You can only imagine the thoughts and emotions running through Billy Starks’ mind Friday as he drove away from Pine Forest Middle School.
He surely gave thought to the students and the teachers.
“I love everything about the school,” Starks, 67, was saying before taking his final leave from the Cumberland County school where he has been principal since the 2009-2010 academic year. “One of the main reasons I have worked so long is because of Pine Forest Middle School. The parents and students are the best, and the faculty and staff are outstanding, hard-working people that care about their students.”
And many of the teachers, parents and students will tell you no one cares more about students than Starks, who always had time and a smile for all of them. And of all the lessons he has taught in 45 years as an educator, it was the lessons he learned from his teachers long ago that were his blueprint every school day.
“I knew the greatest thing I’ve learned in education is also the thing that I have tried to teach others,” Starks says. “Building relationships is most important and letting people know that you sincerely care about them and that you are there to support them if needed. We have tried to create a family atmosphere here at Pine Forest Middle School by treating everyone with dignity and respect, while still holding them accountable. When I'm walking the halls, I am smiling and speaking to everyone I pass, and my staff knows they can come to me about anything.”
Starks cannot look back on his 45 years as a teacher, a coach and a principal without remembering his teachers, coaches, principals and colleagues who were there for him as a student at Reid Ross High School in the late 1970s, as well as others.
“John Daskal has probably been the most influential,” Starks says. “He coached me in high school and then helped me get a job back at Reid Ross. And then he helped me through all of my bumps, and there were many more than I want to admit. He took very good care of me. We talked all the time. In my opinion, God did not make a better person than John Daskal.”
Daskal remembers well the kid who grew up off of Ramsey Street, not far from Reid Ross High, and he takes pride in what his former student became in life after graduating from the University of North Carolina at Pembroke before embarking on his career in education.
“He played defensive back for us and graduated in 1972,” Daskal, 87, says. “He was a good player and always tried his best. He started teaching with us after college. He coached the ninth-grade football team and helped us on the varsity team. He’s just a good person and a good individual.”
Starks loved athletics.
He loved the games, be it football or baseball. He wasn’t going to land a Heisman Trophy in football or make it into the major league of baseball fame. But he was an athlete who listened to his coaches and respected them all the more at Reid Ross High and beyond.
He points to Reid Ross coaches to include Sonny Basinger, Charlie Underwood, Jake Woullard, Judy Shelton and Jack McGinley, his old Reid Ross High School principal. He doesn’t forget others such as Jim Simpson, Gary Weller, Wayne Byrd, Marvin Lucas, Dan Krumanocker, Terry Brown, Fred Hill and Harold Warren, the longtime principal at Pine Forest High School.
His 45 years in education took Starks from Reid Ross and Pine Forest high schools to Spring Lake Junior High to Reid Ross Classical and finally to Pine Forest Middle School, and his years in education are not lost on Marvin Connelly Jr., superintendent for Cumberland County Schools.
Connelly knows a good principal and teacher when he sees one. And Connelly knows a good principal and teacher when he loses one.
“Mr. Starks has been a tremendous educator and leader in Cumberland County Schools,” Connelly says. “His nearly 45 years of service have greatly impacted the lives of numerous students, educators and families throughout this district. While we're glad he will be able to enjoy his retirement, the passion that he shows every day for our students will truly be missed.”
As for further affirmation of Starks, give a listen to Wendy Bozeman, the librarian at Pine Forest Middle School.
“Mr. Starks is the best boss I've ever had,” she says. “He has proven he can be in two places at one time. In front to lead us and behind to have our backs. He will be sorely missed.”
No boss could receive a higher compliment.
So, Billy Starks has taken his leave from Pine Forest Middle School after 25 years, the last 13 as its principal.
“The main reason I have decided to retire is because I'm 67 years old and I know no one is promised tomorrow,” Starks says. “So I thought I should try and work on my bucket list while I'm still healthy enough to get around. I am excited about doing things I have always wanted to do and sad to leave all of the wonderful relationships I have at Pine Forest Middle School and in Cumberland County Schools.”
He will not miss the early morning school bell.
He will not miss the new technology teaching techniques, either.
“The biggest change I've seen is technology and how much it is used and depended on,” Starks says. “I still struggle with all the new things we use now.”
As for today’s students, Starks says, they are about the same as when he was in school.
“Some are great and care about their education,” he says, “Some do not. There are many more distractions now to get them side-tracked and in trouble, and the trouble can be much more serious now.”
Trouble or not, every student knows they had Starks, a principal and a teacher who made a difference in their lives. And Starks, you can be sure of this, made educators like Sonny Basinger, Charlie Underwood, Jake Woullard, Judy Shelton and John Daskal proud of the educator he became.
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-624-1961.