Paul Harrell, A Man Who Gave His Heart to Kids

November 12th, 2020

Category: Early Childhood Education, News

Paul Hooker Harrell Jr. passed away last week. See his obituary here. He was a good man in every sense of the word.

Paul was one of the first people I met when I arrived in Delaware in 2004. He had left his successful work in the textile business in New York and when I met him, he was using his business acumen and amazing rapport with people to make a difference in the nonprofit sector. When I first met him he was on the Rodel board and working to launch Social Venture Partners, an effort to support our youngest learners in some of Delaware’s poorest communities. His passion and energy was boundless. (Note that while that effort ran its course by 2011, the pioneers who launched it helped lay the foundation for the massive shifts in early childhood education we see today.)

Over time, he helped drive dozens of efforts to improve the lives of Delaware’s children, particularly those for whom the playing field was not level. When Jack Markell became Governor in 2009, he asked Paul to build new bridges between the public and private sectors, and he did just that. He played an essential role in the implementation of Race to the Top, a federal investment of $119 million to improve our schools. This was a massive and complex endeavor to get off the ground and when the politics got tight or went sideways, Paul was the one who got things back on track.

He also led several big initiatives, from leading the early childhood council and moving over $70 million in state and federal investment to support the healthy development of Delaware’s youngest learners. He played a pivotal role in the launch of Teach For America, an effort to get strong teachers and leaders into our highest need schools. And his swan song in the last decade was working with Tony Alleyne to stand up Delaware College Scholars (DCS), a non-profit that supports predominantly first-generation college goers get ready for and into the colleges of their choice. This effort just wouldn’t have happened without him.

Many might not know his name, but tens of thousands of Delaware’s kids are better off because of his passion and drive.

He was a longstanding board member and board chair of Rodel. He was a great chair. I loved our breakfast meetings at the Kozy Korner on Union Street, where they all knew his name and where he’d always get “the usual.” We’d catch up on our kids (and his grandkids), and usually find time to sort out a little business. He was someone you wanted in your foxhole. For example, when the recession hit and we had to make big cuts, he was my sounding board.

More importantly, he was my friend. He didn’t hold back if he disagreed with me, but he always did it with thoughtfulness and compassion. He often completely flipped my opinion on something after he mesmerized me with his southern drawl and a perfect story to make his point. Most of all, I’ll miss his laugh. His face would get bright red, his eyes would sparkle, and when he laughed it was like a raspy, volcanic eruption with his whole body. Makes me smile thinking of it now.

Paul did what a lot of us strive for. He not only lived a good life, but a meaningful one.

God bless you Paul and to your family and friends, we’re thinking of you.

Paul Herdman



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