On his first day of kindergarten, the teachers moved Joe Prince into a closet so he wouldn’t “agitate” the other children.
Prince was later diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form of autism, and at the time few in education really understood what that meant or that one-on-one teaching was what he needed to succeed.
For many years, he was simply told he could not learn.
Now, at 66, Prince has a list of accomplishments that includes a 33-year career in education.
He was an All-American sprinter who came close to making the Olympic team twice. He learned to read in fifth grade at the Black Panther Liberation School in Oakland, and wrote an autobiography called “Liberation Saturday” in 2003, which would later become the basis for a short film in 2008 on his life.
Prince spent 24 years at Sahuarita High School as head track and field coach and teaching special education.
“I pinch myself every day that I had the opportunity to teach,” he said. “I understand the struggles of my special-education students because special education doesn't go away, I'm just older and have learned to adapt. I enjoy the fact that every day I felt that someone was learning something, I won.”
Prince is now retiring from the classroom, where he inspired young people to push forward. Many of his former students still contact him about their achievements; some have gone on to coach alongside Prince and move in to careers in education.
Some people leave their careers because they don’t enjoy it anymore, but that's not the case for Prince.
Due to health problems over the last couple years and a shift to technology-centered learning, Prince decided it was time to pass the torch as a teacher to the next generation of educators.
“I'm a one-on-one person and do better when I can see and explain because a lot of my students have problems with comprehension,” he said. “With the way education is going and technology, especially with COVID, I just knew it was my time.”
“I loved every moment of teaching and I want to remember it the way it was before COVID."
He will continue to coach the track team but teaching in the classroom will become another memory to add to his life story.
Speed and passion
Prince was raised in Palo Alto, California, by grandparents who could not read or write. His grandmother drew an X on the signature line of his school forms and his grandfather memorized the Bible.
Prince struggled through academics and got his first C in seventh-grade science, where he gained extra credit catching frogs for the class to dissect. His grandparents always pushed him to persevere.
“My grandparents said them not having an education wasn't a good enough reason for me not to have an education,” he said. “I was determined because they were determined.”
His high school coach encouraged him to pursue track, a passion that would drive him through life.
Prince would go on to win the 1974 California Collegiate Athletic Association Conference championship in the 220-yard sprint while at California Polytechnic State University.
In 1975, while at Fresno Pacific University, he had the second fastest time in the country for the 100-yard dash in the first meet of the season and appeared on his way to the 1976 Olympics.
A cancer diagnosis at 20 would put a halt to that and he’d spend over two years in and out of hospitals before it went into remission; he graduated from college in 1977.
After graduating, he was selected to run for Athletes in Action as part of its U.S. Olympic development team. As he prepared for the Olympic trials, President Jimmy Carter announced the U.S. would not compete in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow because of the Soviet Union's invasion of Afghanistan.
Education became his focus. Prince moved to Arizona, where he had competed in a track meet. He has been invited to try out for the Arizona Wranglers football team but couldn't pass the physical. He decided to go back to school, earning additional degrees in special education and elementary education alongside degrees in both development and physical education.
Prince coached track and field at Santa Cruz Valley Union High School in Eloy and taught at Eloy Junior High, where he was named acting principal his final year, a moment of pride in his life.
“Who would ever believe a young man they said couldn't learn, raised by people who couldn't read or write, would be acting principal for a semester,” he said. “It's almost unbelievable.”
Moving to Sahuarita
He said his start at Sahuarita High School is a funny story. He was leading his Santa Cruz track team against SHS when a young athlete from Sahuarita let go of a little secret.
“A young man in the Sahuarita bus hollered out to me, ‘You have to be our new coach,’ and all the kids at Santa Cruz kind of looked at me like the cat is out of the bag, that I was mulling it over,” he said. “The Sahuarita track coach came up one day and he liked what I was doing and said, ‘You know what, I'm thinking about retiring and I think you are the man who should come to Sahuarita and take over the program.'”
