As a young student attending Prairie View A&M University during the turbulent late '60s, David L. Brewer III had a singular confidence in his abilities: He was "the rare one," he told his dormitory mates, a little bit different than others and perhaps destined for great things.
It is instructive, said his friends, that while some may have thought him cocky, no one thought he was joking. That confidence and strong sense of self are likely to be put to the test soon as Brewer goes about the task of managing and reforming the Los Angeles Unified School District.
Brewer's selection Thursday as the new superintendent of the nation's second-largest school district was in many ways a gamble for the board.
A long-serving military commander, Brewer has no experience in school administration. But in interviews Friday, Brewer, his family and friends all emphasized how his love and respect for education infuse every aspect of his life.
Both his parents were educators, as is his wife, Richardene, or "Deanie," a middle school teacher. In 1999, he founded the David and Mildred Brewer Foundation, named after his mother and father, to provide scholarships for African American students.
"I'm a third-generation college graduate," Brewer said. "My grandparents went to Tuskegee. My aunts and uncles went to college, my parents went to college -- education was understood. There was never any question or doubt that that was what I was going to do. I didn't have to have the epiphany."
Brewer is medium height, lean and looks younger than his 60 years. A fitness aficionado, he rises at 5:30 a.m. to hit the weight room and treadmill. And even in exercise there are lessons to be learned, for in Brewer's estimation, a sound body makes a sound mind.
He is described as thoughtful, deliberate and unflaggingly confident, but with a warm humanity that can bring together people at odds. He can reel off the self-help and motivational books that have informed his philosophy -- books such as "How Good People Make Tough Choices" -- and in the next breath regale listeners with a story about the time years ago when the Brewer family appeared on the game show "Family Feud."
As a Navy vice admiral and chief of the Military Sealift Command, he was in charge of providing combat supplies for troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and support for victims of the Asian tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. But he also found time to visit classrooms, colleagues say, to give pep talks to youngsters about staying in school and keeping out of gangs.
"He had a passion for working with and educating children that wasn't really in the job description," said his former chief of staff, retired Capt. Michael Seifert. "He would go to various schools and talk to children -- with his own formula for success: Good habits plus goals minus drugs equals success -- and he would proceed to embellish and ad lib," Seifert said. "He will bring leadership and the experience of being able to work with diverse groups, and he will be able to absolutely relate to students."
One of his Navy functions was as vice chief of the Education and Training Command, which supported sailors' academic and personal development. As head of the Sealift Command, he was chief executive of a $3.1-billion enterprise and managed a fleet of 120 ships worldwide. According to Seifert, the admiral racked up more than 1 million frequent flier miles in his travels.
All of that likely impressed the school board members who chose him, but what really stood out were his "warmth, humanness and passion," board President Marlene Canter said. "The thing that blew us away, that I was looking for, this man is a convener, a collaborator, and we need that now at this point in time."
Brewer was born May 19, 1946, in Farmville, Va., and raised in Orlando, Fla. As a black youngster in the segregated South, he endured taunts because of his color. But he was also a child of privilege. His paternal grandparents graduated from Tuskegee Institute in 1913, taught by its founder, Booker T. Washington. His parents met at Tuskegee, and both became teachers -- his mother, a home economics major, taught in elementary schools for 40 years. His father taught "commercial dietetics" (cooking as a profession) in high school. A building at Jones High School in Orlando was named after him. He died last year.
"David 3," as Mildred Brewer calls him, "had everything a child would desire" growing up in Orlando. "He was brought up in an intelligent, educational environment ... very morally," she said.
They had so many books in their home when he grew up that friends and neighbors used to send their children to the house to do homework because it was like a library.
Today he is still a voracious reader, Deanie Brewer said. "That's about the only real hobby he has. That and watching football," she said.