Historically, Cumberland County schools are named for former superintendents who are remembered for their distinguished education careers.
No school will be named for Bill Harrison, the superintendent from 1997 to 2009, and Harrison will tell you that’s perfectly fine with him.
“This is more special to me than a school would have been,” Harrison, 70, was saying on June 13, when the Education Resource Center was named in his honor, “because of my history with it and because how important I think professional development is.”
The Dr. William “Bill” Harrison Education Resource Center is home to the Professional Development Department for on-the-job teacher training and advancement. It was once known as Walker-Spivey Elementary School, where Harrison was principal. The Cumberland County Board of Education approved changing the name on Feb. 14.
“Let us not only celebrate his remarkable achievements but also recognize the collective effort it takes to create an environment that fosters educational excellence,” Deanna Jones, chairwoman of the school board, would say. “Together, we strive to build a community where every student has access to a high-quality education and the opportunity to reach their maximum potential. May his name forever serve as a reminder to the transformative power of education and the enduring legacy of a true educational leader.”
Harrison, as superintendent, wanted the best instructional tools for his teachers, the best education they could impart to their students and the best of education for the school system.
He accepted nothing less.
There would be no compromise on his watch.
Current Superintendent Marvin Connelly Jr. said educators today are the better because of Harrison’s leadership, commitment and vision.
“Today, we stand on the shoulders of Dr. Harrison's remarkable legacy,” Connelly would say. “His tireless efforts, vision and passion have transformed the lives of countless students, educators and families in our community.”
Harrison, the superintendent said, has left an indelible mark on the school system.
A native of Levittown, Pennsylvania, Harrison began his county education journey as a teacher under the late Bill Johnston at VanStory Elementary School after earning his teaching degree in 1974 from Methodist University. The son of a papermill worker father and a schoolteacher mother, his county education career would take him from the classroom of VanStory Elementary to principal from 1979 to 1983 at then-Walker Elementary to principal from 1983 to 1987 at Terry Sanford High School, where Harrison replaced longtime Principal John T. Sasser.
He would remember the shoulders he stood on, too.
“I had no idea I wanted to be a principal,” Harrison would say, but it was Johnston who influence Harrison’s ambitions. “I thought I wanted to be a basketball coach, and so he got me on the principal path.”
An educator on the rise
Late educators, Harrison said, including Max Abbott, Fletcher Womble and W.T. Brown, gave a young educator opportunity.
“Dr. Abbott had the courage to put a 26-year-old kid as principal of this school,” he would say of Walker Elementary, “and then Dr. Fletcher Womble had the courage to put a 30-year-old as principal at Terry Sanford” with urging from Dr. W.T. Brown, assistant superintendent for county schools.
“Dr. Brown worked with secondary principals,” Harrison says. “I was an elementary principal, but Dr. Brown became an incredible mentor to me.”
Harrison says Brown and Womble were always there with support.
“They didn’t leave me out there hanging,” he would say. “They kind of supported me and helped me be successful, and why I was successful at Terry Sanford was because of Will Brown and Nancy Blackmon,” the school’s assistant principal. “She was the one who ran that school. I just kind of got the credit.”
And, he humorously would remind, the blame.
But Bill Harrison’s education stock was on the rise, and school board members Carrie Sutton, Alicia Chisolm, Greg West and Rick Glazier were taking notice of the principal’s skills at managing a secondary school. In 1997, Harrison was named superintendent to replace John Griffin.
“Professional development was an emphasis of mine during my time in Cumberland County Schools,” Harrison says. “Tim Kinlaw and his team did some renovations to the building to enable us to hold most of our professional learning activities there.”
Kinlaw was associate principal of auxiliary services.
Principals and teachers became the better for Harrison’s passion, and beyond Cumberland County others were taking notice, including then-Gov. Bev Perdue, who in 2009 appointed Harrison as chairman of the N.C. Board of Education, a post he held until 2012. He then served as interim superintendent and superintendent of the Alamance-Burlington County school system before retiring in 2018.
Harrison also served as superintendent in Orange County and Hoke County during his career before becoming superintendent in Cumberland County.
‘It was the respect …’
Educators past and present came on this June day to honor Bill Harrison and what he meant to them as a teacher, a principal and a superintendent.
“It was the respect that we had and the level of leadership as we moved forward in education,” Susan Williams, a school board member, would say about Harrison. “And I appreciate all that you did for the children.”
Donna Vann, another school board member, would echo Williams’ words.
“We all still look up to you,” Vann would tell Harrison. “You have made such a difference in everybody's life that has come through” the school system.
School board member Greg West still remembers the day in 2009 when the governor called to say she needed Harrison in Raleigh.
“I said, ‘Oh, no,’” West says.
And former teacher Jimmy Harvey would say how blessed the school system was to have an educator with the qualities of Bill Harrison and that naming the resource center in honor of Harrison was so appropriate and such a deserving decision by the school board.
Bill Harrison had a presence in this school system. He was staunch and firm, but an educator with an empathy for struggling young teachers trying to find their way in a new classroom. A new teacher never was alone with Harrison at the helm as a principal or a superintendent.
“We always knew that when you left here, he was going to go on and do good things, and he did it at the state,” Glenn Adams Jr., vice chairman of the Cumberland Board of County Commissioners, would say. “At all the times that we ever talked, he talked about the children of this community and being able to provide them the best education anywhere, not just in Fayetteville, not just in North Carolina, but for the world because he saw it as a global place. And he always talked about his children first in the school system, talked about his staff and always talked about his teachers and his principals, because that’s the kind of person that he was. He wanted to make sure that Cumberland County stood head and shoulders above everybody.”
Harrison’s tenure was not without its peaks and valleys.
He was an educator first and a forward thinker when it came to education.
He wasn’t a politician and, in 2008, he found himself embroiled in controversy with then-Fayetteville City Councilman Charles Evans over an insect issue at T.C. Berrien Elementary School. Harrison alluded publicly that Evans was a recovering drug and alcohol addict and compared the councilman to former Washington, D.C., Mayor Marion Barry, also known for his drug use.
The councilman was incensed.
Harrison quickly apologized for the remark.
No matter, Bill Harrison always had the respect of his administrators, teachers and educators to include William T. Brown, who died at age 88 on Nov. 16, 2016.
Bill Harrison could not have been more appreciative and more humble on June 13 when the Education Resource Center was named in his honor.
“It’s a people business,” Harrison would say. “It’s all about people, and any success I had at any stage of my career is a result of being surrounded by wonderful people.”
He’s right. You couldn’t find better county schools people to include a Tim Kinlaw, a Betsy “Pete” Horne or a Max Abbott or Fletcher Womble or a Nancy Blackmon or William T. Brown.
Or, you can be assured, a Bill Harrison.
Bill Kirby Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 910-624-1961.