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George Towery -- An American Hero

A couple of weeks ago, Northern Virginia lost a man of great decency and dignity in George Towery. I knew George since 2011, when we hired him to serve as a facilitator in our after-school program of civic engagement for low-income, immigrant youth at T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, VA. George was the anchor of that program as he later came to be at our Wakefield High School in Arlington, VA. His relationships with our teenage participants, everyone of whom he knew by name, was based on his profound respect for the individual and his high regard for basic human dignity. In return, the youth respected and admired him, treating him as a surrogate grandfather. He was the classic example of intergenerational bonding at its best.

There was an obvious reason for this. George was a lifelong educator. Before he retired from Fairfax County Public Schools in 2010, George served as the principal at Cameron Elementary School for 30 years and before that he was the principal of Lorton Elementary School for a decade. His career in education began even earlier; he started as a sixth grade teacher at Crestwood Elementary School in 1965.

George's passing was met with an onslaught of Facebook postings as the word got around that he was gone. Former students and people that knew him reminisced about his kindness. Upon hearing that two children did not catch the bus and were going to miss the end-of-year party, George drove to their house, picked them up, and brought them to school. He would meet people on the street years after they had attended his school and know them by name before they even had the chance to speak. There were numerous stories of his ability to engage and inspire students, countless examples of the help he offered, not just to his students but to their families as well, and his unfailing ability to bring out the best in everyone around him, inspiring them to aim high with their goals for their lives.

An evening memorial gathering was held for Mr. Towery the day before his funeral. Within 15 minutes of the advertised start time, the hall was so crowded that you could barely move. People from all walks of life, all ethnic backgrounds, all religious affiliations, appeared to honor George and his many contributions to the community. The next day, the funeral service was packed.

George Towery was everything that was right with American public education. His philosophy was "children first," and everything he did was for their benefit. He was an educator first and an administrator second, which is how it should be, not only for principals but for counselors and maintenance workers, kitchen and administrative staff, every person employed in our schools who is not in the classroom but whose fundamental job is still to make the educational experience for our children a positive one. George Towery thought that way. He brought honor to his profession and inspired more than one young person to make a career of education. For those of you interested in his story, and his spot-on thoughts on American public education, please get a hold of his book, Touched by a Child: A Principal's Story. You can finish it in one sitting. It will be time well spent.

Many of the people reading this blog did not know George Towery. You do, though, just not by that name. In our age of the non-stop negativity yap, we forget that there are folks like George Towery in every community. You know them. They protect and serve the public, they own stores and shops and restaurants, they service your car or style your hair, they help you stay healthy, they care for your pets. They live in quiet dignity and decency, and work to pay down the mortgage on their house and raise their kids, just like the rest of us. They may even shake their head sadly at our current political malaise (like George did), but they carry on, living the best they can, their example showing the rest of us how to live an honorable and impactful life.

Let's not forget these folks are out there. They will keep us going when the experts and the pundits say we have no chance. They are the foundation and backbone of our country. They may even be you.

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