Phil Lee once went from coaching in a 16,000-seat arena to a “barn type of place” in Johnston County.
But that was OK with him. The barn was home.
Lee, who grew up on a tobacco farm in the Bentonville community, was the women’s basketball coach at Vanderbilt University for 11 years before returning to teach at Meadow School. He’s since served as principal of four Johnston County schools, including Riverwood Middle, his current post.
“I enjoyed what I did, but I enjoy what I do here,” Lee said.
Now 66, the cancer survivor who has Parkinson’s disease said his health is prompting him to step away. But not yet, he said, not before he helps foster a smooth transition for his successor, assistant principal Kerri Evans.
“I’ve had a lot of different issues I’ve had to deal with, but this is an opportunity for me to help out,” Lee said.
“I care too much about the kids.”
Lee’s colleagues say his offer to stick around is business as usual for him. Chris Germanoski, an assistant principal who has worked with Lee for 10 years, said he genuinely cares about the success of students and his staff.
“He treats everybody with the utmost respect and has a caring way of dealing with things without having an agenda,” Germanoski said. “He’s true.”
Evans will officially take over as principal on Dec. 1. Lee will serve as assistant principal for the rest of the school year.
“He’s the real deal,” Evans said. “He’s respected by students, by staff and by the community.”
Recruiting players, teachers
Lee said he graduated from Meadow School when it taught students in grades K-12. He went on to Campbell University and, after graduating, started teaching and coaching women’s basketball in Hampton, Va.
In 1979, Lee tried out collegiate coaching at Division III Christopher Newport College in Newport News, Va. It went well, so well that after leading his team to one winning season, he moved up the ranks, this time to Division I Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
Over a span of 11 years, Lee’s teams had a record of 207 wins and 126 losses. He was known for recruiting top talent, including several players who earned the Southeastern Conference’s Freshman of the Year award.
He resigned in 1991, when he and his wife of 45 years, Margaret, decided to move back to Johnston County.
As a school administrator, Margaret said, her husband got to use his coaching skills in a new and different way.
“He was one of the best recruiters in women’s basketball, and he brought those characteristics with him when he came to educating,” she said.
Taking care of cancer
When Lee took the job at Riverwood Middle in the mid-2000s, he and Margaret moved to Clayton after living in Benson for 13 years. That’s when Margaret remembers “one thing after another” with her husband’s health, which was unusual for a man who she said always kept physically fit.
A medical exam showed that Lee had an aggressive form of prostate cancer. He had surgery and went through several rounds of radiation. Lee said his body responded well to treatment. “I took care of that,” he said of his cancer.
Today, he suffers from Parkinson’s, which he joked is “a lot of fun.” However, he said his condition is one that can be controlled with medication.
“It’s not a quick fix but something I can work on,” Lee said. “We are fortunate that we live in a place where we can go to so many places close by with good medicine.”
Despite his health problems in recent years, Lee said, he still has 420 days of sick leave. Margaret said that’s the true indicator of how much he loves his job.
And while he said he’ll miss certain parts of being a principal, he said he’s not worried – “the school is in good hands.” After all, if anyone needs anything, his home in Riverwood Athletic Club is just around the corner.
“I can get there in a hurry,” he said.