Let me tell you about Gene Sullivan.
Nearly 30 years ago, Sullivan ran Harlem High School's vocational education program where he firmly guided the "Sweathogs" - a group of boys named for the misfit characters on the TV sitcom "Welcome Back, Kotter."
As a student at Harlem in an uncertain period of my life, most of my friends were Sweathogs, sons of blue-collar workers, soldiers and farmers. My after-school social life consisted of "toting slabs" at my dad's sawmill, or hooking "snakes" - the end of a log skidder's cable - to trees to drag them out of the woods. So I saw the literal skid row every day, and gradually began failing my way toward the figurative one.
The Sweat-hogs were my friends in Harlem's hallways, and I decided I'd join them in the classroom. With the reluctant assistance of the school counselor, I reworked my classes so I could transfer into the vocational track.
Now, vocational training in the 1970s was nothing like the current "tech prep" program. Today's tech prep kids are tomorrow's certified auto mechanics, restaurant owners and computer technicians. Contrary to what some believe, tech prep students aren't dumber than college prep kids; they're just on a different path to success.
The Sweathogs, lovable losers all, were on a path to nowhere. For a brief moment in 1978, I was, too - satisfying my own self-image as a loser, in spite of my Sweathog friends who told me bluntly, "Barry, you're too smart to be in here."
Then came Gene Sullivan. Never has there been a more elegantly compatible contradiction than in the way he welcomed me to his class: It was with complete acceptance, and total rejection.
He accepted that I had given up on my future outside the chain saws and heavy machinery. Yet he rejected the notion that I was a loser - and that I had any business joining his class of good-hearted rejects.
Along with a few kind words from dear friends, the gentle nudge from Sullivan convinced me to turn in my Sweathogs membership and rejoin the high school college track. I was still an underachieving student who worked harder in the woods than in the classroom, but Sullivan's quiet confidence helped me understand that I was no loser - that I could leave the literal, and figurative, skid row behind.
My story is not unique. There are dozens of people who can say that, at some critical fork in their road, Gene Sullivan pointed them to the correct path.
Yet he re-mains humble enough that he probably doesn't even take time to acknow-ledge it. Instead, he does things like write the note he sent me a few years ago when I earned a promotion to a leadership post with the newspaper. In it, he said the words that no kid can hear too much: I'm proud of you.
He remembered the hard-bitten kid who had given up on his chances for success. And when success came many years later, Sullivan was quick to remind that kid how far he'd really come.
The best news now is that these words aren't in the form of a eulogy for Sullivan, who is still very much alive, but as a celebration of a milestone: He announced last week that after 33 years of service, he's retiring from the education business at the end of the school year.
If anyone in public education has earned a happy retirement, it's Sullivan. It's certainly a shame that his career ends as the No. 2 man in Richmond County's school system instead of as superintendent. But he goes out with head held high.
Gene Sullivan should go out, figuratively and perhaps literally, held high on the shoulders of all those kids he lifted up. Like me.
Thanks, Gene. All of us are proud of you.
(Barry L. Paschal is publisher of The Columbia County News-Times. E-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org, or call 863-6165, extension 106.)
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