Bob Russell, music-loving school principal, dies at 83

June 22, 2013

Bob Russell was not your stereotypical educator. Nor was he your stereotypical musician. As principal of Fairfax County’s Robinson Secondary School, he rode his motorcycle to work. His students loved seeing his Honda Gold Wing in the parking spot reserved for the principal. Regularly, he walked the Robinson hallways playing his bagpipes, dressed in full Scottish regalia.

Before coming to Robinson, Mr. Russell was the principal at Fairfax High School. There, he paraded with the school’s marching band, wearing a band uniform and playing a sousaphone.

Earlier, he was principal of Sidney Lanier Middle School, where he led a big-band ensemble in swing music at school dances.

He was a singer and a tenor soloist with the Singing Sergeants, the official chorus of the U.S. Air Force, and choir director at Fairfax Baptist Church. For several years, he sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the annual Fairfax Fourth of July parade, at which he was grand marshal in 1998.

He also played string bass and gave lunchroom concerts for his students at Robinson. He took requests.


Former Robinson Secondary School principal Bob Russel, who died June 2 at age 83, loved education, music and his motorcycle. (FAMILY PHOTO)

“Sing ‘(You Ain’t Nothin’ but a) Hound Dog,’ ” they asked him, and he did. They loved his rendition of the old Elvis Presley hit, as he played the string bass across his knee, like a giant guitar.

On June 2, Robert Cecil Russell died of cardiac arrest at a health-care facility in Elkins, W.Va., the city where he was born. His daughter-in-law, Dale Russell, confirmed his death. He died four days before his 84th birthday.

While attending Davis & Elkins College in his home town, Mr. Russell was one of the original pipers in the West Virginia Highlanders, a bagpipe band.

In 1951, he graduated from West Virginia University and then served four years in the Air Force. He received a master’s in education at American University in 1962. From 1955 to 1960, he was a music teacher at Fairfax High School. He then spent 12 years at Lanier Middle School, the last 10 as principal.

Mr. Russell could more easily be found in the hallways with his students than in the principal’s office.

“He was a back patter,” said Thomas Ferguson, a Lanier teacher in the years when Mr. Russell was principal.

Mr. Russell met his students at the door in the morning, and he was there to say goodbye when they went home in the afternoon.

“He wanted them to leave with a smile on their face,” Ferguson said. “He didn’t want any kid feeling badly about himself.”

After Lanier, Mr. Russell was principal of Fairfax High School for a year before his tenure at Robinson from 1973 to 1984. With almost 5,000 students in grades seven through 12, Robinson was the largest secondary school in Virginia at the time, said Jack Burkholder, a former Fairfax County schools superintendent.

As principal, Mr. Russell presented what Burkholder called “a unique appeal” to students, parents and faculty members. When he stepped down as Robinson’s principal, the Fairfax County School Board renamed the school’s theater after him.

In 1984, Mr. Russell became superintendent of the Fairfax City school system and served as liaison between city and county school officials. When he retired in 1995, he moved from Fairfax City to Gainesville and then went back to his native Elkins.

He was a 40-year member of Fairfax United Methodist Church, the Optimist and Rotary clubs, and he served on the board of directors of the Fairfax chapter of the American Red Cross.

His marriage to Dorothy Ramsey ended in divorce.

Survivors include his wife, Ann Mattingly Russell, whom he married in 1998, of Elkins; two children from his first marriage, Dave Russell of Manassas and Marianne Russell Williford of Charlotte; two stepdaughters, Jennifer Mattingly of Phoenix and Jackie M. Pingel of Oakton; and five grandchildren.

In addition to music and education, one of the primary loves of Mr. Russell’s life was his motorcycle. During his teaching career he would often take an annual motorcycle trip as far as the Grand Canyon, the Rocky Mountains or Mount Rushmore. He frequently traveled with a friend, Sam Waugerman, a retired Fairfax County motorcycle police officer.

“He loved his motorcycle,” Waugerman said. “On a motorcycle you have to be alert. You have to be so alert, you see things you don’t see from a car.”

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