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Culbreath gives more in retirement

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- John Culbreath had done his time.

After serving for six years as superintendent of the Dougherty County School System to cap a 33-year career in K-12 education, retiring, "unretiring" for a couple of years to help out at his alma mater, Albany State University, and then proclaiming, "In the words of that great American C.W. Grant, 'Lord, I've done done what you told me to do'," Culbreath walked away with a heart full of accomplishment and set on spending his days fishing and playing golf.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the fishing hole.

"The one thing I'd vowed to do when I retired was to give up community service," Culbreath said. "I'd always had a problem saying no, but after doing it about 10 times it started to feel good to me. I got to where I'd tell people no before they even had a chance to tell me what they wanted."

Culbreath thought he'd found peace with his new outlook on life, not realizing he'd actually done the opposite.

"It got to where I couldn't sleep at night," he says of his post-retirement woes. "I was nervous all the time; I just couldn't be happy. I went outside and looked up for an answer. I asked 'What do you expect of me?' and the response was a little four-letter word that changed my life: MORE."

Since that awakening, Culbreath has become the go-to guy in the community when it comes to service. At 63, his laundry list of activities includes the Salvation Army board of directors, a Community in Schools volunteer, the ASU Foundation, the Flint RiverQuarium board, the Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital board, coordinator of the Alpha Phi Alpha middle school boys mentoring program, past chairmanship of the Albany Area Chamber of Commerce and co-coordinator of the chamber's Strive2Thrive poverty initiative.

"I've gotten to the point now where I almost can't say no," Culbreath laughs. "If I have something going on that would keep me from some activity, I ask if they can reschedule it."

Born in Monroe, Ga., Culbreath started his student career at Carver High School with little ambition. "All I wanted to do was have plenty to eat, to play ball and to watch TV," he said. But a special lady changed all that.

"My high school English teacher, Mrs. Grace Cross Randall, saw something in me that no one elese did," Culbreath said. "Despite what everyone else thought, she decided I was a smart boy, and she set out to prove it. She rode me hard and put me up wet. When I reached a plateau, she'd ratchet things up.

"Mrs. Randall took me on as a special case, and by the time I graduated Carver in 1964, I'd gone from being a kid with little ambition to being the highest-ranking student in our school."

Many of the teachers at Carver were Fort Valley State College graduates, and they encouraged their students to attend their alma mater. But Culbreath's French teacher was an Albany State College alum, and he planted a seed that brought his young charge to the Southwest Georgia institution.

"(Former Westover High School coaching legend) Willie Boston actually had a lot to do with me coming to Albany State," said Culbreath, whose booming voice and well-cultivated sense of humor make him a favorite in the community. "There was a picture of him on the cover of the school's recruiting brochure, and I decided I was going to be on that cover one day.

"I decided to go to Albany State, walk on with the basketball team and in three years become the star of the team. Of course, I was a mediocre high school basketball player, and when I went to Albany State's first practice, I saw that John I. Davis -- who was 6-foot-5 -- had been moved to guard because he was too short to play down low. Our center was 7 feet tall, one forward was 6-foot-10 and the other was 6-foot-11."

Culbreath lets that information sink in and delivers the punch line.

"So I ended up playing intramural basketball and was mediocre there," he laughs.

After earning his bachelor's degree in French with a minor in English at ASU, Culbreath taught high school English and French for four years in Cuthbert. He became an assistant principal in the small community before taking two years off to attend graduate school at the University of Georgia.

He became the assistant principal ("I was the designated hitter," he laughs) at Monroe Area High School in his hometown before being named principal of the state's second multidistrict high school: Randolph-Clay High.

"I guess when the challenge is so great that the smart people don't seek it, that leaves a job open for me," Culbreath said. "Who else would take a job where two rival high schools are coming together like at Randolph-Clay? What we did was do away with all of the school colors, mascots, coats-of-arms ... everything to do with each individual school.

"We had a committee of students come up with a new everything for the combined school, and that helped us have a relatively smooth transition. Things got a little better each year until we had a class graduate that had been at Randolph-Clay all four years. That's the only high school they knew, and things went smoothly after that."

Culbreath became a middle school principal in Athens before being called to Glynn County by Kermit Keenum, a man who would become Culbreath's mentor, to serve as assistant superintendent for the county's school district.

"Kermit thought it was foolish to have all areas of the operation reporting to him, so he brought on an assistant superintendent of instruction and of operations to help with management," Culbreath said. "The one thing I tried to do was get input from everyone involved in the education process. I asked the principals, the teachers, the coaches, the cafeteria employees, the custodians how we could make their departments run most efficiently.

"I belive none of us are as smart as all of us, so I listened to every stakeholder, incorporated their ideas and gave them credit for it."

Culbreath made one more stop -- as principal of North Atlanta High School for the Performing Arts -- before landing a job as superintendent of schools with the Dougherty County School System.

"I'd applied for six different superintendent positions and didn't get them, so when the Dougherty position came open I told myself I'd give it one more shot," he said. "I was in my 27th year, and I said if this didn't work out, that was it.

"I came here to interview, and a perfect storm kind of fell into place ... literally. Albany was under a tornado watch when I arrived, and at one point I walked outside, looked up and asked if this was some kind of personal message. But I got the position and spent six years using the opportunity to try and make a difference in as large a number of people as I could."

In retirement, Culbreath has continued to work with school children, but he has not insinuated himself into the running of the Dougherty school system.

"I gladly talk with any individual who asks my advise, but I don't meddle," he said. "Any thing anyone asks for my help with, I'm poised to do it. But I try not to sit in judgement of any decisions made by current administrators. In fact, I challenge everyone in the community to be open-minded and give our school leaders two things: Give your advice freely and give them a chance."

Many have mentioned Culbreath as a potential political candidate to help what is widely perceived in the community as a leadership crisis. He says he's not interested.

"I have no political interest because of what elected service has become," he said. "City commission, county commission, school board, state Senate, state House ... all have become a place where people throw darts. That tends to make people in office become what they're not.

"I take pride in being one of the village keepers, in offering my behind-the-scenes support. Of course, if I were 20 years younger, I could make it work. I had a higher tolerance then for fools, for false accusations, for the gaming that comes with the position. Now you're -- depending on the people who don't agree with you -- a racist, an Uncle Tom, a militant, a white supremacist. I would feel confined by that."

Of course, not everyone wants to see John Culbreath spend his free time serving in elected office. There are too many community organizations that rely on his decision to give more.