Former boxer turned principal relates to his students

Paul Clark

In Community High School’s old-school gym, Logan Stewart’s boxing gloves pounded the heavy bag. Thuds resounded off the wooden wainscoting and floor, echoes conjuring up an era when boxing was king. Clifford Owens, the school’s principal, stood close to Stewart and coached him through a devastating combination.

“Hook, hook, cross, jab, jab,” Owens said, his fists shooting out of the cuffs of his suit, his tie flying as he demonstrated the combo he used to good effect as a professional boxer long ago. He repeated the sequence as Stewart lunged into the bag. “Hook, hook …” Owens said, the two of them working in tandem, over and over.

One-on-one coaching is a reason why Community High School in Swannanoa, a school with a reputation of handling Buncombe County’s toughest cases, achieved the highest Career Technical Education scores in the state recently in four classes offered by all state high schools (Foods I and II, Horticulture I and Agriculture Production I). Soon after he started there three years ago, Owens implemented a program that creates a personal education plan for each student that addresses attendance, learning obstacles, behavioral issues and personal responsibility.

Teachers at CHS have their work cut out for them. Students there come from all over the county, as well as from the Asheville school system. Some have been referred because of behavioral problems. Some are there for weapons or drug violations. Some have been bullies or been bullied. Some asked to be there.

“Many of the kids that come here maybe haven’t had any success,” Owens said in his office last Wednesday. “Maybe they’re two, three grades behind. They got folks telling them they’re never going to be successful. And they tend to start believing it.”

Owens’ eyes narrowed behind his oblong glasses. “I think I got the best kids in Buncombe County,” he said. “We believe in our kids. I always tell my parents – this is my marketing point – that we give you a private school education at a public school cost.”

A walk through CHS’s halls will remind many of the parents’ parents of the schools they went to decades ago. CHS is in the old Swannanoa High School, a 97-year-old brick citadel with tall windows, old radiators and chair rails in the hallways. The school has an outsized reputation of teaching incorrigibles, but Owens said the reputation is misplaced.

All students are teachable, he said. They just learn in different ways. Teachers at CHS look for the ways a child can be taught, he said. At times, that means one-on-one tutoring, like the stroke-by-stroke instruction Owens gave Stewart on the heavy bag.

In Kelly VanDenBeldt’s Foods I classroom, students had literally put the icing on the cake when Owens stopped in to visit. It was obvious through the playful banter that they like their principal. VanDenBeldt’s enthusiasm for her the students also showed, as did her pride in telling stories of recent graduates who had gotten jobs in the food industry.

By that time in the morning, Owens had already had two unscheduled meetings with parents and talked to a bus driver about arrival times. He’d huddled in his office with a teacher and the school resource officer over an issue that he couldn’t talk about publicly. His plan for the day was already shot. But he’d planned for that, as he always does.

“I wear many hats,” he said. “The kids bring issues from home. I wear my counselor hat, my father hat, my social worker hat. I always plan for things to occur. You have to prioritize what you need to do.”

All the hats fit because Owens, the school’s principal for three years, knows where the kids are coming from. He was that angry kid growing up. His father was abusive, he said, so much so that one night his mother grabbed the three children – Owens was 8 - and left the New Jersey suburbs for an apartment in Philadelphia.

“Picture a room a little bit bigger than this,” Owens said in his office, marking the parameters of the not-large room with his hands. The four of them slept on the floor, a gas stove battling the freezing cold of a strange new city. Owens’ clothes were raggedy. Cardboard plugged the holes in his shoes. Working long and late, his mother kept the family fed.

“So, you’re an angry kid, you’re wearing hand-me-downs, you’re going to school smelling,” Owens said, talking about himself in words he could use to describe many of the students that CHS gets. “I cried,” he said.

At the time — 1964 — Philadelphia was going through painful school desegregation. Cops on horseback were keeping crowds under control, fire trucks had hoses ready. People were rocking the bus, calling kids names. “My first day at school, kid punches me in the nose. Blood is everywhere,” Owens said. “And the teacher says, ‘(Epithet), that’s what you get. You don’t belong here.’”

So he started fighting, getting kicked out of a succession of schools. “I could have been one of these kids here,” he said of his students. “I was labeled as a bad kid.” But then, a white teacher believed in him enough to make him a patrol boy. And the man who ran the barber shop below the family apartment, Cassius Clay’s uncle, taught him how to box.

Quick with his hands, Owens boxed professionally in Europe (23 wins, 7 losses in bantam, feather and welter weights). He trained boxers and produced a televised boxing show, “Inside the Ring,” shot inside Madison Square Garden. With a degree in clinical psychology, he became a law enforcement officer but missed coaching, so when he heard about a job coaching football at St. Augustine College in Raleigh, he applied.

He didn’t get it, but he applied to a couple of school systems, getting a job as a teacher of exceptional children. He taught in several school systems in the state and eventually heard about the position at Community High School.

Now, he leaves the home he shares with his wife in Winston-Salem at 4:30 a.m. for the long drive to Swannanoa. He tries to get home by 5:30 p.m., but sometimes he pulls in about 8:30 p.m. That leaves just enough time for supper and some conversation before bed. Often, there’s no real time to talk. He and his wife would love to live here, but she can’t find a job, despite her two decades in insurance and medical billing, he said.

So at times even now, he feels the frustration his students are learning to overcome. On Fridays at CHS, there’s Fight Club, an unfortunate name the kids have given to the boxing club that meets during lunch. Owens, an Aikido instructor, shows up to teach them self-defense.

“If you’re going to curse somebody out or hit somebody, channel (your) anger on the bags,” Owens tells them. And while you’re doing it, learn proper form. Discipline leads to success, he believes.

“I tell the kids that, no matter what obstacles are placed in front of you, I’m living proof that you can do anything that you want to,” he said. “I was one of those kids who people said I would never amount to anything. I tell them my story, share my success and tell them, you can be successful. I’m living proof.”