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Overcoming the odds: Principal uses his past to help students with futures

POSTED: December 29, 2013 11:48 p.m.

To outsiders, Berry Walton comes across as a no-nonsense yet easygoing man, a persona that fits him well working with young students.

What people may not realize about the Friendship Elementary principal is he faced a significant hurdle to get to the position he’s in today.

“I kind of had a difficult childhood,” Walton said. “Things just weren’t going well, so to speak.”

When he was in sixth grade, Walton, along with his younger brother and sister, were sent to the Thornwell Home and School for Children in Clinton, S.C., after family members decided the parents were unable to raise their children.

At the time, the building served as both a school and orphanage (the school has since been closed though Thornwell remains open as a home). Walton and his siblings weren’t orphans in the true sense of the word; his parents were still alive, but both struggled with alcoholism.

“It consumed the family unit,” he said. “The rest of our family members were kind of too old to take care of three children at one time, and so I guess the decision was made ... to put us in this children’s home.”

At the time, Walton was living with his family in Augusta. The decision to place the children in Thornwell was not discussed with them.

“We didn’t know what was going on,” he said. “We were just withdrawn from school one day, and that afternoon we were taken to Thornwell.”

It was difficult at first, especially because the school did not allow them to return home for that first Christmas. Family members were allowed to visit, but the reasoning was the children would be too homesick if they physically returned home.

Walton maintained contact with his family, including his parents, through the years but remained at Thornwell until he graduated from the high school in 1975. From there, he went to Newberry College in Newberry, S.C., to earn a bachelor’s degree in physical education, and then to Furman University in Greenville, S.C., for his master’s degree in education.

“I had an opportunity to play college football (at Newberry),” Walton said. “It was just the thing to do. I knew I wanted to get into teaching and coaching, and in order to do that I had to go to college.”

The football-loving Walton then had the opportunity to be a graduate assistant in Furman’s football program, and got into coaching from there.

His first out-of-college job was at Thomson High School, just west of Augusta. He married in 1984 and moved back to South Carolina, where he spent one year at Stratford High School outside of Charleston, but ended up moving back to Georgia, where he has remained ever since.

Walton’s first head football coaching position was at Gainesville High School, from 1992-1995. When he left Gainesville, he got into administration at Social Circle High School, where he was both the assistant principal and athletic director for two years.

He’s been with the Hall County School District for the past 16 years; he spent three years as assistant principal at West Hall Middle School, and this is his 13th year as the principal at Friendship Elementary.

His time at Thornwell molded his career and life philosophy.

“Obviously, I could have chosen to blame the world for my problems and made excuses for (who) I am and the way I act,” Walton said. “I decided early on not to do that, and I chose the direction to try to be as successful as I could, and try to make something of myself. That’s been my philosophy in education.”

The rigidity of Thornwell — “We were told what to do, how to do it, when to do it and why to do it” — helps the principal in relating to both students and parents.

“I try to use my experience and my background from time to time to try to explain to children that were trying to make excuses,” he said. “I’ll explain ‘I was put in an orphanage,’ and their mouths will drop, because they look at me thinking I was raised with a silver spoon in my mouth. And you never know. You never know the backgrounds of other people.”

That ability to connect with others overcoming hardships hopefully inspires others, Walton said.

“You’re accountable for your own actions. You’re responsible for your behavior. You are responsible for how successful you’re going to be. You can’t depend on anyone else to do that.”

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