Interview with Russell J. Otey


This is June the 11th, 1997, we are speaking with Mr. Russell J. Otey in his home on his experiences as a Assistant Principal at Bedford Primary and Elementary School and also his experience as a principal at the Bridge Street School during the segregation period in Bedford County. This Bridge Street School is now presently the Bedford County School Board office.

| Back to "O" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |

Q: Good morning to you, Mr. Otey.

A: Good morning to you.

Q: Our first question we for you: could you begin telling us about your family background, your childhood interest and development?

otey audio (Streamed audio file of interview for this question using RealPlayer)

A -----(muffled on tape) that's where I grew up as a youngster and attended Suzean City. After that point I went to, I graduated from the school, Bedford High School and I went to work for the Internal Revenue in Washington, D.C. Prior to being called into the service and I spent 36 months and 9 days in the Air Force and I was stationed in Orlando, Florida.

Q: Mr. Otey, would you discuss with us your college education and preparation for entering the field of teaching. And also your years of service as a principal?

A: Uh, by experiences were first in Lawrenceville St. Paul, Lawrenceville, There I received the B.A. degree. From there, I would go back and forth to UVA during the summer working on my Masters. Then, rather than doing a lot of driving I received my Master's at Lynchburg College.

Q: Mr. Otey, would you talk to us about some of the circumstances that basically surrouned your entry into the principalship?

A: Uh, they weren't easy tasks as you know they wouldn't be doing the time that we were at the crossroads for integration. You had to stand firm on what you believed in. This is what I did. I pulled no punches. I just stood firm and held firm to my convictions because that is the only thing that you could survive on. They would respect you for honestly and this I believed in and I had no problems in moving into the principalship job because I knew all of the teachers and they knew that we had a good relationship, working relationship, and made it easier and nicer for me to move ahead. And again, it was that you had to be firm and stand on your own convictions in anything that you do. And, this is the way I obtained and I was a good listener. This is going to be the key to anyone's success just to be willing to listen to things rather than jumping the gun right now, jumping things you don't do it, that's if you want to be successful in whatever you want to do.

Q: The fourth question, Mr. Otey, I'd like for you to talk about what motivated you to enter the principalship. What was your motivation?

A: Well, I would say that I could see some things in which youngsters should be getting that they weren't getting and this was one of the key motivation points in my going that direction. And so, I felt that if you are going to lean towards administration more then, perhaps, you can pick up a lot of things which would move you in that direction. This is what I did.

Q: Mr. Otey, next question for you, could you basically explain a little bit about your personal philosophy when it comes to education?

A: My personal philosophy would be that I wanted everyone to get an education. I wanted everyone to exceed in whatever they were doing. You could see when I came along the youngsters were lackadaisy. They didn't care whether they did or they didn't. But, this was not the answer. I am tried to explain to them that without an education they will be lost down the road. Many of them took my advice on that which made me happy to see them move or get on the right track, move in the right direction. Just being with the youngsters, or just growing up with youngsters who were not able to do or get because they did not put their right foot in front first and they had a good head and a good mind. I knew they would be able to make it through, because I had confidence in them.

Q: Mr. Otey, can you tell us a little bit about your philosophy in regards to the instruction in your schools that you went to. What do you think is most important when you think about instruction for school?

A: Discipline! Without discipline, learning would not take place. Because, if you have got a disruptive class or school, well, learning will not take place. I was a hard and strong disciplinarian. I'm noted for that. So, this I felt that was the only key to get them to understand and to get youngsters to do was to be a hard disciplinarian. It may be cruel to say it that way but that was one of the ways I felt that they would get the point, to get the message over. Because, with a disruptive classroom, you might as well forget it because learning will not take place. You have to set up the situation so that learning will take place.

Q: Okay, Mr. Otey, could you also explain to us what your management philosophy was when it came to managing the teachers and the school?

