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Principal, coach, role model retire with Conrad

March 13, 2000|By BRUCE HAMILTON

It's no coincidence people still call James Conrad "coach."

The 60-year-old Hagerstown resident recently retired after 32 years in the Washington County school system. He was a principal most of that time, but some former students best remember him from athletics.

Perhaps the title stuck because Conrad encouraged students on and off the field. He remembers keeping a sign in his office that read, "Kids Need Models, They Don't Need Critics."

As a principal, he sometimes took troubled kids out to lunch. He liked to focus on those who needed help, not the best and brightest. "There's so many who don't get the attention," he said Sunday.

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The Willamsport, Pa., native hoped to someday coach college sports, but a motorcycle accident changed his life's direction.

"He has a lot of courage," said School Board President Paul Bailey. "He recovered remarkably well." Conrad was very hard-working and dedicated, according to Bailey. "He put himself into his job 100 percent," he said.

Conrad had spent six years teaching in Pennsylvania when he took a job as a science teacher at North Hagerstown High School in the fall of 1967. He taught seven years at North High.

He was vice principal there for three years and spent two years as vice principal at North Potomac Middle School.

Disaster struck him on Labor Day, 1979. He had just bought a shiny Honda motorcycle from a neighbor and decided to take it for a drive. He turned out of his neighborhood onto North Potomac Street and was struck by a passing vehicle head-on.

He had life-threatening injuries that kept him out of commission for almost two years. He spent nine months in a Baltimore trauma center, then a record amount of time, fighting gangrene and healing from internal injuries and broken bones.

When he recovered, he walked with a cane. His right leg, part of which had been removed, was shorter than his left. Because of the accident, he decided to stay in administration. "It just changed my outlook a little bit," he said.

After two years as Smithsburg Middle School's vice principal, he became North High School's principal. During his five-year tenure, the school implemented Maryland Functional Tests. Raising the standards was his hardest challenge, Conrad said.

He went on to serve as principal of E. Russell Hicks, Clear Spring and Northern Middle schools. He retired from Northern last month. "I was ready to step down," he said. "I just felt I'd done it long enough and it was time for a change."

But he was also dismayed by the state of schools. "There's too much bureaucracy," he said. "Everyone's dictating to the school," including the School Board, state and federal government.

"If you don't do what they say, you don't get (funding)," he said. "That's been the problem with education for a while. They key to education is the teachers."

Teachers are already burdened with enough, from discipline to safety to tests, according to Conrad. He advocates giving teachers higher salaries and more flexibility. "You've got to let teachers teach. Give them control," he said.

Since retiring, Conrad started working for the U.S. Census Bureau. He took a job as a clerk in the local census office. He spends more time with his wife of 38 years and high school sweetheart, Ann. "She's my strength," he said.

With his decades of experience, Conrad believes in the school system, especially its teachers. "I think taxpayers in Washington County get a lot of bang for their buck," he said.

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