We often talk of “eras,” particularly in politics and sports, and often the term is overused. That said, Monday morning when students return to school at Heritage High School in Rockdale County — about a month too soon I will stubbornly add — they will be experiencing the end of an era, and I am not using the term lightly. In fact, I wish I could come up with a stronger word, because for the first time this millennium — if you adhere to the Y2K model of measuring time — Greg Fowler will not be at the helm as principal of the school.
Let that sink in for a moment.
For the first time this century someone besides the portly bald headed Alabamian — who has always been younger than he looks and wiser than he is given credit — will not be at the helm of the high school on Granade Road which, no matter what folks in the Salem, Rockdale/Magnet and Career Academy Camps might say publicly, has been the flagship of the RCPS system for decades.
Yeah. I know. I’m biased. When am I not? But my being biased doesn’t keep a statement from being true. But this is not to criticize any other schools in the system. This is to say that Greg Fowler has done an outstanding job as principal at Heritage and will be missed more than the public can imagine.
Mr. Fowler took over in the most trying of circumstances. He became interim principal at Heritage when Lowell Biddy resigned at Christmas time in 1999. That, in and of itself, was a Herculean task because love Mr. Biddy or hate him — and few were in the middle — he was a tough, tough act to follow. I loved him, by the way, and still do. Greg Fowler was as different from Lowell Biddy as night is from day, and to his credit, from the beginning he kept his own counsel and didn’t try to live up or down to anyone else’s reputation.
As if following one of the most colorful characters in the history of education in our area wasn’t challenge enough, the school whose leadership he inherited was under a national microscope. The previous spring, of course, we had lived through every community’s nightmare — a mass shooting. This had caused PBS to dredge up and expand upon an outdated documentary about the “lost children of Rockdale County,” which followed us everywhere we went for several years.
Both these issues were enough to tax the patience and test the mettle of any school administrator, but as Greg Fowler won the confidence of the local school board and had the interim title removed from his name and permanent position of principal bestowed upon him, little did he know that he would guide his ship through the most turbulent waters since the school opened in the Bicentennial year of 1976.
In 1999 Rockdale County was about 78 percent white, 17 percent black and 5 percent Hispanic, and the public schools reflected that demographic makeup. Monday morning, Caucasian students will make up about 15 percent of the student body at Heritage, and you cannot go from an 85 percent majority to a 15 percent minority without major upheaval unless you have a person in charge who can “keep his head when all about them are losing theirs and blaming it on him” to paraphrase Rudyard Kipling. And that’s what Greg Fowler has done.
Now understand, I am not brown-nosing the man I fondly call “Boss.” Lord, anybody that knows me knows better than that. Greg and I didn’t always see eye-to-eye, and we had lots and lots and lots of closed door discussions on the finer points of education, but while I didn’t always agree with him I will say that he always saw the larger picture while I always had the narrower view.
And I will say this.
If you couldn’t work for Greg Fowler, you couldn’t work for anybody. As long as you were doing your job, he left you alone and let you do it. He only wanted results and did not try to micromanage you. When I was almost dead with cancer he arranged for me to have protégés available who could take over my class if I needed to sit down and take a break.
Besides that, he has been a great personal friend for 20 years.
Twenty years. Not many people will serve as a high school principal for 20 years again — not in the crucible that is public education in the urban suburbs. Not anywhere.
Thank you Greg Fowler for a job well done. Although few have ever said it, you have been appreciated and loved, and speaking as a former teacher and parent and stakeholder in the Rockdale community, we wish you all the best in your next endeavor.
Darrell Huckaby is an author in Rockdale County. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.