A: Well, I felt I had to have a good rapor with the teachers, not being lenient. I was a fair person and I was willing to take time to listen. This is, again, the key word is to listen. You have to listen to teachers in order to survive or move in the right direction, Because, they, perhaps, can see concerns of the kids more so than you. Sometimes, they are closer to the youngsters than you are. You learn a lot from teachers. I would really have to object in our... in the schools and you know they come over and mention some of these things because they were done behind closed doors as such. We knew that no students were around and we just threw the ball around and then we would perhaps try to answer those questions, to answer them to the best of our ability as to, what should we do next to correct these things.

Q: You mentioned already for us Mr. Otey your philosophy in terms of what makes a good principal an effective principal. I wonder if you could elaborate just a little bit more for us on that. What makes an effective principal?

A: I think what makes an effective principal is that you've got to be able to learn to give and take. You have to be.... You can not be so rigid in your thinking that you are not willing to bend. It can't be that way. It can't be your way all the time. It has to be a lot of flexibility in whatever you do or whatever you know. It has to be a lot of flexibility, because there's two sides to the story, but don't think that your side is the right side all the time. You have to listen to the teacher's side too and always relate the school in which you're working in an effective process. I had no problems when I was in the schools neither here or the school in Lynchburg. When you're dealing with junior high school students, they are at the age that they are pretty set in their ways. Because, the students at Link Horn, during the time I was there, were from the upper crust kids: lawyers and doctors. I would punish them the same way that I would punish the lower students. I would send them home just as quick as I would send any kid home. See, I was known for that. Whether it be raining or snowing, if you got out of hand with me at school I would send you home and call Mom or Dad and tell them your child is on their way. So, they actually felt that was the stand that I would take in order to run the school in an effective way. Well, they accepted it. I had a lot of parents go to the superintendent and say he is a hard person. In fact, Dr. Spagnew said, "they said, he is a hard assistant principal." I said, I know. The only thing I do expect is students to respect people and do what they are told to do, and that's it. They wouldn't have problems out of me. But once they did just the opposite, they did wrong because they knew that I was a hard person to get along with. But, if you're going to go in being a real quiet and easy person you can forget it, don't go, just don't accept the job because it's not that way. You do have to be firm and they have to understand the fact that you are a firm person and this is the way it's going to be.

Q: Mr. Otey, this next question comes in two parts. Looking at your personal leadership and your personal leadership style, what do you think was most successful for you?

A: Being truthful and honest in whatever I knew I was going through. I was truthful, when I was on City Council. That was me. I was truthful and honest and I did not listen to someone else. I had to think these things out for myself. It's either rights or wrongs in things because no two people are going to see things alike. But, in a decision position you are going to have to think for yourself. You can't let John Doe think for you, you can't do it.

Q: And the second part of that question, did you ever run up against any failures looking at your leadership style and approaches?

A: I perhaps ran into one or two with some cantankerous parents saying that you know you're too hard on my kid or my kid didn't do this or they didn't do that. Now, parents, they aren't there with their kids for a short time. They are with you for many hours and you can see them there. Other kids who can let them know what the kid will do because sometimes they wouldn't take it. [Parents would say], Johnny wouldn't do this. But, we don't second guess a kid because we can't say what they do when they leave home. We can't. And, don't use it as a rule of thumb and say that I'm going to ask Johnny did he do these things because a child's going to be a child. He's going to be a part of his peer group. And, if he's part of the peer group and their doing wrong and wicked he's going to try the same thing. But see you've got to be firm and exact with him.

Q: Mr. Otey, there are, of course, times in which we don't always agree with certain policies in coming from, perhaps, maybe the central office. I wonder if you could address your feelings on that regarding central office policies. Do you think that sometimes they hinder or do they help with building level administrators?

