs: Describe your high school experience

Dr. James Gates: Jones High School has been the traditional place where African-Americans could receive an education beyond elementary school for over a century. I came to Jones High after completing sixth grade at Hannibal Elementary School in Winter Park, Fla. At the high school, our textbooks were usually several years out of date, the school lacked amenities that could be found at other schools and we did not have the type of up-to-date equipment that one could find elsewhere in the system. But what we did have, that was truly invaluable and made up for all of the other deficiencies, were some great, dedicated, caring teachers. They more than made up for whatever we were lacking. They showed absolute confidence in the students and demanded the highest level of performance in school. For example, there was Ms. Williams who certainly demanded the rigorous use of mathematical logic in geometry. I had another teacher, Mr. Sanders, who demanded as much in algebra. The most influential teacher was Mr. Freeman Coney. In my opinion, he might have been the best physics teacher in all of Orlando. But given the circumstances of time and himself teaching high school at Jones, he was just an excellent teacher. I was a junior, the only one in a class of seniors, when I took my first (and only high school) physics course. It was pretty comprehensive going up to and including special relativity and some quantum mechanics… i.e. how atoms work.

BP: What particular academic and/or extracurricular activities interested you?

JG: As I was the valedictorian of my graduating class, I was always a diligent student. My grades showed it as I was essentially a straight “A” student. I enjoyed mathematics and science classes far more than the others. During my years in junior high at Jones, I met someone who was to be my closest friend throughout my time there, Philip Dunn. He became my chess teacher shortly after our initial meeting. By the time we were in 11th grade, after many matches, we had gathered a collection of like-minded friends. We formed a chess club, with Philip playing the first table, me second and my youngest brother, William, third. After getting one of our teachers to act as our sponsor, we were able to arrange matches with some of the other high schools.  Since ours was the only “black” high school in Orlando, all of our opponents were at the “white” high schools. On the occasion of our first match, I was amazed at the facilities, materials, and infrastructure available in these schools open to European-Americans but not to us. (By the way… our chess team never lost a match against the other schools in Orlando that had chess teams.)

BP: Describe any obstacles you experienced throughout your high school career

JG: There were two great obstacles. One was the nature of culture and the other was the insidious influence of racism. One challenge was the fact that this was the first time in my life that our family lived in a segregated community. So it was a big change to understand this new culture into which we found ourselves. Black culture was a new experience. Our society was and is full of messages sent to African-American teenagers that somehow our race means were are less capable in many areas. Even though I had an intact family and was supported by family, teachers, friends and church members in this period, I clearly heard those messages. They almost prevented me from applying to my “dream college.”

BP: How did you overcome them?

JG: It was my father that helped me overcome the negative impacts of all those discouraging messages.

BP: What was your motivation throughout your high school career?

JG: I had been interested in science since I was about four years old. By the time I was eight, I knew that if I got my way, I would become a scientist.

BP: What words of advice do you have for African American students?

JG: I don’t give advice as that presumes that I know a great deal about the person to whom I am speaking. I do share things I have found that enabled me to reach the age of 66 years and be able to say I am happier now than when I was 18. For professional success, in my case, I found what was closest to my heart’s desire and that led to everything else. The other things, which I learned, are that the quality of my ability to think was not related to my ethnicity.

BP: As a student, who inspired you to continue practicing science? Why?

JG: I did not need anyone to inspire me to follow my dream of becoming a scientist. Even though I was the first person in my family to go to college, our family greatly valued education.  My grandfather could not read nor write, but he could cipher, i.e. do some arithmetic. From my earliest memories, I can recall my dad around the dinner table asking us, “What college do you wish to go to?”

BP: What does Black History month mean to you?

JG: It is a chance, not just for black students, but for all students to learn about the American history that is left out of history books.  For example, I bet you never heard about what Einstein said about racism in the USA. Or I suspect you have no idea who was the first African-American to earn a Ph.D, nor the field in which this occurred.

BP: What does being nominated for OCPS Hall of Fame mean to you?

JG: I am amazed that so many people in the Orlando school system have been so generous to bestow this honor upon me.

BP: What is a significant lesson you learned in high school?

JG: For me, the most important lesson was to learn one must try to understand people.

Other inductees to the second Hall Of Fame include: Toni Jennings, Dr. Jim Schott and Wayne Brady.

By Ariana Rovira

Boone sophomore who really likes coffee

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