Article from The News & Record January 16, 2023

In celebration of Dr. King’s birthday, Business & Professional Council recognizes educators, champions interests of youths

Two Halifax County educators were honored by the Halifax County Business & Professional Council at the group’s annual Martin Luther King Jr. Birthday Celebration Sunday in South Boston.

The Business & Professional Council recognized retired principal and central office administrator Linda Coleman Owen, a 40-year veteran of Halifax County Public Schools, and Sterling Williams Jr., currently an assistant principal at Mecklenburg County High School. Williams was honored for his success as head coach of the Halifax County High School varsity boys basketball team before he left for the job in Mecklenburg in summer 2022.

The honors for Owen and Williams were among the highlights of the Sunday afternoon program to commemorate the life of King, who would have celebrated his 94th birthday on Sunday if he were still alive today.

The legacy of the civil rights icon, slain by an assassin’s bullet on April 4, 1968 in Memphis, Tenn., inspired the theme of “Dr. King’s Dream Keepers,” highlighting the role of youths in carrying forward King’s dream of racial equality.

In presenting the awards to Williams and Owen, two members of the Halifax County Business & Professional Council — president Mattie Cowan and Valdivia Hall, who retired last year from Halifax County Public Schools after recently serving as interim school superintendent — spoke about the impact both honorees have had on Halifax County youths.

Cowan recounted Williams’ success as Comet head basketball coach: three consecutive seasons of leading the boys varsity to the VHSL state championships, marking the first time that HCHS advanced to the state tournament since 1975. Halifax County also won regional titles each season from 2018-2021 and Williams was honored multiple times as the region’s coach of the year.

None of those things, Cowan continued, were as important to Williams as seeing his players succeed off the court as well as on.

“It does feel great to win, but what I’m most thankful for, most proud of, is the number of players who went on to college not as athletes but as students,” said Cowan, quoting Williams’ words upon learning that he would be recognized Sunday.

Williams overcame obstacles in his own basketball playing days, Cowan added. In seventh grade he was cut from the middle school basketball team, but “he remained resilient, gained mental toughness and worked hard and earned a place on the varsity Comets for three years,” Cowan said.

“Although he loved the game of basketball and it was good to him, there were some challenges.”

After graduating from HCHS in 2002, Williams went on to play basketball at Averett University, where was cut from the team early in his career but again bounced back. As a senior, Williams led Averett to a conference co-championship and was named the college’s Male Athlete of the Year in 2006.

He played professionally in Iceland for a season before returning to his lifelong home in Halifax County, where he became a coach and PE teacher at Meadville Elementary before moving up to the high school.

Brenda Fuller, who taught Williams in fourth grade and was principal at Meadville Elementary when Williams worked there, also spoke glowingly about her former student and colleague. “He was a son to me,” she said.

“My children were my children even though they had mothers and fathers,” said Fuller of her time as a teacher, principal and educator with Halifax County Public Schools. “They were my children. And I made sure they got the best. I told them if they knew their ABC’s, their arithmetic … if they knew reading, they could make it in this world because of Dr. Martin Luther King. I give him the honor, and the glory God used him, like he used me.”

Fuller recounted another facet of her relationship with Williams: as the mother of a special needs child who became manager for the Comet basketball team under Williams.

Knowing that her son Justin loved basketball, Williams said, “C’mon Mrs. Fuller, I want Justin there [as manager]. I want him to run around with the team,” repeating Williams’ words. When the Comets won a championship game, “Sterling got Justin and took him to the nets. And he cut the nets,” Fuller recounted.

“For you all who have a child with a disability, don’t you ever limit them,” she continued, drawing amens from the audience. “Sterling had that love for Justin. Sterling, we will forever have you in our hearts. Justin loves you today as he loved you yesterday. [Knowing about the award presentation] he said, ‘Mom, I want to go to see Coach.’”

In brief remarks, Williams thanked the Business & Professional Council for the honor, and praised those who helped lift him to success: teachers, colleagues, coaches, players, fans and especially his family. “To my wife and kids, thank you for not kicking me out of the house in the middle of the season,” Williams said, referring to how he would get stressed out as head coach.

