Percy Mack shed his suit jacket and grabbed a microphone Thursday as he prepared to offer a life lesson to a gym full of young, energetic basketball campers.
“No matter what you are going to do, you have to have a backup plan,” the outgoing Richland 1 schools superintendent told more than 200 boys at the weeklong “Hoop-ology” basketball camp at Eau Claire High School.
That advice – accompanied by his admonition to study hard just in case the NBA does not come calling – is straight out of the Mack playbook. Since his Sunday School teacher, Tossie Sapp, advised him years ago to get a jump-start on college by enrolling in summer school, Mack has been figuring out his own best game plan, always with a backup in mind.
Mack, whose last day is Monday, is leaving the district’s top job two years before his contract expires by his own volition, saying it is time to try his hand at other things. There is also the lure of spending more time with his four grown daughters and his five grandchildren, ages 21 to 4, who live in Atlanta.
“You just have to have a feeling that that’s the time,” Mack said during an interview Wednesday. “I’ve talked to others who have retired and they have basically said the same thing, especially people who have retired in good health.
“I’ve had the opportunity to look at other options of work, and it’s something I’d like (to try) – college teaching and executive search work. You want to be able to do that while you still have the desire to do it, while you are still contemporary enough.”
People skills and a steady hand
His decision to leave Richland 1 after six years came as a surprise to those around him.
The former Dayton, Ohio, schools chief has stirred little public controversy during his tenure, and many saw him as a capable, stablizing force in a complex urban district that faces significant poverty challenges but also boasts some of the region’s top academic performers. Richland 1 has about 22,700 students and 52 schools and centers.
Mack, 63, said he believes his greatest contribution, aside from navigating the 2008 recession without layoffs and furloughs, has been his push for literacy and early childhood education. He believes instilling early fundamentals is key to a child’s academic success. Under his watch, the district was able to remove four of five low-performing schools from a state watch list.
School board member Vince Ford said Mack “has probably the best people skills of almost anybody I’ve ever met.”
Those skills were vital during tough economic times to encourage employees and the community, Ford said, especially as the district faced a succession of midyear budget cuts from the Legislature. “He was incredibly supportive of our community.”
Mack, who earned $202,000 annually, plans to remain in Columbia.
Mack said he sees school as a “safe haven” for students, particularly those on the lowest ends of the economic scale. He pushed to open schools following winter snow storms because he feared some children might go hungry if they missed the hot breakfasts and lunches that the school provides each day.
To him, the fact that the district feeds some children three times a day – including a hot meal in late afternoon as part of some after-school programs – is a reality that cannot be sugar-coated or condemned.
“I have parents working two and three jobs,” he said. “They are doing the very best that they can. I don’t think any parent is trying not to be a good parent. I really don’t.”
A legacy from his parents
That reality of latch-key children is far removed from his own childhood in Savannah, where he grew up in segregation but amid a tight-knit community of close relatives and neighbors.
His family was poor but did not lack in the character-building training that would serve him through life.
Mack was the only child of a father who toiled in a hot plant making roofing shingles and a mother who worked as a domestic and school cafeteria worker. Percy A. Mack Sr. and Estella Mack attained all the education they were allowed in the one-room black schools of Beaufort, S.C., and Savannah. But neither school went beyond the sixth or eighth grade, he said.
“I don’t remember a day when I left for school that my father had not already gone to work,” he told the school board in his farewell last week.
“Both my parents were hardworking folks. They went to work; they completed the task on their jobs. That’s the world I grew up in,” he said. “And so I have tried to pattern myself after their work ethic. I’ve always gone to work. I’ve appreciated the jobs that I have had. That is one thing they did as well; they appreciated the jobs that they had.”
His father’s company made room for the sons of its employees, but his mother had other plans – her only son was going to college. So Mack enrolled at Savannah State College. Taking the advice of his one-time Sunday School teacher, he began in summer and kept on steadily until he had completed his degree in three years.
His advocates suggest that Mack’s modest upbringing contributed to his empathy for those less fortunate and his insistence that the community has a role to play in creating decent-paying jobs and in supporting school programs.
“I’m a big fan of Dr. Mack, and one of the reasons I’m a big fan is when he became superintendent he found his way to community-based organizations. He didn’t want to be a superintendent who sat in an ivory tower,” said Sen. Darrell Jackson, D-Richland.
Jackson, senior pastor of Bible Way Church of Atlas Road, said Mack encouraged faith-based organizations to adopt schools and provide mentoring. Bible Way has two schools under its wing.
Jackson said Mack made people believe that every school, no matter its challenges, was important.
“District 1 perhaps has a reputation as a tale of two districts – you have the A.C. Floras and Drehers, and there were other schools that felt they did not get the attention that Flora and Dreher had,” Jackson said. But Mack made himself accessible to them all.
Notably, Mack defused an incendiary situation between Dreher High School and Lower Richland High School that erupted during a basketball game earlier this year.
Sports as a metaphor for life
Mack, who taught school and coached in his native Georgia early in his career, is not above employing sports metaphors for life.
“Follow the ball” also means keep your eyes on your ultimate goal, which he believes has to include academics.
Nicole Holland, who founded Hoop-ology along with her cousin and basketball standout James Abrams, remembers first approaching Mack in 2008 to make sure the camp could still use Richland 1 facilities for the girls and boys camps.
“He said not only am I going to honor that agreement, but I'm going to enhance the enrichment component,” Holland recalled. Now, the district provides summer school teachers who spend an hour of camp time each day in language and math activities as well as SAT prep.
When Mack addressed the Hoop-ology campers last week he brought along a student athlete he had coached years ago who is now employed in Richland 1. Chris Haggray was part of the Richard Arnold High School team that won a Georgia state basketball championship in 1981, Mack told the campers. But he also called Haggray one of the best students he ever coached.
Haggray went on to South Carolina State University and the 1985 NFL draft.
It was easy to instill academic focus and discipline in focused students like Haggray. But Mack said he believes even the most unmotivated student can be turned around with the help of teachers and mentors.
“I’ve never seen one who I didn’t think was going to make it,” he said.