Mike T. is an affectionate nickname given to Michael Tolbert by the student staff on campus at Rutgers, the State University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Tolbert said, “I like being called Mike T...it makes me feel young.”
Having a youthful and joyful disposition has always been Tolbert’s ‘modus operandi.’ He's one of those people that makes you feel 'seen'. Tolbert said, "God has blessed me with a loving and kind spirit. I never had much to give except what God has given to me." In a life of humble beginnings, Tolbert has always found a way to see the good in all people.
Tolbert is a graduate of Paducah Tighman High School and a beloved member of the class of ‘81. He grew up on the southside of town and was raised by his aunt and uncle. “There’s a story there,” said Tolbert.
“I grew up with five brothers and 10 sisters, yes, that’s 16 of us children. My mom and dad are really my aunt and uncle,” said Tolbert.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Tolbert had three biological sisters, one has since passed. His biological mother died when he was six years old and the children didn’t know their father. His aunt, a pastor, didn’t want Tolbert and his sisters to go into ‘the system’ or foster care and preferred the siblings stay together. So, she took them in as her own.
“My aunt and uncle didn’t have to rescue me, but they did and that was a sign.”
A sign that would encourage and reassure Tolbert that God didn't desert him. “I felt God was looking over me and after me at an early age.” said Tolbert.
After moving to Paducah one of Tolbert’s first encounters and most memorable was meeting his friend for life, Joe Patterson, another PTHS alumni. He said, “I know this sounds strange but when Joe and I met in first grade, we never forgot that first moment. We’ve been best friends ever since.” The two talk regularly on the phone and call each other on their birthdays. It’s a friendship that has lasted over 50 years.
One of the big influences on Tolbert’s life was the Boys Club of Paducah. The family lived on Jackson Street, now Oscar Cross Blvd., and the Boys Club was only a few blocks from the family home. It was here that many young men living on the southside of town sought friendship and refuge. “Mr. Oscar Cross was a huge influence on many of us young boys,” said Tolbert.
The Boys Club, now Oscar Cross Boys and Girls Club, was the dream of Oscar M. Cross, a probation officer, that saw a need for young men to set higher standards for themselves and prepare for the future. He made a commitment to keep them off the streets, out of the juvenile system, and provide educational experiences not taught in the classroom. His dream has played a huge role in many of the lives of young men and women introducing them to the idea of good character, academic achievement, and citizenship. That influence set Tolbert on a trajectory.
In high school, Tolbert was a wide receiver on the football team, ran track both high and low hurdles, and wrestled. One of his true passions was his membership in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) where he enjoyed the company of other fellow Christian athletes. In fact, Tolbert has a photo on his Facebook page of a prayer vigil that he and other student athletes participated in during the Iran hostage crisis in 1979.
After graduating high school, Tolbert attended Western Kentucky University and received his degree in social work. He said, “I wanted to save the world.” Tolbert continued with his higher education courses and earned a Master’s degree in College Student Personnel from Iowa State University.
Tolbert’s first career job was as a Residence Director at Illinois State University. There he was responsible for 900 students, 18 resident assistants, and two grad students. For three years he held this position at the university in Bloomington/Normal, Illinois.
As one can see, Tolbert’s career choice was heavily influenced by his early interactions with the Boys Club of Paducah, now Oscar Cross Boys and Girls Club. In his next career move, Tolbert finds clarity and direction to tackle issues that affect so many young people today, the right and need for higher education.
Twenty-seven years ago, Tolbert accepted a position at Rutgers, the State University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Rutgers is a leading national public research university and is considered one of the top 100 colleges. Tolbert has held several positions in the 27 years at Rutgers. Currently, he’s the Director of Student Support and said, “I’m still trying to save the world.”
Tolbert is responsible for crises that happen on campus. He deals with incidents, makes sure protocols are in place, and helps to keep Rutgers’ community safe. If students are experiencing a psychological issue and talk about hurting themselves or possibly others, Tolbert is the first person called. He’s the liaison between the police department, counselors, and staff. As the ‘go between,’ Tolbert makes sure students are treated fairly when there’s police involvement and advocates for good communication between the police and students.
With the pandemic, it’s been necessary for Tolbert to participate more closely with the Health Center. Tolbert said, “The pandemic is running rampant, especially on college campuses.” He’s the person to help coordinate the efforts between students and the Health Center.
In addition to crisis management, Tolbert oversees the EOF, Education Opportunity Fund. He works with low income students of all races who attended Abbott District Schools in New Jersey. The designation of Abbott Schools is determined by criteria and process. These districts are extremely poor and have been identified based on poverty and educational inadequacies that are so substantial that they cannot possibly compete. “poorer disadvantaged students must be given a chance to compete with relatively advantaged students." As Tolbert said, “saving the world one student at a time.”
Tolbert has been married to his wife Tina for 13 years. They have one daughter and are very happy and blessed to live in New Brunswick. He said it’s a small urban city with the University attached. There’s a large black and Hispanic population. New Jersey is very diverse as is Rutgers. Tolbert said, “Even with the diversity, New Jersey is one of the most segregated states in the union.” When discussing future career plans or ‘big’ moves, Tolbert said he plans to retire with the university but possibly move to Maryland after retiring. He said, “Living close to New York City is very expensive.”
Traveling is one of life’s pleasures for the Tolberts. Before the pandemic upended the world, the couple had recently traveled to Paris and Canada. They've enjoyed other adventures around the globe including other European countries and Africa.
Photography is another of Tolbert’s passions. His creative side deserves an honorable mention. He also enjoys working out and martial arts. “At 58, I’m blessed.”
The family endured a tragic event 20 years ago. Tolbert’s biological sister was murdered. He said, “It still hurts today.” His other siblings live scattered throughout several different states but six still live in Paducah.
Tolbert said he really enjoyed his high school years. “It was the best of times and I miss my mates.” He tried to reach out to different friends through Facebook but said, “Many have moved on.” As he reminisces about days gone by, he remembers the classes of ‘81, ‘82, and ‘83 quite vividly. The classes were a tight-knit bunch, even in a school with over 1,000 students.
Friendships that we form while attending our years in secondary education and college should never be squandered. Tolbert said, “I really hope I made a positive impact on the lives of a few if not many.” There’s no doubt that he did and will continue throughout his life.