Alton D. Scales found his passion in higher education, but not before battling racial intolerance and a learning disability along the way
By Lee Rasizer, Public Relations Coordinator
The summer heat of Amarillo, Texas, was reason enough to force a junior-high aged Alton D. Scales to slow his pace. Trying to keep up running the blacktop with a brother eight years his senior, and a professional athlete playing in the National Football League no less, was another built-in excuse.
The distance between them could be measured not in steps but car lengths. One. Two. Many. A deficit of a few steps quickly turned into a half-block swathe of failure.
Accepting the inevitable would have been understandable; a pat on the head for effort’s sake enough of a consolation to finish.
But by the following June, with the sun no less brutal, and his brother in no less peak physical condition, the gap had disappeared. Hurles, Jr., had the youngest of five Scales siblings suddenly on his hip. He would invite friends older than even he was to train. The teenager went full blast by many of them.
“This kind of activity went on for years and years,” Alton Scales recalled.
And not just while wearing sneakers.
It wasn’t that Alton Scales had managed to sprint from Point A to Point B but what it had taken to get there that revealed his character.
It’s been a consistent axis of evolution throughout his life: from racism to justice; from dyslexia to rabid reader; from engineering to higher education; and from Amarillo to Aurora, where he takes over in a few weeks as the college’s new president.
There was even a life-altering pit stop at a Cracker Barrel restaurant, but that’s a whole different tale.
“I believe I’ve had a very rich life,” Scales said.
It began in a neighborhood that wasn’t just predominantly African-American but nearly segregated entirely, until the late 1960s when integration intervened.
Mom, Frankie, was a cook for prominent individuals that ranked among the state’s richest men, oil tycoon T. Boone Pickens and Amarillio National Bank executive Charles T. Ware. Dad, Hurles Sr., worked in claims for Santa Fe Railroad. But with a spread of 18 years between his oldest sibling, Mozell, and Hurles Jr. eight years his senior, Alton spent most of his formative years as an only child in execution if not reality.
Where his three sisters inherited clothing, Alton didn’t. Where money used to be divided in a socialist manner among several mouths to feed, Alton reaped the spoils of having his brother and sisters move out of the house to live their lives.
And, even though neither of his parents attended college, their sacrifices ensured all of the next generation of Scales children would further their education.
Early on, the exposure to white America that Alton experienced was indirect, brought to the home, in part, from the upper-crust existence his mother ensured daily in her job.
Books filled the shelves. Poor grammar was picked apart.
“When my mom died, one of the things the pastor talked about was he would visit my house as a teenager and he always saw on the table a tablecloth, and when we had dinner the table was set up like you were at a restaurant.” Scales said. “Those are things I grew up with.”
A less welcome companion was intolerance. His school closed in the third grade in ’68 and he was forced to switch schools. Scales was bussed to Emerson Elementary School in Amarillo, and if he hadn’t noticed that he was different than his classmates, where he was now in the minority, the message was hammered home anyway.
“I remember not understanding racism, having no idea what it was, and having to deal with it, thinking individuals were just mean.”
Soon after switching schools, Scales’ own behavior was called into question. His father listened intently as the charges against Alton of disrespectful conduct toward his teacher were raised in the principal’s office. His father wasn’t about to tolerate interrupting class. But he was fair-minded, too; always willing to hear two sides before judging.
Turns out, the teacher in question addressed everyone else in the class by their given names. For Alton, he recalled, “It was, ‘Hey, you,’ and ‘Boy’ …”
Hurles Scales, Sr., insisted the teacher enter the conversation. Alton still remembers the door shutting and sitting outside while that meeting took place.
“From that point on, I had a very different experience,” he added.
His father’s handling of that incident, and others, shaped his views on social justice that he carries today.
Hurles Sr. had experienced racism overtly in a much broader way throughout his lifetime but didn’t hoist that burden upon his children. He instead helped set the family’s moral compass.
Later on in life, when a professor at the University of North Texas consistently gave the younger Scales substandard grades for top-tier work, he helped prove that he was being treated unfairly by surreptitiously turning in the own professor’s welding job and receiving a grade of 70.
Scales would later as an employee of the college confront that professor’s supervisor to share his experiences and was told that there had been inklings of racist treatment for years but never tangible proof. His presentation of evidence truncated the teacher’s remaining days at the school.
“I do believe it shapes you,” Scales said of his childhood experiences. “The question is, does it make you bitter? … My father aided me in helping me move beyond those things. And part of the wisdom he imparted was that it was less about me and more about them and that those individuals suffered from an illness that I can’t take ownership of.”
Scales admits that the anger he experienced from racial bias and the fear he later felt as a teenager of seeing a policeman in his rear-view mirror could have dragged him down. But instead it served to shape his views on justice, which he tries to incorporate into his dealings today.
“I do believe in things being fair and equitable. And I do believe if you ever watch children in the classroom or on the playground, they look for fair treatment. ‘You didn’t do that when Johnny did. ...’ So we all want it.”
When it came to his own education, Alton Scales didn’t do things in a manner much like anyone else that he knew.
His mind processed information like a carbon copy of the spoken word and used that knack for memorization to his advantage.
