Duane Furman accomplished much as the founding superintendent of Madera Unified School District, but he was most proud of “Furman High” – a program developed to get students who had to drop out for various personal reasons back on the road to a high school diploma.
“These were the kids who had to drop out to help their family or because they got pregnant,” said Patricia Furman, Mr. Furman’s wife of nearly 70 years. “The first class met in the Millview (Elementary School) bathroom with eight students, and each one got their diploma.”
She continued: “It was the most exciting day when those kids graduated. There was food, tears and laughter.”
More than 200 students have graduated through the program.
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Mr. Furman was a major figure in Madera education for more than 50 years. His passion for education continued unabated after his retirement, and he continued to serve on various boards and advisory committees for another 30 years.
He died on Nov. 12 at age 89.
Patricia Furman said her husband worked for the education of every student, regardless of background, during his 21 years (1966-87) as founding superintendent.
She recalled an instance in which her husband fought for a young boy with hemophilia. Teachers at his junior high had wanted him out of the school given the risk of accident, but Mr. Furman insisted on keeping the boy in regular classes until he graduated.
Mr. Furman spent most of his long life in the central San Joaquin Valley. Born and raised in Dinuba, he served in the U.S. Army from 1945-47, spending most of that time as a typist on a base in Louisiana. He enrolled in Reedley College the day after he was discharged, graduating in 1949. He then received his bachelor’s from Fresno State in 1951 and went to work at Fresno Unified as a teacher.
He remained at Fresno Unified until 1963, when he transitioned to Fresno State as a professor of education and lecturer. He would continue to teach part-time at Fresno State until 2007.
Although he taught in Fresno for decades, Mr. Furman’s influence is felt most in Madera.
In this town, you can just bump into young people who have made it because of Furman High.
Patricia Furman, widow of former Madera Unified Superintendent Duane Furman
“In this town, you can just bump into young people who have made it because of Furman High,” Patricia Furman said.
Grady Billington first met Mr. Furman in 1962, when Mr. Furman joined the Madera Elementary School District. Billington worked under him for 22 years as a principal and member of his cabinet, calling Mr. Furman a “kind, gentle, genuine person that I considered my mentor.”
Billington said that Mr. Furman was instrumental in organizing 11 smaller districts into the Madera Unified School District. He added that his former boss maintained a students-first focus throughout his entire tenure as superintendent.
“Everything he did was geared around what was good for the students,” Billington said. “He challenged us as principals to think about what we can do to help the students. We went through some awful times where there was no money, but that focus remained.”
Billington said his former boss met one-on-one with each principal under him, and Mr. Furman would also invite much of his administration to his cattle ranch on the San Joaquin River for a picnic in which “a bunch of guys got together as equals.”
Mr. Furman also served on various search committees for local superintendents, giving him a role in shaping local education leadership for decades.
Julia O’Kane joined Mr. Furman’s staff as an assistant superintendent in 1972. She would eventually serve as superintendent from 1998 until her retirement in 2006.
“He liked to watch people grow and develop and take on leadership roles,” O’Kane said. “He encouraged innovation and creativity, and many of us flourished because of that.”
O’Kane said Mr. Furman believed in establishing a family atmosphere in which the superintendent knew everyone’s name – something she adopted during her tenure. She also encouraged creativity among her principals and teachers as the district adapted to more and more English learners enrolling and faced continued financial strains in the early 2000s.
O’Kane also learned the importance of community involvement from Mr. Furman, who was extremely active on various administrative boards and community groups. He served on the Madera Community Hospital Board of Directors (1986-2016) and the San Joaquin River Parkway and Conservation Trust Board of Directors (1997-2005). The Madera Arts Council was formed in his living room, and he also worked to create the Fossil Discovery Center in Fairmead during his time on the San Joaquin Valley Paleontology Foundation Board of Directors.
“If you want the community to support education,” O’Kane said, “then you need to go out and support the community.”
Born: May 17, 1927
Died: Nov. 12, 2016
Occupation: Founding superintendent, Madera Unified, teacher, professor, lecturer, consultant
Education: Associate of Arts, Reedley College; Bachelor of Arts, Fresno State; master’s degree, Fresno State; Doctorate in Education from the University of Southern California
Family: Wife, Patricia; sons Donn and Doug; daughter Debora; grandchildren Nicholas, Kathryn and Nicole
Services: 2-5 p.m. Jan. 8 at the Vineyard Restaurant, 605 S. I St., Madera