By Brandon Martin
After dedicating 12 years of service to the Henry County School Board, Dr. Joseph DeVault, At-Large Board Member, is closing another chapter of his storied career in education.
The man — fondly remembered in his capacity as a teacher, coach, principal and board member — was recognized at a Dec. 13 meeting of the Henry County School Board, which unanimously, including a joking DeVault, passed a resolution thanking him for his service.
“It was a great career,” DeVault said a few days later. “I have no regrets. I am very happy with the time that I spent in education. Students, teachers, and people that I’ve met, I look back with no regrets. It was a very rewarding career.”
DeVault explained that he didn’t originally want to pursue a career in education, but “both my mother and father were involved in education,“ which may have indicated that he was destined for his chosen career all along.
“When I went away to college, I didn’t really plan on going into education. Due to their (parents) encouragement, I did take enough credits to be licensed,” he said.
Even though he took a slight detour after graduating college when he “worked for one year in the shipyard in Newport News, Va.,” he would inevitably find his way back to the school system when he met his wife who “was a teacher, and I decided maybe that’s what I wanted to do.“
Once he had made that decision, DeVault and his wife Jerri, decided to settle in Henry County, where they both could find work.
“Then we came here in the fall of 65′ and I’ve just been with it ever since. I taught high school government and I coached football, basketball and track. When I was offered the opportunity after five years of teaching and coaching, I was offered a position as an Elementary School Principal at Rich Acres Elementary where I spent three years,“ DeVault said.
Following this milestone, DeVault went on to become the principal of Drewry Mason High School, where he held the position until it was consolidated with George Washington Carver High School to make Magna Vista High School.
“I was the principal there when it first opened until ’97, and I had enough years to retire in Virginia at that time,” he said. “Not too long after that, I went to North Carolina and served as principal at McMichael High School until I retired in 2006. After I retired, I took on the position with the school board.“
Over his time in the school system, DeVault says that he has about seen it all, but there were a couple movements that he found most startling.
“I saw a lot of changes from 1965 up until the present,” he said. “I guess the emergence of all the technology involved in education now. The emphasis on technology and accountability over time has been interesting to watch.“
Currently, Virginia schools must strive for “state-wide accreditation, whereas 20 years ago we didn’t have that,” according to DeVault. He said that when he first started out teaching, accountability in education results was largely a locally-driven effort.
“We had accountability for the individual schools, the individual teachers and the individual division,” he continued. “Now, the state holds people to standards of accountability.”
DeVault was quick to say that he didn’t necessarily agree that the push for state-wide standards was a bad thing for the schools.
“I think even though we may often worry about it, it’s been a good thing. It has meant that the schools, universally, across the state, are held to the same standards. It’s all a matter of accountability,” he said.
Even though he agrees with the push towards standardization, he stopped short of saying that test scores were all that mattered in education.
“I don’t want to see schools compared to each other,” DeVault stressed. “The students in Henry County and Southside Virginia are different from the students in Northern Virginia. I prefer that schools be
measured by growth with students that they have rather than against one another.“
When asked about the difficulties of a life dedicated to education, DeVault said that “seeing a student not quite reach the potential that you know they had” was one of the hardest aspects of being a teacher.
“As a teacher you struggle with that. I guess that would be the most difficult part,” he said. “On the flip side of that, the most rewarding part is to see students that have really achieved. They have gone on to have outstanding careers, whether or not it be in higher education, the military or just being great citizens in the community. I guess that is the most rewarding thing. When you have kids come back that you worked with years ago, and they thank you for helping them, that’s a great reward too.“
As he looked back at his career, DeVault noted that probably his greatest accomplishment can be seen in his coworkers, who he still affectionately calls his former students.
“I look at our Henry County staff and even our superintendent, those our individuals that came up through our schools and then came back to work because they thought, ‘hey, I love school. I love the area and I want to come back to work in the area.’ I like to think that I helped inspire that in them to some degree,“ he said.
When DeVault was presented the resolution, Henry County Public Schools Superintendent Sandy Strayer explained the impact DeVault had on her life.
“My very first memories of Dr. DeVault came when I was a young child in elementary school,” Strayer recalled. “He took time out of his busy day to come out into the lobby and speak to me.”
While Strayer says that she can’t remember their conversation exactly, she does remember how special she felt in that moment. She said she also remembered his patented “stripped tube socks” and that she thought that “he was so cool.”
“Dr. DeVault is a wise servant-leader who is humble, kind, understanding, fair but firm,” Strayer continued. “He is always the calm in the storm. He carries himself with grace, dignity and yes, he is cool.”
Seeing how far his former students have come is validation for DeVault.
“Our superintendent is a product of our county schools, most of our principals are products of county schools and it makes you think that ‘maybe I did something right,‘” DeVault said.
As our discussion shifted towards the future, DeVault sees bright spots.
“I know that the city is considering seeking reversion and becoming part of the county,” he said. “I think that is something that will probably be beneficial to both variants. I know it causes some hardships for some people but it’s always kind of made sense to me as an administrator that we have one school system.“
DeVault says that he can hold his head high as he walks into retirement once more because he is “very proud of the Henry County Schools.“
He does however, wish that more people could see the improvements in the community. He said that it has always kind of “bothered me when I go to all these conferences, and all these people always ask me ‘why Henry County gets all these awards’ and wondering what we are doing here that’s helping bring that about.“
DeVault said “I think sometimes when you hear people from outside the area ask you about the success or strength of the system,” that is diametrically opposed to locals who “don’t think our system is any good. They base their opinion on one incident or one thing they heard instead of looking at the overall success,” he explained. “Our students have lots of successes, and we don’t always cover those as much as some of the downsides.“
Now that he can step back and enjoy his retirement, DeVault will continue making a difference in the community.
“I plan to remain active in the community,” he said. “I do volunteer work and serve on a few boards. I think that while one of the joys of being in retirement is that you have time for relaxation, you also have time to give back in other ways that you may not have had time for once you were working.“