Betty Almond knows OCHS inside and out

Betty Almond has been a fixture in Orange County Schools for nearly four decades.

The latest in an occasional series on longtime county employees.

If you attended Orange County High School during the past 32 years, odds are, you and Betty Almond are acquainted. The longtime principal’s secretary has worked for nine principals and talked to virtually every student at one time or another.

And if you live near the school on Selma Road, you may recognize Almond’s voice, even if you haven’t met her. She gets the day started by reading announcements and leading everyone in the Pledge of Allegiance over the intercom. Neighbors have said they stand up at home and pledge the flag right along with her.

Almond, 71, is a smiling, blue-eyed presence perched in an office across the hall from Wendell Green, principal number 9. During an interview last week, she paused mid-sentence a handful of times to field inquiries from colleagues, greet students coming in to buy snacks, check information on her computer and call a teacher who needed to go home to tend a sick child.

It was actually a pretty quiet hour for her, as anyone who has seen Almond at her peak of multitasking can attest. No one can juggle phone calls, graphic design projects, email and pop-in visits quite like Almond, who clearly thrives on a busy day.

The energetic and good-natured Almond grew up in Gold Dale, the middle daughter of three girls. She also has a half brother from her mother’s second marriage. Her father, Walter Lee Quann, was a mechanic and welder, and her mother, Alice Frances Herndon Quann Craig, was the postmistress in Gold Dale and Mine Run and later worked for the A&P.

As a child, she lived a quiet, country life. She attended Unionville Elementary School, went to New Hope Baptist Church “all the time,” helped with the cooking and brought in wood for the woodstove.

When she was 11 years old, her father died suddenly.

Her voice breaking as the loss washed over her again, Almond said, “He was there that morning and gone by lunchtime. He had a heart attack. My faith and my church got me through that.”

With her mother working all day, Betty became independent at a young age and took on new responsibilities.

“I would cook dinner every night and have it ready when she got home,” she said—fried chicken, pork chops and mashed potatoes, just the sort of good, hearty fare that would make her future husband, Rixey Almond, very happy.

Starting in eighth grade, Almond enrolled in Orange County High School (OCHS), where she eventually would return for the bulk of her career.

There were a couple of historic occasions during her time as an OCHS student. She remembers the day in November of 1963 when the announcement came over the OCHS intercom that President Kennedy had been assassinated.

“I don’t remember crying or anything,” Almond said. “I think we just couldn’t believe it happened.”

Then, during her senior year, the previously all-white high school enrolled its first black students.

“We had six students that came from George Washington Carver [Regional High School]. They walked in, went to class, did sports and life went on,” Almond said.

She had planned on attending college and becoming a nurse, but love intervened. Her classmate Rixey Almond had noticed her when they were in ninth grade, but it wasn’t until much later that she paid him any attention.

“I told him it was when he got muscles that I noticed him. Because he was a skinny little thing when he was young! And he’ll tell you he was,” Almond said, her voice merry.

They married a month after their graduation. Soon thereafter, Rixey Almond was drafted into the Army. The couple had the first of their three children while he was stationed at Fort Hood in Texas. Upon their return to Orange County, the Almonds began farming in Mine Run on property where he grew up and just three miles from her family home. When Rixey went to work as a contractor and carpenter, Betty stayed home with the children—Roger, Glen and Renee—and tended to 85 head of hogs along with the horses and cows.

She eventually began volunteering in the local schools and then became a substitute teacher. She served as an instructional assistant at Prospect Heights Middle School for six and a half years before transferring to the high school. After a year as secretary to the assistant principal, she took her present position during her second year.

When Almond talks about how things have changed at OCHS over the three decades she has worked there, her tone grows serious. It’s obvious she loves her job and cares deeply about the students. But she worries that their phones are doing them more harm than good.

“I don’t think students talk to each other anymore. They can be sitting in the same room and their talking is texting to each other and unfortunately [with] texting, you can say a lot of bad stuff that you would never look somebody in the eye and say.”

She said, furthermore, she occasionally gets calls from parents upset their children didn’t immediately respond to a text message. Almond reminds them students are working and can’t always reply right away.

If a teacher confiscates a phone from a student who won’t stop texting or checking social media during class, that phone ends up in Almond’s office for however long the teacher requires that it be out of the student’s reach.

“I have to keep a list of confiscated phones, and if you have your phone taken a second time, a parent comes to see me to get it,” she said matter-of-factly.

On the plus side, she said, “I’ve seen the school spirit come back. For a number of years, the school lost spirit. But I’ve seen that come back. I’ve loved seeing more people at our football games!”

Like many staff members at OCHS, she credits former principal Kelly Guempel with helping foster pride in the school. After four years, Guempel left last summer to become principal of Spotsylvania High School.

By phone, Guempel said of Almond, “She is the heart and soul of Orange County High School. She absolutely loves everything about it, and you can see it and hear it in all of her interactions when she’s at work.”

Guempel also said, “She is so sharp that she remembers everything about that school. She can talk about individual wrestling matches she went to. … She’s going to take care of you and go out of her way to make sure everything’s good.”

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Hilary Holladay covers education and politics for the Orange County Review. The author of five books, she is currently writing a biography of the poet Adrienne Rich.

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