February 19, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Meeting Gene Haynes in a crowded breakfast place turned out to be a bit of a mistake. After all, the gregarious North High School principal had to begin his morning by making the rounds, chatting it up with table after table of familiar faces.

The onset of the interview was further delayed when, during the usual introductory niceties, the 47-year veteran of the Omaha Public Schools system queried, “Brother Williams, we already know each other…but from where?” The writer’s daughter, you see, had gone to North for her senior year. That was a distant 15 years ago. Out of the many thousands of students and parents that Haynes had encountered over that span of time, he could still instantly make out the face of a parent who a decade-and-a-half ago had been a North High Viking for one brief term, the equivalent of a cup of coffee.

“It brightens my day whenever I can reconnect with a parent of a former student and athlete [the writer’s daughter was a swimmer],” the former athletic director says. “These kinds of connections are what make being an educator in Omaha Public Schools such a great reward. And they’re also the kind of connections that make Omaha such a great city.”

Haynes, who began his career at the long-defunct Tech High School in 1967, was enshrined in the Omaha Public Schools Hall of Fame in September. Adding to his recent honors, the stretch of 36th Street abutting North High has been renamed Gene R. Haynes Street.

He was raised in the Mississippi of the Deep South at the advent of the Civil Rights Movement. “I vividly remember Emmett Till’s body being found in the Tallahatchie River,” Haynes says of the 14-year-old African-American teen who was brutally tortured and murdered by whites in 1955 after reportedly flirting with a young white woman. “Later, when an attempt was made to integrate the University of Mississippi, I remember seeing federal marshals on every corner as our school bus passed by. Those were troubled times, but—and this may seem strange—it made me a better person. I was blessed to have had great teachers, the kind that were called ‘Negro’ at the time. They saw and understood the world around us. They taught that you had to do more with less. They taught that you had to persevere. They stressed that the only way up was through education.”

He and his wife, Annie, a retired OPS teacher, became college sweethearts when they met at Rust College, a historically black institution in Holly Springs, Miss. Mirroring his parent’s pattern, son Jerel, now 38 and working as a producer in Los Angeles, courted the Hayne’s future daughter-in-law, Erin, now herself an educator, when the pair attended North when Haynes was vice-principal. He and Annie have two young grandchildren, Kaleb (6) and Jacob (almost 3). The couple recently celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary.

Haynes has been at North since 1987, but his reach also extends broadly across the community through his work with the Urban League of Nebraska, the NAACP, the Butler-Gast YMCA, and numerous other organizations. He and Annie worship at Salem Baptist Church.

“This has been my life,” Haynes says of his service to students, parents, faith, and the community. “Being an educator, by definition, means that you must also be involved in the community. You can’t see what’s going on inside a school if you don’t what’s happening outside of it. Educators who can’t do that, who can’t see a community’s dynamics at a high level, are the ones who struggle—the ones destined to be short-termers.”

And what is this most youthful-looking of 70-year-old’s timeline for retirement?

“I figure I still have at least of couple good years left in me,” Haynes says with his ever-present smile. “My philosophy at school, in the community, in sports, anything in life, has always been to give 110 percent. I’ll know it’ll be time to go when I can only give, say, 109 percent.”

The interview had continued in fits and starts as Haynes occasionally paused to greet or bid adieu to others in the coffee shop, addressing one and all as “Sister” or “Brother” so-and-so. It’s the same style he uses with students in the halls of North High School, where the use of the “Brother” or “Sister” appellation preceding a last name suggests a union of the familiar and the formal.

“It recognizes their identity,” Haynes says. “It recognizes that they matter, that they are a person who deserves and is worthy of your respect. Besides, last names are a whole lot easier to remember after almost a half century in education.”

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