When Tom Powers was a kid, he moved all over Texas and New Mexico while his father worked the oil fields. By the time he graduated high school, he’d attended 28 schools.
As an adult, Powers hasn’t done much wandering at all.
When he walked out his office door Tuesday afternoon, he ended a 50-year career as an educator in Greenlee County.
Powers arrived in Morenci in 1970 with a bachelor’s degree from Sul Ross State University in Alpine, Texas ready to teach machine shop and welding at Morenci High School.
Over the years, he moved up to assistant principal, athletic director and principal before retiring after the 1997-1998 school year.
His retirement didn’t last long.
He was elected the Greenlee County Schools Superintendent and took office in January 2001, a position he’s held ever since.
Despite what might seem obvious, Powers said he didn’t stay in Greenlee County because of his transient childhood.
“I think I found the best place you could work in schools and the best community,” Powers, 71, said. “I think we found the best place to raise family. I think I just found some of the best people in the world, and you know when you’re happy, why go check out that grass on the other side of the fence?”
While most people can point out at least one thing they won’t miss about their job, Powers said he isn’t one of them. He’ll miss everything, but especially the people.
As he prepared for his last day, Powers said Friday he is just overwhelmed by how fortunate he’s been.
“If I had to say something it would be how lucky I am that I’ve got the beautiful little family that I’ve got, the amazing teachers, administrators, staff and bus drivers I’ve always had the opportunity to work with,” he said. “The office staff, the nurses, they’re all there for the right reasons.”
When Powers graduated from college, he and his wife, Glenda, set about looking for a job where they could both work. She, too, was a teacher.
One day he got a call from a friend about job openings in Morenci and Powers called up the superintendent of schools at the time, Phil Davidson. It turns out, Davidson had earned his master’s degree from Sul Ross.
“He said ‘Let me get back with you’...three days later I got a contract in the mail,” Powers said.
He spent six years in the classroom before becoming assistant principal and athletic director. In 1982 and 1992, Powers was named Arizona Athletic Director of the Year, a distinction he remains quite proud of.
He’s equally proud to be among the first named to the Morenci Unified School District’s Hall of Fame and to be given a Melvin Jones Fellowship by Lions International. It is the highest form of recognition to acknowledge an individual’s dedication to humanitarian service.
Powers likes to think people appreciated his “can do” attitude. He said he has always believed that “together we can solve anything. We can fix it. We can make it work.”
When he retired from Morenci Unified, he was in his early 50s and had too much energy to sit around at home. He hoped his experience would come in handy as the Greenlee County Schools Superintendent.
“To do the best job I could for them,” he said.
“I don’t know that you can move mountains, but what you can do is help everybody climb a mountain,” Powers said.
He’ll leave it up to others to say whether or not he was successful at his job, but he hopes to be remembered as a “fair, honest and compassionate man.”
Long past the normal retirement age, Powers said he was often asked why he hadn’t retired yet.
“I’ve told people for years I don’t want to be sitting on the front porch thinking woulda, coulda, shoulda. When I sit on my front porch I want to think I’ve done what I needed to do to contribute to my community and my family and my friends,” he said.
Even now, he’s not planning on sitting on that porch much. In addition to finishing up some remodeling work at his house, he’s a member of numerous community organizations, including Freeport McMoRan’s Community Investment Fund committee, the Morenci Lions Club, the Greenlee County Search and Rescue group and foundation, the Mount Graham Safe House board and the Duncan Valley Co-Op.
If those don’t keep him busy enough, he said he might tinker around in his workshop at his house or keep up the maintenance on his 1965 Ford Mustang and 1931 Model A pickup.
He’s also promised to help his replacement, Bryan Boling, with anything he might need.
He already knows he’s going to miss everyone terribly, including the people who work at the Greenlee County Courthouse, where his office was located.
“I’m a people person. I need that fix. Sort of like a junkie. I need a people person fix,” he said.
In looking back over the decades, Powers said he is saddened by the changes he’s seen in families. When he started out, maybe 5 percent of families were dysfunctional; nowadays it’s more like 50 percent. He attributes many problems to alcohol, drugs and overall selfishness.
“It’s just the way our society has changed. In a lot of ways we quit carrying about each other and started caring about ourselves,” Powers said.
Back in the day, football and basketball games would be packed, so much so parking lots would be full and people would be turned away from the gym, he said.
“Schools used to be the focus of our communities and now it’s Game Boys and PlayStations or whatever those distractions are,” Powers said. “It’s also the Me Generation where ‘I’m the Dad or I’m the Mom and I’m going to do what I want and I don’t care if Betty Lou or Junior over there is playing ball, I’m going to watch the Whoever is Getting Married Show on TV.’ Instead of making the kids their priority, they make themselves the priority. That’s just not where their priorities need to be. If you’re going to have kids you need to ready to take care of them.”
There are still some caring parents, but not enough, he said.
Luckily, Powers said, there are teachers who continue to go above and beyond for their students, going so far as to keep crackers for those children who don’t get a decent breakfast before heading to school.
“A lot of times in a kid’s world their teacher is the only one who loves them. To their parents they’re a burden and grandma and grandpa might not be in the picture,” Powers said. “They deserve the best they can get and how are we going to survive as a society if we don’t take care of those kids? Our teachers are the ones who do, they’re just so special. I feel same way about administrators.”
Powers said he always instilled in teachers one thought: “Whatever you put into it is what the kids will get out.” Those who didn’t belong in the classroom usually get weeded out, he said.
“You get in a special world when you get around those teachers. One of the things I’m real proud of is so many of those teachers in Greenlee County are homegrown. They’re our kids who have come back. They’ve gone and gotten their teacher certificates and come back,” he said.
Later, Powers continued that thought.
“Teachers are some of the neatest people I know. They really are. They’re really cool,” Powers said, his voice breaking. “They’re just giving souls, that’s all they are.”