Consistently Showing He Cares

By Brad McEwen

Still riding a wave of excitement after watching his beloved Trojans capture their first ever state football championship just a few weeks ago, Lee County High School Athletic Director and Assistant Principal Hank Wright was in fine spirits when he sat down with me recently to discuss the state of the school’s athletics programs, his pride in Lee County’s recent accomplishments and the happiness that comes when he’s able to make a difference, no matter how small, in someone else’s life.

“We had a lot of success last year,” Hank explained when I broached the subject of the football team’s thrilling 28-21 overtime win against Coffee County that sealed the team’s championship. “What an incredible ride we’ve had. We’ve got a good group of kids and a lot of things went our way. So we’re still on that high from winning it all. It’s hard to believe it happened here, for us.”

While it might still be a little overwhelming to digest the fact that football team was able to hoist that trophy, Hank made no bones about the fact that he’s not surprised they did it, given the overall level of success Lee County athletics has enjoyed recently.

“Our boys basketball has won the region two years in a row and looking for another good season this year,” he said. “Our wrestling has been strong for years. We had a state champion last year in wrestling; our heavyweight won state last year. Certainly our theater arts program—our one act play and all—they’re strong every year.”

“We won the all-region trophy (for football), the all-sports trophy for our region—which hadn’t been done in many years—and that’s a credit to our coaches. We have good coaches and we had a lot of state qualifiers last year.

“The groundwork had been laid years ago and we’re reaping the fruits of a lot of hard labor—a lot of hours and hours of practice and dedication on the coaches’ part.”

It’s no wonder Hank, who has now been teaching and coaching in Lee County for more than two decades, would attribute a lot of that athletic success to coaching. After all, he’s seen the importance of coaching in action all of his life.

“My dad was a teacher and coach,” Hank explained. “When I was a kid he was out at Riverview. He coached at Dougherty High School years ago and Deerfield and Riverview and ended up in Lee County. I was always around athletics because of him—and I loved every sport and played everything I could—and that’s where it all started, with him coaching.

“This is my 21st year. I started at the elementary school—elementary P.E. and coaching here at the high school—and then got into administration over there. This is my 12th year at the high school as assistant principal and it’s my second year as AD (athletic director) and AP.”

From a coaching standpoint, Hank said he’s helmed them all, with the exception of girls soccer, and while he loves teaching players how to play the games and how to compete, what he truly enjoys about coaching is the same thing he loves about his current role as an administrator.

“I didn’t coach soccer but I coached football, basketball, baseball, swimming one year, cross country, track, just about everything I think,” Hank said. “I did that but that’s just not my calling now. Right now I feel like my calling is to serve through being assistant principal and athletic director.

“I do miss it, but one thing about where I’m at in this high school is the middle of the building. A lot of stuff goes through this office with the kids. We’re student-driven and I’m able to interact with the kids on a daily basis and then work on their behalf behind the scenes.

“A lot of what I do nobody knows about until something goes wrong, that’s just the nature of it. But I enjoy working behind the scenes to help pull things off and put our kids in a position to be successful.”

And a large part of helping prepare students to achieve great things in the future is modeling the type of behavior Hank learned growing up in both a biological family and a church family (First Methodist of Albany) that valued service.

“Going back to when I was growing up, I saw my dad, the things that coaches did—and him in particular—how they influenced kids for the better, you know,” Hank said. “I saw a way of showing that integrity was something that I felt I could share with others. I’ve been trying to do that to some degree over the years—just doing things the right way.

“You’re going to have failures along the way for sure, but I’m always striving to represent who I am. My mama always told me, ‘remember who you are and whose you are.’ Those two things, I try to live along those lines.

“First Methodist was a big part of that, still is. I’m still heavily involved there and just learned to serve watching my parents and grandparents growing up. I just have a heart for service and being able to give back in some form or fashion.”

Another way Hank is able to give back to the community is through his service on the board of The Anchorage faith-based alcohol and substance abuse treatment center. Since joining that board seven years ago, Hank has served as chairman twice and has continued to be active in his support of the mission which was started by his grandfather’s First Methodist Sunday school class.

“He was in the Hudson Malone Sunday School Class and I grew up knowing that they formed the Anchorage,” he said. “Their Sunday school class helped do that and he was always a big supporter of it. That was really the only non-profit I ever really wanted to be a part of and the opportunity came along a few years ago and I got involved.

“Folks that ushered with me (at the church) said, ‘why don’t you come on board?’ So the door opened to do that and the timing was right and it was such a good place. I certainly believe in what’s going on out there and being able to be a small part of what goes on is big; I get a lot out of that.”

While Hank has no trouble admitting that he gets a lot out of his service with the Anchorage, and through his involvement with the students in Lee County, he’s quick to point out that the things he does are not motivated by any kind of personal gain.

Certainly it’s nice when there’s some recognition—like the kind he experiences from time to time when he sees former students and athletes—but at the end of the day, Hank feels he’s just doing what he thinks is the right thing.

“We went to eat at Riverfront (BBQ) the other day and saw a former student that was heading down the wrong path at one time and that’s what you look for—changes in kids for the better,” Hank said. “Even though you have a kid that school may not be right for them at the time, you see them years later and see that they’ve turned out alright. And when they tell you that there’s something you did that helped them—and that’s something I heard the other day—that I always had the right thing to say to them back then, and they wished they’d listened a little bit more, and they’re thanking me for the time I spent with them—it means something. This kid had been out of school for 10 years.

