Mark Petersen bid adieu to McDuffie County, leaving a legacy that will be much discussed. Whether local history will be kind to him is actually a matter of opinion. He was often a lightening rod for controversy, which he managed to deflect time and time again.
One thing that I could not help but notice about Dr. Petersen was his knack for involving himself in the Thomson High School athletic program. I don't just mean his regular attendance at the games. He made several personnel moves and, as superintendent, he certainly had that authority. Authority aside, I often felt that he was overplaying his hand when it came to athletics.
There is no doubt that public relations were at the core of Dr. Petersen's approach. He obviously felt that the Thomson High athletic program was his best mechanism for gaining support for himself and the school system. Like any other small town, sports are something that we enjoy and we know it puts us on the map. There's nothing wrong with that but Dr. Petersen may have overindulged himself in taking advantage of Thomson's love of athletics.
Of all the things that he did, I will always personally reflect on two in particular. He lured Terry Holder into our school system, where he eventually became head baseball coach. In my opinion, it was absolutely the best thing that Dr. Petersen accomplished during his tenure.
Coach Holder's performance in building a competitive baseball program created more good will, excitement and positive feelings in Thomson than I ever dreamed of. No amount of Renaissance, SACS, or budget balancing will ever replace the joy created by the baseball team in 2009. Could another coach have done it? Yes, probably so, but Coach Holder had the resume to fight off the wolves while he deliberately went about it the right way.
No matter his motive for going after Coach Holder, we have to give credit to Dr. Petersen for reacting to an innocent newspaper article depicting Coach Holder's boredom with retirement. He quickly pulled the trigger on getting the legendary coach into the fold and the move paid off. Thomson High now has a baseball program that other towns won't just laugh at.
On the other hand, in a move obviously made for publicity, Dr. Petersen insinuated a promise that he could not keep. Prior to the ESPLOST vote of Sept. 19, 2006, he created a committee of boosters to formulate a plan for a much needed refurbishing of The Brickyard.
It appeared that either Dr. Petersen thought he needed the support of football fans to pass the ESPLOST or he knew it would pass regardless and he was simply trying to build political capital with that same group. Maybe it was both. Who knows?
The facts however, are this: Dr. Petersen and the school system had a long laundry list of wants, including big money for getting the new junior high school out of the ground. Dr. Petersen said this, but he did not say it loud and clear, or first.
The Brickyard would be a backburner project, and even then the dollars would be limited. Fine, but why the rush to form a committee when, in reality, significant work on The Brickyard would be years down the road? Again, who knows?
The formation of the Brickyard committee no doubt was misleading to many who hold Thomson High School near and dear to their hearts. When the ESPLOST passed by a 919-127 margin, the committee essentially vanished into thin air. The immediate result was two new restrooms in the stadium but the long-term result will likely be, well, nothing.
This is what I mean by Dr. Petersen overplaying his hand when it came to using athletics to his advantage. I would never blame him for putting school buildings and academic needs ahead of the football stadium, but he should have openly displayed that up front and refrained from the formation of a meaningless Brickyard committee that could do little more than fantasize.
For a leader that clearly fancied himself a public relations guru, Dr. Petersen botched what would have been his biggest asset in McDuffie County. As they were with previous superintendents, athletic boosters are patient and supportive and understand that academics have to come first.
For instance, building the Grisham Field House had to wait. The waiting was easy because all of the cards were always on the table.
I will remember Dr. Petersen for doing some good things only to have them overshadowed by not always putting all of his cards on the table. Among other things, his manipulation of athletics led to Dr. Petersen becoming the focal point of the school system.
Hopefully all of us, Dr. Petersen included, have learned something. Let the students be the focal point. Some of them will even be athletes.