A: I think they hinder because they don't, they are not there, they don't know what's going on. You can expect that. A lot of rules and regulations just fit their needs, the school needs or your needs. So again, you've got to be a good listener and if there's something that's on your mind that's bothering you let them know it in no uncertain terms and I'm certain Dr. Kent would appreciate that because I know him and he's that type of person. He's a human being like you are. Just that he is in a position that he feels as if he doesn't want his teachers to be afraid of him. He doesn't want the teachers to be afraid to speak out and speak their opinion. And, you see, I've never been able to hold my tongue as such. Not even when I was on Council. My wife would attend all the Council meetings. I would get off on the wrong foot. You know I did. She would tell me when I came home that I shouldn't have done thus and so, and I shouldn't have said thus and so to this council person. But, knowing the background of some of the Councilmen, pride might lead me on. I felt, well, this was a good time to make a deal with you, to make a deal and that's what I did. ------

Q: Okay, Mr. Otey, the next question we have for you is, what advise would you have for those who are thinking about getting into administration? As far as that concern, what advice do you have for us?

A: The advice I have to you is to stand your ground, be a good listener because you learn a lot by listening. Be the type that you are willing to listen to the side of the other person. But, you don't have to go along with them because you need to think for yourself. Don't let, I don't care who they are. Don't let them think for you. You think for yourself and you'll find that you're going to be successful in the end because you have weighed the answers through and you have made your own judgement as to the rightness and the wrongness of things. Don't let them sway you the first time in the direction that you're going or in the direction that you would like to take. Just be a good listener and hold to your convictions.

Q: The next question, Mr. Otey, deals with community affairs, it's often said that the principal should be active in community affairs, if you would discuss with us some of your involvement in the community, the specific groups and things like that?

A: I was a Deacon in our church. Naturally, you have to become involved in perhaps whatever they do. As I said, hold to your convictions as to the rightness and wrongness of things. I was on the Board of Directors [Bedford County Hospital] then, thirteen or fourteen years. I was the president of that group for one year, two years. And, the group that I worked with, they were pretty much, they were real nice because they knew that they just couldn't say anything dealing with all the doctors. We had three or four doctors that were on the Board and the Board met once a month. They would discuss many things and if it was something that didn't set right with me then I would bring it before the Board. Some persons, or personnel, or even people out in the street, Bedford folks. They were going along in the hospital. They would come and ask me about it or call me about it and I would bring it to the attention of the administrator at the next meeting. I would do it openly. I wouldn't do things on a one to one basis. It wasn't a matter of being a smart aleck. It was just that I felt that the whole Board should know what was done, right or wrong. They respected me for it. That was the only way that I could see how to do things and so I was there for about two or three years. So, I enjoyed it. The young lady that joined after me it was reduced to eight or six. When I retired from the Board, I felt that they need somebody new to come in and do these things. I felt that 14 years was given up the time that was free. It was time for somebody else who get in and look at it and share their ideas .

Q: What I have in my possession is a scrapbook of Mr. Otey's. I'm looking at his resume, his employment when he started. It had here his civic activities which he was a member of the Central Virginia Planning Commissions in 1972. He was the Vice Chairman in 73-74. He was active in drug abuse, recreation, housing, water pollution, land use and safety organizations. He was a member of Bedford City Council from 1971 through 1976. He was a Councilman from 1976 to 80. He served two years as Mayor for the City of Bedford, Virginia. He was also on the Board of Directors for the American Cancer. Society, for the Member School Master Club. He was a deacon at his church which is Washington Baptist Church. He also served on the Board of the Lynchburg Credit Union and he's listed in the Who's Who in the South and Southwest 15th Addition 1976-1977. Mr. Otey, I also notice on the wall, here, is a large picture of Mr. Otey as Mayor of Bedford. Could you talk to us a little bit about your position as Mayor?

