As Alex Russell, a teacher and the oldest son of Tom Russell’s, Flagler Palm Coast High School’s principal who died of Covid-19 on Dec. 9 at 61,
addressed the assembly at this evening’s memorial at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Daytona Beach, he spoke of an exercise he has his students do routinely: writing their own eulogy.
“Think about what you want somebody to say at your funeral,” Alex said. “Man, here, what I’ve heard here so far, Dad, you did it, cause that was an A-plus in my class. So great job.”
The memorial was not yet an hour in, but the tributes to the man everyone knew as TR had poured in by then, flashed on the giant screen at the stadium in tweet after tweet or spoken by the those who took the mic on the field in front of the tarp-covered pitcher’s mound, with certain themes recurring over and over: his humor, his charisma, his elephantine memory for people, his ability to make anyone feel heard and cared about, his quirks and sweet took (“leave no cookie behind,” in his son’s words), his immense curiosity.
But it was left up to his older son to open a window into the intimacy of a life as less known as it would seem familiar to those who knew him: “He was just a simple guy, he loved to laugh, he loved to read, he loved listening to podcasts, music, a cup of coffee,” Alex said. “At one point he was, what, a pot or two a day, we got him down to, like, 10 cups. He enjoyed big breakfasts, especially on Saturday, a bowl of ice cream after every dinner. Russell trait. He loved lounging in the pool. He adored his grandchildren and visiting with them. He absolutely loved holidays especially this time of year, Christmas, listening to NPR, and Jake will know this one,” Jake being Alex’s younger brother by 10 years, “watching Book TV, which I didn’t even know anybody else watches other than Dad, and never missing a Florida State sporting event or the Buccaneers.
“And then finally he loved watching other people grow and flourish. That was really what he loved. He was also a creature of habit. I won’t go into all of them because I don’t know if we have enough time and I don;t know if you want to hear about it.” But he would wake up at an “ungodly” early time, between 3 and 4 a.m., “and he would study scripture, he would pray, meditate, think, he would walk out, his goal, he was always tracking his Fitbit and competition and that was his deal. He was really into that. He would write everything down.”
He would write the annual family Christmas letter, a letter he never got a chance to write this year, and of course he had to set up the presents every year, sleeping on the couch “to make sure Santa didn’t sneak in,” though even in Jake’s and Alex’s adulthood, Russell would continue to write notes in Santa’s hand and force his children on treasure hunts. Obviously, he had corny nicknames for his kids. Alex would not disclose them. (They are exempt from public record disclosure.)
“Like most kids, my Dad was a hero,” Alex said, his voice never rising to a shout, as he had warned his audience it might (he is a football coach). “Unlike most kids, I got to share my Dad with so many other kids and so many other people.” He struggled to define his father’s heroism, then settled on an Arthur Ashe saying: “True heroism is remarkably sober. Very undramatic. It’s not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”
The Ashe quote was spoken one way or the other by those who spoke before and after Alex Russell on a chilly night a week before Christmas, when no one thought they’d be in a stadium commemorating a life lost so far before its time.
“He made an impact on everybody that he met, that’s why you’re here tonight, braving the cold weather,” Dan Glenn, senior pastor at Stetson Baptist Church, said of Russell’s impact before reading a proclamation prepared by the Volusia County Council, declaring Dec. 18, 2020, as James Tom Russell Day. He then read from a Psalm that includes a line emblematic of Russell’s effect: “Whatever he does prospers.”
It had, beyond words, as Flagler Schools Superintendent Cathy Mittelstadt told the school board at the end of last Tuesday’s meeting: in Russell’s first and only full year as principal at FPC, where former Superintendent Jim Tager had brought him on after he’d lost his job as superintendent in Volusia, the graduation rate had jumped four points, to 92 percent, on his watch, according to internal numbers.
