John Culbreath stands outside the Dougherty County School Administration Building on Washington Street, where he served six years as superintendent of schools. Since retiring from a career as an educator, he has become a "professional volunteer." (July 10, 2013)
ALBANY, Ga. -- John Culbreath has a funny notion about retirement.
That is, when he can make a retirement stick.
The former Dougherty County school superintendent is as busy as he ever was during his education career, which spanned more than three decades from Cuthbert to his hometown of Monroe to Athens to Albany, and from the classroom to the principal's office to superintendent to interim dean of a department at Albany State University.
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But earlier this month, he took an hour to talk with me about a wide range of topics, primarily about education. We met at Carter's Grill, where for more than four decades Albany residents and many others have dined on some truly Southern cuisine.
After going through the cafeteria-style line, he found a table off to the side of the dining area. We chatted between mouthfuls of baked chicken (Culbreath) and meat loaf (me).
The first thing I was curious about was why Culbreath, who earned a doctor of education degree from the University of Georgia, chose a career as an educator. The answer centered on -- as it often does -- a remarkable, unforgettable teacher. This one, Grace Randall, redirected the life path of a brash young high school freshman at Carver High School in Walton County who thought he wanted to grow up to be a pro wrestler.
THE JOHN CULBREATH FILE
OCCUPATION: Retired educator and "professional volunteer"
WHAT HE'S DONE: Former Dougherty County school superintendent; former interim department dean at Albany State University; served various capacities in six school systems
CURRENTLY VOLUNTEERING: Chairman, Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital Board; board member, boards including Strive2Thrive, the Salvation Army, Community in Schools and Consumer Credit Counseling
FAMILY: Wife, former Barbara Williams, a retired school teacher; two daughters, Cynthia, third-level manager with Procter & Gamble in Cincinnati, and Carletha, elementary school special education teacher in Albany; son, Adrian James, computer technology, Washington, D.C.
EDUCATION: B.A., French, Albany State College (University); master's, administration and supervision, Georgia State University; doctor of education, University of Georgia
AWARDS: ASU Alumni Hall of Fame; GAEL H.M. Fullbright Distinguished Service Award; Gamma Omicron Lambda chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Man of the year (twice); Leadership Albany Ed Freeman Outstanding Leadership Award
HOBBIES: Fishing, reading, writing, watching sports, traveling, cooking and tinkering with computers
"She was the ideal teacher as far as being knowledgeable, caring, dedicated," Culbreath said. "I just wanted to be like her.
"But," he admitted with a chuckle, "I didn't start off liking her very much."
Culbreath was 12 and small for his age, heading into the ninth grade at Carver. He had one focus.
"I only had one ambition," he said, "and that was to make a whole lot of money. And with that money -- this was 1960 -- I was going to buy a 1957 Chevrolet, the best car ever made. I didn't have a family member who had a car, I was too young to drive, but that was my driving ambition."
That summer, professional wrestler Sputnik Monroe visited his hometown of Monroe for a live Atlanta wrestling show, demonstrating body-slams and sleeper holds for his young fans.
"And I decided I was going to make my money by being a professional wrestler," he said. "I weighed 105 pounds, but I knew I was going to grow -- boy, did I grow. So, I walked like Sputnik Monroe the rest of the summer. He just had kind of ... we didn't have the word then, but he had swag when he walked. And that's how I walked into that school that August of 1960."
He smiled as he recalled his first experience with the woman who would have a lasting effect on his life and, by extension, the lives he has touched.
"Mrs. Randall was the first person that encountered this budding professional wrestler," he said, "and she wanted to know, 'Son, Is there something wrong with you?' I said, 'No ma'am. This is the way professional wrestlers walk.' So she pulled me aside into a room and began to talk to me about wasting time, about wasting potential, about being disrespectful, about respecting myself. She gave me a pretty good lecture on how to be a better human being. And when it was over, I left as fast as I could, hoping I'd never have to encounter her again."
Fate deemed otherwise. Randall was Culbreath's ninth-grade English teacher "and she spent her time trying to break me from being, and these were her words, 'uncouth, nonchalant and indifferent,'" he recalled. "I didn't know what those words meant, so I went and looked them up. And I discovered they were not very complimentary, so I would try to do better. Then she would use other words to describe me that were positive words. I'd go look up every word she used so I'd know."
Randall "tricked" him into expanding his vocabulary and reading books because he wanted to prove he was "as smart as she thought I was."
