Principal receives a send-off like no other

By: David Wallace | Farmington Press | Published April 6, 2011

 Rick Jones, right, greets well-wishers in a gymnasium full of them following a surprise tribute to the retiring North Farmington High School principal March 30.

Rick Jones, right, greets well-wishers in a gymnasium full of them following a surprise tribute to the retiring North Farmington High School principal March 30.

Photo by David Wallace

FARMINGTON HILLS — People who saw “Mr. Holland’s Opus” may have thought it was a nice movie with a great sentiment, but that it would never happen in real life.

Well, on March 30 at North Farmington High School, it did.

Rick Jones, principal of the school he graduated from in 1967, is retiring. When he showed up at the school auditorium for a concert last Wednesday, the school’s symphony band sat onstage, and many of the people he’s changed for the better — and the people who’ve changed him — sat in the audience. Jones realized he wasn’t at a normal band concert, and organizers ushered him and his wife, Kathy, to two seats onstage.

“I almost was going to skip it, and just go to my office and do some work,” Jones said.

Through months of planning, somehow 300 people managed to keep a secret. Even Kathy Jones said she only knew the time and place; she had no idea the magnitude.

After Superintendent Sue Zurvalec praised Jones and the retiring Dean and Sue Cobb performed a David Letterman-esque top 13 list that affectionately roasted Jones for, among other things, “his boyish cowlick,” some of Jones’ 1967 classmates appeared onstage and told the crowd, many of them students, how Jones was the class president, the football team manager, the baseball team’s second baseman, a cornet player and a good student.

“I can’t help but have to mention that he was voted by his classmates most likely to succeed, and it looks like he proved us all right,” Brad Brogren said.

“We certainly elected the right person,” Charles Bosler said. Though the 1967 graduates have settled across the country, the men said they’ve stayed in contact and recently polled their classmates.

“Jones has achieved what eludes most, getting thousands of people to work together, so they can all achieve new heights; consequently, we are honored to award Rick with our lifetime achievement award we so much want him to accept,” Bosler said. “Frankly, we know of no other class member who has succeeded to such an extent in lifting so many to higher levels. Rick, you’ve come a long way since being locked in your locker during eighth-grade.”

“I get to go to work every day and have 1,400 people that inspire me,” Jones said later.

This year’s seniors shed some light on why Jones got results.

“He takes time out of his day to ask how you’re doing. He not only asks, but cares,” said Kyla Browning.

“As senior class president, I find myself spending countless hours in his office discussing communication and leadership. From his advice about problem solving to his knowledge about people, his infinite wisdom never ceases to amaze me. But Mr. Jones is so much more than just wise. He is a friend to us all,” Pavitra Abraham said.

The 1967 class opened the gates for the accolades to pour forth. Student Kendall Pinkerton said the school assembled a DVD tribute to Jones, and art teacher Steve Deeb followed Pinkerton in inimitable style.

“Art is part of this school culture, and in tribute to that, I’ve made you a box for that DVD,” said Deeb, drawing a big laugh. “So many students and art faculty like myself have been able to make an everlasting mark on this building, and that has made all the difference. Thanks for being you, Jones.”

Kayla Wimbush first met Jones as a freshman when then presidential-candidate Barack Obama visited the school in 2008. Obama called on her for a question.

“I thought that was the moment that would mean the most, but little did I know what would be said to me afterwards would hold a special place in my heart. As the gym emptied of people, Principal Jones came up to me, a little freshman, and said some words that have stuck with me to this day: ‘You’re a star, kiddo.’ Hearing those words come from a man that I truly admire meant the world to me,” she said.

Farmington Hills Mayor Jerry Ellis read from a proclamation that hailed Jones’ many accomplishments, including his humanitarian work in Mali and efforts leading a campaign to build a school in Sudan, and declared March 31, 2011, Rick Jones Day in the city of Farmington Hills.

Board of Education President Howard Wallach called Jones the “best friend North has ever known.”

“He can be as tough as nails when he needs to, but the truth is, he rarely needs to, because people, most particularly his students, never want to disappoint him, since they know more than anyone he really cares about their success,” Wallach said.

“Rick, it’s a great day to be a Raider. Hell, with all of the nice things I’ve said about you, we ought to just name the building after you,” Wallach said. “And so we did.”

Huge, sustained applause followed, with Jones trying to keep his composure. Later in the evening, all he could say, softly, was that he didn’t know what to say, and that no one deserves such an honor.

Former school Board member Gary Sharp came up with the idea, and the school’s name is now North Farmington High School-The Richard B. Jones Academic Center. The lettering is to go up soon.

“What this place has meant to me, I can’t put it into words,” Jones said.

“I’ve gotten so much more than I’ve ever given, and it’s so obvious tonight,” he said.

“We do what we do for our life’s work because of the kids, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t still feel that kick out of walking in here every morning. And there won’t ever be anything else in my life that will match this,” Jones said. “There will some great things ahead, especially as I look at Logan and Cullen, those two little grand-guys that I can’t get enough of.”

Logan and Cullen, their moms — Jones’ daughters Keely and Lauren — and Jones’ parents, Len and Joyce Jones, were all in the audience.

“My best teachers were always my parents, and it would be pretty neat in retirement to have a little more time with them,” he said.

“The best thing that I can say is that we were speechless. We were awestruck,” said Len Jones.

“The only regret that I have standing up here tonight is that I can’t do it all over again,” Rick Jones said.