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Alumni Spotlight - From Vietnam to NASA, Career-long Educator Follows Simple Command: ‘Go Teach’

Dr. Dewey and Sylvia Herring look forward to celebrating their 58th anniversary on Aug. 1.
Dr. Dewey and Sylvia Herring look forward to celebrating their 58th anniversary on Aug. 1.

When the Soviet Union successfully launched the world’s first artificial satellite, Sputnik, on Oct. 4, 1957, it did more than fire the starting pistol on the U.S.-U.S.S.R. space race.

It changed the trajectory of Dr. Dewey Herring’s life.

The eldest son of a shipyard worker, Herring was born in Pascagoula but raised in Columbia. He came to Mississippi College in fall 1960 intent on playing football and enjoying the collegiate experience.

Shortly after setting foot on the Clinton campus, he suffered the penalty of all freshmen males of the time – his hair was shaved, with only the letter “F” visible in the remaining stubble atop his newly manicured pate – a tradition that bonded him to his classmates. His relationships with some of MC’s most legendary figures helped fuel his lifelong passion for serving others.

“I appreciated the close, positive, character-developing influence of individuals like Van ‘Doc’ Quick, Coach Hartwell McPhail, Coach Bernard Blackwell, and Coach John Kenneth Bramlett,” Herring said. “I do not recall a single faculty member that I did not feel had my best interest at heart.

“Jesus told his disciples in John, ‘This commandment I give you that you love one another as I love you.’ At MC, I grew to understand what that meant. One of MC’s strongest impacts is your fellow students, as well as faculty members, who really care about you. The type of friendly relationships you garner, you realize that everybody is worthy of a sense of respect and dignity.”

Herring excelled at multiple positions on the gridiron - weak-side guard, nose guard, linebacker, and end – won the Sportsmanship Award and was named alternate captain of the Choctaws football team. He majored in mathematics, what he called his “academic strong suit” – he had won the mathematics pin in high school – and was elected student body attorney for the Student Government Association.

George Houston, a fellow member of MC’s Class of 1964 and a successful retailer in Atlanta, called Herring one of the most capable individuals he has ever known.

“He is one of the people I most highly respect and admire,” Houston said. “He has integrity and a great sense of fair play. He’s modest, and he never likes to talk about himself. He is consistent, he has so much ability. His loyalty never waivers.”

Although Herring had what it took to be a successful college student, with two younger brothers at home hoping to follow in his academic footsteps, paying for his education became a gnawing concern. That’s when the volleyball-sized hunk of metal launched into orbit by the Russians entered the picture.

Following Sputnik, the U.S. Congress passed the National Defense Education Act. Signed into law by Pres. Dwight D. Eisenhower, on Sept. 2, 1958, the NDEA bolstered the nation’s ability to compete with the Soviet Union in technology by providing scholarships and loans to students in higher education who showed promise in mathematics, science, engineering, and foreign languages.

Herring talked to military recruiters on campus and was accepted into the Marine Corps Platoon Leaders Program. Thanks to Sputnik, as a mathematics student, he received a grant that paid for three-and-a-half years of his undergraduate education.

Herring spent two summers at Marine Corps Base Quantico, Virginia, for military training and, after graduating from MC, was commissioned into the Marine Corps as a second lieutenant. He and his wife, Sylvia Fortenberry, were married on Aug. 1, and he reported to Quantico three days later.

He attended Officer’s Basic School and a six-week artillery officers’ course, then joined the Fourth Battalion, 11th Marines, for a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam, serving as battery fire direction officer and battery executive officer.

“I felt it was in service to my country, and I was very proud to do that,” said Herring, who received the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in combat action. After his tour of duty, he was assigned to be a guard officer in Naples, Italy.

“Our primary mission was to provide security for Allied forces Southern Europe Headquarters and other military installations in the area,” he said. “Our secondary mission was to provide a fully dressed Marine platoon to accompany a Navy Band, a platoon from each branch of our military, plus a Carabinieri Platoon – the national gendarmerie of Italy – and a mounted Carabinieri unit for honors ceremonies for visiting dignitaries. It was essentially a welcoming parade.”

It was a plum assignment – but also a turning point in his career.

“When I graduated from basic school, I had received a regular commission, meaning I was on a career path,” he said. “Things were going well. But I began to sense this was not exactly what I was supposed to be doing.”

That feeling was confirmed in the strongest possible way during a trip to the Holy Land in April 1969. On Easter Sunday morning, directly in front of the place where, according to tradition, the tomb of Christ was located, Herring had an epiphany.

“I had been praying for guidance,” he said. “At that point, Mississippi was beginning to phase integration into its schools. I had been preparing at MC to be a school teacher, and I felt like Mississippi could use some reasonable individuals to ensure that process happened as it should.

“Standing in front of that tomb, two words came to me just as clearly as any audible sound ever had: ‘Go teach.’ When those two words appeared in my consciousness, I knew what I was supposed to do.”

While his direction may have been clear, the U.S. Marine Corps had yet to be convinced. When Herring returned to his barracks, he received orders to return to Vietnam.

“I knew if I didn’t go back to Vietnam, someone else would have to go instead,” he said.

So, he served a second tour of duty and counted the days until he could follow his true calling. For six months, he served as commanding officer of Headquarters Battery, 4th Battalion, 11th Marines, then was sent to An Hoa to serve as commanding officer of Mike Battery, 4th Battalion, 11 Marines, for another six months.

Upon completing his second tour of duty, Herring received a second Bronze Star Medal and returned to the U.S. Released from active duty, he remained in the USMC Reserves Program, retiring in 1992 at the rank of Colonel.

“My father was a career officer in the Army,” Houston said. “He told me there is no finer military person than a Marine. When you hear a Marine has made Colonel, you know he is an outstanding individual with few peers. That describes Dewey Herring.”

