A Snapshot of an Educator: An Innovative Mentor like No Other

A Snapshot of an Educator: An Innovative Mentor like No Other

The true measure of a man is              in the lives he has touched

By: Emily Williams

Avian Ecologist at Denali National Park and Preserve, Alaska

Editor-in-Chief, The Talon, 2005-2006

Astronaut High School graduate, ‘06


Just over a week ago, I received an early morning phone call with the news that Jack McCoy had died. My first kneejerk reaction was to blurt out, “No!” I was (and still am) stunned. I couldn’t believe that a most beloved mentor and friend of mine could so suddenly be gone.

As Mr. McCoy was someone I regularly kept in contact with, I took for granted that he would always be there, repeating words of support for whatever I happened to be doing. Having missed visiting him while I was in Titusville over Christmas in 2017, I had it all planned out to see him the next time I knew I would be in the area. Quite abruptly, I found myself realizing this visit was no longer an option.

From the time I knew him, Mr. McCoy played the role of teacher, mentor, and friend. I first met him in high school as a dorky, 14-year old freshman, eagerly wanting to be a staff reporter for the school newspaper, The Talon. He taught me how to ask the right questions, write, speak, and act like a journalist. I carried those skills with me throughout all four years of high school, as a staff writer and then eventually, as the Editor-in-Chief.

Whenever someone you really care about passes away, inevitably, feelings of helplessness follow. Living in Alaska and being so far away from Florida, this feeling of helplessness is only exacerbated by the geographic distance that cleaves those attachments. After hearing the devastating news, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I wanted to do something, but felt so limited being so far away. Then it hit me – the best way I could possibly think to honor Mr. McCoy is to write about him.

I know he would be beaming with pride to know a former student he guided so many years ago has written a story for him. While bittersweet, it somehow feels so appropriate that I’m completing another writing assignment for Mr. McCoy.

A life fully lived

Grady “Jack” McCoy grew up in rural western Tennessee, amidst a backdrop of crop fields, the Dyersburg railroad, and the heart of American country and folk music. Not having a lot of money growing up, Jack put himself through school at American University in Washington D.C. by working as a cop on Capitol Hill. Finding a love for the written word, he graduated with a degree  in English and regularly quoted from Of Mice and Men.

He then went on to Memphis State University to get his masters in English, alongside teaching senior English at a nearby high school. At that time, the space program at Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida had rocketed up. The town of Titusville was rapidly growing with the advent of the shuttle program, and young families started flocking to the area to follow the new found job prospects. Realizing the opportunity, Jack moved to Titusville and started teaching at Titusville High School (THS).

Jack moved into a small apartment complex and soon was making friends in his new town. At a small meet and greet that his apartment complex hosted, Jack met Patty, a fellow school teacher who worked at South Lake Elementary.

Their life together began with a simple question, “do you like Bob Dylan?”  Patty replied, “I don’t care for him, but my brothers do.” Clearly McCoy thought to overlook this minor detail (or that Patty could grow to share in his obsession?!), as that was the start of 39 beautiful years together.

Around the time that Jack was teaching at THS, he found out about a two-year program between NASA and the school board. The opportunity would allow him to continue to teach, but also work with press photographers, managing logistics at launches, taking photos, and writing stories. Having a love of journalism and photography, he immediately applied and was selected.

For this position, Jack got to live like a celebrity. Having special access to the press site for shuttle launches, he had a front-row ticket to witnessing shuttles blast off that few others enjoyed. He met loads of astronauts and other important people integral to the space program. He also met real-life celebrities, rubbing elbows with the likes of Jimmy Buffett, John Denver, and Jacques Cousteau.

Outside of enjoying celebrity status, Jack played an important role in helping photographers and the media showcase the work of NASA, with dramatic shots of fire, smoke, and billowing clouds as shuttles and rockets careened into space.

Leslie Vock Neihouse (Rockledge, FL), who worked with Jack at the time, remembers the exciting days working there.

“I remember getting out in boats and sometimes slogging in full waders with Jack to take out photographers and journalists through mangroves and salt marshes to get the perfect shot. Jack’s eyes were always alight with excitement; he was so dedicated. We were so lucky to have the experience when we did – history was being made,” she said.

When Jack wasn’t riding around the launch pad with National Geographic or the Associated French Press, Jack’s hands were always kept busy because he also owned a wedding photography business at the time. Many couples and families benefited from Jack’s skill at portraiture.

Teaching at Astronaut High School

Five years after teaching at THS, Jack was asked to join the faculty at Astronaut High School (AHS), where he stayed for 30 years. Here Jack could practice teaching the three things he loved – English, photography, and journalism; though his favorite was running the school’s student-led newspaper, The Talon.

