James Tom Russell, Flagler Palm Coast High School’s principal since 2019 and a former superintendent in Volusia County, where he built a 30-year career in education, died today of complications from covid-19. Russell had been diagnosed with Covid-19 on Nov. 16 and more recently was hospitalized.
“I share the news that none of us wants to hear,” Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt, who was informing faculty, staff and Flagler Palm Coast High School families by way of an automated call this afternoon, said, her voice audibly shaken. “Tom Russell, Principal of Flagler Palm Coast High School has passed away. I’m heartbroken by this. Tom was such a steadying force, not only for FPC but for our entire school district. Please join me in lifting up his wife Julie and their family in your prayers.” Mittelstadt said information about funeral arrangements will be made available when known. “We will have a support team on campus in the morning to help any way needed in the upcoming days. Let’s stay Bulldog strong on behalf of Mr. Russell.”
Russell is the most prominent public figure in Flagler or Volusia to die as a result of a pandemic that has claimed lives with merciless and indiscriminate ferocity in every community since March, with 45 lives lost in Flagler and 386 in Volusia, and a toll approaching 300,000 nationwide. By midnight Wednesday, 3,053 covid-related deaths had been reported nationwide in the previous 24 hours, yet another daily record—and a deadlier total than on 9/11. Russell had taken every measure to protect himself, as he had told his staff at the beginning of the school year, impressing on the faculty the importance of safety measures and vigilance.
Just six months ago, Russell spoke with near-prescience as he addressed the graduating Class of 2020 at a special in-person ceremony at the Daytona International Speedway.
“How many of you thought that Friday, March 13, would be the last normal day in the United States?” he said, after reciting a long lost of accolades about the first class he’d led in Flagler, rapidly earning faculty and students’ respect and affection.
“I was raised in a military home where we were taught to be a good person and do the right things. Those have been my guiding principles,” Russell was quoted as saying several years ago when he became interim superintendent in Volusia.
In his younger days he’d been a restaurant manager before finding his way at 30 in education, taking his first teaching job at Raines High in Jacksonville. The next year, he moved to Deltona’s Galaxy Middle where he taught English and social studies. In 2004, he became the principal of Deltona Middle. Three years later, he took the helm of Pine Ridge High in Deltona, where he fought to clean up the image of the school, once dubbed “Crime Ridge.” He was promoted to area superintendent in 2011, overseeing 34 schools, and in 2015 became interim superintendent when then-Superintendent Margaret Smith took early retirement after 11 years on the job. Russell agreed not to seek the permanent post when he took the interim assignment.
Jim Tager–who would eventually become Flagler County’s superintendent–was a deputy superintendent in Volusia at the time. Tager told a News-Journal reporter that as he and Russell rose through the ranks, serving as middle school and high school principals roughly at the same time, Tager “tried to incorporate parts of Russell’s leadership style into his own.”
“Our paths ran parallel for many years,” Tager said today from Vermont, where he moved with his wife last summer. “We were principal interns together, middle school principals at the same time, high school principals at the same time, then both became superintendents. I have always sought out Tom for advice, we both have sons that are teachers, and we shared about our families and summer trips. Tom beamed about his family and talked fondly about his travel with his wife Julie particularly to Chicago.
“Regardless of all those commonalities he is a person who I look up to and try to emulate. The district where he served as superintendent was fortunate to have him there. His legacy of kindness, decency, and a respect for all resonates with students, parents, faculty, staff and the community. He was the perfect principal for FPCHS for that reason. His legacy is one of a humble servant leader. Interestingly he loved FPCHS and shared his favorite job was being a principal.”
The Volusia school board eventually suspended its search for a new superintendent and offered Russell a contract. He remained superintendent there until 2019. Not long after Andrew Spar, president of the teachers union in Volusia, called for his removal following difficulties in contract negotiations in 2019, and the school board ousted Russell in a controversial vote, Tager brought Russell on in Flagler.
He introduced himself to the county in a video tweet on June 21, 2019. “Hi. I’m Tom Russell, and this is my dog, Sky,” he said, standing in a corner of his lanai with his dog at his feet. “I’m excited about meeting the students, the faculty, the staff and the community. I can’t wait for the school year to begin. Go Dogs.”
He cherished his several thousand followers on Twitter, and used the platform copiously to cheer, encourage and congratulate faculty, staff or students–whether it was the latest recipient of the sheriff’s Great Kids Award, the “facelift and the investment in the culinary lab,” a student’s finish in the top 10 in state cross country finals, the Senior of the Month, or students placing 2nd and in the top 10 in a federal district essay contest. And that was in less than a week in mid-November. On Oct. 24, he posted an early-morning selfie after taking part in “America’s most precious right,” voting.
On Nov. 20, he welcomed Scott Warren and Cory Murdock, both advanced placement and International Baccalaureate math teachers, to the FPC faculty, part of Russell’s plan to “highlighting our New Bulldog Teachers till Thanksgiving Break!”
It was to be his last tweet.
In Flagler County, the last active principal to die was Buddy Taylor in 1991, after whom Buddy Taylor Middle School–formerly Belle Terre Middle School–is named. Sal Campanella, who had been principal of Flagler Palm Coast High School before his death while recovering from appendicitis surgery in 2003, had by then become deputy superintendent. He, too, had spent most of his education career in Volusia. FPC’s stadium bears his name.
In name engraved anywhere or in memory Russell’s forceful presence is likely to radiate the way his words marked the graduating class of 2020. “Your actions and behaviors at school and in the community have been exemplary, and that has been what is so painful when thinking about your lost spring,” Russell had told the class, his voice projecting in the cavernous enormity of the Speedway. “Although our society will be shaped by the pandemic, Class of 2020, you cannot allow it to define you. In your lifetime you have been through so much. Multiple weather events, two economic collapses, and a pandemic. Yet through it all you have shown grit, perseverance, because you fully embraced life. For years to come, the class of 2020 at the secondary and collegiate level will be studied by sociologists and historians who will try to understand your response to this pandemic. And your message? At this graduation, on this day, at this historic race venue, will stand forever in your memory that the FPC Class of 2020 never ever gave up.”