Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett County Public Schools Board of Education Chairwoman Louise Radloff talks with Deputy Superintendent Dr. Gale Hey and Chief Human Resources Officer Dr. Frances Davis prior to a recent meeting at the Instructional Support Center in Suwanee. Radloff has served on the board for 40 years.
NORCROSS — It’s winter 1944 in southern Ontario. Snow falls, piling up around a modest farm home.
Inside the kitchen, the heavy scent of sausage, eggs, potatoes and bacon hangs in the air as children huddle around a large coal stove, rubbing their hands together.
A bright-eyed 9-year-old with reddish-blonde hair appears in the doorway. Her younger siblings snap to attention as she enters.
The girl moves about the room assisting the youngest of her brothers and foster siblings as they put on layer after layer of clothing to shield against the unrelenting cold.
She glances at the clock and says it’s time to go. All file out the door to begin the daily two-mile walk to the bus stop, followed by a 50-mile ride to school on a Greyhound-style bus.
Looking back, nearly 70 years later, Louise Radloff doesn’t recall ever being told that it was her job to keep the family together on the ice-cold, hourlong walk, or to make sure all siblings had their purple bus tickets in hand.
“It was something that was never said to me,” she recalled during a recent interview. “It was just assumed, and I stepped up to the plate and did it.”
Whether it meant prodding her siblings out the door on school mornings, fixing their lunches the night before, starting supper for the family, milking the cows, weeding the garden, churning butter or feeding the farm animals, Radloff said she tackled each task as if it were her job.
“As kids, there was an expectation that we would be part of the team to work to do whatever had to be done,” she said.
Such a mindset, Radloff said, has served her well in the realm of public service.
The 77-year-old native of Canada was re-elected to the Gwinnett County Board of Education in November after switching parties and running as a Democrat. Recently, she started her 11th term. This month marks her 40th year on the local school board, an entity which oversees policies that affect nearly 165,000 local children.
Radloff’s interest in the welfare of Gwinnett County students, however, started small.
‘Nobody would elect a foreigner’
Radloff’s father was originally from Kilkenny, Ireland, and her mother was from Liverpool, England. Her father moved to Canada, chasing a land grant. Raised as “very, very rigid Catholics,” she, two brothers and four foster siblings grew up in Pickering, Ontario, on their father’s small tomato farm, where they sold produce to Campbell’s Soup.
The family took in foster children at the behest of a spiritual leader at their local Catholic Church. Radloff and her siblings remained at the farm until she was 15 years old: about the time her parents moved to the United States.
Several years later, Radloff too picked up and moved to the U.S., where she met future husband, Dick. At the time he had recently been discharged from the U.S. Navy and was working for Western Electric. Radloff was employed by the Bell System.
Their careers led them to Atlanta, and later Norcross, where they settled with their children. In the early ’70s, she enrolled them in Norcross Elementary School.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, what have I done?’” Radloff said, recalling the day she first walked into the school building. “The overall facility was very nasty. There was no air conditioning, no custodians and inadequate textbooks ... education was just not a priority. There were good people there. Good, hardworking people, but it was not a priority.”
Dilapidated, unsafe playground equipment was one of the most appalling things she’d ever seen. Radloff said she could not, in good conscience, allow her children or any others to scamper around on such shoddily-constructed gear.
She put together a cupcake fundraiser and made enough money to buy lumber. Volunteers borrowed construction equipment from Norcross High School. They rented a truck to cart the lumber and built a brand-new playground for the students of Norcross Elementary School. With money left over from the cupcake sale, they also bought a piano for the school.
But problems at Norcross Elementary didn’t stop with worn out recreational equipment. There weren’t enough chairs at the school to accommodate students and parents. The walls of the boys’ bathroom were “nasty, unsanitary.” The list went on and on.
“It was a different world,” Radloff said. “When I look at the school system today and look at it back then, it’s hard to believe. It really bothered me to see a school in such a state of disrepair.”
One day Radloff got a visit from a neighbor who lived down the street.
“He and another man came to see me, and he said something that really stuck with me,” she said. “He told me, ‘All this time you and your husband are putting into that school — tutoring, mentoring and painting bathrooms — you might as well get involved with the process.’”
In 1972, Radloff announced her bid for the Gwinnett County Board of Education.
“It was a very interesting time,” she said. “People were really talking. They were saying, ‘she’s only been around the county for a short while, and she’s a foreigner, and she’s a female.’ People swore up and down that nobody would elect a foreigner.”
It turned out not everyone felt that way.
‘When something’s right, it’s right’
A longtime friend and colleague to Radloff, Sis Henry is executive director of the Georgia School Board Association. Henry has nothing but good things to say about the longtime association member.
“Louise is absolutely committed to public education,” Henry said. “Her heart is in it.”
Woody Woodruff, another longtime friend and colleague, agreed.
“That’s the thing that really drives her ... her passion,” said Woodruff, who is a volunteer with the school district and serves on the superintendent’s council of community advisors as well as the GCPS Foundation. “She loves kids. She genuinely loves children.”
Woodruff said it’s ingrained in the woman’s DNA.
“When this gig is done, there’s no retirement for her,” Woodruff said. “You have people in this world who do things because they love them, and I think she is the epitome of that.”
Connie Wiggins, executive director of Gwinnett Clean and Beautiful, said it’s all part of the woman’s selfless nature.
“With her, it has never been about ‘How will it benefit Louise Radloff?’” said Wiggins, who has worked with Radloff for many years. “She listens, she speaks her mind and whether you agree with her or not you always know that she is doing her best to consider what’s best for kids in the community.”
