Laughter filled the Gulfport High School Auditorium Friday as dozens of Gulfport teachers, administrators and students watched a video of Principal Lester Denley's younger years. They gathered at his retirement reception to look back at his life, express their gratitude and share some fond memories.
Ninth Grade Principal Dr. Mike Tatum gave Denley an appropriate gift -- a lunch tray.
"We have eaten lunch together for 9 years, same place, 11 o'clock, everyday."
Many think of Denley as more than a friend. He is a leader who has touched so many lives during his 37 years in education.
"I have a job now and a career that probably is a result of Lester Denley's inspiration, and being a big brother and role model to me," Gulfport Central Middle School Principal Dean Frederick said.
"I'm proud of a lot of accomplishments I've had. I'm going to look back with pride, and I'm also going to look forward with eagerness. I'm leaving a lot of good friends," Denley said.
Friends who find it so hard to say good bye.
"It's bittersweet. I'm happy for Mr. Denley because he deserves to have some time, but we're going to miss him beyond words. It's like losing a dad," guidance counselor Suzanne Rice said.
Denley says it's tough leaving a job he loves, and especially his students, but he says it's the right time to retire.
"It's hard not to get emotional when you see your life kind of flash before you in 37 years. It just kind of go before your eyes in just a few minutes. It's an emotional time."
Denley won't be leaving education entirely. He will work part-time as an education consultant in Lake Charles, Louisiana. Denley also plans to do play more golf, fish, and spend time with this family.