Honoring our Trailblazers
We honor those members of the W&M School of Education community whose lives and stories exemplify courage and perseverance, and whose commitment, despite obstacles, resulted in the improvement of the school, the university, or society at large.
Hulon L. Willis, Sr. M.Ed. ’56
The first African American student to enroll at William & Mary, Hulon Willis was a trailblazer not only at the university but in every facet of his career as an educator. Born in Pittsburgh in 1922, he was the captain of his high school football team — and one of just three Black students in a class of 200. He earned his undergraduate degree from Virginia State University in 1949 after serving in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was admitted to William & Mary for a master’s degree in education the same year that the Supreme Court outlawed denying admission to graduate studies on the basis of race.
After completing his degree at William & Mary, he returned to Virginia State University as a professor of health and physical education as well as director of campus police. In addition to coaching football and wrestling, he pioneered the practice of martial arts in the Hampton Roads and Petersburg areas, becoming a well-known sensei. He served as the first Black man on the board of directors for the United States Karate Association and taught karate to law enforcement, promoting the use of less violent ways of keeping the peace.
Willis’ legacy lives on in the Hulon Willis Association, the university’s affinity group for Black alumni, and through his family: he, his son Hulon L. Willis Jr ’77 and granddaughter Mica Willis ’13 comprise the first three-generation family of Black alumni.
Janet Brown Strafer ’71, M.A.Ed. ‘77, D.Sc. '18
In the fall of 1967, Janet Brown Strafer moved onto the William & Mary campus as a freshman — one of three students to be the first Black undergraduates to have an opportunity to live in residential halls and participate fully in campus life. Her decision to attend William & Mary and persist to graduation are a testament to her bravery and tenacity.
At William & Mary, she completed an undergraduate degree in elementary education, followed by a master of arts in education. She was a teacher and guidance counselor in Williamsburg-James City County Public Schools before pursuing a 35-year career in federal service. She started as an education counselor for the Army in Berlin, Germany where she provided education and career counseling for soldiers, then returned to the U.S. as an education specialist at the Army Engineer School. At the Pentagon, she served as a management analyst setting policy and guidelines for reporting combat readiness of Army units, then as program director for the Army’s strategic leader development program and senior leader education. She later became branch chief and senior policy analyst, developing Army policy, oversight and assessment of Department of Defense guidelines for combating weapons of mass destruction.
Concurrent with her work in civilian federal service, she served 22 years as a member of the Maryland Army National Guard.
In 2018, the School of Education created the Janet Brown Strafer Award in her honor. Every year, the award recognizes one student and one faculty member for their work promoting inclusivity and equity in education.
After retirement from federal service in 2014, she became the lead volunteer for a nonprofit dedicated to rehabilitation of post September 11, 2001 wounded military veterans through the game of golf.
Jo Lynne DeMary ’68, Ed.D. ’82
The first woman in Virginia to serve as superintendent of public instruction, Jo Lynne DeMary devoted her career to finding the potential in every child. She started overcoming the odds early, becoming the first in her family to graduate from college when she received her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from William & Mary. She went on to receive her doctorate in educational leadership while advancing within the field of K-12 education in central Virginia. She served as a teacher, assistant principal, principal, elementary school supervisor, director of special education and assistant superintendent of instruction in Henrico County.
She was appointed state superintendent in 2000 by Governor James Gilmore, then reappointed in 2002 by Governor Mark Warner. During her tenure, she supervised the development of the K-12 content standards known as the Standards of Learning and played a key role in the design and launch of an accountability system with annual testing in English, mathematics, science and history. Under the new system, student achievement steadily progressed, with greater numbers of Virginia students taking advanced courses and college-readiness testing.
After leaving the state department of education in 2006, Dr. DeMary joined the faculty at Virginia Commonwealth University, helping to create and direct their Center for School Improvement. She retired in 2012 after 43 years in education, but continued to be involved in the field, mentoring future educational leaders and serving on multiple boards including the William & Mary School of Education’s Development Board.