He listened to the great works of Shakespeare and Homer’s “The Illiad” on tape instead of poring through the printed word. Scales stood outside of lecture halls -- and queried exiting students -- to get a sense of whether college faculty used the material they taught aloud on tests. He even went so far as to match the number of students reading aloud to the paragraphs in books so he could figure out his jumping-off point when called upon by the teacher and review the passage he’d be asked to recite prior to his oral delivery.
Scales just wasn’t aware that there was a tangible reason behind his distinct methodology until a name was affixed to it, while attending graduate school at North Texas.
A segment on the newsmagazine “60 Minutes” was the breakthrough alerting him that there was a sort of madness behind his method.
“They were talking about me,” recalled Scales, who confirmed the link in a phone conversation with his brother shortly after the broadcast. “The things that I took for granted were unusual.”
But in this case, knowledge wasn’t exactly power. Scales considered the diagnosis internally but kept it quiet. He continued to get lesson plans on tape mailed to him from his sister as he’d done before because she knew he learned so well from the auditory.
“I was silent about it. I didn’t talk about it,” Scales remembered. “I was thinking on the front end like, ‘This isn’t good.’ I didn’t want to be labeled.”
But one day, Scales watched a fellow student struggling and witnessed the telltale signs of masking the problem that he’d executed so completely over the years.
“I knew we were alike,” Scales related. “So one day I asked him, ‘Are you dyslexic?’ He went immediately into a defensive posture. I said, ‘Look, I am, too,’ and then he opened up. That was the first time I admitted it to anyone other than my brother.”
It cracked the door to his eventually spreading the word about what occurs when the brain does not properly recognize and process certain symbols, and its impact.
“In sharing with the guy I saw the power of me sharing, and the more I shared, the less of a dirty secret it felt, and then to a point where sharing it is not an issue.”
He also sought out the available resources and received the support that helped him succeed.
The resourcefulness it took to thrive with a reading disability in the mainstream infiltrated his views on effective teaching once he joined the educational realm. What makes one student successful may not work for another. He was living proof.
“It’s part of why I believe I’m a really good problem solver,” said Scales, who reads often and frequently listens to audio books to keep his mind sharp. “I just look at things fundamentally different. I see patterns. I see trends.”
But some things occur less intentionally.
Scales wanted to play trumpet but never learned. He instead chose athletics, ended up running the 4x100 sprint relay and 110-meter hurdles in college, and, at age 47, took up the drums at the behest of a local jazz great in Pennsylvania after representing Edinboro University at a music performance.
He still plays behind his kit at local haunts and special celebrations.
Scales used to read slam poetry alongside the likes of future Grammy winner Erykah Badu at the Black Cultural Center in Dallas. Never did he imagine that he’d eventually take the medium to Colorado Mountain College, where Scales most recently served as chief executive officer in Dillon and Breckenridge.
Even his career in higher education came as an offshoot of a totally different plan. Angling for a job connection in the engineering field, he grudgingly accepted a position at North Texas’ intercultural learning center, only to find himself enamored with teaching. The presidency of CCA, which begins July 23, comes nearly 30 years after his intentions changed. That library in which he had his very first job in the field now bears his name at North Texas.
“Years later my father said he always knew I was an educator,” Scales said. “I guess you know your kids.”
But never was the randomness of the universe so gleefully played out than, of all places, that Cracker Barrel restaurant in Pueblo, Colo., about five years ago.
Scales simply wanted a meal to offset the long trek he was taking to Texas. He came away with much more, thanks to a like-minded family and kismet.
Walking from his car into the restaurant, he acknowledged the gaze of an older gentleman, for whom he held the door. Those mundane events turned into an invitation to dine from the stranger, who had his wife and daughter in tow. Dinner conversation turned into Scales secretly picking up the tab and a straightforward exchange of cell numbers, since the family was, remarkably, traveling almost to an identical destination just outside Dallas and needed directional assistance.
“I thought that was it,” Scales recalled, “until he started playing matchmaker.”
A follow-up phone call from his dinner host occurred shortly thereafter, while on the way to a football game. Ernie Lawton put Scales on hold, making an excuse as he put his daughter, Jackie, on the phone.
“It was a total set up.”
Four years later, Jackie and Alton were married.
She’s a former engineer and -- just so the stars were in perfect alignment, ensconced in higher education.
Alton D. Scales laughs as he vows to make no Cracker Barrel stops while disembarking from the mountain community he’s called home since 2007.
Coming to CCA, where he’d visited even before the presidential interview process and two on-campus forums the last several months, instead is an attempt to feed his desire to consistently evolve professionally and personally.
“I felt it was the next step,” he said.
He’s spent the last several weeks kicking around in his mind his approach, and what to examine immediately after taking over. He knows there’s opportunities for growth, but can’t yet pin down the specifics.
But if his life ‘s journey has demonstrated anything, it’s that he’ll put everything he can into getting up to speed with exceptional effort and creative thought.
After all, a new ‘Point A’ awaits.
CAPTIONS: Alton D. Scales is an eclectic individual who reads poetry for fun, collects antiques, drums as a hobby and once ran track competitively as a 110-meter hurdler. He took up the drums at age 47 and after ditching his kit, decided to continue as a musician. Scales could be found playing in jazz and rock bands during his time in the Breckenridge/Dillon area. Bottom photo, Scales observes a class at Colorado Mountain College, where he was chief executive officer since 2007 before accepting the president’s position at Community College of Aurora.