“You don’t always hear that, but I’ve had kids come back that have been out of school for several years and make a point to stop by the school district to thank me for being a part of their life,” Hank continued. “That certainly makes it worth it, but I don’t do it for that.

“But it does help you see that you’ve made some difference along the way.”

Instances like those are especially poignant for Hank considering the fact that many of those former students that he’s had a positive impact on were not the kids he coached, but rather the ones he interacted with due to discipline issues.

As assistant principal Hank bears a large responsibility in having to mete out discipline for students who are struggling with behavior and other issues, and he said it’s good to know that his approach to dealing with them is having a positive impact.

“My thing with the discipline is, if I didn’t love them, there would be a lot of resentment there,” Hank shared. “I care about these kids that come through here and I feel like they respond to that because they know I care.

“I’m a firm believer that people don’t care unless they know how much you care. And I try to show how much I care. So when I do hear from some of those kids—who are now adults and they have their own kids—it’s good to hear that they know I cared. They don’t always know that I care when they’re here, but years later they know that maybe I was one that cared about them.”

Hank’s philosophies about discipline and the need to connect with his students on an emotional level make sense, given that those beliefs are firmly rooted in the lessons he learned growing up and watching his father handle difficult situations with students and athletes.

“I just saw my dad live like that,” he said. “Back then he would paddle kids and then sit down with them and they’d be right back in his office with him (on good terms). That’s where I saw that. And he got a hold of me as well. And I always knew he loved me even though he’d tear me up. And I saw him do that time after time with his students and players.

“Just growing up in the school I was exposed to that—the discipline with love. My home life was like that as well and that’s what I’ve tried to pass along—to care.”

Hank’s deep caring, not just about his students, but for the entire Albany and Lee County community he was raised in, has also fostered in him a fierce desire to see the area succeed—something he feels was bolstered by the Trojans recent gridiron victory—which he sees as a triumph for all of South Georgia.

“It’s huge,” he said of the win. “And the thing is, what some people don’t understand, is it’s not just Lee County; it’s this area. For the state championship (Albany city commissioner) Bob Langstaff called and offered the help of the city commission. We had, and I don’t want to throw names out because I’d hate to forget anybody, but certainly Larry Cook with (City of Albany) Public Works. The (Albany/Dougherty County) recreation department, offered bleachers and just different parts of the community and the surrounding area offered to help in any way that they could to help us pull this off.”

Hank also praised local officials, law enforcement, members of the Exchange Club of Albany and even folks from Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany for all the help and support they provided to the football team.

“The South Georgia area has really been a part of it,” he stressed. “People come from all over to see our games, you know, it’s not just Lee County. And we’re glad to be a part of this area.

“And it’s a good feeling to be able to give back. We gave the area a championship that they’ve been after for a long time.”

While he wants to make sure people understand how the football team’s success is important to a broader area, Hank made sure to tell me how important the Lee County community’s support over the years has been to athletics in general.

For Hank, any success the high school has stems from the dedication of the students, their parents and the community that works hard on its behalf.

“Certainly you start with the kids, the ones that are walking the halls and getting off the bus, competing for you,” he explained. “Then you go to the parents. The parents put them in the school and they trust us with their kids—to do right by their kids—and that’s what we try to do. We try to do that on a daily basis—do what’s best for the kids. And the majority of our folks are all about the kids and what’s going to help them be a better person after they leave us.

“We have a lot of support from the parents, grandparents and community members. Our folks, our community, have supported our kids when we weren’t 13-1 or 9-2, or whatever. They supported them when we were 1-10 and 2-8 and 3-7. There is support no matter what the record has been. They’ve always supported us and that’s why it’s just so good for them to be a part of this.”

Hank said he’s also hoping that the community will get to enjoy further success in the future, and not just in regard to football. As mentioned earlier, he’s proud of the state of the entire athletics department and honestly feels like the school is poised to make a significant impact in several sports.

“The good thing is that we don’t know where it would come from,” he said when asked where the next championship might come from. “We feel like it could come from any number of areas. For this community, I think the goal—what they’ve longed for the longest—would be a baseball championship. I’m not trying to put pressure on Coach Brock or his kids. We’ve been in the finals four times, I believe, and come up short. That’s just one hump that we haven’t been able to get over yet. Winning in baseball would be a relief to many.

“But we honestly feel like any of our sports could make that run. It just takes a lot of things to go your way to win any kind of championship. Even the region was tough. You just keep pushing through and you never know where you’ll end up. But I honestly feel like any of our teams could run the table and finish with a championship.”

Although the enthusiasm and support of the entire community, combined with excellent coaches teaching talented players, will no doubt lead to future success, there’s no denying that Lee County High School and the community at large, is also reaping the benefit of having someone like Hank Wright sharing his passion and dedication for others through lasting relationships.

“I’m big on relationships,” he said. “Not for what I can get out of it, but for what I can give. I just feel that’s the way to go.”

Indeed. If we all took that approach to life and put serving others above serving ourselves our world would be the kind of place we all hope and dream it will one day be.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen