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Black History Today: Gary Ladd II — Lifting a Powerful Legacy to New Heights

by Marcus Harden

(Black History Today is published in collaboration with Rise Up for Students.)

“Commitment is a big part of what I am and what I believe. How committed are you to winning? How committed are you to being a good friend? To being trustworthy? To being successful? How committed are you to being a good father, a good teammate, a good role model? There’s that moment every morning when you look in the mirror: Are you committed, or are you not?”

— LeBron James

Legacy is typically defined in the human construct as being what we leave behind for those who come after us — and what we inherit from the ones who came before us. It can be a gift but also, at times, a heavy load to bear.

For some, carrying on a legacy happens in name only. For others, it happens through our life’s purpose. For a few, like Gary Ladd II, it happens in both, and they find their legacy intertwined like links on a chain with the generations on either side of them.

Gary Ladd II is a true torch-bearer of what it means to carry on a legacy. His father, Gary Ladd Sr., is a genuine Pacific Northwest Legend — Seattle University Hall of Famer, drafted by the Seattle Supersonics, minister, barbershop owner, Seattle Public Schools instructional assistant, and father figure to so many. His mother, Gloria, was a bedrock elementary school teacher for more than 30 years, educating generations.

This is the legacy that courses through Gary Ladd II’s blood, and he doesn’t just carry it but pushes it forward.

Gary Ladd (Photo courtesy of Gary Ladd)

Gary was a standout athlete himself at Rainier Beach High School, and he would go on to Olympic College to study and play. Yet his torch-bearing became apparent upon returning home and sharing the gifts passed down to him, his first order of business being to carry the legacy of serving with his father as a barber.

He’d then follow those large footsteps even further, becoming an educator with Seattle Public Schools, spending most of his days working with the young students whom the system had all but given up on. In serving also as a liaison to understandably frustrated parents, Gary’s affable and calm nature soothed any and everyone without sacrificing anyone’s pursuit of justice.

As Gary carried on the mantle, he also began to carve out his own legacy, particularly as an adoring husband and proud father to three children. From Washington Middle School to Rainier Beach High School and all points in between, if you’re at the school house or overlapping with his family at an event, you will see Gary hanging not too far from an entrance, ready to meet and greet everyone with an enthusiastic, encouraging word and plenty of laughs.

Gary is a man I’ve looked up to since I was a kid. While we’re not that far apart in age now (Gary is quite possibly Blade — I’m pretty sure he never ages), when I was a little kid in elementary school, he was “a big kid.” (His brother and I were the best of friends — we even had matching turtlenecks in a picture that must burn.) For an only child like me, spending the night at the Ladds’ house was such an honor because his dad was a legend and there were so many kids! 

One thing the Ladds are notorious for are laughs, and sometimes those come in the form of practical jokes (hot sauce, chapstick, vaseline, water — any household item was game for amusement), especially on unsuspecting elementary students who’re spending the night. Suffice to say, when it was time to actually sleep, nerves took over — what was going to happen? As a young elementary kid I slowly drifted away, just knowing I was going to wake up with something spicy on my lips or something sticky slicking down my hair. I woke up in the morning to nothing, which was so hard to believe it was almost more unsettling.

I often wondered why I was spared. I remember later asking Gary, “Why didn’t y’all do anything to me?”

“Cause you’re chill,” Gary said with a little smirk. “But maybe next time.”

And then he flashed the same smile that everyone gets to see when they walk the school halls with him: one of reassurance — one that says, “No matter what, I’ve got your back, and it’s all in love.”

Gary embodies that role of human safety net, and he continues to build his own legacy of being the loudest supporter/hypeman/encourager as a husband, as a father, as a brother, as an uncle, as a coach, as a mentor, and as an educator. Gary’s contributions to his community could easily be overlooked, yet community legacies would truly be fuller and greater if we had more people like Gary Ladd II in the light and behind the scenes.

Gary’s “everyman” stature has been something I’ve studied and modeled my leadership practice after. As Rudyard Kipling once penned:

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, 

Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,

If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,

If all men count with you, but none too much;

If you can fill the unforgiving minute

With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, 

Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, 

And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Gary Ladd II is that King who never has lost the common touch. I have to believe his father, Gary Ladd Sr., is smiling down proudly, praising his beloved son for a job well done as he encourages him onward down the path of what it truly means to be Black History Today!

Marcus Harden is the creator of Black History Today, an annual series honoring Black History Month that pays tribute to the living legacy of Black history in our community and beyond. He is a seasoned educator with experience as a teacher, counselor, dean, administrator, and program and policy manager. Marcus focuses his work on creating better culture and climate for students, families, and staff. He believes deeply in restorative justice practices and in mindset and resiliency work that leads to excellent and equitable educational outcomes for all students.

Featured illustration by Devin Chicras for the Emerald.

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