Childhood in Haiti, Brooklyn shaped Xavier's chief

It was April 1963, and C. Reynold Verret, 8 years old and living in Haiti, suddenly had his life turned upside down.
Haitian president Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier, on the pretext that his enemies were conspiring either to kidnap or assassinate his son Jean Claude, swiftly retaliated against the threat. Dozens of Haitians were killed by government soldiers and hundreds more were imprisoned, including Verret’s mother Lorraine.


“My mother was arrested in the purge,” said Verret, who on July 1 succeeded Dr. Norman C. Francis as president of Xavier University of Louisiana. “They were also looking for my father, but my father was not at home, and my mother was taken away.”

The four Verret children stayed in the house, but not for long. Verret’s aunt – his godmother – arrived at the house, asked the kids what had happened and then told them to put on their shoes quickly.

“Then it was over the back of the fence,” Verret recalled last week in his new Xavier office. “She had the presence of mind to hail a cab. The cabs weren’t stopping, but she got into the street and made a car stop. They dropped us off at the house of an old friend of the family.”

Hid from Haitian soldiers
For seven days, the Verret children stayed out of sight in a back bedroom and did not go to the front of the house “unless the blinds were closed.”
A week after she had gone missing, Verret’s mother was released from prison.

Four months later, Lorraine Verret and her four children flew to New York.

“I have very clear memories,” Verret said. “It was almost like having two childhoods in my mind. I had this childhood in Haiti in this French-speaking world, and then I had this childhood in Brooklyn. It was like it was in two boxes.”

The traumatic experience had a lasting effect on young Reynold and his family. His father was unable to leave Haiti, and he said eventually that led to the break-up of his parents’ marriage. His mother also was emotionally shaken.

“In retrospect, I think my mother suffered from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder), but it didn’t have a name,” Verret said. “I tell people my mother would go into another room or a closet when she heard a siren. That’s what you call PTSD.”

Amazingly, his mother, who learned enough English to serve as a nurse in New York, turned 96 in May. As a single mother rearing four children, she made a special point of stressing the value of education, Verret said.

“Education was important,” Verret said. “The whole idea of going out to play during the week was not what you did. You finished your homework, and by then, you were ready to go to sleep. The weekends on the rooftops were yours.”

Verret knew Kreyol and French but no English when he arrived in Brooklyn and wound up in St. Ignatius Loyola Parish, run by the Jesuits. The
Verrets had distant cousins in the New York area, but the large Haitian influx had yet to begin. Verret recalls his family being nurtured by the entire Jesuit community at St. Ignatius – including the priests who taught at nearby Brooklyn Prep.

“You know that line from ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ where Blanche says, ‘I’ve always lived off the kindness of strangers’?” Verret said. “I think that’s my life, because it wasn’t just blood kin (helping us). It was neighbors, others in the Haitian community and American neighbors. They stepped up along the way.”

The Jesuit priests offered his family comforting guidance. Jesuit Father Anthony Paone spoke French, German, Italian, Latin and Greek, and he could converse with Verret’s mother in French. Father Paone also was a psychological social worker, and he helped her process what had happened to her family.

“Father Paone essentially became my mother’s confessor and spiritual director,” Verret said. “His ministry to my mother was one instrument in her salvation.”

Altar serving helped
Father Paone also encouraged the Verret boys to become altar servers at St. Ignatius Parish. There was a solid benefit beyond the spiritual influence: Brooklyn Prep offered scholarships to the parish’s altar servers.

“Every once in awhile, Father Paone would stop me in the hall at The Prep and ask, ‘How is your mother? How are you doing?’” Verret said.

Verret didn’t need much time to learn English, and after a year of adjustment, he excelled in the classroom. “Children at that age are like vacuum cleaners,” he said.

Verret always was interested in science. As a child, he would take apart his toys as well as his brothers’ toys – “which has consequences” – and he liked to find out what made radios and motors work.

