I’m Still Learning From You, Don

Kirk Walden 1st Faith, Keeping It Real 13 Comments

My physical education teacher, my boss, my mentor and my friend all passed away yesterday. Don Roberts was–and is–all of those to me.

I met him when I was a middle school kid and he taught P.E. Two things stood out to me about “Coach Roberts;” one was that all of us boys could laugh with him. The other was, he could keep us in line when necessary. He walked a perfect line between the two; he was probably 23 or 24 at the time.

We boys loved him. When he got a head coaching job at a rival high school, we found it hard to cheer against Coach Roberts. We ran down to the field after games just to say hello.

He would move on to become a high school principal closer to my home. His reputation grew and I enjoyed following his career.

When the headmaster’s post came open at the school where my children were going to attend, I called the retiring headmaster and asked, “Has anyone talked to Don Roberts about the job?”

“I already have,” the headmaster told me. Don would be my children’s headmaster in a few weeks.

Then, I began to learn from him. Lesson after lesson.

Think People, Then Policy
I called Don a few weeks before school was to start in his first year. As a single dad struggling to make a living, I just didn’t have the money to send my children through a private school. “We won’t be able to come,” I told him. “We just can’t swing it financially.”

Policy dictated that we were out. It only made sense; the school can’t let people in for free and pay its teachers.

“Send them,” Don said. “We’ll work it out.” For him, people’s needs trumped policy.

One of the first days of the school year, Don called. “Can you fill in for a secretary? We could use you.” I was there. I finished that day and he offered me another fill-in job that would last a few months.

Then, he saw another opportunity for me at the school. Soon I had an office within a few steps of his. Before long I was working on a capital campaign, coordinating public relations and building the school’s annual fund. I would even teach a couple of classes.

I worked under him for six years, until we moved from the Auburn, AL area to Nashville. His first lesson was people; I would learn so much more.

“Kiss Your Ugly Ducks Early”
Because my office was so close to his, we talked a lot. Sometimes his door would be closed first thing in the morning; when I saw this I knew a meeting with parents was going on–and those parents usually had a tough issue to work through.

Don used to say, “Kiss Your Ugly Ducks Early;” a reminder that if there is a challenging problem to face, get it out of the way first so it doesn’t clutter your mind the entire day. I try to keep that in mind today. It’s an outlook-changer, thanks to Don.

Celebrate A Lot
On Valentine’s Day, Don made sure every female teacher received a Valentine from him. Every one. He celebrated not only Valentine’s Day, but found a way to make every holiday special.

And for Don, Tuesday was “Bow Tie Tuesday,” which I did not even know was a thing. He did, and he celebrated. Today at Lee-Scott Academy in Auburn, AL (it’s Tuesday as I write), students of all ages are decked out in bow ties, thanks to Don.

He celebrated. I need to do so more.

It’s Not About Me, It’s About Relationships
Eight years after our family left Alabama for Nashville, my oldest daughter got married. She completed 8th grade at Lee-Scott Academy, and now was a college graduate. She invited Don and his wife, Lorna, to her wedding.

It had been eight years since he had seen her. And the drive was 338 miles.

Don and Lorna had nothing to gain by coming. I was just another former staff member in the rear view mirror, Laura was one thousands of students he led during his 30+ years in education.

They came.

Don and Lorna went to a lot of weddings, countless graduations and bought gifts for people they probably never knew how much they influenced. Those trips and gifts were never about climbing corporate ladders or endearing himself to movers and shakers.

Don and Lorna did this because they valued relationships, for no other reason than “just because.” I need to learn that lesson he taught me. I pray I do.

Live Life Now
“We live life now,” Don told me many years ago. “We don’t want to be that couple that waits to live until they retire. You never know what will happen, and why wait?”

Don and Lorna went to the beach, often. They traveled to football games, to far-flung tourist destinations. They went with family. They went with friends. They went out to eat, trying out new restaurants and making friends along the way.

Don’s web site, “Dining With Don,” is a perfect example. Take a look. You’ll see he had a passion for food, God, family and life.

They lived in the now. After moving up here to Nashville I took that advice to heart. Our family goes on vacations more than I thought we would. We probably spend more than we should. We’ve built onto our home to have more outdoor space to enjoy.

Some might say we should be saving more. We should. But we’re balancing this with living life now. Don taught me this. And, like Don, we have no regrets.

Learning the News
Yesterday I was getting my work day started (yes, working on Labor Day) when I noticed my wife and our boys were about to get in the car. When I asked where they were going, it was for a field trip to a World War II ship which took part in D-Day.

It was docked on the Cumberland River in Nashville and this was the last day to tour the ship.

I was planning to catch up on some things. No one was expecting me to go. For some reason I remembered, “Live Life Now.” Work could wait.

Standing in line to get on the boat (where we would be for more than an hour), I got a text from my younger daughter, asking if the news that Don had passed away was true. I checked Facebook; it was.

This daughter used to hop up in Don’s lap after a school day, and he always had a hug for her. When she “graduated” from sixth grade, he hugged her when she crossed the stage. This spring she will walk the stage at Vanderbilt University. He probably would have come to give her another hug, knowing him.

My voice broke as I called my oldest daughter to give her the news. I don’t cry at times like this, not normally. But I did this time. My sunglasses were on; no one noticed.

Looking back on that moment however, I’m reminded that I could have been working, could have been grinding out a few items on the “To Do” list. But I was living life with my wife and our two youngest boys. We made some memories yesterday. No regrets.

Perhaps I’m learning one lesson Don shared with me.

And he is still teaching me. That’s a life well-lived.

Comments 13

  1. He was my high school principal at Opelika High School. I was class of ’96 and cheered with his daughter Allyson. He and Mrs. Lorna came to my wedding in March of this year. I will never forget his smile when he took my picture with my husband. He will live in my heart forever.

  2. Your writing is a great tribute to Don. I’m glad he instilled in you to “live life.” I graduated high school with Don. Even then, he was a leader of our class at Jeff Davis High School in Hazlehurst, Ga. I am broken hearted over the loss of this precious life. Our old high school has just this summer been torn down. I picked up several bricks and one was for Don. The monument place has it to be engraved but we didn’t make it in time. We will now pass it to Lorna. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Kirk,
    Thank you for sharing so eloquently what many of us know and feel about my dear friend, Dr. Don Roberts. Many of us have learned to live bigger and to love sweeter because of knowing him.

    The best to you and yours.

    Remembering our mutual friend with respect and love.

  4. Thank you so much for this article. Don meant a lot to my family. My youngest son Reed and Michael were close friends through school, Reed is now working for Vanderbilt Life Flight, and we just moved to Smyrna a couple of months ago to be close to him and his family. We have all been very saddened by Dons illness.

  5. Thank you for this wonderful tribute to such a fine mentor! Even living two hours away, he impacted my professional life as advisor and friend.

  6. Thanks Kirk… I’m now a pastor in Charlotte, NC. Coach Roberts was my football and track coach at Benjamin Russell in Alex City, AL, 77-79. First time I heard the gospel was from him. No telling how many people I’ve told about that conversation over the years. His impact lives on here in NC

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