During his tenure at AHS, Jack McCoy taught thousands of students how to write, comprehend and think critically about the literary greats, ask compelling, hard-hitting questions, talk to business owners and acquire advertising, process film in a dark room, design, produce, and print a full-fledged 30-page newspaper, and how to compose the perfect shot (using the rule of thirds!). More than these powerful and transferable skills across all disciplines, McCoy challenged students to think for themselves and provided them the confidence to stand by their convictions and opinions.

“He taught that students first need to be heard and respected. Only then can they begin to learn,” said Jackie Barnette, Astronaut High English teacher.

Moreover, he gave many students the freedom to express themselves in an environment well known to be awkward, stilted, and way too full of teenage hormones.

“Students really enjoyed his enthusiasm and it helped many students be successful, not just in journalism, but also at just being high school students. He taught his students how and why but what made the kids really enjoy the classwas that he let them try. Sometimes they would fail, and sometimes they would succeed – but letting the students try was the key,” said Brett Gadapee, Astronaut High English teacher.

Jack McCoy not only played a pivotal role in the growth of his students, but also in his colleagues. Jackie Barnette remembers when she first started teaching:

“I worked with Jack from 1989–1994. I was a brand new teacher who had just graduated in 1988, and I was as green as they come. Jack immediately reached out to offer materials, advice, suggestions – anything I needed, he was willing to share. And it was more than just physical resources; he offered wisdom – real wisdom about people and how to get along in a very demanding profession. He had a great sense of humoroften very dry and drolland made me laugh on some very trying days when what I really wanted to do was cry. He was a gentleman in every sense of the word, and I am honored to have worked with him,” she said.

In the time he was advisor for The Talon, the student-run newspaper had won numerous accolades, including several Quill and Scroll awards and a vote for “best student paper” in Brevard County in 2006. Beyond his hard work on the newspaper, though, Jack put his heart and soul into helping students learn and grow as individuals, and as professionals.

Jack was the real McCoy – he genuinely took an interest in the learning and success of every one of his students. He always used to mention that the saying—“find a job that you love, and you will never work a day in your life” —had truly characterized his teaching.

Sabrina Beach Shao, now a special education teacher in Virginia Beach, VA, was editor of The Talon in 2004–2005 and recalls her time working with McCoy.

“Mr. McCoy had a profound influence on my life and career. I couldn’t wait to take his photography class when I was in the 9th grade. I knew he was the cool teacher, who played good music, and had student photographs covering every inch of his classroom walls. After my first photography class with him, I took every class offered that he taught. These classes included The Talon and upper-level photography courses. I was not much of a writer, so I was never quite sure how I became editor of the school paper; but I was so proud that he trusted me to take over the position. In my senior year of high school, I somehow managed to make three of my four classes his courses. I spent my entire day working with him on the paper and using the darkroom to develop photographs. After high school, I helped him teach a photography summer camp to elementary school students. His passion for photography and literature was inspiring. His guidance over the years motivated me to become a teacher myself,” she said.

I echo Sabrina’s words. I too was Editor (2005-2006) and was somehow able to spend almost my entire last year of high school in Mr. McCoy’s classroom (save a few AP classes here and there).

Throughout my high school experience, Mr. McCoy was always encouraging and challenging me to be a better writer and photographer. When writing competitions came across his desk, he always told me about them and encouraged me to apply. After finding out about the summer journalism institute at the University of Florida (UF), he worked hard to have Sabrina and I attend – which we did, the summer after my sophomore year. This experience led me to choose UF as the university I wanted to attend after I graduated, where I pursued degrees in English and Journalism.

Life after AHS – Retirement

A year after I graduated high school, Jack McCoy “graduated” too – and retired from Astronaut in 2007. An AHS yearbook tradition for graduating seniors is to have a “senior page” – where family members provide photos and professional shots, and write about their sons and daughters with pride. The year that Jack McCoy retired, he demanded a senior page too. In it, he discussed his education, jobs that peppered his career, and how much his family meant to him. He also spoke about all of the faculty members he enjoyed working alongside, and mentioned how much he would miss them. But the biggest thing he said he would miss—was all the students he had the privilege to teach.

This kind of humor played out in his every day interactions with his students and friends. Jack’s quirky humor could be off-kilter sometimes (who doesn’t love videos of dancing ducklings?!), but it always made people laugh.

I remember one day I had showed him this photo of a squirrel – it was way too close up, and the squirrel had a sort of crazed look about its eyes. Mr. McCoy took one look at it and said, “squirrelita.” He then started calling me “Emilita” and then added “-ita” at the end of words for days on end. This lasted for years (he would still occasionally send me a message with the greeting starting with “Emilita”).

