Central High School surprised two retiring staff members Wednesday.
Gifted education teacher Barbara Romey and head custodian Theotis Herron thought the gathering would be just another faculty meeting. But the students in the teaching academy decorated the band room like a luau, and Romey and Herron were given leis then directed to sit in front of their colleagues as principal Tommy Vickers described the void their excellence will leave.
Vickers cracked up the crowd when he put in perspective how reliable Herron has become for him: "Sometimes I see a spill in my house, and I go, 'Mr. Herron!'"
"This school gets so many accolades for the great shape it's in after 25 years of existence," Vickers continued, "but it's Mr. Herron's leadership and his staff that maintains this campus, inside and outside. The pride he took in it, that's going to be big shoes to fill. You've been a blessing to Phenix City schools."
Herron replied, "It's been fun, but it is time."
Vickers turned to Romey and said, "When we talk about winning state competitions on a regular basis and competing on the national and world level, that's not common, but it's something we've become accustomed to. That's the standard she has set for her students and the expectation at Central High School for our gifted program. The students she has had have gone on to be so successful."
Romey replied, "It's a genuine blessing to have an opportunity to teach kids like that, to encourage them and to watch them blossom. Love your gifted students. Keep pushing them. Don't let them slide."
The surprise continued for Romey when 15 current and former students emerged. They presented her with flowers, a plaque and a journal containing their tributes.
Then, inspired by Romey's favorite movie, "A Beautiful Mind," they re-enacted the "pen ceremony" scene. Central senior Mary Jenkins told Romey, "Compared to you, we have nothing left to write." And each student handed her a pen.
Romey sparked more laughs when she responded, "If I left a $20 bill on my desk at Central it would not be stolen, but pens disappear."
A pamphlet summarizing the achievements of Romey and her students was handed out. It comprises more than 40 bullet items, such as:
* Future Problem Solving competition senior division state champions 12 out of past 15 years, including first place in the 2007 international competition for presentation of action plan.
* Community Problem Solving competition state champions 13 out of past 15 years, including third place in the 2005 international competition.
* National History Day qualifiers in each of the past 15 years, including fifth place overall in the group performance category in 2012.
* History Channel Teacher of the Year and Ledger-Enquirer Page One Sara Spano Top Teacher in 2007.
After the ceremony, Romey gave credit to the school system for funding her students' travel to all of those competitions and "making sure to support everything I ask for."
Romey, 59, said she was diagnosed with leukemia two years ago and finally doesn't have the energy to keep up her pace, capping her 39-year teaching career with 17 at Central.
"This job requires about 120 percent," she said, "and I just can't shortchange the students."
Herron, 60, retired from the U.S. Army as a sergeant first class with 20 years of service. Rated as fully disabled, the physical toll of custodial work has caught up with him.
"A lot of pain," he said. But also a lot of pride from 23 years at Central.
"I like the people," he said. "It's like a big family. I'm going to miss them."
Before the ceremony, Mary and fellow Central senior Nick Jackson explained what stands out about Romey.
"She is one of the most dedicated people to community service education that I've ever met," Nick said. "She's completely mentored us into being finalists at an international problem solving competition."
That project raised about $10,000 to redesign and renovate an educational playground for special needs students at Phenix City Elementary School.
Nick mentioned more projects Romey guided other students to complete: "There's a splash park in downtown Phenix City, a handicapped playground. There's been plenty of gardens, plenty of things done on this campus. She basically, throughout her years here, has continued to make this school, this system, this community better."
Romey has done so, Mary said, by "pushing people to their fullest potential. She always focuses on the fact that the achievements you get from giving back to your community are 10 times more important than any trophy you can win at an academic competition."
Nick added, "That's something we will carry with us when we leave here."
Mark Rice, 706-576-6272. Follow Mark on Twitter