This time last year Jerry Cecil was just starting to enjoy his retirement after 48 years working in education, the last 31 of which were spent in his hometown. Cecil graduated from Greenwood High School in 1964. For some perspective, during his senior year President John Kennedy was assassinated (11/22/63) and the legendary Beatles made their American musical debut three months later.
Not that the 69-year-old Cecil is feeling old, but it’s been a long and interesting journey that has now led him to the state’s hall of fame for athletic directors. Cecil will accept the honor this coming Friday, July 14th, during a banquet set for 6:30 p.m. in the Convention Center in Hot Springs.
He explained, “Every year the Arkansas Activities Association, in conjunction with the coaches’ association, the officials’ association, and the state athletic administrators’ association, holds a hall of fame banquet. Typically, there are three coaches, three officials, and three athletic directors inducted. It’s a very nice event.”
Cecil will join Jimmy Albright of North Little Rock and David Alpe of Malvern as 2017 inductees into the AD Hall of Fame. The late H.B. Stewart, who preceded Cecil as Greenwood’s Athletic Director, joined the esteemed group in 2010. The hall is sponsored by the Arkansas High School Athletic Administrators Association.
“There’s a committee that makes the selections,” said Cecil. “I don’t know if they have specific criteria. I guess they just look at your profile and see what you’ve done. They probably know you. They’ve been around you and worked with you, I would guess. I think they are mostly former ADs.”
The veteran educator, coach, and administrator agreed that longevity is certainly a key ingredient to receiving such an honor. “The main thing is that you get a regular paycheck,” he said jokingly.
“I was surprised and very honored,” he said more seriously regarding his induction. “The athletic directors that I’ve gotten acquainted with and worked with over the years are a great bunch. And when you know the [people] that have been selected previously, it’s a great honor to be [included] with [them].”
When asked about his retirement, Cecil relishes his newfound freedom and said without hesitation, “It’s good. I enjoy it. It’s nice to not have to go to bed at any certain time or get up at any certain time. It’s nice if you decide you want to go somewhere and do something, you can.”
He recently traveled with some friends to Omaha, Nebraska to take in the College World Series, and is also planning a trip to St. Louis later this month to see a couple of Cardinals’ games. He and wife, Fran, will be traveling to Michigan in August. For the last 17 years of his working life, family getaways and personal leisure time were usually scheduled around school athletic events.
“Being present at the ballgames takes up a big part of your time,” he said in describing the life of an athletic director. “[But] that’s something I loved. I tried to go to every home event, grades 7-12. I went to road varsity football and basketball games, and occasionally some of the other things.”
Another big part of an athletic director’s job is finding volunteers to work the various sporting events throughout the school year. “You spend [a lot of] time contacting people to recruit them to fill some of those jobs, because it’s all volunteer,” he said. “A lot of schools pay those people, but we were fortunate enough to have good people who were willing to do it for a shirt or a cap,” he said with a smile and sincere appreciation.
“We [also] tried to make sure we had a good hospitality room for home varsity football and basketball games. That’s something we did to reward those volunteers who helped us, but also for the coaches and officials and administrators. It was fun, and over the years we developed a reputation for having an outstanding hospitality room. The food was great, but the chance to visit with people was a big part of it.”
Cecil also wanted to publicly thank a few of the volunteers who meant so much to the athletic program during his tenure as AD, including Kelly Hendrix, Loren Schmidt, and J.D. Mayo. Cecil also cited his long-time assistant, Ann Caudle, for her indispensable help over the years. She recently took another job in the district office. There are many others as well who have contributed over the years.
When asked, Cecil waxed nostalgic about how and where he began his journey in education. “I got my start at a place called Hayti, Missouri, about 25 miles north of Blytheville, Arkansas. I spent a year in Lebanon, Missouri, then took a job in Jackson, Tennessee, which is my wife’s hometown. I coached football and baseball there and was the athletic director also, then came to Greenwood in 1985.
Obviously, Cecil witnessed a lot of changes over the years, some good and some not so good, and he was willing to share some of those thoughts regarding athletics, education, and how the culture has impacted kids.
“It used to be that football started in the middle of August, and when that was over you went to basketball, and then you went to the spring sports,” he explained. “But now there’s so much year-round activity.
“That’s been a big change. There was not much of that going on when I first started. Now there’s a lot more specialization. There are [sports] camps everywhere. The rules had to change to permit those things.”
