Iconic educators become “signs” within a community, standing for all that’s valued about learning. However, when people share stories about such educators, they seldom point to rigorous teaching of content as the first reason they valued them.
Last night, I had the opportunity to sit with a room of former high school graduates who ranged from forty-five to seventy-five years old. They mingled together with former teachers, all of who are now retired or well on their way towards retirement. They came together, filling an auditorium to honor a living legend, one of the icons of our local educational community who already has been honored with a local elementary school named after him.
He’s fueled schools across the United States with generations of former students turned educators who’ve chosen to follow in his footsteps, including some who are current principals in their own right. There are lawyers, mechanics, doctors, hairdressers, top-ranking university professors and staff, small and large business owners, politicians, community servants and many others who became what they are today because of his influence. Last night, they returned, hailing from twenty-six states, back to a high school to honor that influence.
The stories they shared in a book titled 10,000 Memories signify his influence upon the well over 10,000 high school graduates he served in a 30-year career as a principal in just one high school. Last night a graduate began a round of storytelling simply with “he taught us common sense.” The stories continued for two hours. He taught us to “work hard” and “never give up” on our dreams. He “cared” about us. He knew “our names, our families, where we went” in life after high school. He “loaned” us everything- including money and his car. H was a “hand on the shoulder” when we needed that. He “checked up” on us, calling some of us to make sure we were on the right path after leaving school. He was “gentle, but firm.” He was “committed” to us. He knew “who we were then, and who we are today.”
On his ninety-second birthday, he received over 500 cards from all over the country. Last night, at ninety-three, he stood and shared his life story in a fifteen-minute speech to a packed house that stood before, during and at the end of his talk to honor him. He was a first-year Latin and math teacher in 1941 and became a World War II draftee in the second-year of his teaching job. He returned from his tank division after the war and became the principal of a tiny rural high school. That country high school was consolidated with others into one large county high school in 1954.
He walked into the county high school as a principal in 1954 and retired from it in 1984. Most of us can only imagine the generations of change in education that he experienced and led over that time frame in his school community, the local community, Virginia, and the nation- a time in which we went through profound societal, political, economic, and cultural changes in our country- and our schools.
What was evident last night? When people walk across a high school stage and out the high school doors into life, they take away stories. Some stories fade away over time into distant memories. Others linger, so powerful that it’s as if they occurred just yesterday. It was evident that the stories with the greatest “stick” about this man, a principal for life, are all about his deep, caring, and committed relationships with the young people he served.
At the end of his speech, this man born in 1918 looked out at his audience and said, “You students inspire me. You are my life.”
All stood and cheered. Some cried. We all knew we were in the presence of a great educator , principal for a lifetime, Mr. Ben Hurt.