Herring notified Blackwell about his desire to become an educator. Blackwell recommended him to Coach Doug Sullivan of the Brookhaven School District. Each time Herring had been sent to Vietnam, Sylvia had gone back to school. She had received her degree from the University of Southern Mississippi, and wanted to teach as well. Sullivan offered both Dewey and Sylvia positions, and Brookhaven became the couple’s home for the next 13 years.

Herring served as a mathematics teacher, assistant football coach, and head baseball coach. He attended night school and summer school at MC and obtained his M.S. in guidance in 1973. He served as a counsellor for Brookhaven’s Vocational Technician Program for four years, and continued to attend night school at MC, earning his E.D.S. in educational administration in 1979.

“Both my master’s and my specialist degrees were primarily funded by the G.I. Bill,” he said. “The government allowed me to pursue advanced degrees sooner than I might have been able otherwise. Somehow, I have always felt it was all a plan coming together.”

He served as co-principal of Brookhaven High School and became full-time principal one year later. In 1983, he resigned his principalship to attend USM on a doctoral program assistantship in the Department of Community Education. Two months after leaving Brookhaven, the high school was named a National Model High School.

Herring obtained his doctorate in educational leadership, and inquired of his good friend and fellow MC alum, Milton Walker, who was superintendent of schools at Columbia, about an opening for an assistant superintendent. Herring got the job and returned to his hometown.

He served at Columbia for five years, then one of his former professors at USM recommended him for an opening in Ocean Springs. In 1990, he was named superintendent of the Ocean Springs School District.

“It was a wonderful place to be, and things went very well there,” he said. “About my third or fourth year, the Mississippi Department of Education introduced new accreditation standards. There were only two school districts in the state that attained the highest Level 5 accreditation. One was Corinth. The other was Ocean Springs.

“That was totally due to the dedication of our faculty and students, and the daily support of our parents and the community.”

In 1995, Herring was named Superintendent of the Year for the state of Mississippi. The following year, the School of Education at MC dubbed him its Distinguished Alumnus of the Year.

“I felt I was fulfilling my purpose at that point in time,” he said. “While I appreciated the recognition, I knew good and well that there were other superintendents who were performing better under more challenging circumstances throughout the state.”

After nine years at Ocean Springs, Herring began to feel that his effectiveness as a superintendent may have reached its peak.

“I thought it might be better for a new superintendent to take over where we were and move the district forward,” he said.

The Gulf Coast Education Initiative Consortium had recently been established to enhance learning opportunities for Mississippi Gulf Coast school districts, improve student performance, and help provide a well-trained workforce. The GCEIC’s top executive was leaving to manage a school district in South Carolina, and Herring fit the bill perfectly.

The organization was a partnership between the school districts in six southern Mississippi counties, one district in Louisiana, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Stennis Space Center in Hancock County. As executive director, Herring arranged professional development for members of the school districts, helped shape the GCEIC’s master teacher program, organized workshops for teachers, and assisted with technology development in member schools.

“It was an opportunity to express a unified voice for those school districts to the state department and to other organizations that might impact what we were able to do in those school districts,” Herring said.

After three years, he left the GCEIC to serve full-time as a contractor supporting NASA’s Office of Education at the Stennis Space Center. The following year, he was named education director of the NASA Office of Education. In a professional career that had more or less followed an elliptical pattern similar to Sputnik’s, Herring once again became a federal employee.

He helped provide professional development opportunities for teachers, especially those in STEM subjects from pre-kindergarten through post-doctoral education; grants for institutions of higher learning to work on specific projects for NASA; internships for secondary school and higher-level students to participate in NASA workshops; and other educational programs.

Along the way, he received several commendations. Among his favorites was the Silver Snoopy Award, a sterling silver lapel pin that had been in outer space, presented by an astronaut for outstanding performance, contributions to flight safety, and mission success. Fewer than 1 percent of the aerospace program workforce receive the award annually.

After five years at Stennis, Herring retired from NASA on Feb. 29, 2008, having followed his “Go teach” directive wherever he went.

“With each change of position, my opportunity to provide support for students, and later for teachers and administrators, expanded,” he said. “Again, it was a plan coming together.

“Life contains an assortment of experiences. Some are extremely challenging. But no matter if I were at the top of a mountain or at the bottom of a valley, I’ve never felt alone. God was always there.”

Herring is still an educator, even in retirement. For the last 50 years, he’s taught Sunday school, a calling he practices at Ocean Springs Baptist Church. He and Sylvia enjoy traveling – especially to Virginia or North Alabama to see their three children and eight grandchildren.

He has been called many things throughout his career, but there is one title that he holds most dear.

“About the time I had been promoted to Colonel, I had a birthday,” he said. “Sylvia prepared a birthday cake for me. It said, ‘Happy Birthday Doctor, Colonel, Daddy.’ Of those three titles, you can guess the one that’s most important to me.”

He still gets reminders of the impact his career has had on others. A few weeks ago, he received a letter from a former student who was retiring. She expressed her appreciation for the lessons she learned in the geometry class Herring had taught many decades before.

He will enjoy adding that correspondence to a bound book of newspaper articles, photos, and other letters from his career that his daughter gave him as a 50th wedding anniversary present. The couple plans to celebrate anniversary No. 58 together on Aug. 1.

Herring enjoys staying in touch with his classmates from Mississippi College, and makes the trip from Ocean Springs to visit the Clinton campus as often as possible.

“I appreciate all of my classmates for the good influence they have had on my life, as I see them travel through their careers and serve as great ambassadors for Christ,” he said. “A lot of them are probably holding reunions on the other side of the ‘Pearly Gates.’ One day, we’ll all be there, and we’ll have the biggest class reunion ever.”