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The first black superintendent to serve Flint, Michigan, schools, who also helped desegregation efforts in Grand Rapids, has died as a result of the coronavirus, his son told BuzzFeed News.
Nathel Burtley, who died a week before his 80th birthday, first became sick in early March and was hospitalized on March 20. He died on April 6, after nearly three weeks in the hospital.
Burtley grew up in Cairo, Illinois — the southernmost tip of the state — at a time when schools were still segregated, his son Chris Burtley told BuzzFeed News.
"He grew up in an era where, in a small town, there was a black high school and a white high school," Chris Burtley said. "That was the era. ... The black school had black teachers; the white school had white teachers."
Nathel Burtley, who was raised alongside five siblings by a single mother, was championed by a number of his teachers, who didn't treat him like "just another poor kid," Chris Burtley said. He had a stutter growing up, leading him to later pursue a college degree in speech pathology from Southern Illinois University.
Nathel Burtley dedicated his career to teaching and empowering students, the same way his teachers had advocated for him growing up, his son said.
Burtley began his career as an elementary school principal in Grand Rapids, where he went on to be involved in efforts to desegregate schools. He was named deputy superintendent of Flint Community Schools in 1981. Seven years later, he was promoted to superintendent of the school district.
He went on to work as an assistant athletic director for Michigan State University, but he soon returned to Flint to work for a school management company and later as a principal of Northridge Academy.
The job Nathel Burtley took most seriously, though, was that of being a dad, Chris Burtley said.
"He grew up without a dad. He took being a dad very seriously because he knew what it's like to not have one," Chris Burtley said. "It was the most important job he had."
Nathel Burtley, who had Alzheimer's disease, started feeling sick in early March. The first symptoms were a persistent cough and a fever, Chris Burtley said.
He was hospitalized at Hurley Medical Center on March 20 and was stable for almost a week before his health rapidly declined, and he was admitted to the ICU and intubated. Nathel Burtley died on April 6. This Sunday — Easter Sunday — would have been his 80th birthday.
Chris Burtley told BuzzFeed News that since his father died earlier this week, people in their community have been calling him and his family to ask what they can do to help.
"Stay home. That's what you can do for us," he told BuzzFeed News. "I get that people need other people. ... We are meant to interact with other people, and we're asking an entire country to not do those things. It's very hard, but at the end of the day ... there's just no other way. Really just stay home."