Veteran principal changing course Last day of school for Smith, a charter resident of Columbia

June 10, 1998|By Erin Texeira | Erin Texeira,SUN STAFF

Jesse K. Smith jokes that he probably knows just about everyone in Howard County.

It's hardly a joke.

A native of western Howard, Smith has worked in Howard schools for more than three decades and lived in Columbia for as long as there has been a Columbia. Everywhere he goes, he bumps into someone he knows -- students, former students, co-workers, neighbors, fellow parishioners. And he loves it.

That kind of connection to the community makes his recent decision all the more difficult. Smith, who has been principal at Mayfield Woods Middle School in Elkridge for seven years, will retire at the end of June. Today is his last day at school.

As Smith enters his final weeks as an employee of Howard County schools, those who have worked with and learned under him express deep regret at his departure.

"Someone has got to pull his life together in a book," says Pat O'Malley, who is Smith's secretary and has worked with him for more than 17 years. "He is Howard County. He is Howard County."

Says School Superintendent Michael E. Hickey: "We're going to miss Jesse. He's really part of the institution."

And Sam Davis, who worked with Smith at Mayfield Woods and %% now is assistant principal at Glenwood Middle School, adds: "If he ran for political office, he would probably win by a landslide. He has touched so many lives."

Smith, 55, has no political ambitions. He does plan to keep working, but what kind of work that might be is uncertain, he says. Perhaps consulting, perhaps teaching. He has been contacted by several school districts and one university, he says.

"Mine is not a final retirement," he said, speaking from his office at Mayfield Woods one recent afternoon. "It is retiring from one career and going into another. Who knows, maybe I'll be bored in retirement and come back."

Man in motion

Boredom seems unlikely: The burly man with a gravely voice and a quick, dazzling smile works incredibly long hours, co-workers say. He works with his church, Hopkins United Methodist, and the school choir when not going fishing and camping with his family.

He is in constant motion.

Thoroughly engaged in the 565-student school outside his office, he can't seem to stay seated for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a stretch.

He gets up to correct a student kicking the wall outside his office. "Try putting your size 12s over here and out of the hallway, young man," he says.

He confers with teachers on end-of-the-year projects, then makes the afternoon announcements over the public address system.

He bids students goodbye at the end of each school day and often rides a school bus for a few blocks to send students off.

He knows their names

He spies a group of high school students approaching his campus before the final bell rings. Turns out they know him and have come back to visit.

This is hardly unusual.

Smith has been a teacher, assistant principal or principal for thousands of students. Many return to update him on their lives. Many return to thank him. He remembers all their names.

"Kids are always coming back, and he remembers all kinds of things about them and calls them by name," O'Malley says. "He asks me, 'Don't you remember so and so?' I'm amazed."

One day recently, $10 turned up missing and it seemed clear one student had taken it. But she wouldn't admit it.

"I told her I didn't think she was going to tell me the truth," Smith says, "but I said, 'Can you please just give me the money back?' " She returned the cash.

He laughs, shaking his head. "I read her. She wanted an out but she didn't want to admit it. She got suspended. But I gave her credit for admitting the truth -- I didn't give her the maximum suspension."

Smith adds, "It does me well to punish a child and then have the child not be angry with me. They tell me, 'Thank you, Mr. Smith. I'll see you when I get back to school.' That's respect. They know I've treated them fairly. They know I'm doing my job."

Early years of integration

Smith, who is African-American, knew he wanted to be a teacher in eighth grade. "Back then, blacks could either preach or teach, and I knew I wasn't made to be a preacher," he says.

ZTC Born and raised in Clarksville, he attended the county's only high school for blacks, Harriet Tubman. At Morgan State University, he received a bachelor's degree in history in 1965 and a master's degree in educational supervision and administration five years later.

In between, he began teaching, spending a year at Harlem Park Junior High in Baltimore before being hired at the now-closed Waterloo Middle School in 1966.

It was the second year of full integration in Howard schools. Though Smith was happy to be working close to home, he was not able to live in the neighborhoods surrounding the school because fair housing laws had not gone into effect, he says.

Since then, he has worked at six Howard County middle schools: Patapsco, Glenwood, Harper's Choice, Wilde Lake and Mayfield Woods, and Mount Hebron High.

At home in Columbia

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