Monday, July 12, 2010

No Nonsense Pro Brought Out the Best

There's a fine article about Mr. Otts in today's Charlotte Observer. It's written by CHS '50 graduate Jack Claiborne.

The John Otts who died at age 100 on June 12 at Black Mountain will live on in the minds of thousands of Carolinians. A distinguished educator and churchman in the Carolinas and Virginia, no student who encountered him in a classroom setting is likely to have forgotten the experience. He was a memorable presence.

As principal at Charlotte Central High from 1945 to 1955, his walk was brisk, his voice commanding, his speech clipped. He ran a tight ship and brooked no nonsense.

Yet behind wire-rimmed glasses, his eyes flashed kindness and good humor. Under his disciplined exterior was a caring educator deeply devoted to the art of teaching and the thrill of learning. He challenged his faculty to make their lessons meaningful.

He loved students but was wary of them. Approaching a knot of students in a hallway, with a file folder under one arm, a half-smile on his lips, and his chin thrust forward, he might ask, "What's the meaning of this?"
If it was innocent fun, he might join the banter. But if he sensed mischief, his response was immediate: "There's no reason for this," he'd say. "Move along. Get to your places. Clear this hall."
His bark was worse than his bite. He seemed to see below the surface of most situations and most students and to respond compassionately.

When a 10th grade boy new to the city fell in with the wrong crowd and blew up a toilet in the boy's locker room, his penalty was to take all his classes the rest of the year in the principal's office - under John Otts' personal scrutiny.

At the end of the term the boy transferred to another school, but a year later returned to Central and graduated. Many years later he said the time he spent in Dr. Otts' office taught him he had more potential than he'd ever known.

After high school, he joined the Air Force and later went to college on the GI Bill. He became an architect and made a success of his life. He attributed his turnaround to John Otts.

Another boy, a class cutup until Dr. Otts arrived in 1945-46, righted himself and did well in his senior year. When Dr. Otts asked where he was going to college, the boy said he wasn't. "We're not a college family," the boy said.

Otts encouraged him to visit Wofford College in Spartanburg and arranged a weekend welcome for him there. When the boy returned to Charlotte, Dr. Otts asked how he liked it. "Fine," the boy said, but still insisted his family couldn't afford to send him.

Undeterred, Dr. Otts had the boy fill out an application and sent it to Wofford. Accompanying it was the principal's personal recommendation and a notice that the boy would need financial aid. Weeks later the boy received a letter saying he'd been accepted.

The boy went to college, worked his way through, and graduated. He returned to Charlotte to do well in business and became a community leader.

John Otts had that effect on people, often without their knowing it. He arranged scholarships for boys and girls who otherwise might not have gone to college. He brought out the best within them. He adored teaching and dedicated his life to it.

As dean of education at Queens, UNC Chapel Hill, and USC Columbia and later as president of the Presbyterian School of Christian Education at Richmond, Va., (now part of Union Seminary), Otts left his mark on thousands of older students. He could simplify complex concepts. He was patient and wouldn't let students give up on themselves.

Today, when schools everywhere are striving to meet rising expectations, we need more no-nonsense professionals like John Otts, who can see below the surface and summon the best from within their faculties and the students they teach.

Jack Claiborne is a former associate editor at The Observer.