All of us have come in contact with certain individuals, and, if we are lucky, many individuals, who have enriched our lives simply by being in their presence. After all, none of us have enjoyed whatever successes we have achieved without help from others.
I have been blessed to fit into the “many individuals” category. Beginning with my parents, who were the best mentors and role models a child could possibly hope for, I have had the good fortune to be surrounded by many people throughout my entire life who were strong leaders and who were interested in helping those around them become better people. What a great gift that is.
Outside of my family, the most impactful people in my life have worked primarily in the field of education. Sadly, one of those people recently passed away at the age of 93.
When I first arrived at Troy Junior High School as a special education teacher in 1977, Mrs. Banna Smith was the principal. Banna, or as we all reverently called her back then, Mrs. Smith, has the distinction of being the first woman to serve as a principal at the junior high or high school level in the Troy City Schools.
As any parent who has survived the raging, hormone-fueled early teenage years can attest, successfully navigating those unpredictable and volatile times can be a parent’s most challenging and frustrating experience. Even the most level headed teenager often appears to exist in some alternate universe, so imagine the challenge of managing 600 to 700 such personalities in a confined environment like a school building. The fact that Banna skillfully managed tens of thousands of such youngsters tells you all you need to know about her as a school leader and person.
I never met a person who led a more dignified, honorable personal and professional life than Banna Smith. She presented herself as a role model every day not only for the students, but for the staff as well. She didn’t spend a lot of time lecturing us on what being a professional entailed. She modeled it. Every single day.
She held us all accountable, and she exuded authority and commanded respect. There was never any doubt about who was in charge, and, while it seems Neanderthal-like thinking today, the fact that a (gasp!) woman could exhibit those skills was still a relatively new concept in the 1970s.
Despite the fact that she did not suffer fools lightly, she was kind and compassionate to all with whom she came into contact. While she could strike an imposing figure, there was never a question about how much she cared about everyone in her building. She was, quite simply, a kind person.
I have no doubt there are many female administrators today whose foray into school leadership was bolstered by Banna’s success as a pioneer in the principalship.
As is usually the case with young people, I didn’t fully appreciate her impact on me until later in life, but I have certainly recognized and been grateful for it for many years now. She undoubtedly helped me in my career by showing me what it meant to be a professional educator, and for that I will always be grateful.
A few years ago, as I began watching people who had meant so much to me pass away, I endeavored to try to let people like that know how much I appreciate what they have done for me before they leave this world. Not long ago, I sent Banna a card expressing my respect and gratitude for all she had done for me.
Fortunately, just a few months later, our paths crossed at a local restaurant, where we embraced and reminisced about “the good old days.” She also told me how much she appreciated my columns on education while encouraging me to “keep up the good fight.” After a few minutes, as I turned to leave, she gave me a peck on the cheek and told me she loved me.
That was the last time I saw her, and I am so thankful it will be my lasting memory of her.
Some people make you a better person from simply being around them. Banna Smith was one of those people.
I will miss, but never forget her.
Tom Dunn is the former superintendent of the Miami County Educational Service Center.