School principals come and go.  Some of us remember our high school principals, fondly or not, while others barely remember the person “in the office.”

In most cases, our goal was to stay out of that office.

Finley King has been an extraordinary principal at Central High School on Highway 58 in Chattanooga. 

King decided about a year ago that at the age of 53, he was ready for a career change. Some friends, who work for Delta Airlines, began telling him about their travel adventures. 

“I’ve had a passport for all these years, and never used it,” he told me. “In my first year, I’ll be in 10 different countries.”

He’s taking a job as a flight attendant, which will lead to new opportunities training other new attendants. He will still be teaching, just at a different level, so to speak.

First up, there are many goodbyes to be said. When the school system made the official announcement about his retirement a few days ago, I posted the news on social media. The response was unanimous. “My best principal ever,” said many a student, past and present. Fellow educators raved about working alongside him in the classroom, or under him as an administrator.  Parents posted comments like, “A man who really cares about his students and his school.” On and on it went, hundreds of them. 

I’m sure at some point in his 30-year career, the last 12 as principal of Central, he has ticked someone off. He is human, after all. But those critics, if they’re out there, are hard to find.

What is his secret? The answer lies within his life, his spirit and his soul.  He is not a complicated man. The child of a broken home, his mother moved him to the Harrison area when he was a teen. Living with his grandmother, Central was his zoned school. Changing schools is never easy, but King loved his high school experience.

“I was made to feel right at home," he said. “Central was a place of comfort and learning to me, and I have only great memories. No one treated me like I was from poverty. College had never even been discussed in my home, but I had the same opportunities as the affluent students. I have always been proud to be a Central alumnus, and I want every student who walks through that door to have the same experience I did.”

His students say he has succeeded in every way. “You can see it in his eyes,” senior Michael McGhee said. “He’s always smiling, he greets everyone, he shakes their hand. From the first time I walked in here as a freshman, his enthusiasm is contagious. He was excited about new students coming in. He loves Central, and if the principal has that attitude, everybody does.”

Senior Preston Fore agrees. “This school is special to him. He fights for it daily. Look outside, and you see the new track under construction.  That’s happening because he fought for it. He motivates the teachers, he motivates the alumni. You don’t see that at every school.  I’m sad to see him go, but he’ll always be a part of Central. That’s just who he is.”

Hamilton County Commissioner Dr. Warren Mackey, who represents a portion of Central’s district, praised King at Wednesday’s Commission meeting.

“He is responsible for at least three major achievements," Dr. Mackey said. "He united those who attended the original Central High School with those who attend the current facility in Harrison. Also, after the redistricting several years ago, there was an increase in racial diversity at the school. He shut down the racial strife that could have happened. And he has been a wonderful advocate for Central High School.”

The principal who preceded him, Robert Sharpe, left the job twelve years ago for a central office position.  King had served as assistant principal for four years when Sharpe told him about his promotion. “Who will they bring in as principal?” he asked Sharpe. “I’m hoping it’ll be you,” Sharpe replied.  King said he had never considered a move to the principal’s job, “but I asked myself, what if someone comes in who doesn’t understand this school’s history, its culture, its diversity.  I didn’t think anyone knew it better than me, so I went for it, and I’ve never regretted it.  Not one moment.”

Sharpe added, “It was just meant to be. That’s what I told him when he was thinking it over. He was always meant to lead this school.”

King said he even enjoys the duties that some administrators consider tiresome and mundane.

“You’re not going to believe this,” he said, “but I look forward to cafeteria duty.  I like seeing kids eating with other kids who don’t look like they do, or who don’t live in their neighborhoods. They may not even share the same values, but they choose to sit with them and eat.  That’s what school should be about.”

King got choked up when he talked about his imminent departure, but he knows the time is right.  “Not many people get a chance for a second career and a new challenge, so I am very fortunate.  I know this school will be in good hands. Central may not be the most powerful or prestigious school from a geographic or political standpoint, but no school anywhere has a prouder history or a more involved alumni association. If there’s a need, we just take care of it.”

Still, he knows he leaves some unfinished business, most of which is out of his control.  When the current school was built in the late 1960s, the blueprints called for a performing arts building.  Fifty years later, that land is still vacant.  County officials, constantly dealing with budget cuts, never moved the project high enough on the priority list.  It was put on the back burner year after year, and the project hasn’t been discussed in years.

“We still don’t have an auditorium big enough for our student body or our parents,” he said. “Maybe someday Central will get the attention it deserves.”

He continued, “I just think our school is one of the county’s best-kept secrets.  We just stay up here on the hill, and teachers do their jobs. We don’t make a big deal about it, but we get it done, and as you can see, I couldn’t be any prouder.”

King sees a bright future ahead. “Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson is off to a great start with the Future Ready Institutes, and we have strong ones in place at Central,” he said. “I wish people who drive by this school would stop in and see what we have going on here.”

Whoever replaces Finley King will become only the school’s 12th principal in its 109-year history. The bad news is he will be a tough act to follow. The good news is a strong foundation is in place. 

Twelve years is not a record-setting period of time for a principal to serve at a high school.  But few, if any, have used their time any better than Finley King has at Central.