In 2010, Lynn Warr received an e-mail that left her in tears.
It was from a woman who was a student of Warr’s at East Augusta Middle School 30 years before. Back then, the writer was a 14-year-old eighth grader who couldn’t read and was losing hope.
When Warr became her reading teacher in 1980, her life changed. She learned to love books and developed a passion for education that led her to college and a career in the medical field.
They lost touch and Warr got married, so the girl couldn’t find her in the phone book when she looked years later, but the woman kept a photo of the teacher who changed her life in her living room for years. She was able to locate Warr in 2010 when the woman’s son, a student at Cross Creek High School, found a photo of Warr in an old yearbook with her maiden name. It looked just like the woman he saw in the gold frame in his living room for years.
“She just found me after all these years and wanted to write me and tell me how I changed her life and how she passed that love of reading on to her son,” Warr said. “It was the most moving thing I had ever experienced. It brought me to tears. I just always believed you have to work with kids and believe in them and amazing things will happen.”
After 35 years in education, Warr, the Richmond County School System executive director of high schools, retired Friday, taking decades of memories and lessons learned with her.
Born in North Augusta, Warr, 57, grew up thinking she wanted to be a psychologist. She liked the human interaction and the problem-solving of the field.
But in college, she realized she was more interested in the science of learning and turned her focus to education.
She began as a fifth grade teacher at C.T. Walker Elementary School, where there were 37 students in her room with no air conditioning.
She moved to East Augusta Middle and then Barton Chapel Elementary to work as the Title I reading coordinator, working with children who were struggling with basic literacy.
“A lot of time underprivileged kids are disadvantaged because they lack literacy skills,” Warr said. “If they can read, they can accomplish a lot.”
After teaching, she moved into administration, but it wasn’t without challenges. Even in the early 1990s, school administration was dominated by white men, and the rise of strong women was not welcomed.
On her first day as assistant principal of Glenn Hills High School in 1994, an auditorium full of teachers and staff booed her during orientation, just because she showed up as one of their new bosses.
“They just thought ‘How can this woman take control of these kids?’ ” Warr remembered. “She won’t be able to handle it,” they said.
In 1999, she was selected to open Cross Creek High School on Old Waynesboro Road, the system’s first new high school in 28 years.
The task was not easy. Cross Creek would be joining students from Butler and Hephzibah high schools, campuses that built a staunch rivalry over the decades.
But Warr is known for bringing people together, according to Al Russo, who worked as assistant principal of Cross Creek in the mid-2000s.
“She knew all the teachers at all the schools, and she just had this way of making good relationships with students,” said Russo, who also retired Friday after 36 years in Richmond County. “She remembers every student, every teacher and kids would come to her with everything.”
Warr passed out Cross Creek T-shirts to the new students, had a cookout on the front lawn before the new building even opened and held cheerleading tryouts in the parking lot so the school would be complete on the first day.
The students embraced their new principal. The principals across the county excluded Warr from their monthly meetings, still reluctant to see a woman in charge.
Warr fought back by proving her skills – she cut down gang violence by putting a strong administrative presence in the halls. She pulled kids out of class or got in their faces when they crossed the line and pushed male teachers – always getting a “yes, ma’am, I’m sorry, ma’am” in response.
In 2005, her challenges peaked when she walked past a fight in the hallway. A student grasped brass knuckles and threw a punch but missed the boy and hit Warr in the face, knocking her across the hallway and breaking two vertebrae in her back.
The next year, she was kicked in the teeth with a steel-toed boot in a freak accident where she tried to move a female student out of the way of a falling ladder and fell in the middle of a nearby fight.
The central office took notice of Warr’s talent in 2008 and recruited her as executive director for high schools, where she oversaw 10 principals, the implementation of reform programs and the analysis of district data.
In her time there, the county graduation rate increased from 63 to 80 percent under the leaver formula, gang violence dropped dramatically and the county was awarded millions of dollars in reform grants.
The principals she supervised dialed her number at 4 a.m. with problems and got in the habit of calling her “Mom” instead of Lynn.
“Ms. Warr is one of the most demanding but at the same time fair people I’ve ever worked with,” said Wayne Frazier, the principal of Tubman Education Center. “You don’t have to be afraid of retaliation when you say what’s on your mind.”
Throughout all the work, Warr raised one son, Robert, and kept a close connection with her family. Now, she said, it’s time to let a younger generation of educational leaders come in to continue improving schools.
Although the future is unclear, she will take a break in December to relax on the beach with her best friend, drink chocolate martinis and get back in touch with the things 60-hour work weeks kept her from.
“I lived that life and I loved that life... but sometimes you need to stop and take a deep breath,” Warr said.