Curman Gaines, St. Paul’s first superintendent of color, dies at 82

Gaines worked as a teacher and an administrator in the district for two decades before becoming superintendent in 1991.

A photo of a smiling man.
Curman Gaines, St. Paul Public Schools superintendent, visits Frost Lake Magnet Elementary school in 1997. Gaines, who was state education commissioner and then St. Paul school superintendent from 1991-98, died Sunday at age 82.
Joe Oden | Pioneer Press

Curman Gaines, the first African American to serve as superintendent of St. Paul Public Schools, Minnesota’s second-largest district, passed away on Sunday. He was 82.

Joe Gothard, St. Paul’s current superintendent, wrote about his predecessor in a message posted to social media on Wednesday.

“Those who knew him say he had a way of helping people feel good about their work and themselves, both students and staff,” Gothard said. “SPPS is a better organization today because of the many years of contributions by Dr. Curman Gaines.”

Gaines worked as a teacher and then as a building administrator in the district for two decades before taking on the role as superintendent in 1991. He served seven years in district leadership and won a Regional Administrator of Excellence award in 1996. He was considered by some to be one of the district’s best superintendents.

Sandra Peterson, a teacher’s union official in 1995 said of him, “He’s one of us. He’s home-grown. He knows the state and what’s going on. We don’t want to lose him — and I didn’t have to say that.”  

W Rayford Johnson, who worked as a music teacher in the St. Paul district and knew Gaines personally, described the former superintendent as a caring educator whose tenure in district leadership was marked by innovation and excellence. 

“Everybody in the district and even to this day will tell you, he would listen. He was extremely respectful of others,” said Johnson. “He, like many of us, was one who believed in ‘Each one you teach one’ — that was our slogan. It was mainly that you would make sure that each child in your care, you gave that child the best education that you could possibly provide.”

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