Q&A: Learning a lifelong process for former principal

Former Benton Harbor High School principal Don Pearson relaxes at his Benton Harbor home.

Don Pearson of Benton Harbor said being a lifelong learner is one of the most important lessons his parents taught him while he was growing up.

“As a kid, that was part of the culture in the home – learning all the time, reading all the time,” said Pearson, a 1975 Benton Harbor High School graduate. “There was literature everywhere. It’s become a hobby. My father reads constantly, even to this day. He’s 93 years old and that was one of the reasons I retired. He’s still reading. He’s still watching the news. And we still have great, stimulating conversations.”

In addition, he is working on his doctorate in education at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo, where he is focusing on researching charter school policies.

Pearson sat down recently with Staff Writer Louise Wrege to talk about his life.

Why did your dad feel that lifelong learning is important?

He was part of the great migration from the South. He grew up on a farm. They were not poor. They owned a lumber yard. But when he moved to the North with my mom, they decided they wanted a better life for their children. Education became No. 1 in the household. They advocated it, but they also modeled it. The constant studying, especially Saturday nights preparing for church. Dad bringing home literature for the family to read all the time. It just became the culture of the family.

What did you do after college?

I started in 1979 as an employment counselor with Benton Harbor Area Schools. I then left the area for a while trying out for a professional football team in Colorado. ... I went out there to try out for the Denver Gold team (in the now-defunct USFL), and I was cut. I loved it so much I ended up staying out there for two-and-one-half years. I was an educational director for a boys club.

Tell me about the football league.

They started a new football league in the early 1980s. There were teams all over the country in the major cities. They had these massive tryouts. I flew out there because I had relatives there and tried out.

Did you go to college on a football scholarship?

I was offered one by Texas Southern, but my mom said there’s no way you’re going to the South. So, I ended up at Western. ... I didn’t play football for Western. When I graduated, some of my former coaches told me about the new league, so I went out there. That was it.

Are you glad you tried out for the Denver Gold?

I told my son to never go through life wondering what would have happened if you had tried. That’s the worst feeling in the world. I told him that football wasn’t a part of me by the time I graduated from college, but I still felt that I had the necessary skills to compete. When I went out there and found out that I didn’t, I was satisfied.

Did you pass on to your children this love for learning?

Yes. I have four children – three girls and one boy. They all have degrees with the exception of one girl. And my wife is a teacher. She teaches special education at Northwestern Middle School in Battle Creek.

What happened when you came back to Benton Harbor after living in Colorado?

Eventually, I came back and got my first teaching assignment ... as an eighth-grade math teacher. Over the years, I taught math, English, social studies and history. From that, I ended up as a literacy coach, literacy director and, finally, as an administrator, ending as principal at Benton Harbor High School for roughly two years.

How was that?

There was a lot of positive with that. Can you imagine going to a school for four years and then coming back 30 years later and you’re the principal? That was mind boggling to me. There were literally nights that I would walk the halls and was giggling and laughing about some of the things I had done in that building and now, I’m the principal. That wasn’t a career path. It just happened. Plus, I loved those staff members up there, especially the teachers. It was one of the best staffs I’ve had. And the students. I’m still in contact with many of them. They call me all the time. I’ve helped them with their homework and term papers.

Why did you decide to retire?

My dad. He’s home. I help bathe him. I’m with him all of the time, talking. I felt that I needed to get my priorities together because he’s my dad. Mentally, he’s sharp as a tack. Just physically, he has problems getting around.

Do you have any hobbies?

Everybody knows that if you come into my house, I have this 90-gallon saltwater tank that I’ve had over 30 years. At one point, I was breeding fish, taking them back to the shop and selling them. It’s full of clown fish, now. I got so good at it, it wasn’t a challenge. I talked with my best friend who has one, also, in Detroit. I’m thinking of getting a bigger tank. I was thinking, maybe, 150 to 200 gallons.

I started with fresh water and it evolved into salt water. It’s scientific. I had one in the classroom because you can do so many different things with it – math and science and things like that. You can look at the salinity levels, the temperature, you had to have the right temperament of the fish. You couldn’t just put anything in there.

My other hobby is music, primarily jazz. I have a collection of music from CDs to vinyl. I have a lot of vintage equipment.

Why do you like the fish tank?

Serenity, peace. A lot of times I’m looking at it after I’ve cleaned it and the music is playing after a long, stressful day. It’s a great way to detox. It’s better than beer and drugs. I don’t do alcohol. I don’t smoke anything. You’ve got to have some type of relief, diversion.

Contact: lwrege@TheHP.com, 932-0361, Twitter: @HPWrege