ABOUT MARY PASSAGE
Saturday, February 12, 2000
By Stephanie Barrett, Daily Press
Mary Passage sat alone that evening in her Kiln Creek home. Her eyes were fixed on the television.
The suspense was too much to share with her friends and family.
She couldn't believe that her name might be the next etched into school-system history. She had learned earlier that January day that the Newport News School Board was considering her name for a new middle school in Denbigh scheduled to open in September 2001.
But, she thought, her competition was stiff. Among the other suggestions: Thomas Jefferson.
"I was reasonably sure I probably wouldn't win," she said.
She turned on city Channel 47 to watch the board vote at its Jan. 19 evening meeting. She saw one board member after the other calling out "for" in her favor. "I thought, 'Another vote for me,' " she said. And then it was done.
The board unanimously agreed to name the new middle school after the 83-year-old who had dedicated her life to education.
She started dialing her family and friends. "I was so emotional," she said. "I couldn't speak."
They thought something was wrong until she finally got the words out. "Everyone was so proud," said Passage, who retired in 1982 from the Newport News school district after a 31 1/2-year career.
"The most exciting thing for me is that they named the school while I was still living," she said.
She spoke of the students who would attend the school named after her.
"I hope they understand why their middle school was named Mary L. Passage - that I was devoted to public education and devoted to the kids," she said.
Mary Passage was more than devoted, according to her former colleagues and students. She guided teachers and administrators who worked under her and her students to their success. Many of them have gone on to take leadership roles in education, especially in Newport News.
Passage was supportive, inspirational and intelligent, they said. She broke new ground in education.
Her appointment in 1965 as Ferguson High School's leader made her the first woman to serve as principal of a Peninsula secondary school. Across Virginia, she was the first woman to head a large high school. Passage recalled that there were two other women who became principals before her. They served in the top jobs at small high schools in Portsmouth and the Eastern Shore.
Women were not considered as smart as men during that time, she said. "I must have been as smart as a man, or I wouldn't have gotten the job," she said.
In 1969, she became the chairwoman of the Peninsula district Virginia High School League, marking the first time that a woman headed the association that deals with local sports and activities like forensics and debate.
"It was this good old boys club and in came Mary Passage," recalled Ned Carr, who taught at Ferguson under Passage. "She wasn't intimidated in the least."
Passage exuded confidence, said Carr, executive director of New Horizons Regional Education Center in Hampton. "There are leaders and there are inspiration leaders," Carr said. "She is one that inspired people."
Passage was best known for doing that while at Ferguson High. She motivated both the people who worked for her and her students.
"She was just a tremendous role model," Carr said. "She was very bright and had a good sense of people and how to appeal to them."
He remembered a day when Passage stirred up the student body during a pep rally. She dressed in a full football uniform, even the helmet and shoulder pads.
"I don't think many principals would put aside their own dignity just to show how much the school and the game and the students meant to her," Carr said. "She could do those things."
Harvey Perkins, a 1966 Ferguson High School graduate, also recalled that Passage was different from previous principals.
"She was able to bring another side to the principalship - a kind of vitality and a warmth," said Perkins, who is now the Newport News school system's assistant superintendent for instruction.
Passage made people realize school was hard work but could be fun, he said. She was visible throughout the building.
"Principals before her weren't nearly as out and about with the students," Perkins said. "We noticed her in the halls and the student activities."
The same held true even before Passage become principal, said Wayne Lett, a 1965 Ferguson High graduate, who was a student under Passage when she was the school's assistant principal.
"She was always very approachable," said Lett, now the superintendent of Newport News Public Schools. "You'd see her in the halls. She was a very friendly person."
* * *
Passage served as Ferguson's assistant principal for five years before becoming the school's principal. And, prior to that, she worked as a Ferguson teacher. At that time, the school was known as Warwick Junior High.
"My home was at Ferguson," she said. "I loved Ferguson."
At one point, she said, she knew by name every one of the more than 2,000 Ferguson High students.
Kids affectionately called her "Mother Mary" - a nickname coined by the football team, said Wayne Begor, a former teacher, football coach and administrator at Ferguson. Football players also started a cheer that became well known around the school: "Give them hell for Mary L."
"Her ability to relate to both the students and teachers enabled everybody to be pulling toward the same goal," Begor said. "Everybody took a great deal of pride in that school. Mary was not only really involved in the curriculum, but she was all into the extracurricular programs."
Dick Tyson, a former Ferguson High teacher, said she gave constant encouragement to the faculty.
"She supported you," said Tyson, the Newport News school district's director of athletics and driver's education. "She helped you. She was just the type of person you wanted to work for. You wanted to do just a little more than what was called for, simply because you had somebody giving you encouragement."
A long list of folks describe Passage as their mentor. Among them are Carr, Tyson, Begor and Charles Miller, the director of the alternative school Point Option.
Passage hired Miller to serve as an assistant principal at Ferguson.
"She was always thinking what could we do to help students," he said. "She was a great asset not only in Newport News but also in the state of Virginia."
* * *
Passage left her job as principal in 1971 to become the city's coordinator of secondary school curriculum.
In that role, she authored the grant to start the Point Option alternative high school program, which opened to Newport News students in 1973. Now, it is a program for about 75 students around the region, from Hampton to York. It serves students who are failing to reach their potential.
Passage named the program Point Option after talking with her husband, George. He served in the Navy during World War II. When pilots operated off aircraft carriers, he told her, they knew they had a safe "point of option" to land.
She still returns to the school, especially when the Mary Passage Award is handed out each year to the student who has best turned his or her life around.
As a school district administrator, Passage also served as chairwoman of the committee that helped create the city's current system of middle schools.
Beyond Passage's roles in Newport News schools, she served on a state committee that developed talented and gifted programs, worked part time for the state on a project to help teachers better manage their classrooms and served on the first Board of Visitors for Christopher Newport College.
"I was so busy; I'm still busy," she said. "Life should be busy and productive. Time's short, and there's so much to do."
Reprinted with permission from the Daily Press, Inc.