After a year of grieving, Wake County educator is named state’s best principal

Seven days after her husband died unexpectedly last summer, Panther Creek High School principal Camille Hedrick arrived on campus to greet the parents of rising ninth graders.

Normally, she would have led the orientation session, comforting anxious parents of new high school students. This year, it was the parents’ turn to comfort her.

“In my circumstances, I was a little shaky,” Hedrick said. “I just said hi to them, and another parent taught the rest. ... I stepped off to the side, and they were all coming around and hugging me. They knew I couldn’t take much, but they just wanted me to know they cared.”

Hedrick’s husband, Jim Hedrick, who was the principal at Athens Drive High School in West Raleigh, died Aug. 2 during a morning jog. He was 62.

Jim Hedrick made a name for himself in the Wake County school system during nine years leading Green Hope High School in Cary. He took over at Athens Drive in 2014, and both school communities mourned his death.

Camille Hedrick mourned quietly. The grief left her exhausted, she said, and she realized she needed more than the four or five hours of sleep she would sometimes get away with. She struggled to find an appetite. Until recently, she wasn’t ready to talk about her experience.

But Hedrick didn’t take much time off from work after her husband died. She has continued to lead Cary’s Panther Creek, one of Wake’s best-performing high schools, while adjusting to a new normal.

In April, eight months after losing her husband, Hedrick was named the North Carolina PTA Principal of the Year. Parents at Panther Creek secretly nominated her for the award, in part because she had remained a reliable and energetic presence in the school community despite her grief.

“To just tell her that – ‘Guess what, you were nominated and you won!’ – that was really emotional,” Panther Creek PTSA president Sarah Martin said. “Everyone at the meeting clapped and cheered and stood up. She cried, and we all got emotional. It was a tremendous experience.”

Family engagement is a common theme among school administrators. But it’s no platitude for Hedrick. She has always leaned heavily on family – her own and her students’ – and never more than this year.

“The award means those who represent my families get that I care about engaging with them,” Hedrick said. “It’s more than satisfying. There isn’t a word for what that meant to me.”

Hedrick, 60, grew up in poverty in rural Onslow County in Eastern North Carolina. Her grandmother raised her because her mother was sick throughout her childhood.

Thanks to an innate love of books and a handful of scholarships, Hedrick became the first in her family to go to college. She attended UNC-Chapel Hill, where she studied Latin.

If some teachers blur the line between work and family life, Hedrick scarcely drew one to begin with.

During her first week teaching at George Washington High School in Danville, Va., she met another young teacher whose homeroom shared a classroom with hers. It was Jim Hedrick, a Danville native who taught English and coached the football team. Camille taught Latin and coached the cheerleaders.

“By Christmas, we were married,” Hedrick said. “There were never any doubts.”

Soon they were joined by two daughters, who cavorted in the gym and among the bleachers during practices, as much a part of the school’s landscape as their parents.

Their careers blossomed in parallel for 38 years. Once their daughters were teenagers, they took turns earning advanced degrees. Jim Hedrick went to the University of Virginia for his master’s degree and then Virginia Tech for his doctorate. Camille Hedrick earned a master’s degree from Lynchburg College and a doctoral degree from George Mason University.

“Jim and I didn’t tell each other what to do,” Hedrick said. “But we were each other’s most trusted colleague.”

In 2005, the couple moved to North Carolina to be closer to family. Camille Hedrick was an assistant principal at Lufkin Road Middle School in Apex until 2009 before being named principal at Apex Middle. In 2014, she accepted the Panther Creek job. Jim Hedrick left Green Hope to lead Athens Drive the same year.

“Our family was proud of that, because Athens was a school that needed a lot more love than it was getting at the time, and Jim liked a challenge,” Hedrick said. “He was the one who always took the football program that was losing.”

Panther Creek was one of the district’s top schools when Hedrick arrived, but test scores have risen, she said, and the school now offers more AP classes.

But her defining quality, students and colleagues say, is her appetite for community.

“She can connect with just about anybody,” said Eric Rosen, an assistant principal who followed Hedrick to Panther Creek from Apex Middle School. “It doesn’t matter who they are, what they look like. She can talk to anyone about anything.”

Temoor Dard, a 10th-grader at Panther Creek, met Hedrick when she stopped by the blood drive he organizes on campus and began asking about his plans for the future. The next time the blood drive came around, Hedrick returned to donate again.

“One big difference that I’ve noticed between her administration and the previous administration is that she can be seen walking around much more,” said Dard, whose older siblings also attended Panther Creek. “I think she’s done a wonderful job so far.”

Hedrick still crackles with energy. Wandering the cafeteria at lunchtime, she’s a whirlwind of gentle scoldings and sincere greetings. But Hedrick said she’s realized since her husband’s death how much the two fed off each other’s passion for their work.

“I will have other partnerships, but I won’t have that partnership,” she said. “That loss was pretty major. But my grandmother died when I was 14. I’ve had to do this before.”

Hedrick knew she needed to keep moving forward.

In the week after her husband’s death, she worked with Wake County schools and parents to establish a scholarship fund in his honor. The effort raised about $5,500 in its first year.

Rosen said Hedrick has allowed herself more time this year to rest and spend time with her daughter and grandchildren. She’s gardening more and taking morning walks.

“Beyond the personal loss, which is fairly heavy, the question is how resilient are you, period,” Hedrick said. “You don’t know how much you can do until you don’t have the choice of not doing it.”

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan