Story By Jo Ann Mathews
Photography By John Urban
As principal of Douglas Southall Freeman High School in Henrico, Virginia, Dr. Edward “Ed” H. Pruden joined a group of students at a home basketball game and strummed hit songs on his Fender Jaguar electric guitar.
Pruden sold the guitar two years ago, but he still owns a Steinway baby grand piano that sits in a nook of his Ocean Isle Beach home.
“I play at it,” he says and explains that his mother was a conservatory-trained pianist.
“He can play the Navy hymn ‘Eternal Father Strong to Save,’” adds Peggy, Pruden’s wife of 40 years.
Pruden’s musical talent was not a factor, though, when he was hired as superintendent of Brunswick County Schools in 2010. Shirley Babson, chair of the school board, cites Pruden’s ability to relate to others as the reason why she believes he surpassed nearly three dozen other candidates for the job.
“He listens to parents and teachers,” Babson says. “They know he’s listening to them, and he tries to solve the problem.”
School board member Olaf “Bud” Thorsen explains that extremely qualified people applied for the superintendent’s job, but Pruden set himself apart by understanding the area.
“He was very well informed about our schools,” Thorsen says. “I felt he could fit into Brunswick County.”
This territory is familiar to the Prudens. They began vacationing in Sunset Beach about 20 years ago when a cousin invited them to a summer home.
“Now it’s our permanent vacation,” Pruden says. “I like the beauty of the coast and the friendly people.”
“And you love your job,” Peggy adds.
“I found great teachers and an exceptional staff,” Pruden says. “What I enjoy most is working with the board and staff to improve the daily experience of the children.”
This includes the 12,300 students in 19 Brunswick County Schools.
“He’s all about the children,” Peggy says.
Pruden, 61, explains that he knew he wanted to be a teacher at age 13 when he saw the movie To Sir, With Love.
“I was fascinated by his reaching out to poor young people of London,” Pruden says of Sidney Poitier’s starring role.
The youngest of three children, Pruden grew up in the nation’s capital, where his father was pastor of The First Baptist Church, Washington, D.C. In high school Ed was selected as a page for the Senate and has fond memories of the experience. He remembers retrieving a speech at Senator Robert Kennedy’s office and delivering it to him on the Senate floor.
“The speech was in opposition to the Vietnam War,” Pruden says.
Pruden also remembers when President Lyndon Johnson came to the Capitol Rotunda to sign the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Ed climbed a television scaffold to get a clear view of the signing. Another memory is of Senator Edmund Muskie announcing the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. before dinner at a fund-raiser. The entire audience rose and quietly left the hotel.
Pruden received his high school diploma from the Capitol Page School, which didn’t offer organized team sports, so he decided to try out for football when he entered University of Richmond.
“It was a learning experience,” he says with a smile and says he played one season.
A life-long runner, Pruden has completed two marathons and at least a dozen half-marathons, but says he’s satisfied to run 10Ks now. He can be seen running on the beach as Peggy pedals her bike next to him.
The couple also enjoys dancing.
“That’s how we met,” Peggy says. “He asked me to dance.”
Pruden’s nod indicates he recalls the scene. He says students from University of Richmond and Virginia Commonwealth University, Peggy’s alma mater, congregated at a popular club in town. When he glimpsed Peggy there, “I thought she was the prettiest girl I had ever seen,” he says.
Two years later, with Pruden entering his senior year, the pair married in Peggy’s hometown of Martinsville, Virginia, although their parents had hoped they’d wait until Pruden graduated.
“I had my best year after we got married,” Pruden says, his satisfaction evident. He was president of his class and he made the dean’s list that year.
Pruden explains that education, politics and religion have always held special interests for him. He chose political science for his college major and educational administration for his master’s degree, also from University of Richmond. He received his certificate of advanced studies and doctorate in educational administration from The College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia.
Peggy’s career was also in education. She spent 32 years at Virginia Commonwealth University, 25 of them as a financial aid counselor. When she retired in 2000, Pruden surprised her with a new red Chrysler Sebring LX convertible.
“He wanted to make my retirement special,” Peggy says. “It was a wonderful surprise.”
It isn’t the first sports car the Prudens owned. When they met, Pruden had a 1965 red Corvette convertible and later bought a 1964 marina blue Corvette convertible. The couple switched to family friendly cars when their children arrived. Now grown, all three live in Richmond.
The Prudens have a lot of fun, but at heart Pruden is an academic, a serious man with serious concerns. He set challenging goals for himself as superintendent. He wants to improve the reading skills of every student, increase the number of students who take advance placement classes and increase the number who take a “world language,” which now stands at 17 percent in BCS. Not foreign language?
“Foreign to whom?” Pruden asks. “A world-class education should include a world language.”
He also plans to increase the number of students who attend two- and four-year colleges.
“Young people should not think they can’t afford college,” Pruden says. “A good financial aid counselor will see them through.”
“I’m a big cheerleader for financial aid,” Peggy says.
The greatest challenge is “to continue to improve during a time of declining budgets,” Pruden says. “We can’t let it give us permission to backslide.”
On Pruden’s bookshelf is “Stretching the School Dollar: How Schools and Districts Can Save Money While Serving Students Best” by Frederick Hess and Eric Osberg.
“I enjoy reading books that help me with my work,” he says.
Pruden is slowly creeping toward retirement age, but he isn’t ready to retire and says this probably is not his last job.
“I don’t think I’d be a good retired person,” Pruden says. “When I retire, I would very much like to teach professional preparation of teachers and administrators.”
So while he’s working, the Prudens are enjoying their new surroundings.
Friends and neighbors agree that the Prudens have acclimated to the area and praise them for their hospitality.
Peggy has become involved with community groups, welcomes visitors and continues to cook her homemade spaghetti sauce and chocolate pound cake. Pruden, in the meantime, continues to work on improving Brunswick County Schools.