Pupils recall principal who showed them how to soar

Abington educator died Tuesday at his school

September 02, 2006|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,Sun reporter

Franklin Tull was always looking to take his students higher. So when a group of fourth- and fifth-graders from William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary were preparing for a paper airplane competition in March, he arranged for a bus and took them to a local airfield, where he walked them through a preflight inspection of a four-seat, single-engine airplane.

Then he hopped into the cockpit and took off. The childrens' necks craned as their principal climbed into the sky, and they crowded him after he landed, demanding to know what it was like.

"We thought it might be a great way for the kids to see a plane up close and personal, not even thinking he might go up in the air," said Margene Versace, a teacher who was there that day.

The 53-year-old principal had planned for this year to be his last as an educator. Thirty-one years ago, he landed a job out of college teaching at William Paca/Old Post Road - a two-building campus in Abingdon - and came full-circle when he returned in 1997 as principal. Much of his retirement would likely be spent in the skies with the pilot's license he had secured this year.

Just two days into the new school year, his staff found him on the floor of a bathroom, dead of natural causes. Yesterday, his students and teachers came streaming through the rain to pay respects at the viewing, many still in shock over his sudden death.

"He was a gift of God to the community, and he was admired just for who he was," said John Jay Bonstingl, an education consultant in Columbia.

The school year had begun like any other. Always clad in a suit and tie, Tull bounced between buildings, his day planner bulging with papers and tucked under his arm. He set up chairs for an open house, dropped into each classroom to greet the students and talked with their parents. If the cafeteria staff needed help, he'd even dish out hot sandwiches.

A champion of mentoring programs, he coordinated how those programs would be carried out. And a week before the first day of school, he was on hand as the school received a $60,000 grant to build a new playground. The children had started the effort by collecting $16,000 in pennies.

"He always said, `It's gonna be a fantastic year,'" recalled Assistant Principal Joan Wiggins. "He told us we were the best in Harford County - students, teachers and staff. There was nothing we couldn't tackle."

Because of the layout of the school buildings, it was not uncommon to go stretches of time without seeing Tull. With two buildings to oversee, he had two offices, two teams of staff members and two sets of pupils. Dismissal could be particularly hectic, with 30 buses to load.

On Tuesday, Wiggins was talking to a parent when she was asked if she knew whether someone was locked in one of the faculty restrooms. The question was posed several more times until a custodian went to open the door.

Inside, Tull was on the floor, not breathing.

The next day, crisis teams were sent to the elementary school.

"A student asked me this morning, `Is it true Mr. Tull died?'" said Assistant Principal Carol Crouse. "I said, `Yes, its true. He got sick, and the doctors tried to help him.'"

For elementary-age children, the concept of death is difficult to grasp, teachers said. They were each given a statement that Mr. Tull had passed away and that it was unexpected. They asked students to relate whether they had ever lost a loved one.

"Did someone in your family pass away?" they asked.

As his two offices were cleaned out, students were asked to draw pictures of how they would remember him. Using crayons and construction paper, they drew pictures that showed Tull flying a red airplane over a bright green field, past a smiling sun. Another drew him clad in a blue suit and red cape. "My Superman," it read.

"We all feel sorry but he still lives on in our hearts," read another.

School ended early yesterday at William Paca/Old Post Road Elementary, where the roadside sign read, "We'll miss you, Mr. Tull." Huddled under umbrellas, mourners waited outside the Helping Hands Ministry in Churchville for the viewing.

"He made a big difference in the school system and was really someone [students] could look up to," said Rhonda Smith, a PTA parent who brought her 10-year-old daughter, Rachel.

"The day he died, he came into the classroom and told me I was doing a really good job," Rachel said.

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

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