A: The position as Mayor I more or less, you, everybody's going to be looking at you. They're are looking to you for answers because you are the person that's in charge of the whole city of Bedford and direction it's going to take. I started a concept of opening the Mayor's office up once a month on Saturdays because of the working people. We give them a chance to come on Saturday morning. They taught that I was right crazy to give of my time to do these things. But, I enjoyed it. I enjoy people. I opened up the Mayor's office once a month on Saturday morning. I had quite a few people come in and sit in a chair with me about things that I should know or things they would like to know and just on a one to one basis and I enjoyed it. I headed the Public Works Department. In front of the church, I think that was mentioned. Once every Sunday morning they had to go in front of every church black or white and clean up the liquor bottles and wine bottles to make it conducive for people who wanted to go to church. So, this would I learn. I was the only Mayor who did this and has been since the inception in which it had gone no other Mayor had done this and so. They choose their Mayor and it was the consensus of every member on Council to. They chose me to become their next Mayor and the Mayor chooses their Vice Mayor. I chose Trudy Paxton as my Vice Mayor then. I know that's a household name.

Q: Mr. Otey, you served as an Assistant Administrator and also as Principal. To you, what do you think should be the role of the Assistant Principal?

A: The role of the Assistant Principal I think is more or less the backup person for the principal and he's the next person in line or in charge of things in the absence of the principal. I think these are things as we delegate it to the Assistant from the offset. I don't think that he should leave the Assistant going around, you know, guessing what am I to do. What is my business? I think things should be spelled out in the faculty meetings so that the teachers will know. They will understand the command, the chain of command, who's next in charge. I don't think it should be just a blanket thing. I told the person in that everybody should know about, I think everybody should know that who's the next person in charge during my absence. Because, someone has to carry the ball and this is why they have to designate the Assistant Principal to do these things, So, as I said, I don't know what Dr. Kent has told his assistants, told the principals. I think it is left to him to have some type of handbook spelling out the duties of his teachers and his principals and assistant principals. I don't think he should use it as a name sake thing, that doesn't work anymore. I think it should be in writing so that a person will know exactly what direction they are going. Once it's in writing everybody will know. There's no mistake about it.

Q: Mr. Otey, the next question is going to deal with special groups of students, students who may be classified as having a learning disability. As you know, those groups are certainly growing and they certainly have developed even more so over the years, LD, Gifted and Talented students. I would like for you to discuss your experience with special student services and your views on today's trends?

A: I worked with a lot of special ed students as they were called then, but they are just as important as the regular students. I don't think they should be ostracized from the other students due to the extent that they can sense these things. I think they are youngsters who have come to school to learn like the normal student and they should be treated in that fashion. I found to be very nice persons to work with. But, take the time and patience in dealing with them and you just don't deal with them like you would deal with a normal student because they are hard to grasp anything and you just have to work with them on slower basis than your normal students.

Q: Mr. Otey, even today we are as administrators and assistant administrators are very concerned about the amount of paperwork and bureaucracy that we have to go through. [Do you have anything to share?]

A: I think it's a shame because I don't think they should give you a whole lot of a paperwork that shows you to be a busy person that's not the answer. The answer is you are there to make certain that you are running, what I call, a tight ship with students in the fashion that people in the community will respect you for it and the students will respect you for it. So all this paperwork I don't think it should be, I would throw up my hands too because you know they don't give teachers any times to themselves. They don't need to drag half the school home with them every day. I don't believe in it.

Q: So, I heard you say this about running a tight ship. During your time of administration, would you say that you spent more time running that tight ship as you say or doing paperwork?

A: Running the tight ship! The paperwork was...I didn't care anything for it.

Q: Mr. Otey, I'd like for you to talk about addressing administrative changes that you felt would improve, okay, the efficiency and effectiveness of education administration. What are some areas that you think could undergo some changes?

A: To be frank, the board shouldn't give out information from the central office. The teachers and the principals and assistant principals should be privileged to it and I think they should have input in whatever changes that has to be made. I think they should because they are the ones that are on top of things. You know you can sit there in the office and think up a whole lot of ideas and hopefully that they will go right but I think they need to go and get it first hand from the administrators, principals and assistant principals. But, he's only saying... I'm the big cheese. I'm going to roll the ball and they're going to do what I say to do. It shouldn't be that way.

