Harry: Slower pace is good

Published 12:02 am Thursday, July 11, 2013

After 37 years in education, Bob Harry recently decided to get off the school bus.

Harry, who retired from Andalusia City Schools as assistant superintendent, spent the last nine years behind the scenes in many ways, managing transportation, federal programs and testing for the city system.

Bob Harry’s retirement cake read ‘Last stop.’

Bob Harry’s retirement cake read ‘Last stop.’

But, he said, he could always “make up” reasons to go to the elementary school and spend time with kids.

As an Auburn student, Harry planned to pursue a broadcasting career. But he changed course after a chance stop in the speech and hearing center at Auburn.

“I had always been interested in psychology and behavior,” he said.

As an undergraduate, he was one of only two men pursuing a degree in the field.

“Now that wasn’t a bad thing,” he pointed out Wednesday. After graduation, he went to work as a speech and language pathologist in the Montgomery County Public Schools. He earned a whopping $7,500 per year.

He spent nine years working in two or three schools a day, and pursued a master’s degree at AUM at night. When Brewbaker Elementary opened, he got an opportunity to become an assistant principal –then called an administrative assistant – and took it.

The school, which was brand new and built to accommodate growth in Montgomery, was designed for 600 students. The day it opened, 800 showed up. The system built an identical school across the street. The school ended up with 1,800 students.

“It was a huge, huge operation,” Harry recalled.

And eventually, the two facilities were considered two independent campuses. Harry became principal of the K-3 facility at age 34.

“You are only as good as the people around you,” Harry said. “I was fortunate to work with some good folks.”

He said he had great teachers, and an excellent mentor in the system’s curriculum director, who was always on the cutting edge of education. He also met many international students, as foreign officers then came to Maxwell Air Force Base to change.

“There were people from all over,” he said. “In many countries, people in the military are the elite of their country, so many of our (international) students were very wealthy.”

“The lesson I learned is that all people care about their kids, no matter the nationality or religion.”

It was a great learning experience, he said.

At the time, Dr. John Goodlad had just written a book titled “A Place Called School,” based on research from across the country. He was a proponent of creating schools within schools, and Harry’s Brewbaker Elementary was among the three who piloted his theories for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

The leaders of the three pilot schools flew to Washington state to meet with Goodlad, who believed “smaller is better.”

Brewbaker was divided into three wings, and each was a K-3 school within the K-3 school. Students were then familiar with all the teachers in their “sub-school,” and parents loved the concept.

“You never knew we had 1,800 kids until we dismissed in the afternoon,” he recalled. “It was a very successful program.”

It was also an idea he brought to Andalusia when he became principal of Church Street Elementary in 1993. His wife, Kathy Lee Harry, is an Andalusia native and wanted to move closer to her mother.

In Montgomery, computers were beginning to be part of schools in 1993. In Andalusia, he said, what sufficed for an intercom system at Church Street was an Army field system.

“But, hey,” he said. “It worked.”

The most amazing thing about Church Street, he said, was the first day of school was a “regular” day. Everyone was already registered and teachers got down to business.

“It was different (from Brewbaker), but it was a good different,” he said.

His work at Brewbaker had prepared him to work with the local system on the merger of its two elementary schools. Many of the concepts used there were applied in the design of Andalusia Elementary, where he became the principal with Ted Watson as assistant principal.

Harry said then-superintendent Clayton Bryant did an excellent job of getting input from all sectors for the design of AES.

“We couldn’t give everybody what they wanted, but as much as could be done, he allowed,” Harry recalled. “He had the courage – and the school board and city council members – to do the right thing for the students.”

Combining the two schools made a safer environment for students, he said.

“It was not a popular decision, but it was the right decision,” he said. “Mr. Bryant always said ‘If you keep the focus on the kids, you’ll do the right thing.’ ”

AES opened mid-year, by the hardest. Teachers had friends move them in cattle trailers, and staff members were cleaning the new facility at 10 p.m. the night before it opened.

“We were bound and determined to get in the building, and we did,” he recalled.

Harry said when he moved to the central office nine years ago, he missed the daily interaction with children.

“Children are still children,” he said as he reflected on his career. “Parents have changed.”

He was pleased, he said, when Watson became superintendent and the two were working together again.

“Ted’s a great leader,” he said. “I’m glad people saw that in him.”

Just a few weeks into retirement, Harry said he already is enjoying the slower pace. He is a runner, and logs 24 miles each week. He is gardening, and enjoying taking care of both his and his mother-in-law’s yards. He and Kathy plan to see the United States, spend time with their three sons and one granddaughter, and he wants to do charity work. He is considering a new fishing boat.

Harry also teaches Sunday School at First Baptist, where he is a deacon.

“I hope what people see in me is somebody who always worked hard,” he said. “I learned my work ethic from my parents.”

He also tried always to do the right thing, but found the best way to articulate that after Duke Smith died in December. Smith was a bus driver, and Harry drove his bus until he could hire a replacement. He said when he got in the bus, took the driver’s seat and glanced up, he saw a quote clipped where the driver could easily see it.

“It was from Martin Luther King, and it said, ‘It’s always the right time to do the right thing.’ ”

It’s what Harry always tried to do, he said, with the focus on the right thing for the children.