Living a Dream to Develop the Next Generation
By Matt Jacob
This article appeared originally in the fall 2021 issue of Frontiers Magazine.
Growing up the son of two dedicated educators whose careers spanned a combined seven decades, Darrell James “D.J.” Brown III ‘11 had a front-row seat to the immense impact teachers can have on impressionable young students — and the immense joy and fulfilment that comes from playing a small but significant role in those students becoming successful and productive adults.
So, there wasn’t much doubt that Brown would follow in his parents’ footsteps, despite their best efforts to dissuade him from doing so.
“They did a good job trying to convince me not to go into education because they wanted to make sure I chose a career that I knew I wanted to do for the rest of my life. They also wanted to make sure I was aware that you certainly don’t go into it for the salary,” Brown said of his parents, both of whom retired last year. “But from a very young age, maybe fourth or fifth grade, I knew I wanted to be a physical education teacher like my father.
” With that goal very much still in mind as he neared the end of his time at Wren High School, Brown began formulating a game plan. Priority No. 1: Attend a four-year university, likely near his hometown of Anderson, South Carolina. That game plan changed, however, on a winter night in 2009, when Brown — a shooting guard on the Wren basketball team — lit up his gymnasium’s scoreboard, tallying 28 points against Greenwood High School.
Brown’s performance caught the attention of one spectator in particular: Rob Burke, then the head basketball coach at Spartanburg Methodist College (SMC). Burke attended the game to scout a Greenwood player — who happened to be Brown’s longtime friend and former travel-ball teammate — but after witnessing Brown’s shooting clinic, he sought out the senior outside Wren’s locker room.
“Coach Burke told me who he was and where he was from, and after watching me play another time or two, he invited me for a campus visit,” Brown recalls. “I had vaguely — very vaguely — heard of Spartanburg Methodist, but it was never a place I thought I would go after graduating high school.
”Still, having fallen in love with basketball at a young age, Brown was intrigued about the prospect of playing at the collegiate level. And since no other schools seriously recruited him, he took Burke up on his offer to check out SMC, which, at the time, was a two-year institution.
“It was a cold Saturday morning in March, and I was probably the last recruit to arrive, but there was Coach Burke in his trench coat, waiting to greet me outside Bridges Arena. It was a small gesture but one that showed the type of investment he had in his players and his program,” Brown said. “I immediately appreciated that.
”After touring the campus and learning about the unique academic and social environment SMC provides, Brown abandoned his four-year university plan and accepted Burke’s partial scholarship to become an SMC student-athlete.
On the court, Brown averaged about 10 points per game and helped the Pioneers reach the Region X tournament semifinals during both the 2009-10 and 2010-11 seasons. Away from the hardwood, he quickly came to appreciate SMC’s
tight-knit community, small class sizes, and direct access to professors and administrators. One such administrator was Dr. Colleen Perry Keith, who became SMC’s president the year Brown arrived.
“She was heavily involved in everything and genuinely interested in the entire student body,” Brown said. “She attended basketball games and other extracurricular activities, she knew what classes you were taking, and she even ate lunch with students in the cafeteria. I’m sure some presidents at other colleges do that, but it’s different when they have a real conversation with you and ask things that are pertinent to your life at that moment.
”Brown went on to earn his associate degree at SMC in 2011, then continued his education (and basketball career) at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk, North Carolina, where he completed his bachelor’s degree in 2013. A few months later, Brown fulfilled his dream of being a physical education teacher when he landed a job at Holly Springs-Motlow Elementary School in Campobello, S.C. And by the time he arrived on campus, he had already hatched a second dream: to someday make the unique leap from the blacktop to the administrative office.
So, Brown went back to school twice, first to earn his master’s in education from Anderson University, followed by a doctorate in educational leadership from the University of the Cumberlands in Williamsburg, Kentucky. Sure enough, in July 2017 — after four years as a PE teacher — he became Holly Springs-Motlow’s assistant principal.
Brown held that position until taking one more step up the administrative ladder this summer, when he was named principal at Mabry Middle School in Inman, South Carolina.
After touring the campus and learning about the unique academic and social environment SMC provides, Brown abandoned his four-year university plan and accepted Burke’s partial scholarship to become an SMC student-athlete.
Throughout his rapid climb within Spartanburg County School District 1, the 30-year-old Brown has remained mindful of the path his parents paved, letting their experiences serve as a guiding light.
“I saw the investment and the relationships they had with their students. They were very real, very authentic,” Brown said of his mother (an English and special education teacher at Wren High School for more than 35 years) and father (a PE teacher and football and basketball coach at Wren Middle School for 32 years). “That’s something I’ve tried to emulate, first as a teacher and now an administrator. I want my students, faculty, and staff at Mabry Middle School to look at this not just as a place to go to school or work. I want them to know that I’m invested in them as individuals.
”Part of that investment, at least when it comes to students, means being willing to impart wisdom to those who seek it. That’s why Brown has his SMC diploma hanging on a wall in his office alongside his other degrees. He knows there will come a day when a student walks in and asks why their principal went to a junior college. He’ll then, tell the story about basketball and Coach Burke and Dr. Keith and why he’ll always cherish his time at SMC.
“I’m very proud of that degree, and it’s something I want students to see because I want them to understand that SMC was a small but very important and essential piece of the journey that led me to where I am today,” Brown said. “I readily admit SMC was not my first choice. But it definitely ended up being the best choice.”