Q: How would you describe your relationship with the superintendent during your administration, who was the superintendent during your administration?

A: Old Man Kyle, Roy Kyle.

Q: And how would you describe your relationship?

A: It was fine. But, I didn't see him as much because the central office was up town then. It was in the court house. It was upstairs and only when he would visit the schools would I have a chance to talk with him. But, just talking with him, you know, eye to eye, I didn't have that much contact with him much and then there was "Boyd Frazier." He was an old sucker I didn't like. He didn't trouble me. He pretty much you know, the teachers were afraid to stand up in talking to him, but I wasn't because I could see the way he meant he was almost like a "Wes Childress." He was one of those rebs too and so.

Q: On an average of a week, five days, how many days would say the superintendent came over to your school?

A: Five days? Huh, 4I would see him once a month, some times. You see, he didn't know what was going on, just a hearsay type of thing. Call and asking, I didn't him to call and ask me what was going on, let him come and see what was going on.

Q: Mr. Otey, would you discuss with us your general relationship, pro or con, with the Board of Education and comment on the effectiveness of school board operations in general?

A: I think they jumped to, the school would jump to, conclusions about their teachers within the system unfairly. Most times, I would see comments and papers about, you know, their viewpoints on certain things and I think its not the one man jobs, its not part of their affairs. I think its something that Dr. Kent won't prepare our people in the community know he would send letters to to them to their effect. I don't think they should get into the operation of the schools and how they operate or person vendetta against teachers. I don't think it's their place to do that.

Q: As you know Mr. Otey, you know we are moving more and more, school systems are, towards electoral school boards, electing school board members. Over the course of the last couple of years, Bedford County has moved in that direction as well. What are your thoughts regarding electoral school boards?

A: I think elected school boards, I think it should be. It cuts down the bias of lets get my friend, or my friends in. I don't think it should be that way. I think the school members should be a person that is really concerned and willing to put their work into whatever he do. And, I think going to the electoral school system is a marvelous idea.

Q: Mr. Otey, now I know you came up through administration during the time of integration and desegregation, could you discuss your participation in handling the civil rights situation, especially after the Brown v. Board of Education 1954. Describe your involvement with this movement, this integration movement, and how do you feel about it?

A: I didn't ,particularly again, that equality be avoid because I knew that the black people's kids will wind up on the short end of the stick. They wasn't going to get their fair shake. I think you and teachers would be good for them. Whatever it was there for our white teachers, maybe they would give it to the black teachers. You know hand-me-down type things. Hopefully, they've gotten away from that. But, I knew that at the beginning, this is what would happen and the black people are going to be left short handed. We think they weren't given the teaching tools as the white teachers. You know, I experienced some of those things myself.

Q: And didn't you say during those integration times, you were put into the administration of the elementary school. You were basically into an integrated school then. How were you accepted as a black administrator at an integrated school?

A: You know, it surprised me. The white people was just, they were just, they were real nice to me because they would see me on the street, and they would tell people that he is one good disciplinarian type of person. This took the pressure off the white teachers when they knew that they had somebody that they could go to that would stand up for them. I got this type of respect from the teachers.

Q: Mr. Otey, I wonder if you could just share with us some experiences that you had during the desegregation period in terms of the students making that transition, going into an all white school. What were some of the problems that you found that the children experienced and how did you, as an administrator, handle this. How did you deal with it?

A: I found that they were many fights between the blacks and the whites and you had simply to tell them, let them know this is not the way that things are done. I found that there was a lot of black students would corner the white students and take their lunch money from them or anything else. See, the white students was afraid of them. And, to the black student portrayed in this sense, in this fashion. It was wrong They didn't let them see that their I'm human and I'm their friend and this is the way they should have been. But, they want to be macho man, and it doesn't work that way.

Q: Okay, Mr. Otey, I'm gonna take you back here now. Take some time to describe what a general work day as an administrator was like for you?

A: Sometimes it was real hairy when I got home. And, then, there were other days it was real nice and smooth, everything went along nicely.

