By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published April 30, 2015
ATLANTA—Jeannie Byrd was a single mother of two young sons when she moved to Georgia 40 years ago.
Byrd worked in the field of social work and was determined to provide sons Marlon and Carlton a Catholic education for as long as possible.
“It was a no-brainer,” said Byrd about the boys’ schooling.
As Mother’s Day approaches, the Byrd brothers are expressing gratitude for their mom and the education they received.
Carlton Byrd, 51, a retired DeKalb County water meter reader, has made recent donations to nearly all of the Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta including donations of $5,000 to St. Thomas More School in Decatur and $1,000 to St. Pius X High School in Atlanta. He contributed smaller donations to 19 other Catholic schools in the archdiocese through their annual funds for a total of $7,010.
“This is what I wanted to do with my money,” said Byrd. “It’s just easy to do.”
School drew mother to become a Catholic
Jeannie Byrd grew up in New York and as she approached high school expressed a desire to go to a Catholic school to get away from gangs.
Her mother and teachers told her they didn’t know if it was possible. Byrd’s mother called St. Patrick’s Cathedral School and was told that the only requirement was to take an entrance exam.
“I was Baptist when I went to Catholic school,” said Byrd. She converted to the Catholic faith while at the Cathedral School, and to this day remembers the way the Sisters of Charity treated her family.
“The respect. The respect. They were all so respectful,” said Byrd. “It didn’t have to be that way,” said Byrd.
Byrd’s mother also entered the church near the end of her life.
When Jeannie Byrd’s sons began kindergarten, the family was living in Baltimore, Maryland. They attended St. Wenceslaus School until the move to Georgia.
Jeannie Byrd sent the boys’ records to several different schools in Atlanta.
“I didn’t know locations,” she explained.
One of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur of St. Thomas More School called Byrd on the phone after receiving the records.
“That’s the one,” thought Byrd after the phone call.
Byrd worked for the DeKalb County Juvenile Court and was an active volunteer at St. Thomas More School including making baked goods for fundraisers.
“She would make this really great German chocolate cake,” said Carlton. He would try to buy up all the slices.
To keep up with tuition, sometimes car repairs or other needs were put off.
“I saw the sacrifice,” said Carlton Byrd.
“It would be tight sometimes,” agreed Jeannie Byrd. “You don’t do it alone.”
“We were blessed to have her as a mom,” said Byrd. “I can’t stress enough the foundation Mom laid for us.”
Carlton Byrd’s gifts to local Catholic schools were in celebration of his mother and of his retirement from DeKalb County after 26 years of service. He also made contributions to the Cathedral High School in New York and several schools in Baltimore.
After 10 months of retirement, Carlton Byrd returned to work part-time this year after asking God for a humble task. “He gives grace to the humble,” he said.
Byrd works three hours each evening as a janitor for the Department of Family and Children Services.
“I have a simple life. I can handle it,” he explained.
The Byrds recently gathered with Dr. Diane Starkovich, superintendent of Catholic schools, and Rebecca Hammel, associate superintendent.
“Thank you for your generosity,” Starkovich told Byrd.
As Byrd described how much he enjoys life, Starkovich remarked, “You are seeing and witnessing all the fruits of that Catholic education.”
Friendships with Sister Margaret Thomasine
Marlon Byrd, the oldest of the brothers, was able to remain in Catholic schools until he was a sophomore at St. Pius X. Carlton spent his freshman year at St. Pius and then both brothers went to Southwest DeKalb High School.
Marlon enjoyed his time at St. Thomas More so much that he wrote a song about the school.
“Carlton and I were so impacted by the love and kindness given to us by the nuns at St. Wenceslaus School in Baltimore and the nuns at St. Thomas More in Decatur, that we kept in touch with Sister Margaret Thomasine after she retired,” said Marlon Byrd.
The late Sister Margaret Thomasine was a longtime educator at St. Thomas More. She organized student retreats and encouraged youngsters to keep creativity notebooks as a means of expressing themselves.
Marlon shared one letter to Sister Margaret expressing appreciation for his time at the Decatur school.
“My three years there have served as an anchor throughout my life especially spiritually,” he wrote.
He closed the 2005 letter by telling the nun about his own personal acronym for life, WWSMD standing for “What Would Sister Margaret Do?”
Marlon Byrd and his mother are both parishioners of Sacred Heart Basilica in Atlanta and Carlton Byrd attends Mass at Corpus Christi Church in Stone Mountain.
Carlton loves the fact that the Catholic community in Atlanta and on a larger scale is so interwoven. Each Catholic school retains the character of its neighborhood but has the “same core values,” he noted.
A St. Thomas More annual fund contributor since 2001, Byrd knows not everyone has thousands to give. He encourages all to give what they are able to a local school.
It’s his mother’s example that provides Carlton the frame of mind to be able to give.
“She’s the one who made the sacrifice,” he said.
Carlton said that Catholic schools helped provide discipline in the absence of a father.
“I don’t think I would have fared too well,” he said.
Jeannie Byrd also holds many life lessons from the sisters who taught her and the children, especially that each person has the spirit of Christ within.
“These are God’s children,” she recalls them saying. “That I’m clear about.”
To learn more about Catholic schools in the Archdiocese of Atlanta, go to the Office of Catholic Schools.