“A scientist is like a musician,” Verret said. “You don’t decide to become a cellist at the age of 18. If you don’t begin at the age of 6 or 7 or 8, it goes away. I don’t think I ever knew what a scientist was, but as a child I did have an interest in knowing how things worked. I told my mother I wanted to be a scientist in maybe the sixth or seventh grade, and by then I was going to the library and reading electronics books.”

Verret did so well in high school that he scored high marks on an exam that earned him a Regent’s Scholarship to Columbia University, which covered a large part of his educational expenses. He earned his undergraduate degree cum laude in biochemistry and a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Verret also was a postdoctoral fellow at the Howard Hughes Institute for Immunology at Yale University and at the Center for Cancer Research at MIT. He has published works on the topics of toxicity of immune cells, biosensors and biomarkers.
In the early 1990s, Verret taught at Tulane University, and he had the occasion to meet Francis in educational and social settings.

“I don’t think he would have remembered me,” Verret said, smiling. “I met him at functions, and I knew this was Dr. Francis, the great man. We never knew each other, but I knew of his work.”


Other administrative posts
After his teaching career, Verret served as provost at Wilkes University in northern Pennsylvania and as the dean of the Misher College of Arts and Sciences at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

Since 2012, he served as provost of Savannah State University in Georgia, where he directed the university’s efforts to build enrollment, enhance the quality and diversity of academic programs and create partnerships with nearby colleges.

Verret is well aware of Xavier’s proven record in the sciences – placing more African-American graduates into medical school than any other college or university in the country. But, Verret says, that’s not Xavier’s entire story.

“I think Xavier is a great example for higher education in general of what is possible if you commit,” Verret said. “When you educate these young people, you get talent, and that’s not just for Louisiana, because our students go to Minnesota and California and do great things. We are also educating the underserved.

“Our success is not just in the sciences. What Xavier shows is that there is a linkage between the sciences and the social sciences and humanities. We are educating students to think and to look at complicated things and come up with good answers. That goes back to St. Katharine Drexel and her sisters when they first came here – the idea that we are educating people so they can carry this gift to someone else. They are receiving a gift that has to be multiplied.”


Francis led the way
Verret got to meet Francis formally after he was offered the president’s position by the Xavier University board of directors. He realizes the awesome responsibility of succeeding an educational icon – someone who served for 47 years as the longest-tenured university president in America, someone who built Xavier’s infrastructure from the ground up and got outside partners to buy into the vision, someone who got Xavier back on its feet after Katrina.

“I can say that Dr. Francis became who he is because he attended to what the university needed at the time the university needed it,” Verret said. “He did that at many different times and was faithful in that for 47 years. I think the way I follow him is to attend to the needs of the university, to be faithful to the university and to do what is needed when it is needed. That’s the example I’ve seen from him, and I hear that in his words still.

“I’ve always known this from a distance. But in sitting with him, what I see is a generosity of spirit, an ability to give of himself. I think he gets great satisfaction in that.”

Verret said he will spend several months listening to and learning from faculty, students and staff about what makes Xavier tick.

“I have a lot to learn about Xavier and also what the challenges and the opportunities are,” Verret said. “Xavier is not just the president. There’s a lot of committed and talented people who have been in the trenches, and I need to hear from them.

“Enrollment is important to us. We also want to let the world know there is this place where great education occurs. We don’t want to keep a light under a bushel basket. Students should know this is a place where they can come where they can graduate with meaningful degrees and abilities to give. My hope is to engage the faculty, students and staff of Xavier and begin to plan our future. It’s not necessarily to look in the rear-view mirror but to plan for the needs that we see coming, both in education and in how we communicate that message to the larger world. We want to create a space where faculty and students can be creative.”

Verret already has begun using a technique Francis employed over his nearly half-century as president: he walks around campus and talks to students. A student offered him some sage advice the other day.

“I was walking around campus in a shirt and a tie – and it was a hot, sunny day – and someone told me, ‘You need a hat. Dr. Francis always wore a hat.’”

Peter Finney Jr. can be reached at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .





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