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.

41 thoughts on “A Principled Principal

  1. I just wanted you to know that I really enjoy your Friday messages and your books. Your messages are the first one I read on Fridays. You have had an interesting life. I miss your in person book tours. I would like to know, if I sent you my unsigned books would you sign them?
    I would pay postage both ways. I just live down the road from you in Olympia.
    Merry Christmas

  2. I can relate to those who could type being relegated to office duty. My summer school typing class after 8th grade was my worse high school grade but mom was right in making me take it.

  3. God bless Ed James…may he rest in well-deserved peace. He was a blessing to many.

  4. At some time in our lives we need to hear the testimony of how another ordinary person made it through their difficult time. It’s what gives us hope and often motivates us to continue living. We all need a hero even if we don’t call him that just so aloneness is proved unreal. Thanks for sharing yours.

  5. What lovely memories and tribute to an outstanding educator. Bringing humanity and true caring to that job is a sign of greatness. I am sure every child at his school learned from him.
    How fortunate your children and you were to have him in your lives.

  6. Like every friday, I am transported back to my own experiences.’
    Like every friday, I am in tears reading and then recalling my own experiences.
    I am transported back.
    I LOVE fridays. I read with love, admiration and appreciation.

  7. I woke up this morning thinking about Horatio Alger stories (which category Jance books fall into) and how our culture is obsessed with people getting very rich or powerful through luck or hard work or both. Far more common, though, are the real-life people who take a rough start and work their way into the solid middle, and your Ed James is one of those. Thanks for profiling him here.

    He reminded me of the Physical Education teacher my children had in elementary school. He’s retired from school teaching now but I see he offers tennis lessons, and I’d guess he was active in folk dancing circles till the pandemic. Once a teacher always a teacher! He was always more concerned with sportsmanship and fitness than with winning, and all the kids adored him, even when the annual folk dancing unit meant you had to hold hands with some cootie-bearing member of the opposite gender. I hear they named the gym in the new building after him.

  8. He sounded like an amazing person and what an example to his students! I’m sorry for your loss of your friend!

  9. Judy,
    It’s always great hearing about teachers and principals who were a positive force in our lives. Usually, we didn’t realize at the time how much they influenced us. This blog brings to mind several teachers I love to remember. Thank you!

  10. I wake up on Friday mornings with the pleasant thought of reading your weekly story. So often the stories set me to thinking about my own related experiences. This morning’s story lead me to remembering the various principal and administrators that I have known.
    We had a superintendent here in our town that visited every classroom in our small district on the first day of school. He returned a couple of times a year to each school to visit classrooms and to shoot baskets on the playground.
    He retired before the district got too big to handle his involvement. But the teacher all fondly remember the visits from Mr. Dixon.

  11. Thanks for sharing your story of Ed. He sounds as though he was born to be a principal and encouragement to children. I am sorry for the loss of your friend. He must have been a true “stand up” guy. Makes me wonder if he will pop up in a future book as someone who rescues a dog or child or maybe an old buddy of Beau!
    Prayers for you and your family and the family and friends of Ed.

    • Actually, there is a portrait of Ed James in Without Due Process in a character named Carl Johnson.

  12. My daughter has been a middle school math year for 27 years. She had a principal for a number of years that sounded like Ed.

  13. Last year we lost one of our Seasoal workers at our NPS preserve. Due to Covid. He was a Native American from the Alabama-Coushatta Tribe. Ronnie was a soft spoken tall (big) man. Hard worker, pleasant man to talk to as an Admin gal. RIP Ronnie and Ed.

  14. You claim you reply to all of your comments on your blog. Apparently I’ve been blogged because I said Joanna Brady was alternately 5’4″, 5’3″, and 5’1″. I don’t have enough time left to bother with narcissists. So, you can leave me blocked. I don’t care. If your that touchy, you aren’t worth the correspondence.

      • I believe I’ve mentioned several times that Joanna’s height has gone up and down. That’s what happens when you have several copy-editors.

        As far as I know you’re not blocked or blogged. It sounds as though you’re having a tough day.

        By the way, I heard that the guy who invented autocorrect just died. His funeral is tomato.

  15. ??
    Ed must still live in many hearts.
    I grew up near Holly street. The same street in it’s West Seattle location.

  16. Thanks again for ur blog as usual interesting and ‘food for thought’. Chuck from Tacoma.

  17. Ed rescued that tiny puppy- I’m sure that every day, in ways not as dramatic, Ed rescued children from the many challenges we all face while growing up-
    From worry about learning disabilities, from the emotional fallout of difficult home lives-
    Having worked in schools for years, knowing about Ed is an inspiration to all who care about kids-

  18. Thank you for sharing such a beautiful story about Ed. He made a big difference in this this world and your world. We need more people like Ed.

  19. Ed was “a giant of a man”. I was lucky to have known him and been his friend. I will forever be touched by his reaching out to me before he died. Thank you JA for your beautiful tribute to him, that others may know him too.

  20. Having spent a good deal of my retirement promoting education opportunities for underserved students, I am fortunate to meet many other Principals like Ed. They are dedicated to their schools, staff and students. What a blessing they are! Great tribute!

  21. I can’t decide which I enjoy more, your books or your blogs. This one is great, even with a sad ending. Thanks for the smiles and the tears.

  22. Well, I sure needed a principal like him. He is not the black sheep of the family he is part of your chosen family. Thanks to this story of encouragement as I was sad to read about my own high school in Pahokee, Fl left empty now; it was built before the 1928 hurricane. The few teachers there who really had a calling changed my life. I could not find out about integration but remember we were all in it together regardless of skin color or ability. So we helped and encouraged each other.

  23. I am glad to have read that Ed made it into one of your books in the character named Carl. I was going to suggest putting him in a book would be an awesome away honour his memory, but you went one better and did it when he was still alive and could know/read about it. You’re a class act J.A. Janice. Thanks for sharing some of Ed with us. <3

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