Edith Hilliard was a full-time working mom struggling to keep things together with three children, limited money, and no free time when she remembers former East High Principal Milt McPike coming to her house to give a full-performance review on her son.
“I thought that was incredible. It was really nice for me because I was an extremely busy working mom – and Milt new that. For me, to get off during the day was difficult. I would lose pay and time and everything,” Hilliard tells Madison365. “Milt said he could come to my house and give me a review of my son. I really appreciated that. I don’t think many principals would ever do that kind of thing. But that’s the kind of guy Milt was. He just took personal responsibility.”
Hilliard was the winner of the 2007 Dane County Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Recognition Award, the annual award given to individuals who have made outstanding and significant contributions in the spirit of brotherhood, sisterhood and harmony toward making Madison an ideal place in which to live. That very same year, McPike was the City of Madison 2007 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Humanitarian Award winner. They were both honored at the annual MLK City-County Observance.
“It was very special to share the stage and the spotlight with Milt at the Overture Center that night,” remembers Hilliard.
“He changed the way things were done at East and we won national awards. I think that was because Milt didn’t just take it as a day-to-day job… it was so much more,” Hilliard adds. “East was part of his life. There was such a passion there. The kids had respect for him and they wanted to see changes made. If the kids don’t care and they don’t want to see anything changed, then nothing happens. But when you have somebody that you really feel cares about you and cares about the atmosphere of the school … when the kids really feel that, that’s what makes a difference. That’s where the excellency comes.”
McPike was an inspiring and visionary leader who took a racially and economically mixed school and turned it into a true learning community. So much so, that the U.S. Department of Education named East a National High School of Excellence in 1989.
“Milt’s legacy was that he strived for excellence in everything he did. He had a passion for learning and he just oozed that passion out on his students,” Hilliard says. “He let them know how important it was to have an education. He was a big, tall, strong man … but he had a soft heart.”
McPike was born Oct. 9, 1939, in Jacksonville, Illinois. He played high school football with boxer Ken Norton and would go on to attend Northeast Missouri State University Teacher’s College (now Truman State University) from 1958 to 1962. While there, he earned 12 letters in basketball, track and football.
In 1962, McPike was a 12th-round draft pick by the San Francisco 49ers. Following his NFL experience, McPike taught and coached sports for 11 years in Quincy, Illinois. He came to Madison in 1974 and was vice principal at Madison West until landing the head principal job at Madison East in 1979.
The former professional football player was a large man and enormous physical presence, but his passion for students and education was even larger.
“I remember the first time I met him in 1982 … it was at school. My first impression of him was ‘This guy is going to be a wonderful principal at this school,’” says Hilliard. “Some of the things he did, I had never seen before. And he had a relationship with the male students at the school that was incredible.”
Hilliard herself graduated from Madison East High in 1966. All of her children and grandchildren went to East. Hilliard’s daughter Holly graduated in 1986, daughter Monica graduated in 1987 and son Nimrod graduated in 1993. “All of my children loved him,” she says. “But Milt had a wonderful relationship with the black males at the school and they had a lot of respect – I mean a lot of respect – for him.”
The east side of Madison has always had an undoubtedly working class flavor to it and that was reflected in the students at East High which also had some richer kids from Maple Bluff and some poorer kids from nearby low-income areas mixed in, too.
But socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity — those things didn’t matter to McPike as he helped completely turn around the racial tension, bad reputation and declining enrollment that plagued East High in the ’70s before he got there. He was able to bring all of the students together around a strong sense of “East Side Pride.”
What exactly is East Side Pride? “Well, you know, us Eastsiders and East High School … we’re proud of our school. We have such fantastic alumni there. Myself, I’m coming up on 50 years!” Hilliard says. “East Side Pride is not something that’s easy to explain but it’s so evident that it is there. After all of these years, I still go to the games. I am still very active in what it going on in the high school. We’re very proud of East High School and we show it in many different ways.”
Six years after retiring in 2002, McPike passed away following a battle with adenocystic carcinoma on March 29, 2008. He was 68. “When he passed, it was such a loss. Such a loss,” Hilliard says. “When I heard the news, I was just devastated. His leadership at East was phenomenal. I was like, ‘Who in the world could ever take his place?’”
East High struggled post-McPike. It is not easy to replace a giant.
“They went through quite a few principals who didn’t make a different at East in the interim, but now they have a principal over there – [Mike] Hernandez – he reminds me of Milt McPike. I told him that,” Hilliard says. “He’s making a difference. He has the relationship with the kids that Milt did. He cares. It’s much more than a job for him. Like it was with Milt.”
McPike formed a relationship over the years when it came to the kids. “My own kids prospered very well underneath Milt’s leadership – especially my son Nimrod,” Hilliard says. “He just had a way of dealing with the kids; especially the young black males. He made a difference in their lives. My husband wasn’t in the picture, so Milt was that role model and father figure that made a huge difference.”
When it came to kids, McPike could be seen around East High joking and hugging them all time — while also always making sure they were focusing on their education. “And he had a particular signal for the boys. When he wanted them, he would raise up one finger and that meant, ‘come on over here to me.’” Hilliard recalled. “I remember when Milt and I both won the MLK Award and we were sitting down and he said to me, ‘Is my boy here?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll go get him.’ Milt said, ‘No,’ and he raised his hand and put one finger up and my son saw him and came to him. He had that respect. He was a big man but he had such a big heart.
“As parents, we always tell our kids, ‘Education is so important. You need to have a good education.’ But when it’s coming from somebody like Milt – the principal of the school who has excelled in so many different ways – and your children can see that every day, it makes such a difference,” Hilliard adds.
McPike, who was appointed by former Gov. Jim Doyle to serve on the UW Board of Regents from 2004-2008, was named one of ten “American Heroes in Education” by Reader’s Digest in 1990 and the Wisconsin State Principal of the Year in 1997.
“Milt felt a huge responsibility for every kid at his school,” Hilliard says. “He had a passion for excellence. He was so proud. He had that East Side Pride.”
“East High was his passion and the students could easily see that,” she adds. “He was a unique and amazing man. We may never see anyone like him again.”