Dedicated. That’s the word Phenix City Schools superintendent Randy Wilkes and operations director Joe Blevins used to summarize the work Marie Long has done in the school system for 25 years. She will retire Friday from her position as the superintendent’s executive secretary after previously serving as secretary of Central High School.
“She does not have boundaries,” Wilkes said. “If she sees something that needs to be done, she’s going to give you every bit of effort she’s got every time she attempts to do something.”
Even when an surprising call wakes her up at home.
Late one night, Wilkes accidentally FaceTimed his secretary when he meant to reach his wife.
“She was every bit as alert in her sleep when she answered that,” Wilkes said with a smile.
Blevins, who also is the school system’s student services and personnel director, called Long the “go-to person” in the district recalled a time when she showed up at work even when she was supposed to be off.
“A few years back, we were having a weather event that closed school,” Blevins said. “The superintendent and some of the directors came on to the office to discuss the following day. When I arrived at the office, Marie was at her desk. I asked her what she was doing here. She replied, “… Y’all may need me to help get the word out.” … Always willing to go the extra mile.”
Wilkes, whom the Phenix City Board of Education hired in June 2014 from Crenshaw County, has relied on Long to learn about the district and the local area.
“She has tremendous knowledge of the school system, its historical value, understanding people, groups, organizations, dynamics, being realistic when it comes to expectations, knowing where past information is, how to access that information,” he said. “She knows my office better than I do.”
No wonder Wilkes recalled with a laugh, “I was told not long after I interviewed that it would be important for me, if we were going to be successful, that the secretary to the superintendent, for lack of a better term, liked me.”
Then he explained why, “She has good character and a strong work ethic.”
The school system “is in my blood,” Long said.
She is a product of Phenix City Schools. She attended Central Elementary School, Central Junior High School and South Girard School then graduated from Central High School in 1974.
Long was considered such a valuable teacher’s aide, folks joked with her that she wouldn’t be able to graduate until she finished helping teachers grade all their papers.
“I just like helping,” she said. “I love being part of the team.”
She was the secretary for Cabinet Supply in Columbus from 1974-89. After moving to Orlando, she returned to Phenix City in one year and became the secretary for deans John Mills and Terry Hall at the now-closed Phillips Junior College in Columbus from 1990-92.
The college was closing, and Long heard that Central High was looking for a secretary. Principal Bill Hayes interviewed her and offered her the job, but she initially declined.
“I got nervous,” she said. “I got to thinking about it. That’s a lot of responsibility.”
Then she changed her mind when Hall heard about her reluctance and gave her a pep talk. Long recalled the conversation:
He asked her, “You know you can do it?”
She replied, “Yes, sir.”
He suggested, “Well, you go back over there and tell him.”
Remembering that moment, Long chuckled at her lack of confidence.
“I’ve never looked back,” she said.
In 2001, Tom Hackett, then the Phenix City superintendent and now executive director of Columbus State University’s K-12 partnerships, asked her to interview for the superintendent’s executive secretary opening – that day.
Again she initially declined an opportunity, this time noting she wasn’t dressed for a job interview because it was the summer and she was in shorts. Long recalled Hackett told her, “I’m not interviewing you on your dress; I’m interviewing you on your ability.”
That ability has created Long’s philosophy as a secretary: “I like making the boss’ job easier. I know what to do, so I just go ahead and do it, and then that way they don’t have to worry about it. The superintendent has a very important job, so the more I can take off his plate, the more he has time to do his job.”
She often has been the voice and face of Phenix City Schools when someone calls or visits the office.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of mood I’m in, I’m going to be in a good mood when I address somebody, like when a parent comes in and they’re upset,” she said. “I can’t get upset back, so I’ve just go to deal with them in a professional manner. If I can keep them calm and make them happy before they leave here, it might keep one more off the superintendent’s plate.”
Long also has been committed to informing the superintendent about a potential problem.
“If I hear something, I let him know because I don’t want him blindsided by anybody,” she said. “It’s my job to watch out for him.”
And when folks have tried to pry confidential information from her, she has told them, “I can’t believe you’re asking me that. I’m not in here to gossip.”
Her proudest moment was when Wilkes asked her to be part of the Friends of Phenix City Schools fundraising committee, which reached its $1.1 million goal to help fund various projects in the system.
“I bought into that vision,” she said. “I became a donor. It was a monthly payroll deduction.”
The worst moment was when assistant superintendent Jeff Adams died unexpectedly.
“Jeff was always healthy,” she said. “He didn’t eat junk food like we all do. … He was a really good guy. He and I used each other as a sounding board just about every day.”
The friendly spirit is infused throughout the central office, Long said.
“We’re one big family,” she said. “Every family has problems, but we just work through them.”
She has been the secretary for four superintendents: Hackett, Larry DiChiara, Rod Hinton, who was an interim superintendent, and Wilkes.
“For some of them, I was like their right hand,” she said. “I knew everything that was going on. For some of them, I wasn’t their right hand. I just figured out my role.”
Regardless, keeping the superintendent on time has been a priority.
“We don’t do late,” she said.
If the superintendent is working through lunch, Long has brought something back for him from her break. If the front desk needs to be covered, Long has been on it.
“I feel like I’m at my best when I’m juggling lots of things,” she said. “I just make little notes to go back to something. The busier the better. At the end of the day, I know I’ve given 110 percent to my job.”
If anything is still in her inbox when she gets ready to leave, she’ll take care of it before she goes.
“That box is going to be empty,” she said. “If I do a good job here, then Mr. Wilkes can do a better job in his office.”
Long also figured out her role with board members.
“You’ve got seven individuals,” she said. “Everybody has a different personality. The board doesn’t get paid. They’re busy with other jobs, so I do whatever I can to help them.”
THE NEXT SECRETARY
Cheryl Tally, who was teaching fifth grade at Lakewood Elementary School, has been training this week to replace the retiring Marie Long as the superintendent’s executive secretary for Phenix City Schools.
Tally has “almost 20 years of experience in the business world prior to becoming a teacher,” said superintendent Randy Wilkes. “She has been an office manager, payroll personnel. She’s got a background in accounting. So she brings the best of both worlds, education and business.”