Vallie Wendell Hylton’s life didn’t look very promising at the beginning. One of 15 children, 10 surviving past infancy, Hylton lived in a log cabin with holes in the walls.
In the wintertime, he could see the snow falling without walking outside or glancing out of the window. All Hylton had to do was peek out of one of the many breezy holes that dotted his home.
“My dad’s early life was very humble,” Patricia Grant said of her late father.
Growing up in Martinsville without much money and limited opportunities, Hylton didn’t have much to look forward to.
“Teachers and everyone told him he was never going to be anyone,” Grant said.
Somehow, Hylton tuned out all of the negativity. Determined to make his life worthwhile after graduating from George Washington Carver High School, now an elementary school in Henry County, Hylton attended college at the University of Maryland-Eastern Shore in Princess Anne, Md., where he received a Bachelor of Science degree.
During his lifetime, Hylton earned a Master of Education degree from the University of Virginia in Charlottesville and a Master of Science, Pre-Medicine/Biology degree from North Carolina A & T State University in Greensboro. He also earned a Doctorate of Education in Curriculum/Instruction and Administration/Supervision from the University of Virginia.
“My dad loved education,” Grant said. “You couldn’t have a conversation with him without talking about education.”
Hylton died on May 13, and his family and friends gathered Saturday at G.W. Carver Elementary School to celebrate his life and legacy. They even toured his second-floor classroom.
That's where he started after his love of learning brought him back to Henry County, back to the same institution where teachers told him he wouldn’t amount to much. When he walked the halls of G.W. Carver High School in the 1950s and 60s, it was as a teacher.
“First, he got that education. Then, he started giving it back to the same poor kids in the neighborhood where he grew up,” Grant said. “He wanted to give them a different message.”
Speaking positively to students about their potential, Hylton sought out interactive learning methods for his biology and chemistry classes. The teacher developed an idea for a student science fair.
Preparing for the big event – which grew larger and larger each year – Hylton often took students on field trips to the old DuPont plant, where they learned about nylon production.
When the day for the anticipated science fair arrived each year, a panel of judges scoured the displays and made their top selections.
“He wanted all of his students to do something to be able to showcase their talents and the things they had learned in his class,” Grant said.
The winner received an opportunity to compete at the Virginia State Fair, with the hope of obtaining a scholarship.
Grant said she was too young, at the time, to recall if any Carver students ever won one of the converted Virginia State Fair scholarships, but she said she hoped they did.
After 14 years at Carver and one year at Bassett High School, Hylton moved on to other endeavors, which still focused on education.
One of Hylton’s greatest achievements occurred when he worked as a conciliator, mediator and educational specialist for the United States Department of Justice. Hylton assisted more than 40 states with the immediate goal of desegregating schools, which as mandated by federal law.
Hylton conducted several hundred seminars related to desegregation, educational equity and staff development.
“He would go throughout the country holding classes and developing plans on how to integrate schools,” Grant said. “He would teach teachers how to integrate classrooms. He wasn’t just desegregating schools; he was desegregating minds. It became his life goal.”
Other major accomplishments include creating programs for troubled schools across Virginia to help disadvantaged children finish high school attend college, GED and self-reliance programs for at-risk mothers and grandmothers in several public housing communities in Richmond City and the development of several Adopt-A-School programs.
Hylton also worked with many Virginia municipalities to reduce suspensions, expulsions and discipline problems while promoting positive self-esteem, achievement and attendance. In appreciation for his numerous efforts, the Richmond Virginia Seminary conferred upon him the Doctor of Laws, Honoris Causa, in recognition of Hylton’s dedication to humanity as an outstanding educator and teacher.
Coming from humble beginnings – including working through college to pay his tuition – Hylton championed learners despite their economic or societal dispositions. He set up two scholarships – one at the Maryland-Eastern Shore and the other at the New College Institute in Martinsville – for those with a desire to attend college but not the resources.
Fully funded, these scholarships will continue for years to come, despite Hylton’s passing on May 13.
“Any student who receives that scholarship, hopefully, will learn who he was and what he was about,” Grant said. “To pay it forward and impact another child’s life in the same was that he did theirs would be the greatest legacy the recipient could pay to my dad. Get that degree, then do it for someone else.”