A 'principal' effect: Influencing students toward bigger goals

Test scores more than field goals interested Lelon Belton Tobin because in the end - they would carry his students' fortunes farther.

Tobin was the first African-American assistant principal of Blackville-Hilda High School. He helped Principal Danny Atkins run the school.

But he also wore many other hats during his 15 years at the school - including test coordinator, transportation supervisor, science teacher, adult education director and Junior Beta Club sponsor.

And although he retired in 1989 from BHHS to be principal for A.L. Corbett Middle School in Wagener, Tobin remained in Blackville and the school district was never far from his heart.

"They were good kids," said Tobin. "And I really enjoyed what I did there. I loved education and liked students to do their best and be competitive in the world."

He said former students still call him for advice and he attends class reunions.

"He was well-liked by the students - the kids really enjoyed him," said Blackville-Hilda district school board member Willie Felder of Tobin.

Proof of it is in the number of plaques and signed cards from former students who remember and thank Tobin for the positive impact he made in their lives.

During his time at BHHS, Tobin devised an academic reward system for students and wrote the grant to secure money for it.

"He always thought if you gave the kids incentive, they would work harder," said Gwen Brabham, a former BHHS teacher and colleague of Tobin's.

Tobin wanted more focus on academics as opposed to sports in the district.

It is the emphasis on academics that Tobin still acts on nearly 20 years after he retired from the district.

Tobin explained athletic and academic banquets in the district used to be free of charge to students.

However, the district started charging students and family for academic banquets.

"It's not fair for the athletic students to go for free - but when it came to academics the students had to pay," said Tobin.

In 2008, Tobin offered to pay for the food at the academic banquets, he said.

This way, family - parents and grandparents - could attend and see their children honored for their academic prowess.

But Tobin was not biased against sports - as the Junior Beta Club sponsor he was instrumental in raising the money for the bleachers outside of the high school.

The club made and sold license tags which proudly displayed the Blackville-Hilda High School Hawks emblem.

From the start, education was important to Tobin and he saw it as a chance to improve his life as well as others.
Tobin grew up in Aiken County around Wagener and Salley, he said.

He enrolled in Voorhees College in the 1966-67 school year but he had to stop going because of a lack of money.
The 1960s was a turbulent time in the nation's history with the Vietnam conflict tearing apart the country and a civil rights movement causing unrest across the country.
It was those two events that met each other on a day in April that changed Tobin's life forever.

"I got my draft papers on the same day Martin Luther King was buried," said Tobin.

Tobin was watching the slain civil rights leader's funeral on television when the draft letter arrived in the mail.

He wept.

Tobin began his tour of duty in November 1968 - serving in the 173rd Airborne Infantry Brigade - and finished it in November 1969.

During his time in Vietnam, Tobin thought he was going to die.

"I saw 100 percent fighting every day," said Tobin. "There was no frontline."

During combat, gunfire shots would spray the ground around him and tear it up, Tobin said.

Agent Orange, the chemical defoliant, would be sprayed on the enemy. Afterwards, plants and trees would die, leaving once fertile ground barren, he said.

"But God brought me back - he knew I had something to do," said Tobin.

Four of Tobin's friends from Aiken County were not so lucky - they lost their lives in the war.

But bad dreams and flashbacks - as well as back pain - from the war continued to haunt Tobin when he returned home.
Tobin applied for post traumatic stress compensation from the Veterans Administration but he was denied.
More than 30 years later, Tobin was finally given compensation.

"If I had got the VA compensation back then, I sometimes wonder if I would have gone back to college and helped people through education," he said.

Because of the G.I. Bill, Tobin return to Voorhees College in 1972 and he soon had a bachelor of science degree in biology.

A Voorhees College mentor, Dr. Ernest Finney Sr., saw Tobin had a gift for communicating, as well as a good rapport with people and a warm personality.

"He thought I would make a good teacher," said Tobin.

Tobin began teaching science classes at Blackville-Hilda High School in 1975.
During his teaching years, Tobin taught biology, physical science, chemistry, general sciences and physics.
Tobin wanted to raise the students' test scores in his classes.

So he went to the State Education Department and put together a new curriculum for the students.

The test scores jumped from 70 to 90 percent, Tobin said.

"He has always been a leader, and others respected him and followed him," said Brabham.

In 1978, Tobin received a master of education degree and a principal certificate from the University of South Carolina.

It was around this time, that a letter arrived from the military telling Tobin he had been exposed to Agent Orange and should get tested for it.

Agent Orange has been linked to a number of deadly diseases plaguing Vietnam veterans.

One is Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) - commonly known as Lou Gehrig's Disease - a progressive neurodegenerative disease.

It affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord and greatly hinders muscle control and motor coordination.

"The VA would check for Agent Orange and say he didn't have it," said Lassie Thompson Tobin, Tobin's wife of 38 years.

One day, in July 2008, Tobin couldn't breathe and saliva was getting caught in his throat.

Later, in late fall of 2008, "I woke up and couldn't feel my right side," said Tobin.

A barrage of medical tests in Barnwell, Aiken, Augusta, and Columbia followed.

In December, 2008, the VA hospital in Augusta diagnosed Tobin with ALS.

A second opinion confirmed the disease from the Medical University in South Carolina in January, 2009.

Now, the Veterans Administration says Tobin has Agent Orange poisoning, and Tobin is awaiting compensation, said Tobin's wife, Lassie.

While getting school supplies in 1991, a car rear-ended him in Columbia which aggravated a previous back injury from the war.

"I remember it very well. I was home and I would have been sitting in the backseat with my little brother and the front seats broke during the accident," said his daughter, Gwendolyn Raquel Tobin.

Tobin also has two sons - Quetabala and Lee Belton.

Tobin retired from education in 1993, but he said that he is grateful for the chance to teach and play such a significant role at BHHS.

"I've really enjoyed the respect from the community over the years and I really loved my job," Tobin said. "If God asked me what I wanted to do - I would start all over again at BHHS and do it all again."