CARTER'S GRILL AND RESTAURANT
231 W. Highland Ave., downtown Albany
Open 7 a.m.-6 p.m., seven days a week
Phone: (229) 432-2098
Carter's Grill serves old-fashioned Southern favorites cafeteria style that remind you of home cooking. Diners can choose from a variety of meats, vegetables and bread.
Baked chicken dinner (rice, greens and cornbread) — $6.50
Meat loaf dinner (mashed potatoes, green beans, cornbread) — $7.00
Two teas — $2.80
Total (including tax) — $17.44
John Culbreath on why he likes Carter's: "The food reminds me of the food I ate at home, that my mother and my grandmother used to cook. Well seasoned. Very well seasoned. Tasty ... just the way I like it. Atmosphere's friendly. I've never been in here that I didn't encounter someone I know. I seem to know a lot of folks who come in and out. I just lose track of time and enjoy the atmosphere, and the food is outstanding."
DID YOU KNOW?
Carter's Grill is one of Albany's best known restaurants and may well be its oldest, now in its 45th year of operation. Eddie Carter opened his first location at Gordon Avenue and Jefferson Street as a take-out restaurant, then settled on the Highland location in a building that was once a church. It's now managed by Carter's son, co-owner Martin L. Carter. His business card notes some Carter's specialties: barbecue, oxtails, chitterlings and peach cobbler.
"We survived the ninth grade and said our good-byes in June 1961. In fall, she was also my English teacher. And she declared before the class, 'I'm going to take up with him where I left off.' And she made me even smarter, made me read more books and look up more words. And after a while, it felt good to please her. She was my 11th-grade English teacher as well."
After that, Randall turned Culbreath over to the woman who had taught her in the 12th grade for his senior year. She "finished the job."
"We had three strong years together," Culbreath said of Randall. "I won a few matches, but she won all the main events. ... I knew I was going to be a teacher. And that's all I ever wanted to be -- a teacher."
Culbreath was valedictorian of his class. He earned a bachelor's degree in French at Albany State College. That was followed up later with a master's degree in administration and supervision from Georgia State University and his doctorate from UGA.
After trying coaching, Culbreath taught English and French in Randolph County, where he also assisted the basketball coach (the team practiced as long as daylight held out on an outdoor court) and the drama club coach. He already had developed his educational philosophy.
"I enjoyed seeing young people learn," Culbreath said. "I believed even then that all children can learn something. They may not learn as much others, they may not learn as fast as others, but all students can learn something. All of my students learned something."
He taught four years in Cuthbert, the final two in the integrated district. "We managed to integrate the schools without any major incidents in Randolph County because everybody involved decided we were going to do it right, treat each other fairly, respect each other -- we made it work," he said.
He decided to attend graduate school, a period he remembers fondly.
"That was the best (time) I ever had," he said. "Go to school. Run errands. Do what you're told. Go to University of Georgia football games. Relax. Eat well, and enjoy the trip."
After a while, though, the math didn't add up. "Well," he said, "a problem came up because I was bringing in $500 a month as a graduate assistant and I was spending $700 a month. And my wife (the former Barbara Williams, now a retired middle school teacher) decided it was time after two years for me to get a job."
He was an assistant principal in Walton County when he was called back to Cuthbert and a unique situation. The school populations in Randolph and Clay counties had dwindled and the arch-rival high schools were to be combined in 1980.
"You had to be half-crazy to be principal of a school like that. But I was overqualified, so it was no problem," he said with his trademark self-depreciating humor.
One of the big issues? What would be the combined school's mascot. Five were under consideration when some students wanted a sixth choice -- Red Devils.
"I said, 'We're in the buckle of the Bible Belt. This will not fly, so I'm going to let it pass. I'm going to let them make one of the choices the Red Devils.' Overwhelmingly at both schools the students voted for the Red Devils to be the mascot."
Culbreath said the students made the merged school work. In time, the loyalties that had been divided by a county line merged as well.
"By the time we got to the third year, the students had only been at Randolph-Clay," he said. "They were the Randolph-Clay Red Devils. We were very proud of the distance we came. ... Everybody worked to make this work." Similar multi-county mergers were made in the area -- Mitchell Baker, Tri-County ... but only Randolph-Clay is still operating in that manner.
He oversaw the construction of a $6 million school that's still being used. With the more expansive geography, he established a transportation system for students' extracurricular activities. "Coaches used to cuss me behind the back about the fact that I made them drive the buses," he said.
Culbreath led by example. "A lot of times kids would live a way out of the way, and that meant the principal had to run that route," he noted. "I had a Volkswagen van, blue and white, and a lot of the people in the community thought it was the school system's van because I was always hauling students."