Woodruff said Radloff, indeed, is not one to mince words.
“She speaks her mind almost to her own detriment sometimes,” Woodruff said. “Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to hear what she thinks about it. She can also be stubborn to a fault. When she latches onto something, she’s like a bulldog. She won’t let it go.”
He said he sees it during the council of community advisors — a group that meets regularly with the superintendent, which is comprised of parents, community members and business leaders.
“(Superintendent J. Alvin) Wilbanks would probably tell you the same about Mrs. Radloff,” Woodruff said. “The two of them can get stubborn together in those meetings, but they do it in a good way. They argue for what’s best for Gwinnett County’s students.”
Radloff is well aware of her often tenacious zeal for sticking to her guns.
“I know superintendents over the years have smiled and laughed, and they know where I’m coming from, but the truth is I tend to tell them what I think,” Radloff said. “They know that I’m saying it with the right attitude. I’m not being vindictive or mean. I just want whatever matter that is before us taken care of. Do it. Just do whatever it takes.”
Added Radloff: “When something’s right, it’s right, and when it’s wrong, have the backbone to say it’s wrong.”
As the District 5 representative and the current chairman of the Gwinnett County Board of Education, Radloff represents all or portions of the Berkmar, Duluth, Meadowcreek and Norcross clusters in addition to GIVE West, Gwinnett School of Math, Science and Technology, Maxwell High School of Technology and New Life Academy of Excellence.
A look at her calendar offers a glimpse into her daily routine. The dog-eared pages are filled with scrawled notes jammed between the confines of each day of the week. Items include appearances at schools, visits with parents, teachers, students and constituents throughout the community.
But that’s just her day job.
Since the start, she has been an advocate for special education in the realm of public education. In the late ’70s, she was directly involved with the founding of the first Oakland Center School, which is now called Oakland Meadow.
The school serves special education needs of students aged 3-21, who have deficits in cognitive and motor development.
When she talks about special education, Radloff tries to keep her emotions in check, but her eyes swell with tears. “These are absolutely beautiful children,” she said.
She was one of the few involved with founding the state’s mental health association. She is also a volunteer with Gwinnett Juvenile Court.
Said Radloff: “If the average citizen could see what goes on in the lives of those children, it’s shocking. The things that have been done to kids there are...sad.”
On the weekend, she oversees an English for Speakers of Other Languages program, which she and others started. It boasts a following of hundreds, many of whom struggle financially.
The group meets every Sunday, and Radloff and volunteers teach and feed them.
Her hard work and devotion to the community has not gone unnoticed among leaders in Gwinnett. They appreciate it so much, that they’ve named two buildings after her: Louise Radloff Middle School, which opened in 2004, and the Louise Radloff Administrative Health Complex, which opened in 2006.
In addition. Meadowcreek High School’s National Honor Society bears her name as well as the Gwinnett Federal Credit Union Scholarship. Radloff’s accolades number in the hundreds. Recently, Radloff was one of five nationwide honored in Washington, D.C., as a 2012 National Mother of Achievement for American Mothers.
On May 25, 1994, the Georgia General Assembly declared the day “Louise Radloff Day.”
Colleagues say she deserves it — all of it — for the positive change she’s made in the lives of countless children.
“She’s the ultimate multi-tasker,” Woodruff said. “If it’s in her power and it has anything to do with helping the children of Gwinnett County, she’s on top of it.” Woodruff often refers to the woman as a “red-headed whirlwind.”
Wiggins said that among the communities Radloff serves, she has another nickname: “St. Louise ... she is the epitome of someone who has a servant’s heart.”
‘Just get up and do it’
One might ask how she finds time to accomplish so much.
“I don’t sleep a lot,” she said, laughing. In all truth, she generally gets about five hours of sleep, but not before running four miles on the treadmill every night before bed.
Daily exercise, she said, “energizes you. It keeps you younger. It keeps you mentally alert.”
She said she leads a disciplined life and has a self-described “exceptional work ethic” because “that’s just the way I am.”
Added Radloff: “I think I learned that on the farm, as a young child. My mother and father never said to me: ‘You have chores.’ But I knew because my mother was working and my father was working ... that it was on me to do the same.”
Despite the family’s best efforts, she said, much of her childhood was spent in poverty.
“I didn’t know we were poor,” she said. “It just wasn’t a word we used. We had food: tomatoes, all kinds of vegetables my father grew. On Christmas day, as a gift, I got an orange.”
The holiday was often a tough one for her. “I didn’t like Christmas as a kid, because I was always embarrassed. In the convent I attended, most of the girls got nice gifts, and I didn’t really get anything, and it always made me want to cringe.”
But a hard life at a young age helped her, she said. “I developed a good work ethic because I knew things had to be done. I knew my parents were working, and I knew the foster kids needed to be taken care of ... and in that situation, you just did it. You shouldn’t have to be told to take care of your family and those you love and those you care about. You just get up and do it.”
As Radloff begins her 11th term on the Gwinnett County Board of Education — the second longest number of terms consecutively served by a member of any board of education in the state of Georgia — she likes to think back to her childhood and those snowy mornings walking to school.
It was essential, Radloff felt, that she help her brothers and foster siblings make it out the front door in time to catch the bus, which they rode for two hours on their way to school.
“Getting an education seemed like such an important goal for everyone. I knew it when I was a little girl,” Radloff said. “And I still believe it.”