By Chris Kieffer/NEMS Daily Journal
PLANTERSVILLE – Many hugs were given on Monday at Plantersville Middle School.
The day marked the first time students and teachers were together since learning Principal Bill Horton died at his home Friday from a heart attack.
“We had to come back together,” said sixth-grade math teacher Joan Stiles. “We had a lot of tears shed this morning, and students grabbed hold of each other and embraced and let it all out.”
Horton, 65, had been at the school for more than seven years. Before that, he coached multiple sports at Verona Elementary School.
Former Lee County Superintendent Johnny Green will serve as interim principal during the short term. Current Lee County Superintendent Jimmy Weeks said he does not yet know the long-term plan.
The school’s flag flew at half staff on Monday and the message sign in front of it read, “Mr. Horton, forever in our hearts.” Red and white bows with a black ribbon adorned the front door and the entrance to Horton’s office, which still held his diplomas, autographed footballs and basketballs and a plaque celebrating the school being named a Title 1 Distinguished School in 2011.
That honor is for schools with good test scores and high concentrations of poverty.
“That was a huge honor,” Plantersville Intervention Specialist Laura Lee said of the award. “He was so proud of the faculty and the students.”
Many of those students wrote messages to their former principal on two large sheets of white paper attached to the front door.
“He was a good principal,” said eighth-grader Gabrillia Pickens, 14. “He cared about us, and he encouraged us to do our best in everything we did.
“He was my favorite principal because he motivated us. He did things to help us that other principals did not do.”
Eighth-grade inclusion teacher Chevelle Champ Vasser said Horton was always concerned about helping the many students at the school who came from high-poverty homes.
“He reminded us we don’t know where they came from and that what we said may change their lives,” she said.
Said Plantersville Intervention Coach Debra McCly: “He used any means necessary to motivate students. Seldom would he speak about our school or our students without tearing up.”
Gabrillia and fellow student Matthew Calise, 14, remembered a story Horton had recently told the student body.
In it, Horton was coaching a youth league baseball team in the championship game. Horton’s team was down to its final out, but he brought in a batter who was physically handicapped but who had always wanted to play baseball.
The team lost the game, Horton had said, and the player died the next day. The students said Horton began to cry as he finished the story by telling them, ‘We knew we gave him his dream before he died.’”
“That was how he felt about life,” Vasser said of Horton.
She also remembered Horton’s final faculty meeting last Monday.
“He told us, ‘Let’s throw the traditional ways of teaching out and let’s find strategies these kids need for Common Core. We need to find a way to reach these kids,’” she said.
Several counselors, including those from nearby schools, were available on Monday for grieving students and teachers. All schools in the southern end of Lee County also dismissed early on Monday to allow people to attend Horton’s funeral.
Plantersville Counselor Dan Rupert said he and others visited each of the school’s classrooms in the morning to discuss the news with the students.
“We’re numb,” said Lee, while helping to clean Horton’s office. “So many of us are still in shock because it was unexpected.”