Members of the Yale community gathered at the Yale Child Study Center on May 24 for the unveiling of a portrait of James Comer, MD, MPH, Maurice Falk Professor in the Child Study Center. For more than 50 years, Comer’s pioneering work has revolutionized school systems and lifted up their most vulnerable children. The unveiling honored his commitment to children, child development, and education, and also celebrated his position as the first African American tenured professor at the university.
“The unveiling of this portrait is a significant milestone not just for Dr. Comer and his family, but for us, for the Child Study Center, and the school,” said Nancy J. Brown, MD, Jean and David Wallace Dean of the School of Medicine and C.N.H. Long Professor of Internal Medicine. “Those who walk through the doors [of the Child Study Center] will see it and see Dr. Comer and be inspired.”
The motivation for Comer’s work stems not only from the children he has worked with throughout his career, but also his own background. Comer was raised alongside four siblings by migrant parents in East Chicago. His family had very little money—his father had only a sixth-grade education, while his mother’s education was even more minimal. Despite this, he and his siblings all attended college and collectively earned 13 degrees among them. Comer himself would go on to earn 49 honorary degrees.
His work has changed lives across the country. His school-based intervention method, known as the “Comer School Development Program,” was initially introduced in two underserved elementary schools in New Haven, but has become adopted nationwide. “Dr. Comer’s work is transformational work that has touched lives of children and families in thousands of schools across the United States,” said Norris Haynes, PhD, retired associate clinical professor. “Dr. Comer has given us a language of school reform that has become a universal language.”
Other speakers at the event included Peter Salovey, PhD, president of the university and Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology; Darin Latimore, MD, deputy dean and chief diversity officer and associate professor of internal medicine (general medicine); Linda Mayes, MD, Arnold Gesell Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology in the Child Study Center and chair of the Child Study Center; and his children Dawn Comer Jefferson and Brian Comer. The commissioning of the portrait was the vision of Andrés Martin, MD, Riva Ariella Ritvo Professor in the Child Study Center and professor of psychiatry.
“We started looking for a portrait artist, and the only thing that was very important to us was that it was a Black artist,” Martin said. They decided on Simmie Knox, who is known for his portraits on prominent individuals including Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Bill Clinton, Thurgood Marshall, and Eric Holder. “[Dr. Comer is] in good company.”
His three grandchildren unveiled the finished portrait, which will now live as a tribute to Comer’s life-changing career. And at 87 years old, he’s still hard at work. He’s working on a book, titled “What’s Going On?” The book explores his own family life and developmental experience that allowed him to overcome racism and be successful academically, and to apply this knowledge to the problem of poor school performance by underserved children.
“Dr. Comer always has room on his shoulders—he never lets you know the burdens that he’s carrying, but always has room for you to stand on his shoulders and carry your burden,” said Latimore at the ceremony. Speaking to Comer, Latimore said, “Every time that I look at your portrait, I will see a village of people standing on your shoulders.”