It was the talent on the team and confidence gained by his experience as acting principal that made the decision clear. Prince began teaching at SHS in 1996, and became the second head track and field coach in the school’s history.
He was also the first African-American to be hired in a certified position by the Sahuarita Unified School District.
He never forgot the advice given to him early in his career by Eloy’s principal to be kind to the front-desk people.
“The front office took care of me and that's how I survived in teaching at Eloy and Sahuarita,” he said. “Everyone wanted to make sure I didn’t fall through the cracks, from students delivering messages, to the head man and woman in the front office; they took care of me.”
Among them was Elaine Hall, the secretary to the principal at the time, and a longtime governing board member for SUSD. Prince sees her as his big sister and she, in turn, will see him as her little brother as long as she lives.
“I have such admiration for him and I've watched him over the years, read his book, he's just so genuine and real,” Hall said.
Prince said Hall was the person who encouraged him to write his life story and, as he had promised her, she was the first to touch his raw manuscript.
"The more he told me and opened up about his childhood I just encouraged him and thought people need to know this story," she said. "I was the first person to read his book in longhand and it was remarkable."
Hall and Prince remember the self portrait he made for her as a gift on a day she energized his spirits. Hall kept it on her desk for her entire career at the school and has it to this day.
“He was such a great special-education teacher because he was a special-education kid and he knows what's it like so they can't snow him," she said. “I wish him all the luck in the world and am so glad he’s still coaching.”
Prince credited the students athletes who drew him to the school, the front office and the special-education teachers for being the “village” he relied on all these years; a group who all did their part to help make him a success.
Looking back, Prince said the students in his classroom over the years taught him to be social and confident and how to make adjustments.
“Most of them had been told they couldn't do something and most of them never gave up and they inspired me to make sure I didn't give up,” he said. “Sometimes self doubt would try and creep in and I’d wonder am I doing the right thing, are they really responding, am I making things plain enough?”
“In my little world everything is black and white and they showed me the shades of gray, taught me to make adjustments in how I teach and approach things in life.”
He always strived for honesty with them.
“If you are just putting on a dog-and-pony show, kids know and I felt I never did that, I was always straight up with them,” he said.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic brought another challenge into his world as he had to switch to a digital platform to teach, struggling with technology himself.
He remembered how much help IT foreman Jorge Torres helped him when he first started at the school, pre-COVID-19 distance learning model.
"Poor guy, if anyone gets honorable mention it's Jorge Torres because me and the computer... I would have been up the creek with no paddle without him," he said.
His students and the district helped him through distance learning this final quarter of school.
“Having to teach these last two months, what an eye-opener and an experience,” he said. “Talk about the brain in overdrive but guess what, I did it. My kids taught me how to make adjustments and this was another adjustment I had to deal with and I did it.”
The track season also came to a halt and Prince had to watch his seniors’ high school track career cut short.
“I remember the last track meet I had this young man, a senior, sitting on the curb by the bus and his head was down in his lap,” he said. “He looked so crushed because he had a feeling this might be his last meet."
Moving on to the next year he’ll focus on teaching his athletes to give it their all every time because nothing in this world is certain.
“I think my approach will be to express to my athletes to prepare to compete as if it's the last time you're going to be allowed because look what happened this season," he said. “Nothing is guaranteed, I can tell you that for sure with my track record."
Prince describes himself as a creature of regimine. Though track and field will keep him busy, he’s filling some of his spare time in retirement with painting, playing on the piano and “pretending to make beautiful music” and he hopes to revise or add additional chapters to his book.
He still sees his former students and athletes around town, keeping tabs on their careers and still receiving updates via text as his kids graduate from college or have successes.
“I still love teaching, I loved every moment of it. I proved the naysayers wrong that said I couldn't learn, but yet here I was teaching others to learn," he said. “Watching (former students) live their lives, you just hope you had a little influence on some of the proud things they are doing."