Kevin Beverly rides his bike about 200 miles a week. Photo by Edgar Artiga
Kevin Beverly grew up on Taylors Island, a tiny African-American community just off the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay. “One of my most vivid memories,” he recalls, was an August day 50 years ago. “I came downstairs and my mom was in tears and she looked at me and said, ‘Your father has gone, you need to go to work.’ ”
Early the next morning Kevin was picking tomatoes for a local farmer. He was 10 years old, and he’s been working ever since.
Today Beverly is the president of Social & Scientific Systems, a 500-person company based in Silver Spring that works mainly for the National Institutes of Health (NIH), supporting clinical trials and collecting and analyzing medical data. But he has not forgotten his roots or his responsibilities.
“Having grown up in a place where there wasn’t a lot of opportunity, I had tons of cousins who were just as smart, but they didn’t get off that island, and I think they could have contributed greatly,” he says. “If I can help any of those who need that lift, then I should.”
Beverly provides lifts for many young people. He currently serves on six boards, including the Montgomery County Community Foundation, the Universities at Shady Grove, and CollegeTracks, a program that helps disadvantaged students in local high schools pursue their education. He’s a leader on almost all of them and Anna Hargrave, the executive director of the Community Foundation, says of Beverly, “he has a huge heart.”
“Because he’s so humble,” she adds, “coupled with his tremendous passion, he’s able to inspire others to step up and get involved the way he has.”
Beverly’s contributions extend far beyond the county. He builds wooden boxes in his own workshop that house lending libraries in poor communities. He supports an orphanage in Uganda and funds scholarships for graduates of his old high school.
The awards are named for his mother, Mildred, who imparted a lasting sense of obligation: “My mom’s words were always there. ‘When you get to a position where you can help, and you don’t, that will be the biggest disappointment I’ll ever have.’ I take those words and repeat them to myself.”
In the 1960s segregation was still the custom, if not the law, on the Eastern Shore. Through fourth grade, Beverly attended an all-black one-room school and even in junior high his friends and cousins had few white classmates. But Kevin’s older brother Larry Ellis—who later became a four-star Army general—insisted he attend a largely white school in the city of Cambridge, 15 miles away. He missed the first day of classes, however, because the driver of the “white bus” drove right past him and wouldn’t stop.
Once in school “I spent a lot of time in fights, because I was getting ganged,” Beverly recalls. His brother, who was away at college, gave him advice: “If you get one of them and beat the living crap out of him, the rest will leave you alone. I had to do it twice, but it did work.”
Kevin’s work ethic got him accepted to the University of Maryland, but his first semester at College Park was “absolutely horrid.” He landed on academic probation and went home thinking to himself, “I can’t do this.”
During the Christmas holiday, he had an “epiphany,” thanks to a job on an oyster boat. He fell into the bay and after the crew hauled him back on board, he recalls: “There I was, freezing my butt off, and I said to myself, ‘I am never doing this again.’ That was it, that’s when I decided I just had to go back to school and work harder.”
He landed a part-time job delivering mail at the National Library of Medicine, on the NIH campus in Bethesda, and vastly improved the system’s efficiency. The director’s secretary took notice and told her boss, “You ought to pay attention to this kid, he works hard.”
They did pay attention and hired him full time after graduation. Over the following years Kevin cycled through a number of jobs, in and out of government, honing his skills as a technology geek who understood the movement of information and “could actually talk to people” as well. He joined his current company 15 years ago, but even as he rose to the top job he still made time for his hobbies: raising orchids, cooking oysters and crabs he imports from Taylors Island, and riding his bike about 200 miles a week.
As we talk, his hands are in constant motion, rolling and rubbing two plastic balls to increase his manual dexterity. He tells the story of marrying his college girlfriend, Diane, who is white. The two were commuting from College Park to Bethesda by motorcycle on the Beltway—not a recipe for good health—so they moved to a home on Northfield Road in the Greenwich Forest neighborhood of Bethesda. As an interracial couple, they say they’ve always felt welcome here, raising two sons who attended Walt Whitman High School and still living in the same house 35 years later.
“This county has embraced its diversity like none other in the region,” says Beverly. “Montgomery County is the only place I haven’t been stopped by the police and asked to get out of my car for no apparent reason. It’s happened to me in every other jurisdiction around here. That’s why I live in Montgomery County.”
But his affection for his adopted home does not blind him to its flaws. “There are two counties in my mind,” he says. The “very white, very affluent county that has it all,” and the county of immigrant and minority families that remind him of his cousins who never got off Taylors Island. That’s the county he cares about most.
“There are poor children growing up around an enormous amount of wealth, they see it in their face every day, and I think they struggle with how to react and respond to that,” says Beverly. “Pride is an incredible thing. They can’t ask that white guy or white woman [for help] because they don’t know how to, but they’re comfortable asking me. If I can put myself in a position where they can ask me, then I should be in that position. They have to see me do good things, see me work hard, see me achieve, and they have to realize they can too.”
Steve Roberts teaches politics and journalism at The George Washington University. Send suggestions for future columns to firstname.lastname@example.org.