Randolph-Clay started with an empty trophy case. In time, it was filled, especially with the success of boys basketball with legendary coach Joe Williams.
One thing you quickly notice at Carter's Grill -- everyone seems to know everyone else. Culbreath is an active member of his Albany State University fraternity, Alpha Phi Alpha. One of his senior fraternity brothers from Douglas who's in town drops by the table for a chat. Culbreath tells him he'll get him the second fraternity tag he wants for his car, and also promises to "do something" for the local chapter's "originals."
Then, between bites of rice and mashed potatoes, we're back to education. What, I asked, changed most since he was an educator?
"It has become less of a place where educational leaders and decision-makers can do what's best for the children and more of a place where a lot of decisions are made in Washington and Atlanta -- a lot of top-down requirements, a lot of those requirements have financial price tags," he said. "They send the requirement, but they don't send the money.
"... Any time spent exposing a child to new things will add to our achievement. We don't get to do that anymore. We get to get ready for tests, pass tests. If you do well, you get a whole of pats on the back. If you don't, you get a whole lot of blame and shame. And that is just plain not fair. It is not a fair situation."
He also sees policies that are less directed toward public education. The result: teacher furloughs, shorter school calendars and larger class sizes.
"There seems to be a strong propensity to look for ways to help private schools and to help charter schools that are not local charter schools," Culbreath said. "The pie is only so big, so when you take away from what is available to meet the state requirement to provide an adequate education for all students, then there is no money to go around and people suffer."
I threw out a hypothetical. What would he do first, I asked, if he were named education czar for Georgia?
Culbreath thought for a moment, fiddling with the greens on his plate with his fork. "I would load up on early childhood education, pre-school education," he said. "I would start with youngsters who were 3 and 4 years old and place them in a setting where they could learn what is appropriate to learn at that age."
Albany City Commission Tommie Postell walks up, shakes hands with us. As I said, there are few true strangers in the restaurant.
"We know that children who hear and begin to use words and who are interacted with early in their childhood tend to do better later on," Culbreath resumes. "I would also load up on kindergarten through third-grade, lowering class size, providing teachers, teacher aides and paraprofessionals because we know that a lot of the future of learning depends on what happens those first few years."
Children who read at a third-grade level or better in third grade generally do better academically, he noted, adding that he would emphasize math because "math builds on math." In his own case, he said, he initially missed out on learning how to solve math problems because he would get correct answers intuitively. A student who's reading well and ready for algebra by eighth grade has less chance of becoming a dropout statistic, he said.
REACHING YOUNG MINDS
But young students have to buy-in on that idea. One of the Alpha fraternity's major efforts is reaching young African-American males with the hope of giving them positive roles models and nudging them toward making better decisions.
"I mentor middle school students with my fraternity brothers. ... A lot of financial success later on is tied directly to how well prepared you are educationally. ... You can't buy happiness, but there are a whole lot more happy millionaires than there are happy poor people," he observed with a laugh. "I've been poor. I haven't been a millionaire yet. But I believe when I get there, I'm going to be pretty happy."
The problem is pulling youngsters away from the dream of a flashy career -- Culbreath's pro wrestling aspirations were similar to thoughts today of professional sports, entertainment and quick fame.
Culbreath reflected on the late pro tennis star Arthur Ashe, "a great American, a great tennis player, a great guy. It must have been 30 years ago now that he said that we're telling 10 million kids a year that you're going to be the next Michael Jordan, you're going to be the next this, the next that, when the truth is they're probably not."
At the time, Ashe noted there were about 3,000 paying jobs in pro sports. Even though that number's bigger now -- perhaps 7,000? -- Culbreath says there are not enough of those jobs for the 10 million or so kids who want them.
"... What a blessing it is to arrive in that area where you have talent, but you also have a degree or a profession that you can also do when you're not dancing, singing or playing ball," he said, recalling his stint in Atlanta at a school where some kids 12 and 14 years old had recording contracts. "It's amazing that no matter what the environment, the same things apply. Work hard, obey the rules and you're more likely to succeed than if you don't work hard and don't obey the rules. That's what I've tried to teach at every level I've been at."
And he's been at many levels in education. "My mother says I can't keep a job," he quipped. But it's clear what he considers to be the pinnacle of his public career -- serving as superintendent of the Dougherty County School System from 1995 until 2001.
COUNT TO FOUR
It wasn't something he anticipated. In 1994, he was in Atlanta, seeing reports of the great flood that bisected Albany. A year later, he was planning for the replacements of flooded-out schools.
