Editor’s Note: An edited version of this story appeared as a SC Stories feature in the April issue of South Carolina Living magazine, which is distributed monthly by the South Carolina Cooperative Electric Association.
Students at North Charleston High School in the Lowcountry of South Carolina often gaze at the wall of awards principal Henry Darby has amassed over the past 40 years. He’ll ask them what they believe is the greatest honor among the stack of plaques. They never pick the starched white shirt hanging in a box.
“it reminds me of my humble beginnings,” said the North Charleston native. “It’s not the height that you reach, it’s the depth that you come from.”
The shirt came from cloth his mother gathered from an area dump. Florence Darby took the fabric home, boiled it in a kettle in the back yard and made the material into a shirt. He wore that shirt to school two to three days a week for the next four years.
Darby knows poverty, but also the value of education and willingness to work.
He recalled a day when he was 10 years old and his mother was given food stamps.
“My mother put both her hands upon my shoulders, pulled me near to her and tore up the food stamps in my face. Her words were, ‘Boy, you’re going to learn to stand on your own two feet.’ I have never forgotten that lesson.”
And he also knows there are times when others need help.
“I know what it feels like to live in poverty and it’s not a good feeling,” he said. “I just do my best to help those I can help to get out of poverty.”
“I know what it feels like to live in poverty and it’s not a good feeling. I just do my best to help those I can help to get out of poverty.”Henry Darby, principal of North Charleston (SC) High School
In addition to his full-time duties as principal, Darby works the 10 to 7 overnight shift on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays at a local Walmart. His pay goes to help North Charleston students and their families struggling to buy groceries and clothing, pay rent and keep the lights on.
“The first six weeks or so it was pretty rough,” he said of his job as a stocker. “Just standing, standing, standing. Muscles I hadn’t been using before. Feet swollen, knees swollen. But I’m not a quitter. I’m one of those Vince Lombardi guys. ‘Quitters never win and winners never quit.’”
His story has garnered state and national attention and there’s been a spike in donations. That’s been heartening, Darby said.
“Americans came together to support a cause to help children. It’s almost as if we want to forget about our differences… It’s a beautiful example of how Americans can help Americans.”
Some of his friends, worried about his age, have urged him to slow down. He proudly points to the 40 pounds he’s lost over the past seven months and said he has no plans to stop.
“Whenever I can’t teach or can’t help someone, I’m just gonna say, ‘Swing low, sweet chariot. You can carry me home now.’ I just love helping people.”
Getting to know Henry Darby
Age: Born on Nov. 28, 1954, Darby is 66 years young.
Occupation: Principal of North Charleston (SC) High School; 17 years as councilman for Charleston County (SC); associate at Walmart since August 2020
Book smart: A collector of rare historical books, his favorites include Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” and a first edition copy of “The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government” by Jefferson Davis.
Music to the ears: He’s been playing the piano for the past 40 years and has been recognized several times for his talent. He loves to listen to jazz composer Charlie Parker.
The GOAT: There was a time he had a herd of domestic goats. “Goats will keep your yard clean, manicured. And since I was working three or four jobs at a time, I didn’t have time to cut my own grass. I loved my goats.”