Michael Cummings has had the rare opportunity of spending his entire career as a teacher, coach and administrator at the school he entered as a seventh grader in 1957— North Division High School. He left Milwaukee briefly, to attend Kentucky State University, located in Frankfort, Kentucky where he played baseball for KSU’s Thoroughbreds. After earning a bachelor’s degree in health and physical education, he returned to Milwaukee in 1967 to begin his teaching career. He married his high school sweetheart, Janice Neal, and they recently celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. Together they raised four children.
“I grew up in the North Division neighborhood— off the corner of 11th and Wright Streets—with my mother, stepfather and sister. It was natural for me to attend North Division High School. It’s amazing and wonderful that I’ve spent most of my adult life working in that same area,” he said.
Michael also earned a master’s degree in leadership and supervision from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM), but even with a master’s in hand and opportunities for advancement within MPS, he chose to stay in the classroom.
“I just felt that I could have a greater impact in the classroom. During my 32 years of teaching, serving as athletic director, equipment manager, coaching a variety of sports, including girls’ tennis, football and track and field, having a positive impact on the lives of students has been most rewarding. I run into students and parents today who remember me, hug me and thank me for helping them or their children. That makes it all worthwhile,” he said.
Michael was also one of the founders of the North-Lincoln Alumni Basketball games, which enjoyed a run of more than 35 years and raised more than $150,000 in scholarships for North Division students.
“North Division and (the former) Lincoln High school have always had a friendly rivalry. I had an equipment need so I approached the athletic director at Lincoln about co-hosting an alumni basketball game to raise funds to purchase the equipment. Once he was onboard we called former players like Harry Oden, Max Walker, and others. On the day of the first game, the gym was jam-packed. We couldn’t believe it so after that, the games just continued as an annual event—for 35 years,” he said.
There were plenty of individuals that Michael points to who have encouraged him along the way; among them are Coach Robert Harris, Ed Withers, Sarah Grant, Mr. Rowe, Carl Turner and retired principal Andre Ptak. He even remembers his 7th and 8th grade teacher/coach, Ralph Williams.
“Back then (when in middle and high school), there were so many good teachers. We were blessed to have them. Sarah Grant was really nice and impacted my life greatly and spiritually. When I returned to North Division as a colleague, she was like an older sister to me. We team-taught physical education and health for 20 years or so.
“Along with a few other guys, some years back we started talking about establishing a North Division Athletic Hall of Fame. We got together and became the founders—ultimately inducting people like Robert Cargile, James Smith, Mr. Bland and others into the Sports Hall of Fame. Once a Blue Devil, always a Blue Devil,” he said.
Michael was also one of a handful of teachers that became involved with a grassroots effort to halt the decision to make North Division a citywide specialty school, rather than a neighborhood school.
“Some teachers were afraid to get involved or be vocal about trying to save the old North Division, but when we moved into the new North Division half the population was from Rufus King and the other half from North Division. There were two rival factions and lots of pressure on teachers trying to keep peace, but somehow we got through it. Then, we learned about plans to make North a specialty school, which meant that people living right across from the school wouldn’t be able to attend North Division. We worked with former MPS superintendent and North Division alumnus Howard Fuller to fight this. The school board voted in our favor, but years later we learned that some of those people were doing nothing but undercutting what we tried to do. I have no regrets about getting involved though,” he said.
One of the high points in life for Michael was when he was awarded the Athletic Hall of Fame Legend Award in 2015.
“I’m really fond of that award because Coach Bob Harris was the first one to go into the Hall of Fame, then Coach Smallins (Lincoln High School), and I was the third. They give out one each year. Just having the respect of the kids and the community or hearing one person tell me that if it wasn’t for me, they don’t know what they would have done makes everything worthwhile. You can’t ask for much more than that,” said Michael.