by Kate Asbury Larkin
Raised on a tobacco farm in Hazlehurst, Ga., Dr. Don Roberts began working the crops at the tender age of 9, which gave him a good sense of what he wanted to do in life, or rather, what he did not want to do.
“By the age of 13, I knew I did not want to be a tobacco farmer,” says Don. “I told my dad I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but it wasn’t going to be that. We did what we had to do, but farming tobacco pushed me into doing something else.”
Growing up, that “something else” was always going to be attending Georgia Tech to become an electrical engineer. That was the plan. That was the dream.
Don went through high school satisfied with his decision to go to Georgia Tech and confident in pursuing a degree in engineering. He was active in a variety of clubs and organizations, and although he was a bit on the small side, he played offensive guard and linebacker for Jeff Davis High School. His teammates named him team captain both his junior and senior years. The Yellow Jackets head coach, Frank King, who, unbeknownst to him, had a huge influence on Don and changed the direction of his life.
“We weren’t a very good football team. In fact, we weren’t good at all,” says Don. “But we worked hard, we never gave up, and Coach never, ever stopped believing in us and encouraging us. That made a profound impact on me.”
So much of an impact that even after being accepted to Georgia Tech and having a roommate assigned to him, Don began to feel uneasy about the bigness of Atlanta. He had heard about Auburn University, but he had never seen the campus.
“During a track meet my senior year, I made up my mind, and I just walked up to my parents and told them I was going to Auburn,” says Don. “They didn’t say a word. They never said a word about it; not that day and not later.”
Don enrolled in engineering at Auburn, but, due in large part to the influence of his high school football coach, he quickly changed his major to education. He did not tell his parents of the change until Christmas. Again, silence.
After enrolling at Auburn and staying true to his religious upbringing, Don visited the Airview Church of God in Opelika, in part because it was the faith he was raised in (he thought), but even more, because the church provided transportation. The preacher at the church was Loren Sutton, and the preacher and his wife had a young daughter named Lorna. Of course, Lorna was enamored with all the cute college boys attending church and loved any and all attention they paid to her, but she was much too young for anything more.
Don stopped going to church his sophomore year at Auburn, but during his junior year, he returned and that little girl had blossomed into a young teenager. With her father’s permission, Lorna invited Don, who was then 21, to her 15th birthday party. He was flattered. She was smitten. The Suttons were impressed. So impressed, in fact, that they allowed the two to date – under their watchful eye.
Don taught physical education in the Auburn City Schools while he was a student at AU, and the system hired him full time when he graduated in 1973. Meanwhile, Lorna was finishing tenth grade at Opelika High School. Although she was just barely old enough to have a driver’s license, she and Don were in love and wanted to get married. Immediately.
“There were a lot of people who thought I was making a big mistake,” says Lorna. “Patsy Parker (counselor at OHS) gave me every reason she could think of why I should not get married at 16-years-old. She told me I had too much promise. She informed me that I couldn’t be part of any school clubs or organizations. She warned me about the questions about my ‘private life.’ She said all the right things, but it didn’t matter; I was going to marry Don.”
And she did.
With her father’s blessing, Lorna and Don married in 1973, the summer after Lorna’s sophomore year of high school. She attended OHS her junior year and then the couple moved to Alexander City when Don accepted a junior high teaching position.
Not willing to take a chance of Lorna not completing her high school credits, counselor Jim Hutto OHS principal Frank Gregory arranged correspondence classes so Lorna could finish OHS with her class. At the same time, she enrolled in junior college in Alexander City, and if that was not enough, she and Don welcomed their son, Michael – all before earning her high school diploma.
“Don held Michael while I walked across the stage,” says Lorna.
At 27 years old, Don was named head football coach at Benjamin Russell High School where he led the Wildcats for eight seasons before OHS head coach Joe Wilson called him back home.
Don taught and coached for almost two years before moving into an assistant principal’s position and then to principal at OHS. Along the way, he earned two more degrees from Auburn; a Master’s of Education in 1981 and an Ed.D. in 1997. Don spent a very successful nine years at the helm of OHS and in 1997, was named the Alabama Secondary Principal of the Year. In 1998, Don took on the challenge of being the first principal at the newly combined Harris County High School in Hamilton, where he led the transition to the new school for two years before getting the call to become the headmaster at Lee-Scott Academy in 2000. In 2015, he was inducted into the Alabama Independent School Association Hall of Fame. In the same year, he announced he would be stepping down as headmaster at the end of the 2015-2016 school year.
Don and Lorna have raised two successful children who have blessed them with four grandchildren and now, after almost 43 of marriage and 46 years spent impacting children, teachers, coaches, staff and parents in education and in life, Don is retiring. For good.
“I’ve had a tremendous career and I have loved every minute of it,” says Don. “I loved teaching and coaching, and I’ve really loved administration. But, being a part of the everyday lives of the kids, the faculty and staff and the parents has, without a doubt, been the highlight of my career.”
Don has not only seen many changes in education over the years, he has implemented a lot of them; from technology and construction projects to curriculum, teaching practices and a lifetime of making a difference in the lives of those around him, the legacy he leaves will benefit children, educators and families for generations to come.
During his final year in education, Don is “circling back” in a way, reaching out to mentors who were, as he says, “giants along my path” (from the book, Giants Along My Path by Dale Oldham).
“I’m spending time letting people in my ‘path’ know how much I have appreciated and benefitted from the contributions and impact they have made in my life,” says Don. “My high school football coach who gave me the desire and the passion to coach; Red Bailey, who took a chance on a 27-year-old as a head football coach; Joe Wilson who gave me the opportunity of a lifetime to coach at Opelika High School; Loren Sutton, my pastor, father-in-law and friend; John Meals, who I had the pleasure of working with at OHS and then following as headmaster at LSA; (former) Opelika superintendent Clyde Zeanah, who gave me my first taste as an administrator when I became assistant principal at OHS and, at the top of the list, (former) Opelika City Schools Phil Raley, who not only gave me my first principal’s job, but who has been my mentor and supporter, always believing in me and encouraging me at every stage of my career.”
Speaking of “circling back” – Remember all those years ago when Don told his parents he was going to Auburn, and they said nothing? It was never mentioned again – until a few years before his father’s death when he finally told his son his thoughts on that decision.
“I thought you had really messed up, son,” his father told him. “But it turned out okay.”
“I needed to hear that,” says Don. “I never knew what he thought until that day.”
Don may be stepping down from education, but his love of education and those whose lives he touch will never be forgotten. He, no doubt, will be at the top of the list of many a “giants along my paths.” Including mine.