A Principled Principal

When my daughter entered third grade at Brighton Elementary in Seattle, her principal was Ed James, a giant of a man—six-four or six-five who weighed in at 300 pounds or so. He had the hulking look of an NFL player, a tackle maybe. He made my six-one seem small, and that’s going some. Ed was the kind of guy who showed up at his students’ soccer games on Saturday mornings and afternoons. That’s where I first made his acquaintance–on the sidelines at Jeanne T’s soccer games.

When I learned that my former husband was hospitalized in Arizona and most likely dying, I let the principals at both schools know what was going on in our family. Later, after my husband passed away, we held a memorial service for him here in Seattle. Ed James was there. The other principal wasn’t.

By the time I sold my first book, both of my kids were attending Brighton. When my agent called with the news that Avon was offering me a two-book contract, I phoned Ed and asked if he would call the kids to the office so I could let them know what was going on. As far as I know, my daughter was never summoned to the principal’s office for any nefarious reason. My son was a whole other story. Ed told me later that as my son came down the hall that day, Ed could hear him saying, “Whatever it is, I didn’t do it!”

One day during lunchtime, an old man from the neighborhood was out walking his chihuahua. As they passed the school grounds, the two of them were attacked by a local drug dealer’s pit bull. Ed wrested a broom from a nearby custodian, clambered over the fence, and literally pried that little dog out of the jaws of death. In that moment, he became a larger-than-life hero to a schoolyard full of wide-eyed little kids, many of whom remember that incident to this day.

After graduating from Garfield High School, Ed tried college for a time, but it didn’t take. Instead, he ended up being drafted and sent to Vietnam. Someone in his unit figured out he knew how to type, so he spent most of his deployment doing office work. However, one night, just after his birthday, he was sent out on guard duty and took along the care package that had just come from home for his birthday—his mother’s fruitcake. He had stowed his weapon in preparation for eating the fruitcake when he heard a rustling in the brush. As he was setting the fruitcake aside to reach for his weapon, a wild boar stepped out into the clearing. The animal looked first at Ed and then at the fruitcake. Making up its mind, the boar grabbed the fruitcake and disappeared into the brush. Years later, he still missed that fruitcake, but that very night, in a prayer of profound gratitude, he promised the Man Upstairs that if he made it back to the States safely, he would go back to school and make something of himself.

He did exactly that. In the process, he discovered that part of his problem with going to college had to do with an undiagnosed learning disability. He earned his degrees, but in order to do so, he had to have textbooks and exams read to him. He told me that once he became a school principal, he kept his grade school report cards in his desk so he could show kids that just because they were having difficulties in school didn’t mean they were doomed to failure.

After Bill and I married and the family moved away from downtown Seattle, we stayed in touch with Ed. One year, he came to our family Christmas celebration, L’il Jul Aften—Little Christmas Eve. One of our friends, Dick Sawyer, was a white-haired little old guy with a prize-winning beard that could have given Santa’s a run for his money. When Ed and Dick met in a narrow hallway, Dick peered up at Ed and said, “Who are you?” “Me?” Ed replied. “I’m the black sheep of the family.” Oh, wait, did I fail to mention Ed was Black?

We played golf with Ed and some of his friends from time to time. He always referred to Bill as “the Big Guy,” even though, in comparison to Ed’s physical stature, Bill isn’t that big at all.

Time passed. A couple of decades. When Jeanne T. and Jon married, there was Ed James at the reception, belting out YMCA along with all the rest of us.

More years passed. The last time I saw Ed was at least a year and a half ago, when he showed up at one of Colt’s bowling tournaments. That, of course, was before we all went into forced hibernation. I learned a few weeks back that Ed was in hospice, and this week marks his passing. I’m sorry we missed touching bases these past two years.

He was a good man, a trusted friend, and a great principal. He was a hero, not only for me, my and countless other people’s kids, but also for that terrified little chihuahua.

Because of Ed James, that little pup lived to see another day.