Moss given Long Leaf Pine award at goodbye ceremony

Jun. 14, 2013 @ 03:37 PM

During a reception marking his retirement from the state of North Carolina after 30 years in education, Lee County Schools Supt. Jeff Moss was praised by state and local leaders Thursday night before being given one of the state’s highest awards, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine.

Moss also received more personal accolades from the crowd gathered at Sanford’s Flame restaurant — a crowd numbered at least 50 but was difficult to estimate since the building lost power before the speeches began and didn’t get the lights turned back on before the crowd thinned out at around 7 p.m.

“We’re here to say goodbye to Jeff Moss,” Lee County School Board Chairman Dr. Lynn Smith said, kicking off the ceremony at about 6 p.m. “But we’re also saying good job, Jeff Moss.”

That sentiment set the tone for the night, as former school board chiefs, local educators and education fundraisers, as well as several regional and statewide educators and politicians took turns praising Moss and his efforts in about five years in Lee County.

State Superintendent June Atkinson, who said she has counted Moss as a personal and professional friend for many years, said throughout his career, he has consistently been about five years ahead of the curve, but also never lost sight of the individual and basic needs of children in his schools even while he focused on innovations. But most importantly, she said, he wasn’t afraid to back down from a fight.

“I have seen his resiliency and determination to go and get things done when other people — weaker people — would not have,” she said, adding that when he’s made up his mind, it’s best not to try and mess with him.

Atkinson stood in for Gov. Pat McCrory in awarding Moss the Long Leaf Pine, which is one of North Carolina’s most prestigious honors and puts Moss in the company of legendary preacher Billy Graham, late UNC System President Bill Friday and more.

“You have made a huge contribution to stirring thought on where we need to go in public education,” said Atkinson, who heads the state’s entire public school system.

Moss, who swore the award was a surprise, stepped up to speak but couldn’t find the words. He paused for a moment and told the crowd, his voice trembling: “This has been a great community, so thanks,” before breaking down in tears.

The image of an emotional Moss wasn’t one most who spoke earlier in the night conjured up, though. Bill Tatum, who was chairman of the school board when Moss was hired, said he could best compare the departing superintendent — who officially retires June 30 in order to take a superintendent job in South Carolina — to the ornery mule his grandfather had on his tobacco farm.

“That was the most stubborn animal I had seen until four-and-a-half years ago,” Tatum said in reference to when he hired Moss.

However, he said, Moss’ best characteristic was his leadership. Tatum said one 40-year teaching veteran told him he came out of retirement specifically to work with Moss, and another 30-year veteran said Moss was better than anyone at inspiring a common vision among staff.

Shawn Williams, who was school board chairman between Tatum and Smith, praised Moss for wanting to help students from different backgrounds and with a variety of aspirations and abilities.

“A lot of people, when you’re on a path and hit some obstacles, there’s a tendency to turn around,” Williams said. “Jeff did not turn around.”

Dennis Wicker, a former lieutenant governor who was instrumental in founding the Lee County Education Foundation and the Head of Class award which has won national praise, said Moss is best described as bold, and that “It wasn’t until Jeff came along that we really took off.”

Donnie Oldham, board chairman and interim director of the Lee County Economic Development Corporation and also a member of a search committee which brought in Moss five years ago, said he appreciated Moss’s approach to education.

“He’s got kind of a business-person’s thinking, with an academic background,” he said.

Perhaps the highlight of the night belonged to Iris Jordan of The Children of Promise 21st Century Community Learning Center, who professed her undying (yet purely professional) love for Moss and took his hand as she led the crowd in singing Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend.”

She also praised his holistic approach to education. “I saw him understanding that it really does take an entire village to get it done,” she said.

Finally, Smith presented Moss with a case of wine to enjoy on the beach in his new Hilton Head job. Smith also said he had a different take on Moss’ personality than many of the others.

“I don’t think you’re stubborn,” Smith said. “All these years, I’ve classified you as a disruptive innovator.”