Where Volunteers Make a Difference

Meet the lady who schooled Shaquille O'Neal.

If you’ve played basketball, you’ve probably heard the term “schooled.” For non-players I’ll explain it this way. Let’s say a high school player gets into a pickup game with basketball legend Shaquille O’Neal. The kid makes a move on Shaq, going for the basket. At the last second, Shaq reaches up and blocks the kid’s shot so hard that the kid crashes to the floor. You’d say that Shaq had “schooled” the high school player.

Very few people ever schooled Shaquille O’Neal. He was a fifteen-time NBA All-Star and is enshrined in the NBA Hall of Fame. In his playing days he stood 7’1” and weighed over 300 lbs.

But this story is about the lady, a little over five feet tall, who schooled Shaquille O’Neal for three years. She’s now starring as a Foster Grandparent with RSVP of Dane County.

Charlotte Rankin was born on a farm in Shelby County, Kentucky, where her mom, dad, sister and five brothers milked a dozen cows. Her mother made pillow cases and even dresses out of feed sacks. Charlotte was the eldest, and helped raise all the babies who came after her. This was during the era of “separate but equal” in Kentucky, and Charlotte and her brothers and sister attended an all-Black rural school through eighth grade, and then Lincoln Institute, an all-Black residential high school two miles down the road.

Charlotte excelled at her studies, graduating as Lincoln’s valedictorian. She went on to earn a Bachelor’s Degree in biology from Kentucky State College. After college she began a teaching career in Louisville, specializing in teaching science and math to grade schoolers. After five years in the Louisville schools, she attended Murray State University where she earned her Master’s Degree. Charlotte then began an adventuresome life, traveling across Europe, the Middle East, Russia and America.

The adventure begins when she was teaching in Louisville, and was recruited to teach school for the U.S. Department of Education in Germany. She moved to Stuttgart, where she taught children and adults in all branches of the military service. Her specialty was again science and math, plus computer science. After five years in the Stuttgart area she moved to a base in Fulda, near the East German border, where she taught for five more years.

One of her students was a tall, skinny kid, with big hands and feet, named Shaquille O’Neal.

Charlotte taught Shaq for parts of his sixth, seventh and eighth grade years. Her nephew had moved from the States to attend the school in Germany, and he and O’Neal became friends. Charlotte was one of the adults in charge of keeping the boys in line during their early teenage years, always an adventure. She recalls that she had a challenge keeping Shaq on track with his studies, as he was, even then, focused mainly on basketball. She characterizes Shaq as a “gentle soul... there wasn’t a hateful bone in his body.”

While she lived in Germany, Charlotte learned German and traveled widely, driving her red Chevy Camaro all over Europe. She also visited Russia, some of the old Eastern Bloc countries and Israel. After ten years of teaching in Germany, she moved back to the States, where she continued her travels, living and working in places like Louisville, Duluth, Detroit, Denver, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City and even the high desert of California. After a few years in the West, she wanted to get back to the Midwest, and she and her sister, Jessie, chose Madison.

Charlotte is a natural learner, teacher and volunteer. She is as excited about science today as she was as a college student, and reads widely about biology, nature and wildlife, She has loved living creatures and nature all her life, for which she credits her Cherokee mother. She has rescued numerous dogs and cats in the U.S. and Europe, and she and her sister currently have two kitties and an aquarium full of fish.

Charlotte works in a community garden and has volunteered with several community projects in South Madison. She sings with the choir at the Second Baptist Church, coordinates events for her apartment complex and works with Alzheimer’s issues. Her love of all kinds of music extends from classical to Gregorian Chants to jazz... she has met and socialized with Madison jazz notables Richard Davis and the late Clyde Stubblefield, among others.

Charlotte’s latest adventure is being a Foster Grandparent. She first heard about it when she joined the RSVP Bus Buddy Program. At one of the Bus Buddy trips, RSVP Assistant Director Diana Jost passed out information about Foster Grandparents, and Charlotte thought that the program was just what she had prayed for--a chance to get back into the classroom and work with kids. She is assigned to three classrooms at Lincoln Elementary, which is located just across the street from her apartment. She loves volunteering with the children, sharing her lifelong fascination with learning and teaching about science, math and nature.

Charlotte Rankin has lived an adventurous life and after talking to her it is obvious that she has lived it to the fullest. And she has loved the people she’s met, lived with, taught and helped along the way. I asked her her secret to a happy life. She thought a minute and then said, “Nature. Take care of the land and it will take care of you.”