By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
TUPELO – When Gearl Loden was given his first teaching job, it came with a catch.
The history buff was hired by Noxapater Attendance Center to teach the subject that held his passion. He was also going to coach basketball.
Therein lay the problem. Loden hadn’t played organized basketball.
“They told me, you have a great GPA, you can figure out how to coach basketball,” Loden remembers.
So he did.
He spent hours reading, talking to successful coaches and studying what they did. He then went and won two junior high league championships in his three seasons. He led the varsity team to its first winning record in years.
Loden was introduced on Tuesday as the next superintendent of the Tupelo Public School District. Currently serving as Amory’s superintendent, he will officially begin his new job on July 1.
Those who have watched Loden grow up say the same determination that fueled him to learn how to coach basketball has often manifested itself in his life.
There was his struggle with dyslexia at a young age that did not stop him from eventually earning a doctorate degree.
Or there was the time he was hired as an elementary school principal although all of his prior experience was at the secondary-school level.
“He read and read and read,” remembers Wanda Dean of Oxford, Loden’s mentor in education who watched him prepare to take the job as an elementary school principal.
“He talked to people who were successful in working with children of that age, and he was in classrooms constantly learning from teachers about what worked and didn’t work. He really did learn a lot about literacy. He knows more about literacy than most superintendents I know.”
YOUTH IN MANTACHIE
Loden grew up as the only child of Hubert and Jane Loden. He remembers well the freedom of living in the country – romping in the woods, fishing and riding motorbikes and horses.
“We could be outside all day,” he said.
When Loden was 9, his mother was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Two years later, she also developed breast cancer, a disease that eventually took her life shortly before Loden graduated from college, something she had always wanted to see him do.
“He loved his dad, but his mother was always special to him,” remembers Betty Stembridge, who watched Loden grow up in Mantachie.
“He never failed to go to a flower shop and buy flowers for her whatever the occasion, Christmas, her birthday, whatever. He always knew what his mother was involved in, and he always bought her flowers. They were very close.”
As Loden’s mother struggled with her cancer, Loden began to work in high school to help his dad, a supervisor over the paint department at MTD Aircap, make ends meet.
He worked for Stembridge and her husband, Jackie, who owned a convenience store, grocery store and restaurant in town. Loden worked at all three.
“He was going to be successful,” Stembridge said. “He always did his best in anything he did, whether sweeping floor or helping a customer.”
Both Loden’s father and Jackie Stembridge, who was like a second father, have since died. Loden said he learned much from Jackie Stembridge during those years.
“He would always tell you never look down on anyone, listen to others’ concerns and provide quality customer service,” he said.
Loden continued to work for the Stembridges while he was in college. Sometimes he made the long drive from Delta State University in Cleveland when they needed extra help for a weekend.
“He worked with us, not really for us,” Betty Stembridge said. “He was always on time, dependable, honest. If I’d have had a son, I’d have wanted him to be like him.”
In 1995, Loden became a teacher at Tupelo High School, a job he held for three years, until he was offered an assistant principal job in Oxford.
Steven Blaylock, who was in Loden’s 10th-grade social studies class at THS in 1997, said it was one he recalls fondly.
Now the director of development for the Health Care Foundation, the philanthropic arm of North Mississippi Health Services, Blaylock said Loden is among the teachers he remembers the most from his years in school.
“You learned in his class whether you wanted to or not,” he said. “He got it through and he took the time to make sure everyone understood it … Some people just have a gift.”
While Loden was teaching in Tupelo, a mutual friend suggested he call Monica, then a nurse at the hospital. The history buff took his future wife to Shiloh on their first date.
“He called me, and we talked that first night, and we’ve never been apart since,” said Monica, who admits she was impressed by how well Loden knew the history of the Civil War battlefield. “I was just enamored by how smart he was.”
She became more enamored about a month later after her appendix burst on July 4 and she found herself in the hospital. Loden, who had only known her for a few weeks, visited her there every day.
“I knew then that he was the kind of person I wanted to be with,” she said.
Their 14-plus-year marriage began about a year later. The couple has two sons, Trey, 10, and Arthur, 3.
Monica said she still sees the same hunger for learning in her husband that she found endearing all of those years ago.
“He comes in in the evenings and spends time with me and the kids, and he starts reading,” she said. “He reads education journals. He reads every leadership book known to man. … That is his enjoyment, reading and trying to learn everything he can about whatever it is he is trying to do.”