Today I will go to the funeral of a fellow educator; a man with whom I worked for almost two decades as we co-labored to figure out what it means to be a teacher, a centralized leader, a principal, a technology user, and friends. I remember the first day I met him. He spoke with that quintessential Virginia accent that has become endangered as the South of central Virginia blended with the North, the mid-West, the West and the rest of the world. His energy filled the air with that electricity of a person on the move. It didn’t surprise me to find out that he had served in the 82nd Airborne and endured injuries while serving a tour in Vietnam. He was a frontline, willing to jump out of a perfectly-good airplane kind of guy. He also loved his family dearly and was quick to tell a story about meeting his wife-to-be for a lifetime on a bus sometime in that post-Vietnam era.
He and I loved to figure out technology. He had that genius of analytical thought it takes to untie the knots of devices and the “stuff” it takes to make them work. From him I learned one of my favorite phrases; garbage in – garbage out. From one of education’s “first geeks” at UVA Curry we obtained, circa 1987, the first two email accounts in our school division. We used to sit in offices across a hallway and send emails to each other; wondering daily about what was being wrought in our world.
Over the years, I learned from our always humorous, sometimes poignant, mostly heated, but always education-focused discussions that nothing was more important to him than family. I also learned that for him family was about bringing people into his lodge, those who didn’t have a family of their own, children in need, teachers a long way from their own families, and people on the street who just needed a helping hand.
He had a passion for helping young people and everyone around him got used to his requests for donations to help as well. The annual question of “you are going to donate money to help buy bikes for Toy-Lift kids?” was one that we in his network came to expect. Sometime in November, we would pull out our checkbooks in a principals’ meeting before he could say “you are…” We also got used to seeing him suspended in the air, a temporary resident of the local power company’s bucket truck; waving to the 29N traffic to entice them to join the Toylift fundraiser. He understood the class divide in a community where the haves and the have-nots live very different lives. He wanted “his” children- all the children of our community-to experience precious gifts of childhood over the holiday season. He wanted to level the playing field for the have-nots, and we all marveled at how he succeeded.
As an administrator in three schools, it’s hard to tell how much money he spent out of his own pocket to help his family in need. I know he bought clothes , shoes, books, school materials, toys, bikes. He paid for kids to go on field trips. He single-handedly planned an annual trip for the children in the most rural impoverished school in our community to see the ocean. He knew many children in his school never even left the little community in which they lived. He simply wanted them to dream big dreams. He knew, this country boy from rural Virginia, that a whole new world opened for him when he first flew across that big “pond” on the way to Vietnam. He also wanted that for the young people he served.
We give homage through our school district’s mission to the belief that rigor, relevance and relationships are key to creating a community of learners and learning, one student at a time. This man knew that what really matters most in life happens to be relationships. I always knew I could go to him with any problem and he would listen, advise, and follow-up with me. After he retired and I became superintendent, I cherished the lunch dates we occasionally made so we could just talk, reminisce, and do what friends do – take care of each other.
One of the last times we were together, we had lunch and dropped in on an annual get together of hundreds of bus drivers. He had worked with drivers as an administrator, driven a bus himself, and provided workshops on behavior management to drivers over the years. They adored him. I knew from our conversation on the way to the event, he thought he didn’t have many days ahead. He could only walk a few yards without stopping, but that didn’t matter. So many drivers were glad to see him that we couldn’t move but a few feet without being stopped anyway. He teased, laughed, and asked about family members of drivers; kids he had taught, a nephew who had been in one of his elementary schools, folks he just knew from the community. On the way back to my workplace, he drove and talked about his two granddaughters who he adored as only a grandfather can. He spoke of his daughter and we revisited her days in middle school and how proud he was of her successes both professionally and personally. He spoke of his worries about making sure his family was well cared for in the future – and a teacher friend who he helped out with yard work from time to time as well. He reflected on his mother and the nursing scholarship that he helped start at the local community college; a place that opened doors for him to begin his lifelong journey as an educator.
Today, the community will gather to honor him, to remember him, to celebrate his life. We’ll hear stories about his beloved car; that really old Corvette he cherished. I know the best of our raconteurs will be spinning stories about him. I also know when we walk away from today, we will all know that our community will be diminished by his loss.