Helen S. Faison, Pioneering Educator, Esteemed Alum, Dies

Issue Date: 
July 27, 2015

Helen S. Faison—a revered Pitt alumnus and trailblazing educator who became the first Black woman to serve as an academic high school principal and later, as acting superintendent, in the Pittsburgh Public Schools—died June 17 at her residence in Forest Hills, Pa. She was 91.

Described as exceedingly bright, compassionate and humble, Faison fought to make the education system work for children. She earned three degrees at Pitt: a Bachelor of Science in education in 1946, a Master of Education in 1955, and a PhD in educational administration in 1975. 

Faison achieved an impressive number of professional “firsts” throughout her lifetime, including becoming one of the first Black teachers in Pittsburgh, hired in 1950 to teach social studies and English at Fifth Avenue High School, Pittsburgh Public Schools. Ten years later, she became the district’s first Black high school guidance counselor; in 1968, she was the first African American and first woman to be named an academic high school principal in the Pittsburgh Public Schools. In 1983, Faison became a deputy superintendent, making her the school district’s highest-ranking woman. And when she led the school district as interim superintendent from early 1999 to mid-2000, she was the first African American to do so. 

“With Dr. Faison, we celebrate a life characterized by exceptional and history-making professional achievement and a deeply inspirational human touch,” said Pitt Chancellor Patrick Gallagher.

Faison “contributed greatly” to our campus, Gallagher said, citing her membership on Pitt’s Board of Trustees, which she joined in 1976, becoming the board’s first African American member. She served on the board’s Academic Affairs, Affirmative Action, and Executive Committees and was an emeritus trustee at the time of her passing. She was also a member of the Boards of Visitors for the College of General Studies, the Learning Research and Development Center, and the School of Education.

“At our campus and beyond, in her work and in her personal life, she contributed to the lives of teachers and students, reminding all of us of the noble calling of being an educator,” said Gallagher.  

“Dr. Faison received many accolades from the University, including the naming of a chair in her honor in the School of Education. She was a principled and talented woman and her greatest legacy—passing on the love of learning—will live on through the countless lives she touched by being a superior teacher, counselor, superintendent, and lifelong educator.”

Born Helen Smith on July 13, 1924, Faison lived in Homewood until she was seven years old. Her mother, who was stricken with tuberculosis and would soon die, moved the family to Virginia to stay with a grandmother. At the end of seventh grade, Faison was forced to change schools as her small school district in rural Lowesville, Va., did not offer classes to Black children beyond that grade level. Arrangements were made for her to attend eighth and ninth grades in a nearby town.

Eventually, Faison and her siblings returned to Pittsburgh to live with their father and stepmother. Tragedy struck again when their father died of kidney disease and hypertension at the age of 42. At the time, Faison was a senior in high school. Against enormous odds and with quiet determination, she embarked upon an education—and later, a career path—that would influence children and colleagues throughout Pittsburgh as well as educators and legislators across the state.

Faison married George W. Faison in 1959.

A tireless advocate for learning, she first made her mark in the Pittsburgh Public Schools and then moved to Chatham University, initially as Distinguished Visiting Professor of Education, and then as chair of Chatham’s Department of Education. She was the founding director of the Pittsburgh Teachers Institute, which is committed to enhancing teacher training.

And she did it all with her trademark grace and humility.

Mary Margaret Kerr, a Pitt professor and chair of the School of Education’s Department of Administrative and Policy Studies, worked closely with Faison for a decade. At the time, Kerr was a consultant to the Pittsburgh Public Schools and, later, the district’s director of pupil services. From her office next door, Kerr heard Faison place and answer hundreds of phone calls.

“She never referred to herself as Dr. Faison,” Kerr recalled. “Only Helen or Mrs. Faison. She was not at all about status, and she disliked power plays.”

Kerr recalled one time when Faison invited her to her office for a private “graduation” with the parents of a high school senior who had died two years earlier. “She served the bereaved parents tea and presented them with a posthumous diploma,” said Kerr. “She was compassionate that way, and she knew the importance of comforting rituals.”

Over the years, Faison won many forms of recognition, including within the University. She received an honorary doctorate and was named a Pitt Legacy Laureate in 2000. She was also designated as a Distinguished Alumna by both the African American Alumni Council and the School of Education. Pitt created the Helen S. Faison Scholarships in the School of Education, awarded to outstanding undergraduate students from underserved communities.

In 2006, then-Pitt Chancellor Mark A. Nordenberg announced the creation of the Dr. Helen S. Faison Chair in Urban Education, the first fully endowed chair in the history of Pitt’s School of Education.

At that time, School of Education Dean Alan M. Lesgold called Faison “the personification of education and public service at its best,” adding the chair would be “a continual reminder of everything Dr. Faison represents: concern for every child, absolute integrity, courage, and selflessness.” 

During her 2005 commencement address at Pitt, Faison relayed her belief in the life-altering—and life-lasting—gift of education. 

Faison told the commencement crowd: “Some of you who are being graduated today may be returning to the place you call home; others of you may be moving to new places, maybe even to places you have never seen. But may I remind you ... that while you cannot take with you the Cathedral of Learning, the Commons Room . . . or even many of the human associations that you have formed during your years at the University, you can take the University with you.” 

Faison is survived by her sister, Bernice Rose of Homewood, as well as nieces and nephews. Visitation and a memorial service were held July 19 and 20, respectively, at the Baptist Temple Church in Homewood.