(Above) On Friday, Clay City Elementary first-grade teacher Karla Wellman presented Principal Jon Russell with parting gifts from the students and staff as part of a going-away ceremony for his last day at school. On May 24, Russell will be leave for a year-long deployment to Baghdad, Iraq.
(Below) Sharing hugs and handshakes, Principal Jon Russell takes time Friday morning for some "see-you-laters" with his students. Russell is expected to return from Iraq in sometime in the summer of 2007.
On Friday morning, Clay City Elementary Principal Jon Russell spent his last day with the students, teachers and staff members he loves at the school's first-grade recognition program.
On May 24, he will become Major Jon Russell, and begin a journey that will take him to Baghdad, Iraq.
He realized this was not an ordinary program after all, but a loving tribute from the students and staff in his honor, which elicited a standing ovation from the crowd at the Clay City High School Auditeria.
"I'll keep this short," he said, "I have been blessed with an awesome family, blessed to live in an awesome community and be near these awesome kids. This level of support is wonderful. This is what it's all about. This is a great day to be an American."
Russell was surprised that everyone kept the event a secret.
"I knew about the program, but wasn't told everything. They all kept it a secret, even the kids. They did a terrific job," he said. "It's tough to look out on a crowd like that and see all the boys and girls, your friends and family, all gathered to support you. I don't like farewells, I prefer see-you-laters to good-byes. This was a rough one."
Russell became principal of Clay City Elementary in the fall of 2001.
"We have learned so much from Mr. Russell in five years. We have learned to challenge ourselves, to keep learning every day, to strive to do our best and never give up," first-grade teacher Karla Wellman said to the audience. "We have observed his love and devotion to the USA over the years, and now Mr. Russell is making the most important sacrifice a man can give to his country. We are so proud of you."
Russell was presented three tokens of appreciation from Clay City parents, students and faculty. The first was a book of business cards with notes of support from the faculty, staff, bus drivers and PTO members. Words of encouragement included: "don't volunteer for anything," "call your mom" and "this might make your students look like angels."
The students wrote and compiled letters of love and support into a book for the second gift. One student wrote "I hope you beat up the bad guys," while another urged caution by writing "keep yourself, and my dad, safe."
Custodian Gerry Pullam created the third gift, a plaque with a picture of the school and a message about how much Russell will be missed.
Ruby Pearce, Russell's mother, was awed by the community's support of her son.
"Jon knew this was something he'd face sooner or later when he joined the military," she said. "He's devoted to the service and his country, but he loves his family and these kids. I know he hates to leave them, but he's facing it like a man."
With a yellow ribbon already tied to a tree at her home, Pearce plans to spend plenty of time with her daughter-in-law and grandchildren while her son is away. She says their family strength and love of God will see them through the upcoming next year, but she's praying for an early end to the conflict.
"God's given me peace about this, but you have to be strong and support these men, all our troops, during this time," she said. "People have to support our military in a time of war. America must prevail. I would hate for this to end and all the lives lost be in vain."
Russell admits to mixed feelings about being called into active duty.
"This wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't for a year," he said. "I'm looking forward to finally putting all my years of training into use, but I wasn't expecting it to be in such a hostile environment."
During his year-long tour of duty, Russell will be stationed at Tigerland Base. The base, which used to be one of Saddam Hussein's hunting ranges, is on the northeastern edge of the International Airport, just south of Baghdad.
"I expect to change jobs frequently once we get there, but I do know I will be the mayor of the base. One of my duties as mayor is to maintain the safety and security of the personnel stationed there," he said. "The base houses approximately 2,000 to 3,000 military personnel at a time."
Anita Russell is supportive of her husband of 14 years, but a little leary of the new roles she will be responsible for without him there. Learning how the lawnmower and the tractor work are unexpected tasks she hadn't forseen.
"It's a big adjustment. I still haven't mastered the tractor or the weedeater yet," she said, laughing. "We are a very close family, a unified four that does everything together. It will be hard without him, but I've got a great support group of family and friends. We've got two great kids and I've got to do my best for them, and for him."
The family plans to stay in touch through the internet and web camera technology. Russell has already packed a portable web-cam in his suitcase just in case there isn't one already hooked up at the base.
A scheduled family camping trip for this weekend wasn't canceled because of the weather, it was just moved into the basement of their home. They are determined to spend as much time together as possible before Russell is shipped out to a base in Mississippi for training before deployment to Iraq.
The Russell family stood together to shake hands and receive hugs from well-wishers, many of whom were looking for tissues to wipe away tears.
A group of staff members huddled outside the doorway of the auditeria, most crying.
"I've had a feeling for a long time he'd be deployed," said Kae Smith, the school's secretary. "Then he told us around Christmas he had been deployed, and I just stood there looking at him. I'll miss him, we all will."