Longtime educator retires after 38 years

Al Abbott taught history, was school administrator

Education Beat

News from Carroll County schools and colleges

April 10, 2005|By Gina Davis | Gina Davis,SUN STAFF

Ask Al Abbott when he was born, and he will answer like the history teacher he is at heart.

"Dec. 21, 1941," he says. "Fourteen days after Pearl Harbor."

Historical dates and facts, such as the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack on U.S. military forces in Pearl Harbor, have long come easily to Abbott. That knack was something he decided as a young man in his 20s to share by becoming a teacher.

Now, after more than 38 years with the Carroll County school system, Abbott has retired.

The last position he held was as assistant principal at Francis Scott Key High in Union Bridge, but what lights his eyes up is reminiscing about his students and his days in the classroom.

He rattles off the names of students who have gone on to become high-ranking military officers, doctors, lawyers, business professionals - and teachers.

"I've had people come back and say, `I'm going to be a teacher because of you,'" he said recently. "To see them giving back what was given to them - that's why I got into education."

He keeps in touch with many of his former students, especially those in the military. Three years ago, he was at the graduation of a former student who had finished his studies at the Naval Academy and plans to attend that student's wedding.

"I'm very upset he's retiring," said Aubrey Cunningham, 17, a senior at Key. "He was always fair and made you feel like your opinion counted."

Aubrey said Abbott was never one to jump to conclusions when a student was sent to the office. Instead he was willing to hear both sides of the story. She added that once he knew a student, he could always sense when something was wrong.

"He was easy to trust," she said. "He always made people feel they could go talk to him about anything."

Abbott has a soft spot for former students who are pursuing careers in the armed services. After all, it's where he landed after graduating from high school with little idea of what to do next.

His penchant for history came naturally, he said, but he wasn't much of a scholar.

"I didn't pay attention to education until I went into the service," he said.

In the military, he worked alongside Naval Academy graduates, many of whom encouraged him to go to college.

After two years in the Navy, Abbott changed course and signed up for summer classes at what is now Frostburg State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in history. He later earned a master's degree in history from Morgan State University.

During nearly four decades with the local school system, Abbott held teaching and administrative positions at two high schools, Key and North Carroll High in Hampstead.

He taught history at North Carroll High for 14 years. In 1980, he became assistant principal at Key, where he stayed for six years before accepting the same position at North Carroll.

His second stint at North Carroll lasted 10 years. That's when, in 1996, he made his last move back to Key as its assistant principal.

"I loved teaching, loved the classroom," he said. "The thing that's overwhelming is to think about all the young people, and there are thousands," who have come through his classes.

Although his favorite means of digesting history was to memorize it, he didn't hold his students to the same standard. To him, it mattered more that they understand the context of the events they were studying.

"It's so important that those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it," he said. "Kids need to pay attention to what's going on these days."

To Randy Clark, principal at Key, Abbott has been a mentor since the two met at North Carroll, when Clark taught health and physical education and Abbott was second-in-command. Eventually, Clark became Abbott's boss at Key, but the elder educator remains the one he looks to for advice.

"From teaching to administration, he has always spent a lot of time talking to me and helping me prepare," Clark said.

He recalled that Abbott always wanted to be the first one in the building, arriving by 6:15 a.m. most days. No one knows if it's true, but legend has it that Abbott once arrived at school at 4:30 a.m. to be the first one there.

"One time, I came in extra early," Clark said. "He saw me and ran down the hall to beat me to the office. He just had to be there first."

Abbott said he simply enjoyed the peace of a quiet school, but admits he has always been a stickler for being early. It also entitled him to a parking space close to the front door.

Although Abbott has retired, he won't be leaving the school system anytime soon.

This month, he began working part time as the site coordinator for the district's Community Learning Center program. His salary is being funded by a federal grant that encourages schools to develop tutorial programs and other after-school clubs and activities. He is planning a summer program for incoming freshmen to help them prepare for high school studies.

Abbott has taken the concept of the lifelong learner and fashioned into that of lifelong teacher.

"There have been many rewards along the way. Many of them are not tangible," he said. "It's when students come back, and they say good things about how they are doing. That's what makes it all worthwhile."

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