"The dilemma I had," he said, recalling when he accepted the post as superintendent, "was I was afraid -- and it's the same fear I had when I entered Albany State College at age 16 in 1964. Both times, I had the same three levels of fear. I was afraid I wouldn't do good. I was afraid people wouldn't like me. I was afraid something was going to get me. Those three fears propelled me to finish high school, get my college degree and finish my career as a superintendent.
"And the fears were well-founded because I didn't always do good; some people didn't like me, and some folks tried to get me both times. But the whole idea was I wanted to sell a dream to this school system, I wanted to sell a vision that all children can learn, regardless of their physical, mental or social condition, regardless of their race, regardless of their gender, regardless of where they happened to live and how many parents were in their home."
Students, he said, meet expectations. "I wanted to sell people on that idea that if you set high expectations for all students, then they will rise to meet those expectations," he said. "... I tried to weave that into everything I did, everything I wrote, everything I said and every time I talked to my leadership team."
Working for an elected board of education is a job that is inextricably entwined with politics.
"And there's nothing bad about politics," Culbreath said. "It's the art of persuading the majority to go along with whatever it is you're promoting. That's politics. You don't deliberately try to divide your Board of Education, but if you've got seven members, the threshold is four. You learn to count to four -- count silently, but count."
WINS AND LOSSES
Sometimes you win, he said, such as the time when he fought back a board plan to measure principals solely on their students' test scores.
Sometimes you lose. He had promoted voluntary school uniforms in elementary schools, but the effort waxed and waned with his emphasis. The board wanted to make the uniforms mandatory in grades K-3, adding grades 4-5 the next year.
Culbreath said he could see a situation arise in which a parent working at a factory job would be called off the line to "bring a pair of khaki pants to such-and-such elementary school." He assured his assistant superintendents and principals that he would fend off the proposal.
"So I fought it," he said. "But the board said -- not these words, but this was the impression they gave me -- somebody is going to recommend mandatory uniforms tonight. It may be you, it may be your successor."
When the board chair asked Culbreath for a recommendation, he went a step further -- mandatory uniforms for kindergarten-fifth grade. He got unanimous approval from the board, applause from parents in the audience and perplexed looks and questions from his staff and principals.
"I told them in my best 'Godfather' voice: 'They made me an offer I couldn't refuse,'" Culbreath said. "I wasn't about to let a successor make that recommendation when I was pretty healthy and I could make that recommendation myself."
In hindsight, it was a good decision, he said. "I'd pass children in the halls lined up for the buses and they just seemed to behave better, to look better and to act better when they were in their uniforms.
"... So, it's a give-and-take with a board of education. ... And that give-and-take helps to build a working relationship that over time is a benefit to a school system."
In any field, the most elusive part of the job can be knowing when to leave it. Culbreath said he recognized it was time for him to go in 2001 after a financial crisis the school system faced had turned around.
"There are some things that you have to do during a transitional leadership situation that do not lend themselves to longevity," he said. "You're going to see some hard feelings, especially if you change some people out and they're not ready to be changed out, especially if you stand up to boards and four out of the seven don't want to be stood up to."
Culbreath said he "went prayerfully into the decision-making mode" and retired, wrapping up a 33-year career.
He stayed home for a while, then started teaching a couple of classes a semester at ASU. He picked up a third, gaining full-time status. Then he helped steer the department to reaccreditation as interim dean before returning to teaching a single class per semester.
Since his "second retirement" in 2004, he's become a "professional volunteer," chairing the board of Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital and serving on boards including Strive2Thrive, the Salvation Army, Community in Schools and Consumer Credit Counseling.
"People ask me, 'Why do you give all that time?' Especially mentoring middle school boys every Thursday during the school year," he said. "It keeps me active and it keeps me from going back to work full-time. Middle school boys can change your mind."
Culbreath and his fraternity brothers work with middle school boys, helping them with academics, instilling manners and respect, and taking them on field trips, such as visits to the Albany Civil Rights Institute, the Flint RiverQuarium and the Black History Museum in Thomasville.
"Our main thrust is positive motivation, exposure to role models, both black and white, and just generally helping them become better men," he said. "That's an ongoing project."
The fraternity has a couple of special projects, too. One, Go to High School, Go to College, encourages middle schoolers to stay in school, graduate and go to college. The second, Project Alpha, tackles teenage pregnancy issues and the responsibilities of manhood.
"Our fraternity is committed to the belief that there are two sides to the prevention of pregnancy," Culbreath said, adding there are numerous programs for girls on preventing pregnancy. "... (B)ut it's not just the young lady's choice. Young men need to know that they have a role and a responsibility in preventing teenage pregnancy."
