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How 2 Siblings Became College Presidents

From The HistoryMakers series, how King V. Cheek Jr. and brother James Cheek came to lead HBCUs.

King V. Cheek Jr. (Courtesy of The HistoryMakers)

This is the second installment of our collaboration with the "Back to School With The HistoryMakers" event on Friday, Sept. 23, when some 500 renowned African Americans -- from Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to Common -- will speak at schools around the country.

King V. Cheek Jr. and James Cheek represent a rarity: brothers who both served as presidents of major universities. Each was, for a time, president of Shaw University in Raleigh, N.C. James Cheek, who died in 2010, also spent 21 years as president of Howard University. Here, his younger brother King, who also led Morgan State University in Baltimore, talks about his life and evolution as an educational leader.

My family hails from North Carolina. Our parents instilled a respect for education in each of their five children. Great things were expected of us. But no one could foresee that my brother James and I would grow up to lead some of the major educational institutions in the land.

We were about five years apart in age. He was a big brother, and in my family, little brothers always looked up to big brothers, except at a point in time when you consider yourself a peer. I don't hesitate in saying I learned a lot from him.

I was named after my father, King Virgil Cheek Sr. He was a Baptist minister. My father was a very proud person who wanted to care for his family in ways that being the minister of a small Baptist church would not allow. So he worked with the Railway Express Agency most of his working years. My mother is Lee Ella Williams Cheek. She was a schoolteacher and later became an insurance broker. She was the first licensed black female insurance broker in North Carolina.

Mother was very serious, but my father laughed at a lot at what I call the ridiculous dimensions of the world. He told jokes, and he was really loved by everybody. Our family included four boys and one girl. My brother James was the eldest son, and I was the third son. As we grew up, we had certain rules about how we had to help each other. The person above had to reach back and be responsible for the one behind him. That was fun. At times, I think, we considered it a chore. But looking back, it was a very nourishing experience.

For our family, a typical day started with chores and ended with chores because we were a very self-sufficient family. We had a wood-burning stove. So we all had to cut wood. We had a garden, so we all had to till our little plot of ground.

We also had work to do around the house. We read the Bible. On Sunday mornings, for example, it was more than just a ritual. It was a period of family prayer. We spent time in the living room around a fireplace, listening to my father and mother talk with us about life.

For me personally, growing up was a little frustrating because I really was not considered normal. I was technically branded as retarded. The community and, to some extent, I think, even my parents questioned whether I had all my faculties because I had a tongue-tied physical deficiency, and I could not speak until I was 6 or 7 years old.

And when you can't talk, people simply assume there's something wrong with your head. I have congenital cataracts, which don't really bother me. That contributed to what was perceived as an abnormality because I didn't have glasses at the time. I didn't bother letting anybody know that I really had difficulty seeing. I just decided it wasn't their business. So I just ignored it and dealt with it in my way.