June 13, 2012 - To hear Ray Sutherland talk, it seems like only yesterday he rolled into downtown Oxford in search of a teaching job.
OHS teacher Ray Sutherland holds his going away gift a smaller version of a mural celebrating his cross country teams. (click for larger version)
"It was the summer of 1972 and I was driving down the middle of M-24 they were tearing up the streets, putting in a new water main," he said. "It was about 85 degrees and the dust was 20 feet tall."
Sutherland met with Oxford's superintendent at the school board office above the Acheson jewelry store in the southeast quadrant.
"At five o'clock that evening, I had my career," he said.
Sadly, that career, which touched so many young lives, ended last week as Sutherland officially retired after 40 years of educating, mentoring, coaching and influencing students.
"I would never second-guess anything I did, from my hiring to now," he said. "I was in love with my career at Oxford."
And what a career it was.
Although he was originally hired as a middle school teacher, after five or six years, Sutherland moved over to the high school, where he spent the majority of time teaching biology along with human anatomy and physiology.
"That's what I'm going to miss the most, working with students and getting them to achieve at a very, very high level," he said. "Teaching has always been the driving force behind what I do."
Sutherland taught his human anatomy/physiology just like a first-year college class and the results were astounding.
"Most students who take my class get an 'A' in their first year of college (human anatomy class) or test out before they even take it," he said. "Not only do they pass your test, but they understand (the material) and they can use it. That's very, very gratifying to me."
To Sutherland, "there's nothing better" than that "Aha! moment" when a student finally understands or masters what he's teaching.
When asked how students have changed from 1972 to 2012, Sutherland replied, "I think they're a lot more advanced. I think they're way more worldly."
"What's expected out of a student right now doesn't even compare to back then," he continued. "What I'm teaching in human anatomy, for example, back in the 1960 and 1970s, you would get (that material) as a sophomore or junior in college."
Despite the higher expectations and greater amount of pressure on students, Sutherland believes the kids are rising to the challenge and succeeding.
"When you look at our students, they're really, really doing well," he said. "The good ones are really good and even the fair ones, are better than the old good ones."
But for Sutherland, there was much more to teaching students than the standard classroom dynamic.
"The Number One thing, I think, in education is relationships," he said. "If you have a great relationship, you'll have a better chance of reaching the student."
Sutherland helped cultivate and strengthen those relationships through coaching sports.
"As a teacher, you see a student for one hour a day, five days a week," he said. "But as a coach, you're seeing them another two to four hours a day. The influence you can have to help them make good decisions, help them grow and be better people is great."
Everyone knows Sutherland as the cross country coach, but he actually began his coaching career on the mat.
"I started the wrestling program here," he said. "I coached wrestling for about eight years. I wrestled from fifth-grade through college."
Sutherland also coached football, girls softball and track, but cross country became his passion and that's why he coached it for approximately 30 years. His mentor for track and cross country was former coach Elmer Ball.
"I just liked the kids (who ran cross country)," he said.
Two of his favorites are Donnie Richmond, who graduated in 2004, and Brooke Kovacic, who will be a senior this fall. Both are tremendous runners and solid leaders.
"(Richmond) made everybody else around him better," Sutherland said. "That's what I call a true team athlete."
"Before (Kovacic) came, there were only three kids (running) under 20 minutes," he added. "Now, our team averages 19:55."
Sutherland's record as a cross country coach speaks for itself. Over the years, his boys and girls teams won approximately 320 dual meets.
Three of his girls teams finished in the state's top 11, while two of his boys teams finished in the two 10. The highest one of his teams (boys) ever finished was third in the state.
Under his leadership, Oxford's cross country teams racked up 16 league championships and three regional championships.
In 1992, Sutherland was one of three cross country coaches statewide nominated for a Coach of the Year award.
In September, Sutherland will be inducted in the OHS Athletic Hall of Fame. He was nominated by Helen Smith, longtime athletic booster and former school board member.
"I thought he was very deserving (of this honor) for his years of coaching and devotion to Oxford athletes, plus his remarkable talent as a teacher," Smith said. "He's had a very positive impact on the kids. He encourages them to go on with their lives and make something of themselves."
"He has that special something inside of him that makes him great as a teacher and a coach," she noted. "He will be sorely missed."
"That's a nice honor," Sutherland said. "I'm definitely appreciative and grateful for being recognized."
Being nominated by "somebody who definitely knows Oxford" like Smith, "really made it special," he added.
Teaching and coaching are only part of Sutherland's legacy at OHS. He'll also be remembered for founding the school's Adventure Club in 1998.
Large groups of students take four annual trips together throughout the state and country in order to learn valuable life skills, enhance their ability to cooperate with others and develop meaningful relationships.
"It's easily the biggest club in the school," Sutherland said. "For the last 10 years, we've had over 200 kids a year involved in our trips. Some of these kids are doing more than one trip."
As with teaching and coaching, Sutherland is proudest of the relationships spawned during these Adventure Club trips.
From honors students and at-risk kids to musicians and football players, the trips include students from a variety of backgrounds and social groups.
"Anybody who's ever been on a trip before knows that people come with their friends, but after 30 to 36 hours, they've met other people, they've engaged in activities with other students and all of the sudden, they're talking to other people and they're friends with other people," Sutherland said. "There's no comparison to the relationships you develop on one of these trips."
One of the things about Adventure Club that's different from most school activities or even family trips is "it's totally directed by the students for the students," according to Sutherland.
"We have three to five activities every hour that they get to choose from," he explained. "The kids know it's all for them."
In 2010, the Adventure Club earned statewide recognition when it received an Educational Excellence award from the Michigan Association of School Boards and SET SEG School Insurance Specialists.
When asked if he'll ever go on anymore Adventure Club trips, Sutherland responded, "Never say never, but I wouldn't bet on it."
"When you retire, you should retire. It's time for somebody else to take over."
Sutherland is moving to Florida to enjoy his retirement.
"I'm going to take about a year off," he said. "Then I'll decide if I want to get back into teaching, or substituting or coaching (down there)."
CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.