Participants, who can go on the Project alpha overnight retreat once, are usually sixth-graders. The retreat is held at Kolomoki Mounds near Blakely. Culbreath said cell phones, video games and television are banned.
The campers arrive Friday evening and work in teams to build working robots. "It takes a lot of doing, a lot of trial and error, a lot of teamwork, a lot of problem solving and a little competition," Culbreath said.
Lt. Terron Hayes, of the Dougherty County Sheriff's Department, talks to the kids about avoiding gangs and other law enforcement topics. There's an after-breakfast devotional by a minister and Albany physician Dr. Devell Young, a fraternity member, talks to them "not only about proper sexual behavior but also the dangers of not following proper sexual behavior -- the consequences of bad choices. And he is uninhibited with a man-to-man approach and it is instructive and very, very effective, we believe," Culbreath said.
They hear from an individual who has overcome his own bad choices and the district attorney tells them how they can avoid seeing him formally in court.
"It's proactive intervention, we hope, before they become sexually active so they won't be teenage fathers, so they won't be numbered in those statistics, so their children will come from a marriage, so they'll have a productive life and just generally be better human beings," Culbreath said. After lunch, the campers have physical activities, dinner, then return home.
Culbreath says the annual retreat is "just a great way to male-to-male bond ... chatting with them while they're eating, just a very productive weekend."
In early May, there's an awards banquet for those who participate in the Alpha programs.
"I watch the young men grow intellectually. I watch them grow physically from 11 years old to 13 or 14. They have the little growth spurt; their voices change. They become better human beings and a lot of it has to do not only with the guidance we give and the mentoring we give, but also the relationship we build with their parents. It's just a well worthwhile expenditure of time," he said.
ONE WORD: MORE
There was a time when Culbreath withdrew from volunteer work, before his stint as Dougherty school chief. He was in Brunswick and was president of Fourteen Black Men, a mentoring program; president of the Boys Club, and chair of the United Way.
"I had one or two more responsibilities," he said. "I decided I'd given too much. ... So I just stopped. Even stopped public speaking. People would call and I'd say I can't do it and they'd say I haven't even told you the date and I'd say it doesn't matter, I'm not going to do it."
He found life less than satisfying.
"Here I had all this time on my hands," he said, "and I wasn't at peace. I wondered why. ... So I asked a spiritual question. I laugh when I say this because people ask, does he actually talk to you? God doesn't talk to me directly, but in my spirit I asked, 'What do you expect from me?' And the spiritual answer was one word: 'More.'
"More? And I thought about how far I had come by the grace of God and I thought about how far my family has come and how blessed I truly am -- the nerve of me to stop giving back. It was just unconscionable. So I haven't gotten in that valley again. I've climbed up out of there. I try to say yes. ... I really want to give back. It really feels good and it makes a difference to other people. They come back and tell you what a difference you made. You can never do enough to give back what you've been paid."
One thing that disturbs Culbreath, however, is the negative attitude he runs into about the town he loves and calls home -- Albany.
"The town has so many positive things about it that get obscured by the negative so often," he said. "It's a good place to be. The pace of life is just right. ... I love this place. I love the spirit of the people. When I read we were among the highest percentage of givers for anywhere in the country, I was not surprised because people do give. They simply want to know that what they're giving is going to the purpose that has been declared. If that's the case, they generally give -- and give over and over again. It's a good place to call home."
A PERFECT DAY
It was the kind of discussion, frankly, that could have gone on all day. But, as Culbreath noted when he left the superintendent's job, everything has to come to an end. I asked a final question. What would be his perfect day?
He thought for a moment.
"If I could get up in the morning, have breakfast -- or eat it on the way to a lake or a pond and get there with good weather -- not too hot, not too cold -- and be able to fish around and catch a dozen or so bream and largemouth bass," he said. "Come back home, clean 'em, cook 'em, along with hush puppies and onion rings and share part of them with my wife. Catch an old Western on television. Spend an hour or so on the computer, checking email, reading newspapers online. Generally, just loafing on the Internet. Cut the grass. Chill out the rest of the day. I would count that as a good day."
He never made it to Madison Square Garden for Wrestlemania, never got to be a millionaire and wasn't driving that '57 Chevy he wanted so badly. But he has touched -- and made better -- innumerable lives. Perhaps he's right. Perhaps none of us can ever fully repay what life has given us, but Dr. John Culbreath, at the very least, has made a substantial down payment.