A constant focus on others

Mary Feagan will wake up Monday morning, have a cup of coffee on her front porch and decide what to do with the first day of her life in more than 13 years that hasn’t included driving to Polk County High School.

She will settle onto the screened porch of her home in Hillsborough, a new resident of Orange County because, as she says, “I can’t be in Polk County right now and not be (at Polk County High School),” and quietly begin thinking about what comes next.

“I’m looking forward to not being scheduled every minute and being free to do what I’d like to do,” said Feagan, who will spend Friday in her final day as Polk County High School’s principal before retiring. “But I will definitely miss being around young people.”

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Polk County senior Daniel Painter confidently strode across the graduation stage, cell phone in hand, accepted his diploma and paused for a selfie with his principal.

Mary Feagan positively beamed for the photo.

Which surprised no one, because putting students first has always been Feagan’s priority, a staple of her educational beliefs throughout her career. Her promotion in 2011 made her the first female principal in Polk County High School’s history, but Feagan’s focus has never been about herself.

Students first, faculty first, school first – that has always been her mission, and it is the accomplishments of those others, not her own, that she said she will remember and treasure most.

“I’m proud of how our students have succeeded in so many ways by outside measurements,” Feagan said. “And I’m proud of the faculty that we have in place now that is outstanding, just outstanding.

“And those two things together, the students and the teachers, working together, that’s pretty impressive.”

Impressive enough to be ranked among the top 10 percent of the nation’s public high schools in 2015 by U.S. News & World Report as well as routinely be listed among the top high schools in the state by many different measures.

“Once Mary Feagan took over as principal, she took PCHS to new heights, leading the school to five tremendously successful years,” wrote Superintendent Aaron Greene of Feagan. “She improved the quality of education taking place in the classroom, hired and developed outstanding staff members and, most importantly, her leadership provided comprehensive and life-changing educational opportunities for our students.

“The numerous awards and accolades that have come to PCHS and its students with Mrs. Feagan at the helm are deserved and offer some perspective on what she was able to achieve. But Mary Feagan would tell you that the biggest reward for her efforts came each June when she handed diplomas to her students. The hugs, tears and thank yous she received offered the greatest feeling of accomplishment and is a true testament to her impact on young people.”

That impact hasn’t been limited to Polk County’s student body.

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In her 13-plus years on campus, first as Polk County High’s assistant principal then its leader, Feagan has endeared herself to Polk County’s faculty. Even at a time when the teaching profession is at its most challenged, retention rates have remained high at PCHS. Feagan has had much to do with that.

“Quite simply, Mrs. Feagan is my role model,” said English teacher Angie McCammon. “She has demonstrated how to be understanding and warm while also firmly holding high expectations. Mrs. Feagan makes others better by telling them how good they are, as people, students, teachers, and then expecting them to be just that. No one wants to disappoint her, so most rise to her expectations of them.

“She has fostered a community at the high school, encouraging us to be unified and proud of ourselves. She has brought in strong teachers who fit in the culture of our school. She has supported teachers and students in ways that most will never realize, except for those she helped. She has been a student-centered principal and a strong leader. I have never heard a student or fellow teacher say anything negative about her, which is quite an accomplishment for an administrator.”

“As an assistant principal and Career and Technical Education Director in 2005, she was an advocate for the school farm and the addition of another Ag Ed teacher,” said agriculture teacher Chauncey Barber. “She knows when something will impact everyone. I know personally and professionally I would not be where I am today without her influence. She has been a parent figure for me.”

Making the accolades and accomplishments even more impressive is that Feagan never planned on being a principal.

A member of Polk County High’s guidance department when the school first opened its doors, Feagan soon accepted a position in Spartanburg County and worked there until 2003, when former Polk County superintendent Bill Miller asked her to return and serve as an assistant to Greene, just named as Polk County’s principal. That she did for eight years, also leading the CTE program, until Greene’s move to the district office led to her promotion.

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“I never imagined that I would be a principal. But Bill Miller thought differently, I guess, and this is how it worked out,” said Feagan, whose five-plus years as principal is the second-longest tenure in school history.

“It was hard to follow Aaron Greene as the principal. That was a worry for me, would I be able to continue what he left me with. I’m thankful that things have gone as well as they have, and I’m surprised in a way, in a good way, that it has gone this way.

“We’re lucky here because we are sent students who have started in elementary school and been through our middle school, so they are ready when they get here. It’s not just the high school that has done well. We’ve done well because our students have been so prepared in earlier years.”

The comfort that Feagan has developed in her role, plus her love for Polk County High and its community, made her decision to retire that much more difficult.

“I knew it was time and I would be retiring at some point,” she said. “But, it was hard to decide to make it definite. And I waffled on that for several months deciding when and the best time and trying to mesh that with what was best for the school system. It was hard.

“But there comes a time when you know this is the best time. Things are in place for everything to happen here, for a good transition here. So I feel good about that.”

A graduate of the University of North Carolina and a diehard Tar Heel fan, Feagan will relish being closer to Chapel Hill. Among her retirement plans are taking classes at UNC as well as finding new avenues for working with teens and young adults.

“I think I’ll take about six months and not do anything except get settled in there and see what’s available there,” Feagan said. “I will be able to take classes at UNC for a minimal amount of money and I really plan to take advantage of that. When I was there there were a lot of courses I would have liked to taken that I didn’t get to, so I’m going to do that.

“I’ve been asked to consider being a guardian ad litem in Orange County and I probably will do that. And then I’ll see. I’m not ruling out maybe part-time work. But I’ll find something that puts me with teenagers because I really like being in their company.”

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Polk County’s faculty held a farewell celebration for Feagan at a staff meeting earlier this week. She told Greene he wasn’t allowed to speak at the gathering. She threatened to leave if the party ran long.

Students first, faculty first, school first – the motivation has never changed.

Nor has the respect for its source.

“She truly believes in Polk County Schools’ motto of doing what’s right for students,” said math teacher Caitlin Williams. “She makes an effort to talk to students whether that is in the hallways, in the cafeteria or the numerous sporting events she attends. She always reminds us as teachers that our students are just kids. Sometimes they will make mistakes and we have to make sure they learn from them but also be able to be successful in the future despite those mistakes. Mrs. Feagan is part of the reason why I never want to leave PCHS.”

“People like Mary Feagan are rare,” Greene wrote. “She stands for what is right, and is not easily swayed when students and their success is in the balance. We have been very fortunate to have Mary Feagan serving and leading our high school for so many years. She will definitely be missed and always remembered fondly.”

“It’s been the honor of my working career to be at PCHS,” Feagan said.

Many would argue the honor has instead been theirs.