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Saying goodbye

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Mourners pack Turner Elementary to pay tribute to deceased principal

By Christian Marnon

 Robert B. Turner Elementary swelled to capacity last Wednesday for the memorial service of principal Wayne Reese, who lost his 16-month battle with cancer earlier that week.

A deluge of friends, family, colleagues and students streamed into the Turner gymnasium for more than three hours to pay respect to a man who assumed many roles in life.

Beyond his most recent position as Turner’s principal, Reese was a father, educator, coach, mentor, and a Christian.

Reese’s wife, Barb, originally intended to have the service at their church, Wellington Bible Church in Nicholasville, which has a capacity of around 500.

School officials at Turner assured her that turnout would be much bigger than that. They were right.

From 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., a constant stream of mourners snaked across the Turner gym, into the hallways, and even outside for a short time. Visitors who didn’t arrive early either parked on the grass or were shuttled in.

The scope of the service was evidence of what most in attendance said was Reese’s uncanny ability to build a special bond with everyone he encountered.

“He always had time for everybody,” said Gary Stinnett, who has served as interim principal in Reese’s absence.

“He could be really busy, but if a student came through his door, that would become his number one priority.”

Stinnett played a major role in introducing Reese to the Robert B. Turner family. In spring 2006, Stinnett was fielding applications for a new principal at Turner. Then-principal Sheila Mitchell had moved to central office, so Stinnett was appointed interim principal and chairperson of the principal selection committee.

In a pile of four strong applications, one particular candidate stood out.

Stinnett had never heard of Wayne Reese, who served as principal of Simpsonville Elementary School in Shelby County at the time.

“I purposely saved his application for last and watched the reaction of the committee members as they read it,” he said. “We were very impressed by the academic growth shown at Simpsonville during his tenure there.”

 The board unanimously selected Reese as the new Turner principal.

Kelland Garland, the principal of Hebron Middle School in Bullitt County, worked closely with Reese during his tenure in Simpsonville.

When Garland completed the principal program at the University of Cincinnati, he chose Reese as a mentor. Garland experienced early frustration with teaching and wanted to switch paths, but Reese convinced him to stay the course.

“I would tell him I was not a teacher, but he persisted,” Garland said. “Now I’m in my 18th year of education. He saw early potential in me before I saw it in myself.”

It was more than persistence that changed Garland’s mind. He said Reese imparted in him the idea that teaching is more than just a job.

“[He taught me] that it’s how you treat your people that will make the difference,” he said. “Now I’ve realized he’s the type of man I strive to be, more than a principal.”

Garland isn’t the only principal who cites Reese as a superlative influence in his life.

Emma B. Ward Principal Bobby Murphy first met Reese five summers ago during his own principal internship.

Reporting on his first day, Murphy said he struggled to get a good read on Reese.

“He had a calm, collected demeanor that left me a bit mystified, yet highly intrigued,” Murphy said. “After observing [his] interactions with staff and fellow colleagues, it didn’t take long for me to realize how truly gifted this man was.

“It was evident he had earned the respect of the folks he worked with and they trusted him. That was enough for me to realize I needed to roll up my sleeves, take good notes, and soak up as much of his knowledge as possible.”

By the end of his practicum, Murphy had built such a rapport with Reese that he lamented the prospect of relocating to another district. Much to his pleasure, Murphy was hired as principal of Emma B. Ward a short time later.

Working side by side in the same district as Reese gave him “a sense of confidence and peace of mind,” he said.

Over the years, Murphy and Reese fostered a unique friendship. Both would share texts and calls about work, scripture and basketball. The running joke with Reese is he encrypted his philosophical nuggets in sports terminology. When he first studied under Reese, an eager-to-learn Murphy was forced to Google sports lingo in order to decode the cryptic koans.

Above all, Reese saw dormant potential in everyone, Murphy said.

“Thinking back, I never knew Wayne to say any student was a bad kid,” he said. “He knew all of them were good kids. Some of them were scared. Some of them didn’t feel listened to. And some of them had pretty tough breaks in life.

“Wayne taught me all kids are different and some of them just need a little more love and support to help them on their way.”

One student who can attest to this is J.J. Snyder.

Snyder, 15, first met Reese as a fifth grader sentenced to detention. The punishment was lunch with Mr. Reese.

Snyder soon discovered that wasn’t much of a punishment at all.

“After the first lunch detention in his office, I started eating in his office more and more,” Snyder said. “Even when I was in trouble he talked to me. He wanted to make me understand why [my actions] were wrong so I could fix it to better myself.”

They would talk sports and Reese helped Snyder master his math homework. They also discussed the value of respect.

“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be who I am today,” said Snyder, who is a member of the Anderson County Fire Department cadets program. “He was really big on respect. [He would say] if you don’t show respect, you won’t get treated the same.”

Linda Bates, who worked closely with Reese as Turner’s front office secretary, said the most moving part of Wednesday’s ceremony was seeing students like Snyder who had since grown and came back to pay their respects.

Interpersonal gifts were only one facet of Reese’s success as a principal and educator. Superintendent Sheila Mitchell, who presided as principal of Turner prior to Reese, said she often remarked that he was the smartest man she ever knew.

“His depth of knowledge was one of, if not the best, I’ve seen in a principal,” she said. “He understood teaching, the assessment system, and he was a very strong analyzer of data, which he helped teachers use for improvement.”

Mitchell added that she couldn’t have asked for a better successor.

“One of things you want is for your successor to a better job,” she said. “Mr. Reese was an amazing principal. We loved him dearly.”

Reese held two Master’s Degrees and a long resume as an educator prior to his principal tenure at Turner at and Simpsonville Elementary. Before that, he was principal at Second Street Elementary in Franklin County, P.E. teacher and coach at Rosenwald-Dunbar Elementary in Jessamine County, teacher and coach in Roane County West Virginia and teacher and coach at St. Mary’s High School in West Virginia.

He was born in in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where he grew up with his little brother, John.

John said his brother was a phenomenal coach, a skill the translated into his eventual role as a principal.

“He took those building blocks and utilized them the same way as a principal, he said. “Seeing this [ceremony today], I truly believe he was the best. His foundation for teaching kids was very, very successful. I always looked up to him as a little brother.”

Perhaps the most crucial influence on Reese’s approach as an educator was faith.

Wayne Holcomb is pastor of Wellington Bible Church, where Reese worshiped. Faith, Holcomb, said, deeply informed Reese’s approach as an educator.

“He never got ruffled or angry,” Holcomb said. “He was always very kind and a man of tremendous faith. He was the man we was because of his faith in Christ.”

When Holcomb visited the hospital, he said Reese always expressed regret that he couldn’t be with his students.

“He would go on for an hour about he wished he could be at school right [then],” he said. “He loved the kids.”

Holcomb was one of many speakers at the event, among them Bobby Murphy, Gary Stinnett, Tim Wells, and Reese’s son Dex and daughter-in-law, Kandis. The ceremony was interspersed with several moving musical interludes.

Barb Reese said the outpouring of love and support from Anderson County has provided comfort at a difficult time.

“It’s so sweet and neat to see he impacted so many people through his school and staff,” she said. “They loved him because of how he loved them.”

Reese is survived by his wife, Barb, son Dex and his wife, Kandis, daughter Bretlyn and her fiancé Casey Hinchcliffe, brother John, two nephews, John Andrew Reese and Gabriel Reese.