KINGSPORT, Tenn. – When Norman Tunnell was in the fourth grade, he met a teacher who changed his life.
The son of a tenant farmer and one of seven siblings, he had up to that point attended a one-room school. He wasn’t slow, but he was behind.
He was so far behind, his new teacher suggested repeating the year, said his wife, Barbara, who was married to Norman for more than half a century before his death last year at age 79.
“He said [later, as an adult], ‘If I had not repeated that fourth grade, I would’ve probably been a high school dropout,’” she said. “He had an older brother and sister who were high school dropouts. And he said from then on, [because] that teacher was so great, that he just wanted to be a school teacher.”
After high school, Norman Tunnell went to college on a football scholarship. Then, he pursued what he believed was God’s calling for his life: to teach.
“He said when he got out of college that he had several job opportunities, that he could’ve gone into corporate jobs or whatever, and he said he would’ve made a lot more money,” Barbara Tunnell recalls. “But he never wanted to do that; he just wanted to teach school.”
“We were married 53 years, and I never heard him say, ‘I don’t want to go to work today,’” she said. “He loved every minute of it.”
Norman Tunnell began his education career as a teacher and coach at Church Hill High School. Then, he worked as a junior high teacher and coach in Florida before returning home to Tennessee, where he taught for the last two years of Blountville High School and the first two at Central High School.
He then got into administration, serving as principal at Rogersville High School for three years and then Colonial Heights Middle School for 25 years.
His passion, his wife recalls, was for middle school children – kids in a transitional phase of life who often arrive in sixth grade as children eager to give hugs and leave in eighth grade as young teens with a less enthusiastic view of adults.
Some of his former students still remember the “squat jump” exercises he prescribed as punishment, but more than his discipline, Norman Tunnell is remembered for his wisdom and genuine concern for the students.
When parents came worried about whether their kids would ever outgrow their immaturity, he’d tell them knowingly to hang in there; years later, he’d hear from parents with a sigh of relief: their kids had turned out all right.
“He had a great impact on all of our lives through his integrity,” said Polly Tjader, who remembers him as her principal at Rogersville and her kids’ principal at Colonial Heights. “I probably did not appreciate it as much as a high school student as I did as a mother because I knew if there was a concern for my children, he’d take care of it.”
Sally Russin-Dingus also remembers him from her days as a student; when she was a cheerleader at Sullivan Central, he was a coach and mentor.
“I remember so distinctly in the spring before I graduated, I ran into him in Colonial Heights, and he told me he thought he was going to have some math openings,” Russin-Dingus recalls.
“I got a job there starting in August of ’76, and he was my principal. He was my principal until he retired. I had a wonderful father, but I felt like he was kind of like a second father. I could go to him and talk to him any time; his door was always open, I felt, and he always gave me good advice.”
Russin-Dingus, who taught two of his children along the way, also remembers him as a good Christian family man.
“In faculty meetings, he’d say, ‘you know family comes first,’ so if we needed to leave early or something, family was the most important,” she said. “I feel like we had a family at Colonial Heights; that was a family atmosphere.”
His passions in retirement, after 40 years as an educator: playing golf, mowing grass for his church, and traveling the world.
“We’d go on a big trip every year,” Barbara Tunnell said. “We went to Australia and New Zealand, we went to Europe twice, we did a Caribbean cruise, we did an Alaskan cruise, we went up to New England, we went to Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia in Canada, the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone ... so we basically did most of the things we wanted to do.”
Even now, she said, people still approach her all the time to tell her how much impact her husband had on them. It mattered, she said, that he acted based on what he believed was right.
“Everywhere we go, we see people – because, in 40 years, he met a lot of students,” Barbara Tunnell said. “That’s worth more than money, just to know he’s impacted these people.”
A Life Well Lived appears monthly in Sunday Stories. Written about those who are no longer with us, these stories celebrate what made someone's time on this earth special. Our hope is to present many different versions of a life well lived. To share your suggestions for the series, email Sunday Stories editor Carmen Musick at email@example.com.