Jim France has been at Manchester High School for nearly a half-century.
Indeed, nothing from his arrival in 1971 through the beginning of 2020 had been able to stop that streak.
Nothing, that is, until the COVID-19 pandemic reared its ugly head.
Citing that, and the accommodations stemming from the coronavirus that will have to be made, as the reason, France has announced his retirement, effective at the end of last week, as the school principal – a year earlier than planned.
When he retired as the school’s head football coach on March 14, ending a tenure of 48 seasons that has left him as Ohio’s all-time winningest coach with 401 victories, he was adamant that he would stay on at the school one more year as principal, a job he has held since 1984. This fall would have marked the beginning of his 37th school year as principal, and 50th overall after also having served as first a physical education teacher and then assistant principal.
But just as the coronavirus kept him from meeting personally with his players three months ago to tell them he was retiring as coach, it also kept him from finishing his time as principal on his schedule.
"With this COVID thing and all the different stuff that will have to be done to deal with it when school starts up in the fall, I thing it’s best if they get a younger person in here to do that," said France, who will turn 77 on Sept. 18.
Schools around Ohio, and for that matter around the state, aren’t sure yet what that "stuff" is, but the implementation of whatever it turns out to be likely will not be easy. There will be a lot of learning going on, and not all of it will be by students.
"It will be kind of sad – different – not being in that school next year. I wanted to be there, but that’s just kind of the way it is," France said.
"I will miss seeing the kids (some whose parents, and even grandparents, also attended Manchester while he was there). You build relationships with them. I will also miss the teachers, I worked with some of them for 20 or 30 years. You build relationships with them, too. They become your friends."
It is not being able to say goodbye, to meet personally with those students and teachers and thank them for being part of his long journey at Manchester, that bothers him the most.
"I really wanted to do that, but again, it’s not going to be possible so you just have to deal with it," France said. "I will still reach out to each and every one of the teachers, though."
It will be one of the many things he will be doing now. He has plenty on the agenda, so the extra year will give him a head start on his retirement plans of spending even more time with his grandchildren and watching their activities, sports and otherwise; working on his garden in his back yard and on his diet with which he is already doing very well; staying active with the Ohio High School Football Coaches Association, including traveling to Columbus twice a month in his role as past president; possibly – possibly -- sneaking in and watching a couple Manchester football games, likely on the road so his presence won’t cause a fuss; taking his successor and former assistant, new Panthers head football coach Jay Brophy, up on his invitation to stop in anytime at practice for however long he wants; and continuing to serve the church he has attended all his life, Sawyerwood United Methodist in Springfield Township, as one of the most high-profile custodians in the area.
"I’ll still be hanging around," France promised.
Unfortunately, though, COVID-19 will, too.