Sunday, January 28, 2018

Saying Goodbye to The Velvet Hammer

My hometown community suffered a great loss last week when my friend, mentor, colleague, and former boss, Patsy Graham passed away. We haven’t stayed in consistent touch with each other since she retired several years ago, but that doesn’t soften my sense of loss or the grief I feel at her death. 

I have known her for close to 30 years with nine of those working together at Mainland High School. She was tough as nails and wouldn’t back down from anyone. Patsy was also incredibly gracious and would look for ways to help people fulfill their potential and become the best version of themselves they could possibly be. While she was known as a great leader and principal, it was her genuine concern for individuals and her desire to see them grow that truly marked her leadership. It’s this combination of strength and gentleness that helped to earn her the nickname, “The Velvet Hammer."

I remember hearing one story in particular coming out of a principal’s meeting. Another local leader was lamenting the difficulties of educating the students who were struggling at the bottom of the curve. This other principal commented that his overall school performance would improve if they didn’t have to deal with that group. In her inimitable southern accent, Patsy leaned across the table with fiery passion and said, “Send those students to us! We will educate them!” It was a perfect example of her commitment to bettering everyone within her reach without regard for what the system might have to say about it.

One of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had was when I left Mainland to go into ministry. I called and asked her if I could stop by her house as this needed to be a personal, face-to-face conversation. I distinctly remember being very nervous at sharing this news with her—not because I was afraid of her reaction, but because I didn’t want to disappoint her. We sat in recliners in her living room as I struggled to get the news out and to seek her input. I don’t know that I actually received her blessing that day even though she (grudgingly) understood my decision. She was so passionate about education and helping all of us—students and teachers alike—become better people and then sharing that legacy together.

The last time I saw her was almost two years ago at a Mainland family wedding. I didn’t know this would be our last chance to talk, but I felt compelled to share a few words with her. As she was getting ready to leave, I hugged her tightly and spoke in her ear over the loud reception music. I told her she was the best leader I had ever been privileged to work with and that her influence was tangibly evident in me and my views of those around me. I went on to let her know that there weren’t many days where I didn’t think about her and how well she cared for us all. I almost feel that those few moments were inadequate to fully describe her impact, but I at least wanted her to know how much she meant to me. We parted with a hug and “I love you,” not knowing it would be the last time we spoke.

There isn’t one person who will be able to fill her role, but all of us who have been impacted by her will do our best to keep working for the good cause. We will be strong when it is needed and stand for those who can’t stand for themselves. We will be compassionate and understanding while believing the best in others. We will strive to lead others to work together for the common good and look for every moment to do what’s right. It won’t be easy, but together we can continue to see her good work continued. 

You will be greatly missed, my friend. We will do our best to carry your legacy forward.