The statement on the website of Bok Academy South begins: “Our hearts are broken.”
The school’s beloved leader, Principal Damien Moses, died unexpectedly Thursday evening at age 50. Moses joined the Lake Wales Charter Schools system in 2004 and had directed Bok Academy South since 2011.
As colleagues and friends absorbed the reality of Moses’ death, they remembered him as a mammoth former football player who sought to improve the lives of all the students he encountered.
“I would say Damien Moses was an amazing colleague and a great friend,” Lake Wales High School Principal Donna Dunson said Monday. “I will miss his voice at the table, his weighing in. He was a fierce educator. He would do anything to help his students.”
Moses, a hulking man with a shaved head, trim beard and black-framed glasses, made an indelible impression on Robin Gibson, general counsel for Lake Wales Charter Schools.
“He was just an exceptional human being, and we will really miss him,” Gibson said. “He was fun to be around, just fun to be around. It’s a big loss and in more ways than one big shoes to fill.”
Bok Academy South announced Moses’ death Friday on its Facebook page. A cause of death was not listed in either that posting or in Moses’ obituary.
The school statement said that crisis teams would be available to provide support. The post had drawn nearly 100 comments by Monday afternoon, many of them from parents of current and former students praising Moses for his influence on their children’s lives.
“I am forever grateful that he was a part of my children’s lives,” Johanna Figueroa wrote in a comment. “He was there in a lot of personal family moments for my children and myself. He was an amazing educator, mentor and friend. He went way beyond for his students overall well being. He made a huge impact in our lives. We are deeply saddened over the news. My prayers go out to his family.”
J.S. Stone added: “We all know this man impacted so many of our children, not just through the Bok Years but from High School. Received a call from my 34 year old child living several states away – in shock about the news. He is so grateful for the time & guidance Dr. Moses afforded 17 or so years ago.”
Damien Moses before coming to Polk County
Born in Delaware, Moses spent his childhood in Orlando and attended Dr. Phillips High School, a magnet school with a highly rated visual and performing arts program. Moses played offensive guard and defensive tackle on the football team while also excelling in weightlifting and track and field.
Having received dozens of scholarship offers, Moses chose to attend South Carolina State University. He earned conference and national honors as a defensive lineman and also lettered in track and field before graduating in 1992 with an education degree.
South Carolina State, which has sent more than 40 former students to the NFL, later chose Moses for its “Bulldog Centennial Football Team.”
Moses earned a master’s degree in sports medicine and rehabilitation from Life University in Marietta, Georgia, according to his obituary, and gained a specialist degree in educational leadership from Nova Southeastern University. Moses added a doctorate in educational leadership from Capella University in 2017.
Moses came to Polk County in 2000, serving for two years as a physical education teacher at Winston Academy of Engineering. He became an assistant principal at Anna Woodbury Elementary School and then took the same position in 2004 at Lake Wales High School.
He first became a principal in 2006 at Hillcrest Elementary. He remained in that role until 2011, when an opening arose at Bok Academy South as Principal Donna Dunson shifted to the same role at Lake Wales High School.
Gibson, who led the creation of Lake Wales Charter Schools in 2003, credited the original superintendent, Clint Wright, for recruiting Moses.
“We met and interviewed some really outstanding people at my home in 2004, when we were forming the charter school, folks that we thought would be helpful to be involved in the beginning,” Gibson said. “And Damien was among those few. It was a select group. He opted to cast his lot with us, for which we were very grateful and optimistic, and he delivered on all counts.”
All of the schools at which Moses served received top state rankings throughout his tenure, said Gibson, formerly board chair for the charter system and now its general counsel.
“He had a wonderful way with his employees,” Gibson said. “Everywhere he went, the school excelled, and he just seemed to be amazed at how it all happened. He claimed no credit for himself. He just talked about how wonderful his people were. So he had a very unique style of leadership that was extremely successful.”
Moses, like Dunson before him, encouraged innovative approaches at Bok Academy. Bordering Crooked Lake, the school operates a mobile laboratory on a pontoon boat, allowing students to collect samples for studies of water quality and other scientific pursuits.
Bok Academy is recognized by Apple as a distinguished program. The company says the status is for schools that “demonstrate an innovative and compelling learning environment.”
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Moses started a podcast using the handle Getting2Greatness, his obituary said, and shared educational leadership tips. He also wrote a memoir, “Can You See My Greatness? The Damien Moses Story,” due to be released soon, the obituary said.
Moses’ wife, Melissa Moses, is a teacher at Polk Avenue Elementary in Lake Wales. The couple’s two children, Damien and Karen, are students at Florida A&M University, Dunson said.
“His laughter was just contagious,” Dunson said. “He loved his students, and he loved his family in also a fierce manner. The powerful force in his life was his love for his children and his wife, Melissa. He will be missed in a huge way. He leaves a huge void in the system.”
Williams Funeral Home in Bartow will hold a service Saturday at noon that will be live-streamed at Legion Field, 250 N. Lakeshore Blvd., in Lake Wales.
Gary White can be reached at [email protected] or 863-802-7518. Follow on Twitter @garywhite13.