Even in retirement, Jack McCoy remained so engaged with his past students and continued to mentor them. Several students indicated that he regularly kept in touch with them and was always willing to write reference letters.

“He was my mentor and my friend even after high school. It is not often that someone can make such a lasting impression on so many lives,” said Shao.

As for me, Mr. McCoy also kept in touch regularly, even despite the distance that separated us. He was always my champion; always telling me how proud he was of the person I had become. When I was dealing with something medically scary in early 2017, he was constantly asking how I was doing and offering never ending support. During this time, he had run into my mother in Titusville at the store and gave her a hug. She told me later that while asking how I was doing, he had become choked up and was visibly upset after having learned about my condition.

This personal story is a testament to the kind of person he was – a thoughtful and compassionate man that cared for his students, even after his teaching career had long ended.

Beyond keeping in touch with past students in retirement, Jack pursued a lot of hobbies. Not having to keep the regular 9-5 of going to Astronaut each day afforded Jack many liberties which he enjoyed immensely. He loved to garden and tend to his bird feeders. With the love of photography ever unwavering, he enjoyed taking shots of the irises, asters, calla lilies, and other blooms that brightly lit up his yard.

Knowing that I had turned into somewhat of a bird enthusiast (being a bird biologist by trade), Mr. McCoy would take shots of all the feathered visitors to his yard, asking me about species he couldn’t identify. On occasion, Mr. McCoy and I would take a trip over to the Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge, where we would marvel at the bird life along Black Point Drive.

Jack also enjoyed working on his ever-growing model train collection.

“His train room would be the envy of any train enthusiast,” his daughter Amy McGuire said.

Every year, he would buy Amy’s six and nine-year- old boys the newest Hess Truck that had come out that year. Along with the two boys, he would buy himself one too, saved in the box it came in. He loved collecting the vintage Lionel trains.

Before work with his trains and garden would begin, Jack still kept up his routine of checking on the daily news. Even with paper print on the wane, Jack would still get up early each day to read the newspaper along with a cup of coffee, in the hours before most of the rest of the world was awake.

When not at home, Jack loved going to Kelsey’s – a family-owned Greek and Italian restaurant in town.

Uninhibited by the schedule of a teacher meant he could visit his favorite restaurant whenever he wanted (barring the restaurant hours of operation, of course!). Jack was a creature of habit – so much so that he started to show up at the family restaurant nearly every day of the week (sometimes twice a day!). He would always order the “McCoy salad”: a tossed salad with a bunch of extra toppings that he didn’t have to pay extra for.

Nick Iltsopoulos, the owner of Kelsey’s, said that the restaurant has afforded him and the many people who have worked there to forge memorable, life- long friendships with some people – Jack and Patty McCoy included.

“Jack was one of our regular customers that I considered a friend, as did many of our employees who grew accustomed to seeing him so often. I am blessed to have opened Kelsey’s in Titusville…to have met people like Jack – to share our stories, our passion, and our love for family,” he said.

His impact and legacy

While Jack McCoy enjoyed many achievements throughout his storied career, I think it is sufficient to say that his biggest achievements and source of pride were in his wife and kids.

Jack was very proud of his family and never missed an opportunity to talk about them. His office and classroom were covered in family photos and action shots of Jenny and Kevin playing sports. He regularly talked about what his children were up to while teaching and in retirement –that Amy was an artist and photographer, Kevin was a lawyer, and Jenny was a marketing consultant in the big city.

AHS Teacher Brett Gadapee also recalls that Jack was a family man.

“He was such a proud father, as he should be. It is great to see someone work hard at their profession, but remember that family comes first. He was an all-around great guy and his family is living proof of a life well-lived with good priorities,” he said.

Jack was clearly beloved and admired by many. While his absence will be most acutely felt by his family, his loss is a profound one to the entire Space Coast community.

There is little doubt that I could fully do justice to the impact Jack McCoy had on his family, his friends, his students, and the community in which he lived. He remains an exceptional example of a life truly well lived. While he may not be here with us in physical form, his ideas, his teachings, his humor—and most importantly, his love—lives on within us all.

While I still grieve, I take comfort in this image: there he is – Jack McCoy, kicking back in his office chair; camera in one hand, glass of red wine in the other, with that characteristic smirk on his face. Bob Dylan’s lyrics of “for the times, they are a-changin’” playing a little too loud in the background.

May your hands always be busy,

May your feet always be swift,

May you have a strong foundation

When the winds of changes shift.

May your heart always be joyful,

May your song always be sung,

May you stay forever young.

Bob Dylan