“Thank you, it’s a honor to be recognized,” he said of the award. “I never took this job to be recognized. I only did it to give back to my community … for what they have given to me. To all the kids out there, you’ve got to be resilient in life. You’re going to be knocked down, you’re going to be challenged” — interjecting that he had to apply multiple times before he landed the job as Comet basketball coach. “Don’t let anybody put a timeline on your success.”

The second honoree of the afternoon, Linda Coleman Owen, is a member of the Business & Professional Council, and “she has no clue she is being honored today,” said Valdivia Hall in presenting the award to “my co-worker, my friend.”

Touching on milestones of Owen’s 40-year career with Halifax County Public Schools, Hall talked about how she worked nine years as a teacher at C.H. Friend Elementary School in South Boston, then left to become a Title I supervisor, then returned to C.H. Friend to become the school’s principal for another nine years. “Linda’s impact on Halifax County Public School students has been vast and broad,” Hall said.

Later in her career, Owen was promoted to HCPS director of elementary education and professional development, then returned to the school building environment as principal of Sydnor Jennings Elementary School until retiring. She continues to be active in the education sector as a consultant and veteran of professional development, Hall noted.

Owen “was inspired to go into education because of her many teachers who positively impacted her life,” said Hall. “And it does make a difference to have a teacher who believes in you.

“I am just so pleased and honored to have spent so many years with you because you have had a great impact on my life also.”

Owen, declaring herself “just humbled and truly speechless” to receive the award, thanked the Council for the honor and said that being an educator was a reward she will always cherish.

Talking about the teachers who had a big impact on her life, “I knew I wanted to be a teacher,” explained Owen. “So I went off to school, a little country girl in the big city of Richmond” — she earned her undergraduate degree at Virginia Commonwealth University, later receiving her masters degree at UVA — “and I came back and started my career at C.H. Friend.”

There, “whenever I went into the classroom, my thought was, ‘What can I do to help my students?’” Once she became an administrator, Owen said she continued to prioritize students — but also widened her sights to boost the teachers and support staff who have such an important role in a child’s education.

“I let my heart lead me for 40 years and I’m happy to say I retired still loving what I did. I loved being in education,” Owen said. “So young people, whatever your aspiration is, go for it.”

The keynote speaker for Sunday’s program was Rev. Braxton J. Braswell of Bellevue Baptist Church in Danville, who gave a sermon on the relationship of Timothy and Paul as told in the Bible. Drawing on the story of Paul’s mentorship of the younger missionary, Braswell called on youths to seek out the help and wisdom of the older generation, and for adults to reciprocate by seeking to understand the challenges that young people today face.

“Children are not only our future, they are our right now,” said Braswell. “Every young person needs a Paul in his life. You need someone that can talk to you, that can tell you the truth without you getting offended. You need someone who can keep you on the straight and narrow, you need someone who is important to you, not because they want something from you … but because they want what’s best for you in your life.”

Referring to the young age when King began his civil rights activism, Braswell urged young listeners in the audience not to let anyone hold them back in making their mark in life: “Age is nothing but a number,” he said.

First Baptist Church on Ferry Street, scene of the King Day celebration, was filled with people of all ages, but receiving special recognition were youth ambassadors who were there to represent their home churches.

In keeping with the theme, Nicolas Easley, youth ambassador with County Line Baptist Church, served as co-emcee of the program, along with Council member Sandra Garner-Coleman. (Nicholas Easley, youth ambassador with County Line Baptist Church, served as co-emcee of the MLK Birthday Celebration. He is shown with Mattie Cowan.)

The program featured several other recognitions, including a call for Julian and Karie Brittano to come up front to say a few words about their project in South Boston, the redevelopment of the old John Randolph Hotel as a boutique upscale inn. Thanking the audience, the Danville couple said they are excited for what the future holds for the Randolph.

“We’re very grateful to be in the community and we hope to bring a lot of value here,” said Julian Brittano.

Offering an overview of the history of the Halifax County Business & Professional Council was Lealand Luck, and Dwight Scott gave a stirring rendition of King delivering his iconic “I Have A Dream” speech on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

Music was provided by HYM (His Young Men), with a Scripture reading by Kimora Johnson, youth ambassador at Spanish Grove Baptist Church.