On the other hand, Cecil expressed concern about all the summer sports activities outside the supervision of professionally trained coaches. “School coaches have to be licensed,” he said. “They have a certain amount of training they’ve got to complete that helps them not only [with] the rules and strategy of the game, but how to handle kids. It’s a potential problem for those who haven’t had that kind of training. They might not be the best role models for the kids.
“Another challenge is that there are so many more diverse things for kids to do [today], they don’t have to participate in sports. I [also] think the percentage of kids that are multi-sport athletes has declined over the years. You need the best athletes in every sport, but you don’t always get that because of specialization.”
While coaching early in his career, Cecil also spent eight years in the classroom as a teacher before moving into administration. Prior to becoming Greenwood’s AD, he served 12 years as principal at the high school. Over the decades he has also witnessed a significant transformation in America and among her students.
“[Another] big change is the technology,” he continued. “There’s things going on now that I didn’t have to deal with. The proliferation of electronic devices, cell phones, and social media causes problems with bullying and that sort of thing. Principals across the country are dealing with those kinds of things.
“At Greenwood, the change in teacher evaluations and teacher training – there’s constant professional development going on. Very little of that existed when my career started. There’s just so much more quality that goes into what Greenwood and other schools have to offer students now. It’s the best it’s ever been, by far.”
As for education in general, Cecil acknowledged the drastic changes in American culture and family life over the past few decades, much of it to the detriment of the public school system. “The first teachers are always the parents, and they are usually the best teachers. But if they don’t assume that responsibility it’s going to have big repercussions for their children throughout their lives.
“A child is like a flower bed. You’ve got to tend to it and cultivate it all the time. Unfortunately, across the country too many parents don’t accept their responsibilities, and it has negative consequences for the kids.
“I believe that kids with parents who provide good parental support and guidance are very lucky kids, and we’ve got a high percentage of those kinds of parents in the Greenwood school district.”
Asked about the transition of the district’s athletic department from his leadership to that of his successor, Dr. Dustin Smith, Cecil was quick to offer a positive assessment. “It appears to me that things have gone very well. Greenwood continues to do well across the board in all sports. I think he’s done a remarkable job.
“I don’t know what [Dr. Smith] is doing day-to-day that I did or didn’t do. But I’d say that it’s in good hands. I’ve attended many Greenwood ballgames during the past year, and I think the Greenwood athletic program is on solid ground.”
Cecil has stayed involved in GHS athletics on the margins, working on the live stream of football games on the Internet last fall, but remains open to other possible avenues of service. “I’m available if someone needs help,” he said.
Reflecting on his move from high school principal to athletic director, Cecil explained how it all came about in the late 1990s. “Superintendent Mike Davidson asked me to step in as athletic director when H.B retired,” he said. Cecil then became an assistant superintendent overseeing student services for a couple of years before taking over as athletic director.
“I don’t know of anything that I did differently,” he said honestly. “H.B. laid a good foundation. But when I became athletic director I just feel like we were fortunate to be able to hire some outstanding coaches. That was the biggest key. The foundation that H.B. laid made Greenwood an attractive place for good coaches.
“Greenwood is an exceptional place. Anybody that’s been around Greenwood for a while knows it’s a great community in which to live, a great community in which to raise kids, and a great school system. [Other] schools have problems that we’ve been fortunate enough to avoid here.
“We’ve got good facilities, academically and athletically, and we’ve got an excellent pay scale. In my 31 years here we had great school board support. They had confidence in the staff and gave them the opportunity to do what needed to be done, and it’s worked out well.”
Asked about the phrase “The University of Greenwood,” Cecil laughed and said, “An opposing football coach made that comment. He meant it as a dig, but I took it as a compliment. We’ve had people [visit] our campus and look at our buildings and say, “This place looks like a small college.”
As for his role in bringing some of those facilities into reality, Cecil was understandably pleased with that part of his legacy. “I’m certainly proud of the GMAC building, the artificial turf on the [football] field, redoing the track, which was in the works when I retired, and the baseball field and softball complex.”
In closing the interview, Cecil expressed his gratitude for having been fortunate enough to live and work in a place like Greenwood. “I feel very blessed to have had the opportunity to work in this school district. The best people I’ve known in the education profession are right here in Greenwood, Arkansas.
“It’s just been a real privilege to work here. No place is perfect, but [Greenwood] comes pretty close. It’s a very peaceful community. There’s not a lot of serious crime here and there’s not a lot of serious problems in the schools. It’s just a special place.”