James Henry Russell leaves big shoes to fill
Leadership is simply service to others, the Bible tells us almost everywhere, and Mathew says it succinctly, “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant,” (20:26).
Somehow, when one observes James Henry Russell just being himself, another verse of Matthew (25:21) comes to mind, “Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!”
He’s just that kind of guy. A devout man of quiet faith, James Henry wears so many hats, does so many jobs, works so hard at meeting so many needs, that he makes it easy to imagine that the Lord is eagerly waiting to toss him another oar to pull.
Alas, Ecclesiastes (3:1-8) reminds us that to everything there is a season. Despite this assurance, many of us held our collective breaths when Russell said it was time to step away from the presidency of Texarkana College.
Texarkana should always feel grateful to President Russell for hauling the college’s cart from a deep and muddy ditch. TC was days from bankruptcy, the faculty dispirited, the buildings dilapidated, and the leadership awash in innuendo when he stepped in seven years ago. What a job he’s done.
Even his leaving is a typical James Henry deal, a win for all sides. Replacing him is one of Texas education’s rising stars, Pleasant Grove Superintendent Dr. Jason Smith. He arrives a leader with a long trail of success in his fast-track wake. The college community will soon know what PG quickly figured out. He’s the right guy for the right job at the right time.
The two have differing styles. James Henry leads with an eyes-forward, attention-to-detail, disciplined approach, while Dr. Smith is more ebullient and a high-energy motivator.
Underneath, though, they share deep lines of commonality. Both are big thinkers who keep an eye on the future and the area’s education needs. Both get the most out of people by establishing a culture of success in which people are challenged to do more than they thought capable while feeling safe in their environment. Both are attentive to financial detail.
Just look what James Henry accomplished in seven short, and at times rough, years.
Today, despite constant, deep and brutal cuts in state funding, TC stands firmly planted in solid financial ground. The books are balanced, the grounds meticulously maintained, enrollment strong, private donations at new heights, buildings are being built, and the student completion rate is the best in Texas.
Not near the highest. The highest.
When the landowners of Bowie County voted to place themselves on TC’s tax rolls, theirs was a vote of confidence not only in the college but also in President Russell. Make no mistake, his personal credibility was on that ballot just as much, if not more, than the tax rate.
That trust was rewarded with a national honor, 2018 Achieving the Dream Meyer Austin Award, that announces TC as among the best community colleges in the nation.
With that ground laid, this is a great time to welcome Dr. Smith, a classically educated educator, he has been on the fast track. Three years in the classroom, three years a middle school principal, four years a high school principal. Thirteen years a superintendent.
His mastery of the principles of teaching and learning is deep. His ability to turn that into policies and programs is splendid. A leader of great personal warmth, Dr. Smith brings to the table a record of empowering great teachers and a deep understanding of what it takes to provide a 21st century education.
He is fiscally prudent, yet imaginative when it comes to finding creative ways to repurpose and maximize existing resources. Fund balances will grow. The community will quickly come to respect him. Faculty will love him. Students will thrive.
“I view leadership in its most simplistic form, ‘getting people to do something they otherwise would not do.’” he said in a Leadership Texarkana questionnaire. “However, I feel that most people want to be led by people of virtue and want to be inspired with high expectations.”
Dr. Smith gets a great deal out of the people around him for a simple reason. He believes in them.
“I am very excited to live in a community where I see so much potential along with a high number of thought leaders,” he said. “There is a convergence going on in Texarkana that I don’t believe most in our community see, but it’s happening, and it is exciting.”
A constant flow of educated and employable people into the workforce is without doubt the greatest reason that Bowie County and Texarkana stand as one of the very few outposts of economic growth between Little Rock and Dallas.
The vision, hard work, perseverance, and integrity of James Henry Russell played a critical role in making that happen. The energy, drive, professionalism, and intellect of Dr. Smith promise to keep that dream alive; indeed, give it new energy.