“What I’m going to miss the most is the people,” said Gordon Higgins, spokesman and athletic director for Hall County Schools.
After 47 years working in education, and 39 years in Hall County beginning as a teacher and coach at Johnson High in 1980, Higgins is set to retire next month.
Stan Lewis, principal of Johnson High, will assume Higgins’ roles while continuing to lead the school.
Higgins, 71, and his family came to Hall from DeKalb County when the Northeast Georgia locale was still a sleepy place with a population of about 60,000.
Hall’s population is now more than 200,000.
Exiting at Highway 53 off Interstate 985 in Oakwood was a dimly lit proposition, with a small store here, tiny Gainesville College there and whole lot of wooded land around, Higgins said.
The robust commercial development of that corridor was years away.
But with each new intersection paved and traffic light erected, with each new building constructed and residential subdivision carved into the landscape, Higgins watched the growth pour into Hall County and impact local schools.
There were just three Hall County School District high schools open when Higgins first arrived. There are eight today, with Cherokee Bluff opening last fall.
“I realized there was growth coming,” Higgins said. “It’s been very interesting to be a part of all that.”
During his career in Hall County, Higgins has played a crucial role in helping to implement new health and safety protocols for student-athletes.
“What we see now, more and more, is a level of accountability,” he said. “As a coach, it goes beyond wins and losses.”
Higgins, who coached football and baseball before moving into administration, said coaches must serve as ambassadors for their school and the entire district.
To support them, standards are now in place to guide how student-athlete injuries are managed, and resources and instruments are available to gauge, for example, whether it’s too hot to practice outdoors.
Higgins said the school district, working with Dr. John Vachtsevanos, who has also partnered with the Atlanta Falcons, implemented the Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing program, or ImPACT, in 2011.
The computerized exam is utilized in many professional, collegiate and high school sports programs to determine when a student may be suffering from a concussion by comparing results with baseline tests.
This knowledge and these tools help eliminate discretion from the picture when it comes to a student-athlete’s health, and documentation is much more rigorous, too, Higgins said.
Each high school also has a certified athletic trainer to assist coaches.
When it comes to academics, Higgins has been the voice sharing the school district’s achievements, new curriculum and, sometimes, tough personnel decisions with the public.
“When it comes to my philosophy in my role in media relations … I look at the media as a partner” to get information out to the community, good, bad or indifferent, Higgins said. “That’s the way I’ve always approached things. I’m always going to be open.”
Higgins said that his colleagues, such as Mamie Coker, the school district’s health services coordinator, are the real champions of education, implementing a vision set forth by Superintendent Will Schofield.
That vision includes individualizing the learning experience for each student by offering such things as programs of choice, where students can focus on math and science, or music and the arts, as well as dual-enrollment courses.
“(Schofield) is a person that says, ‘Things don’t have to be done the way things have always been done,’” Higgins said.
“Education, for too many years, has been one-size-fits-all,” Higgins added. “It’s one thing to have a vision. But it’s another to say, ‘Now how can we make this work?’”
Higgins said the school district also has benefited from partnerships with local businesses, as well as the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce, to expand work-study options for students.
“They’ve been a very valuable partner,” he added. “It benefits them, too, to attract people to Hall County, to show that we have people to go into the workforce.”
Higgins said that all these working-relationships cemented his devotion to Hall County Schools over the years and made coming to work easy.
“They’re just wonderful people,” he said. “The main thing they think about is the students of Hall County.”
Higgins said he’s going to miss the students and parents he’s served because of what they, as part of the Hall County community, have done and meant for his own family.
“I still have people come up to me all the time,” at the store or a ballgame, Higgins said, “and they say, ‘Hey, Coach Higgins, remember me?’”
“That’s what makes me realize that the path I chose was the right path,” he added. “This is just such a wonderful area to raise a family.”
From good schools and cultural events to a rich civic and church life, Higgins said Hall County has provided “a great family atmosphere.”
That atmosphere has enriched Higgins with three children (Daryl, Jennifer and Jeffrey) and six grandchildren (Will, Avery, Travis, Sammy, Katie and Shannon).
Travis, the eldest grandchild, will graduate from Johnson High this month, a happy prospect that Higgins finds a bit surreal.
“From the same high school I came to …” Higgins said, adding that he imagines his grandson’s graduation ceremony will be like coming full circle.
“That’s when it’s probably going to start setting in,” Higgins said about his retirement. “It’ll be quite a night for the whole family, I’m sure.”
It’ll also be a point of pride for Higgins’ wife, Anne, a retired teacher who Higgins offered this praise: “There’s a special place in heaven for middle school teachers.”