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Bennie Wayne Higgins, who died Friday at age 56, spent more than 30 years as a teacher, principal and administrator in the Greensboro public schools. Public education is not an easy profession, yet Higgins proved it can be richly rewarding if you make a difference. And what a difference Higgins made.

He was the first African-American principal of a Greensboro high school that was not predominantly black. For 14 years he was principal of Smith High School, where he was liked by students, admired by teachers and respected by administrators - no small feat in a school community with many agendas.Higgins began his administrative career in a stressful era. In 1972, Greensboro's segregated public schools became desegregated by court order. At the time, he was assistant principal at Proximity School (now McIver) and later Mendenhall Middle School. As principal of Smith, he helped guide that school into an era of multiculturalism. Desegregation was achieved peacefully and efficiently, thanks in no small part to principals like Higgins, who were determined to make it work.

It helped, of course, that Higgins knew the community well. The youngest of seven children, he was born in Greensboro and received his early education here. He earned his undergraduate degree from Hampton Institute in Virginia and returned to North Carolina, where he received graduate degrees at A&T State University and Appalachian State University.

His character and personality were keys to his success as an educator. He was a man of quiet confidence who inspired trust. Most important, he sincerely cared about people. Students knew he could be a firm disciplinarian, but they also knew he was compassionate and fair. Teachers knew they could come to him with their problems. Parents knew his door was always open. And the schools' administrative headquarters knew that Higgins was efficient and solid.

Not surprisingly he received many honors from the educational profession, including Administrator of the Year. But his life was not restricted to schools. He was also active in civic groups such as Leadership Greensboro.

Higgins retired from the public school system last March. His premature death cut short a second career with the Visiting International Faculty at UNC-Chapel Hill. An avid traveler who was interested in other cultures, Higgins' job was to travel the world recruiting teachers from other countries. Tragically, he had barely begun.

``He was genuinely a first-class act,' said one administrator this week. ``A rare man,' said another. Bennie Higgins will be missed.

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