Robert Summerville, a Mississippi native who spent decades in the Roosevelt community working in law enforcement and real estate, hosting a radio program, delivering home heating oil and capping his public service by leading the school board, died Saturday at home. He was 80.
Dedicated to his community, Summerville “worked up to his last days” to improve Roosevelt schools and especially remove the middle school from state receivership and shed its status as a “struggling” school, said Marnie Hazelton, Roosevelt school superintendent.
He attended a board meeting just nine days before dying. The family didn’t disclose the cause of death.
“He was so very, very excited when the state announced we were a district in good standing,” Hazelton said about the announcement, which was made in February and will be effective June 30.
Summerville was born in Bude, Mississippi, a town of just over 1,000 residents in the southwest corner of the state, on March 2, 1936, the only son of Arthur Summerville and Lee Hall. He attended Jackson State University, but relocated to New York where he also studied at Nassau Community College and New York University, where he received an associate degree in real estate, a family spokesman said.
He lived in Roosevelt more than 50 years. He worked for a decade in law enforcement and went on to become involved in the community in a variety of ways. He ran an oil-delivery business and chimney service for years while hosting a local radio program, said Tonio Simmons, who worked for Summerville in both enterprises and called him a “great boss.”
He was active with numerous groups, including the Roosevelt NAACP, Roosevelt Chamber of Commerce, Long Island Progressive Coalition, Black Farmers Association, New York Civil Liberties Union and Roosevelt Watch Society.
Summerville perhaps is best known for his work on the school board, where he served off and on for 17 years and for a long stint was the board’s lone elected member after the district fell under state control. All the others were state-appointed, leaving him the only locally chosen voice on the panel. During that time, Roosevelt slowly fought its way back, garnering a $14 million state bailout in 2007 to address the district’s debt and raise its per-pupil spending.
He would “sit back and listen” to others’ opinions but would be “very direct” when it was his turn, said school board Vice President Willa Scott.
“He was always a strong advocate, very passionate about his community,” Scott said. Nearly every Summerville inquiry began with the same question, she said: “How will this help our children?”
“When something bothered him, he could confront it head on,” Hazelton said. “Then, he would say: I’m sorry for yelling.’”
But his sometimes gruff demeanor was a reflection of his concern.
Eight years ago when she was in charge of school grants, Hazelton said she made a presentation that Summerville “ripped” apart because he questioned whether it would withstand scrutiny. Unnerved a bit, she went to her car, sat down and closed her eyes for a moment. She heard a soft tap on the window.
“He wanted to see if I was all right,” Hazelton said.
Later, to help her footing as superintendent, Summerville organized a retreat where she could hear from the successful Long Island school leaders to see what worked in other districts.
“I would not have been able to do this job without the support of Mr. Summerville,” Hazelton said.
A memorial celebrating Summerville’s life is Friday at John N. Moore Funeral Home Inc., 150 Nassau Rd., in Roosevelt. Viewings are from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. and the funeral service is from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.