Mark Duff was his usual “aw shucks” self as man of the hour at the Halls High Alumni Banquet in late April. He has retired as Halls High School principal, and that’s hard to imagine for many.
Jake Mabe is just one whose life he touched:
“Coach Duff was among the two or three most challenging history teachers I studied under, and that includes upper-level history classes at UT. He taught us to think for ourselves and encouraged us to question authority, or the accepted narrative, if we thought it was wrong.
“Perhaps his best quality is how well he relates to students, regardless of background or academic level. He inspired a lot of kids to enter teaching, and he changed a lot of lives, including mine.”
Duff came to Halls in 1979 as a young history teacher at the middle school. He moved in 1987 to Halls High, where he established the Advanced Placement program in U.S. history, coached football, basketball and soccer, and was three times named Teacher of the Year.
He did a three-year stint as assistant principal at Powell High School (2002-05) before returning to Halls High as head principal. He and his family live in Halls.
Tim Reeves, a former student who now teaches social studies and chairs the department at Halls High, recognized Duff at the alumni banquet:
“Coach Duff always wanted what’s in the best interest of the kids. We knew he cared about us.”
Reeves recalled how, as principal, Duff stepped up to serve as faculty advisor when some students wanted to form a skateboard club.
He might not have known much about skateboarding, but “his knowledge of social studies is encyclopedic.”
Reeves presented Duff with a framed portrait of President Theodore Roosevelt and several copies of the Edmund Morris biography “Theodore Rex,” which the alumni group donated to the Halls High School library in Duff’s honor.
Duff got a standing ovation from those attending the banquet.
“I never wanted to be a principal; I was very happy teaching,” he said.
“I’ve been blessed because, in 1979, the Good Lord placed me in Halls. I want to convey my thanks to the entire community.
“For the last 42 years, I’ve had one goal – to leave Halls High School like I found it – the best high school in the best community in Knox County.”
Duff wrote in his 2005 application to be principal:
“I am an educator; I believe that my responsibilities go beyond teaching the curriculum. I establish relationships with my students, seek to educate the total student in a cross-curricular manner, and strive to motivate them toward reaching their absolute potential.”
Duff piloted Halls High through the tumultuous years of churn and change in Knox County Schools. The community was blessed beyond words to have had him. Godspeed, Mark Duff.