“When I was hired the superintendent last spring,” Mittelstadt told the memorial assembly as she spoke on behalf of the school board and the FPC community, “one of the first phone calls I received was from Tom. His message was simple. What can I do to help. Unlike many of you, I did not know Tom before I stepped into this position. But I quickly learned that is what made Tom Russell so special. He was always looking at ways to help others. He came to work every day to empower teachers and staff to inspire students to create a bright future for themselves. Cheryl Sandberg states, ‘leadership is about making others better as a result of your presence, and making sure that impact lasts in your absence. This is Tom. His Twitter page demonstrated how much he cared for FPC. It was a constant brag sheet on all the happenings, including sports, extra curriculars, the arts, and even welcoming new teachers and staff to FPC. Practically every event on campus Mr. Russell would attend, and he would always be the loudest cheerleader. Julie, you’d think the two of you loved right around the corner of FPC as much time as Tom spent on that campus.” (Russell lived in DeLand and commuted.)
Mittlestadt continued: “Tom Russell loved his FPC family. He influenced so many lives in both Flagler and Volusia. As he often ended his conversations, take care. Tom, we are all blessed and influenced by you, and you will be greatly missed. Take care.”
His influence was in evidence this evening in the words of those who spoke and those who tweeted, each tweet a mini-sermon in tribute as they scrolled on the big screen.
“Today heaven gained an intellectual, compassionate and honorable legend,” Caroline Rizzo wrote. “You touched me with every conversation we had. You were the glue FPC needed. We are forever in debt to you, Tom Russell.”
“I was just one of the many inspired by Tom Russell,” wrote Mrs. Crane. “He was a true leader, a gentleman’s gentleman–strong, compassionate, and exceedingly kind. My heart is with his family and all those reeling from this tremendous loss.”
“Hate to hear this,” Claire Metz, the WESH 2 television reporter, wrote, “a good, kind leader.” Kelli Chehaitili wrote: “You cared for our students with compassion and joy and showed them that they were important individuals. You took the time to genuinely hear their voices.” Thank you. Your peaceful legacy will live on.” Mike Chitwood, the Volusia County Sheriff: Our community just lost a great man in Tom Russell, a true champion for students @VolusiaSchools and most recently @FlaglerSchools. It was my privilege to work with him, to get to know him and to witness first-hand the love and respect he earned from all those around him.” Cara Cronk, the newly named principal at Buddy Taylor Middle School, tweeted: “Amazing man and leader! He was kind, gracious with his time and humbly shared his knowledge and wisdom with others–a true educator.”
There were thoughts from Southwestern Middle School, Volusia County schools, Buddy Taylor Middle School, among others, and the Daytona Tortugas team, who tweeted above a picture of Russell in a Tortugas uniform: “He shared our passion for supporting education & was always a great partner of the Tortugas.”
And there were moments seemingly befitting Russell’s willing quirkiness or humor, when necessary, as when he dressed in a cheerleader’s uniform: Mitch Moyer, director of transportation for Volusia County Schools, who, like everyone else, knew him as TR and was his “point of entry and his boss” at one point, spoke of meeting Russell in the summer of 1995 when he’d just been appointed principal at Silver Sands Middle School. His predecessor had just hired Russell. Moyer came to know how Russell would “unintentionally–and I’ll say it again, he unintentionally built his legacy, as witnessed here tonight, and the need to secure a stadium to properly honor him.” But then Moyer told his idea of a joke–making Russell and other men wear those cheerleaders’ outfits, which he described as not quite Russell’s “cup of tea,” though he did it, with an eye on his future.
Jennifer Williams, the principal at Citrus Grove Elementary, was less needling, speaking of more endearing quirks: Russell had the best penmanship. He turned Twitter into a movement–Russell was always proud of his 3,000-some followers–turning his colleagues into tweeters. “He was someone who never met a stranger,” Williams said, and was funny in a damn-the-torpedoes kind of way. He was a teacher to the core.
“His favorite place at football games was always in the end zone,” Williams said. “So last week’s Friday Night Lights was the perfect tribute to honor TR.”
It was a baseball field tonight, and still no less of an end zone floodlit in memories and his presence.