He was tall, dapper, always sporting a colorful bow tie and a broad grin.
But Rex Crawley was completely serious about helping hundreds of young African-American men in the Pittsburgh region learn confidence and leadership skills, dedicating his career, as he once wrote, to getting "more young black men off the bench and onto life's playing field."
A longtime professor at Robert Morris University and founder and co-director of the Black Male Leadership and Development Institute, Mr. Crawley, of Moon, died of complications of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma Monday. He was 49.
Mr. Crawley earned an international reputation for his research into black male educational success, based on a theory of masculinity he developed at Ohio University while working on his doctorate in intercultural communication -- "Always on Display: An Interpretative Exploration of the Essence of the African American Male Experience at a Predominantly White University."
He overcame obstacles of his own while growing up in Steubenville, Ohio, when he was diagnosed as dyslexic in elementary school, but his parents were always supportive, said his sister, Sylvia Milbry. "They told us to go after all of our dreams, that we could be anything we wanted to be."
Mr. Crawley took lessons from his own life and used them to guide other young black men to consider college -- and not only go to college, but stay in college and graduate on time.
As assistant dean of the School of Communication and Information Systems at Robert Morris, Mr. Crawley was founding co-director of the Black Male Leadership and Development Institute. The institute grew from a one-day seminar sponsored by the Urban League in 2007 at Duquesne University to a year-round program culminating in a week of workshops at Robert Morris University's Moon campus -- on education, sports and leadership, character and ethics, and conflict resolution.
Funded by the Heinz Endowments and the Buhl Foundation, the program is competitive, accepting between 75 and 100 black students in grades 9 through 12.
"Mr. Crawley's aim," said Ryan Scott, program director at the institute, "was to prepare these boys for what it is to be a black man in Pittsburgh, bringing in leaders from the pulpit to the boardroom, so that they know that there are successful black men in this city."
"I met Dr. Crawley a little over a year ago, when I didn't have my priorities straight," said Troy Miles, 17, of Monroeville and a senior at Propel Braddock Hills High School. "I did the bare minimum. I wasn't punctual. I didn't see the value of pushing on to anything better."
But on the first day of the program last summer, Mr. Crawley had Troy and the rest of the young men in his group write down their goals, and by the time the week was over, he knew what to do.
"When I went back for my senior year in high school, I challenged myself, I took harder classes, got involved in programs, applied for college," said Troy, who will be attending Washington & Jefferson College next fall.
Mr. Crawley helped arrange for two fraternities, Kappa Alpha Psi and Omega Psi Phi, to offer full-tuition academic scholarships to qualifying African-American students at Robert Morris.
In 2011, he received the Racial Justice Award from the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh. In June, he launched the Uzuri Think Tank, also funded by the Heinz Endowments, a research center focused on studying black male educational success.
Uzuri, in Swahili, means brilliance.
In a statement, Robert Morris president Gregory Dell'Omo called Mr. Crawley "an integral part of the RMU family" and said his impact on young black men would be "profound and lasting."
"First and foremost he was a scholar," added David Jamison, provost at Robert Morris, who became a close friend and described Mr. Crawley as "a tireless worker."
The two took a trip together through the South, touring sites from the Civil Rights movement.
"We were roommates, and I was shocked when he showed me a huge scar from his open heart surgery," said Mr. Jamison. "He had that, plus three bouts with lymphoma. But he was a fighter. He didn't downplay anything, but he was always cracking jokes, and always came back to work. As recently as last Wednesday he was going full tilt."
Mr. Crawley is survived by his wife, Daria, and two sons, Xavier and Vaughan.
Friends may call from 3 to 8 p.m. Friday at the Triumph Baptist Church, 1293 Mt. Nebo Road, Pittsburgh, PA 15237.
A ceremony sponsored by the Sigma Pi Phi Fraternity Inc. will take place at the church at 6 p.m., followed by a ceremony by the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. at 7:11 p.m.
There will be a viewing Saturday from 10 a.m. to noon, followed by a funeral from noon to 2 p.m. at Calvary Church, 255 N. Fifth Street, Steubenville, Ohio 43952.
Mackenzie Carpenter, firstname.lastname@example.org; 412-263-1949. On Twitter @MackenziePG. First Published November 26, 2013 12:20 PM