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Powell retires after 39 years in McDuffie schools

First, he tried out for professional baseball.

Then, he applied to the military.

When neither of those goals worked out, Claude Powell found himself teaching in a classroom in Thomson.

Monday, Mr. Powell retired as principal of Thomson Middle School after 39 years in the McDuffie County School System.

"When I came in '71, I had no intention of staying," Mr. Powell said in an interview with The McDuffie Mirror. "But, I've been blessed every day of my life here."

Assistant Principal LaTasha Johnson and TMS secretaries hosted a retirement party for Mr. Powell on Sunday, May 23 at the middle school.

"They actually invited people I hadn't seen in a while, people who used to work here," Mr. Powell said. "Wow! It was just a good time."

Mr. Powell graduated from Georgia College and State University in 1971, where he attended on a baseball scholarship. While there, his skills on third base earned him an invitation to try out with the Baltimore Orioles. During the tryout, Mr. Powell said he was recognized and complimented on his fielding defense, but had trouble at bat. Thus, his dream of playing professional baseball ended.

Immediately after graduation, Mr. Powell signed up with the U.S. Air Force, with hopes of becoming a navigator. But an old knee injury came back to haunt him. During the physical examination, the doctor told Mr. Powell he was not fit to serve in the armed forces.

"I told him I played baseball, basketball, and ran track all through high school and college, and I'd done everything," Mr. Powell said. "And the old doctor looked me in the eye and repeated, 'You are physically unfit for the Armed Forces.'"

With his two career goals exhausted, Mr. Powell fell back on his college major of physical education.

"I hadn't filled out any applications anywhere because I thought I was going into the military. So, I called around," he said. One of those phone calls was to James A. Maxwell, superintendent of McDuffie County Schools. Mr. Maxwell said he had an opening for a physical education teacher at R.L. Norris Junior High School.

"So, that's how my career started here," Mr. Powell said.

At Norris Junior High, Mr. Powell worked under Coach Calvin Sampson, teaching P.E. classes and assisting coaching the football team. There, he "learned quite a lot about football from Coach Sampson," and was able to assume the head coach position when Coach Sampson left in 1976.

Four years later, Mr. Powell became sold on the idea that he "could make a million dollars selling Horace Mann Insurance," and left the school system to make his fortune in insurance.

"But, I found out that was not my forté," Mr. Powell said.

So, he returned to McDuffie County, where he worked with Severely Emotional Behavior students at Laura Jones School.

The next year, Mr. Powell was teaching fourth and fifth grade at Pine Street Elementary School and began coaching baseball and football at Thomson High School.

In 1991, he gave up coaching to become assistant principal of Norris Middle School. Then, he was promoted to principal of Thomson Middle School in 2000.

During his 39 years in McDuffie County, Mr. Powell said he has worked under five school superintendents -- Mr. Maxwell, William Barr, Ed Grishom, Mark Petersen and Jim LeBrun -- and eight principals -- Hathaway, Bassett, Shafer, Blassingame, Smith, Hammond, Sapough and Roberson.

"You learn more about working with people from administrators than you do about working with children from a coaching standpoint," Mr. Powell said.

As a principal, Mr. Powell created the atmosphere of a family-- going through "deaths, births, divorces, bar mitzvahs, baptisms, counseling sessions and coaching sessions."

"The hats you wear as an administrator are unlimited," he said. "My teachers know I'm going to support them and hold them accountable. They know I will be fair and that I love them."

During his tenure, staff, faculty and students at the middle school made large donations to Toys for Tots, increased testing scores using a motivational "I upped mine, up yours" t-shirt campaign, were recognized at board of education meetings for having the highest county level of participation in school lunches, had a group of teachers named the Georgia Middle School Association Team of the Year, received Walmart grant awards, and $4 million grant money from Dollar General.

And Mr. Powell himself was distinguished as a High Performance Principal in 2007 and 2008 by the Georgia Department of Education.

One of his biggest challenges was making Annual Yearly Progress, something he said "is definitely an accomplishment in itself."

But those accomplishments aren't as important as the relationships he's developed with his staff and faculty.

"There's no doubt, I've had the pleasure of working with some of the finest people on the face of the earth," he said. "That's it in a nutshell."

Usually jovial, the retiring principal became somber as he reminisced and named former students that are now "making a positive contribution to society."

"I've got kids who are doctors, lawyers, judges, professional athletes, ministers, heating and air conditioning technicians, contractors. In some way, I've touched their life and I get the satisfaction of seeing them succeed," he said. "That's priceless."

He's also proud of former employees who are succeeding. Current Thomson Elementary School Principal Anita Cummings, Thomson-McDuffie Junior High Principal Steve Rhodes and Assistant Principal Neal Tam all worked under Mr. Powell.

"It does you good to see your former employees succeed," he said.

Married to his wife, Joyce, for 38 years, Mr. Powell doesn't plan to laze away his retirement. He said he has some projects around the house to work on. But, that won't last long, so he's already looking for other job opportunities.

"I've got several irons in the fire. I've never been without a job. I feel like the good Lord put us here for a purpose. I'm going to work somewhere."

Web posted on Thursday, June 03, 2010

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