Q: So what did you concentrate most of your efforts on a daily basis doing?

A: Helping in the halls, checking in the bathrooms to make certain that the students were doing what they were supposed to be doing. Rather than, you know, there was students in Lynchburg would bring in a bottle of wine to school and stash in their locker. I knew there was something wrong and I had keys to all the lockers I would take it out and I would call John Doe over the PA system. But, I would have a locker search about an hour after. Half the kids would arrive and I would be out in front and I could see that the bulge in their coats and pockets was something wrong. I had already gone to John Doe's locker and discovered there was a bottle of wine, a bottle of whiskey in there. I would come over the PA system and I would let the secretary call and let them know that we were going to have a locker search today and boy would it shake them up. It would shake them up. I would put the teachers, each one of them, had a post a place in the hall near lockers. See, they couldn't get a6way with anything. When you go to John Doe and tell him say I'm going to check all to be sure there's nothing in here because I know there is nothing you find yourself. Let me see. Then, they would find the bottle there. Home! He is going 15 day. See, I'd expel a student from school as soon as I'd look at him. I would send him home in a minute. There's no point in a parent call pleading about these things because if you have caught John Doe doing wrong, breaking the school rules, what else can you do but send him home.

Q: You know, Mr. Otey, you mentioned the whys or concerns or headaches that you had to deal with. I am wondering what was the toughest decision that you had to make as an administrator?

A: Sending a student home, expelling them. It was the hardest decision to make. But, as long as I knew that I was right and I was following the rules and regulations, I'd send home as soon as I'd look at them without any qualms.

Q: If you had to do it again, what kind of thing would you do to better prepare yourself for this principalship. Can you describe your feelings?

A: Heaven knows you couldn't pour it on me again! But, no amount of money. When I retired earlier out of the Lynchburg system, Dr. Kent saw me at the corner and he called me over to his office and asked me if I would come work for me. I told him no way, not for all the money in China, I said no way because I think it's ludacrist for a kid to stay in a classroom or any other place and tell an administrator or a teacher what they're not going to do. You see, no kid is going to tell me what they weren't going to do because, you see, I was too high tempered for that. No way would I accept a kid telling me standing up in my face telling me what they're not going to do. And, if you do anything to them they'll go home and tell mom and dad uh-huh no way. You see, I would probably be pulling time at Leavensworth somewher. I figure, it's not worth it. If parents can't straighten out a kid at home, let them know that you will have to abide by the rules and regulations or I'm going to bring him home.

Q: Well, Mr. Otey, I know a decision came when you had to decide well I'm ready to retire. What made you come to that decision, that point in your career where you said; well, it's time for me to retire?

A: Well, I was on one of Governor Robb's task force. I'd drive to Richmond every once a month to attend meetings and this was an understanding with Dr. Spagnew, the Lynchburg Superintendent. He would give me the time once a month to go down. I felt that the way the changes were coming about it was time for me to get out and try and enjoy a few days of life which is when the deep school systems just are shot. They're good for nothing and nobody. You're shot.

Q: You spoke of the changes that came about. Can you elaborate on the changes that you saw that applied to your decision?

A: Well, the new law that came about, new rules and regulations about what a teacher or administrator could do to discipline kids. Well, I knew that was coming about. I knew that was time for me to get out. This is one of the major reasons why I took early retirement from the school system because there's no point in me staying there; in that being the very sense here, I had open heart surgery two times. We don't have kids. I said, it's time for me to.

Q: Mr. Otey, with all of our best efforts and we've asked you a number of questions and we've covered so many grounds, I'm just wondering if there's something maybe that we've left out and you'd like to share with us?

A: I don't think so, unless you wanted to take one of the books and let you know what civic activities I belonged to and my role in them. I don't think there's anything that I have overlooked.

Q: We certainly thank you, Mr. Otey.

| Back to "O" Interviews | Index of Interviews | Protocol | Home |