It’s ubiquitous — students hear it multiple times a day, parents read it in school communications and it’s frequently parroted by administrators.
City High is “the school that leads,” they say, a motto coined by former principal Howard Vernon.
Vernon died aged 84 at his home in Coralville on Thursday.
“He was really masterful at getting people to buy into this idea that they were part of something very special,” said John Bacon, the current principal of Iowa City City High. “He changed the culture — he had everybody believing this was a very special place. We were ‘the school that leads,’ and that became a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
The school courtyard is named for Vernon, who was principal from 1979 to 1996, according to his obituary.
Vernon came to City High after a storied career in Iowa athletics. He played football at Upper Iowa University before working as an administrator and football coach at Waterloo East High School. There, he set the record for longest consecutive winning streak — 55 wins, and 56 games without a loss, from 1965 to 1971, according to the Iowa High School Athletic Association.
The record held until 2014, when Regina High in Iowa City surpassed it.
Through most of the 1970s, Vernon worked with the Iowa Hawkeyes in roles including offensive coordinator and assistant director of athletic fundraising.
“He took Hayden Fry around to the booster clubs when he was hired,” Vernon’s son, Howie Vernon, said. “Dad had his fingers in everything.”
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During his years at City High, Howie said, his father brought his winning focus to the school’s staff and students.
“Dad came into City High and instilled a sense of pride and a sense of urgency to the staff to pursue excellence,” Howie recalled. “That’s something that I just remember him saying over and over — whether it was the orchestra or band or athletics.”
To students — including a teenage John Bacon, who graduated from City High in 1992 — Vernon commanded respect and was the last person he wanted to disappoint.
“He was masterful at making you feel you were part of something bigger,” Bacon said.
Vernon retired as principal. He is survived by his wife Alma, son Howie, daughter Vicki and several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Although he had a reputation for being strict, Howie said his father also was dedicated to family vacations — annual trips throughout the western United States — showered his children with gifts each Christmas and was gentle toward his grandkids.
“I would say he was a disciplinarian, but he just required you do the fundamentals and the basics,” Howie said. “You respect other people, keep your word, try hard at everything, and never quit.”
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