More than 100 people attended Friday’s ribbon-cutting for the Jim Steele Freshman Academy at Douglas County High School, which was dedicated in honor of the county’s first and, thus far, only elected black school superintendent.
Family, friends, old coworkers and past students of Steele’s gathered in the high school’s auditorium to share memories and remarks about him before taking a tour of the new building.
When it approved the naming of the building in April, the Douglas County Board of Education waived one of its own policies, which states that a person must be deceased for three years to be considered for such honor.
However, Steele was very much alive when he stood before the crowd Friday morning.
“I’m so happy to be here,” said Steele, who’d had quadruple bypass surgery on his heart in February.
Steele, whose 10 grandkids were present for the ceremony, said learning each student’s name was something that helped him as a teacher and administrator.
“I used to study the annual during the summer to learn the kids’ names,” Steele said. “See, everybody’s name is dear to their ear. … You’d be amazed at how that will get their attention.”
Though Steele served as superintendent from 1989 to 1992, he began his career as a band teacher at R.L. Cousins in 1964 and moved to Douglasville from Prichard, Alabama.
Jill Bryson, who worked with Steele in 1973, hugged his neck before touring the shiny new building.
“He was (teaching) band in the trailer next door and the gym was next door and he let the band play ‘Happy Birthday’ to me,” Bryson recalled. “I was a rookie teacher. Scared out of my mind.”
Steele later became the assistant principal for Stewart Middle School and then its principal before being elected superintendent.
Douglas County Board of Education member Jeff Morris said he first got to know Steele as a sixth grader at Stewart Middle School.
“(To) a sixth-grade kid coming down the sixth-grade hall, (Steele) said, ‘Man, I’m glad you’re here!’ I thought, immediately, he had the wrong person,” Morris said. “Nobody was glad to see me coming down the hall.”
Steele ran for superintendent as a Republican, but nobody cared because they, “voted for the man,” Morris said.
“This person got to know every kid that walked through that door,” Morris said of Steele. “He knew their name. By Christmas, he knew their name. He never called you, ‘Hey, son,’ or, ‘Hey, boy,’ (or) ‘Hey, you.’ That never came out of his mouth. … That meant something to the kids. It meant something to the kids that weren’t the best kids, like me.”
Steele, a 5-foot-tall bearded man with twinkle in his eye, sat on stage watching Morris speak to the audience.
“He never was the tallest person around but he was the biggest person in the room,” Morris said of Steele. “He never was the loudest but he was always heard. He may not have been the fastest but he was always out front. He was a true leader.”
Make it personal
Steele not only made students feel special, but he made teachers feel like their job wasn’t work, said Ann Murwin, who worked with Steele in the ‘80s.
“It wasn’t a job,” Murwin said of her first teaching position under Principal Steele. “You went to work, but it was fun. You enjoyed getting up (and) there was no drudgery. You got out of the bed every morning ready to go. Something new was coming up all the time and you just couldn’t wait to get the day started.”
Steele was the type to ask for forgiveness instead of permission, Murwin said, and he’d try a lot of things people would never try, but that worked.
“We made chicken with wine,” Murwin said of her middle school home economics class. “We made a wine sauce on the chicken because some kids had never seen it before. He was all for new things and opening them up to new things. … He made the kids feel special.”
After the ribbon cutting, dozens of people flooded through the doors of the 62,000 square foot brick building, which reads “JIM STEELE FRESHMAN ACADEMY,” above its entrance. The three-story building sits where the edge of campus meets the end of Selman Drive and will house mostly freshman classes and ROTC, said DCHS Principal André Weaver. The building eliminates the need for the school to use trailers as classrooms.
“It’s great,” Steele said of the building bearing his name. “They got three rooms that are big enough to bring all the kids together. … They’ve got one classroom set up completely with computers and every science teacher has a lab.”
After all the handshakes, laughs, reminiscing and hugging, Steele said education, relationships and life are all about making everything personal.
“I want people to realize that everything needs to be personal when it comes to relationships,” Steele said. “Get to know the kids. Kids need to get to know their parents. Friends need to get to know their friends. ... I had a praying mom and dad, and the things that they taught me, books couldn’t have taught me.”