A child’s energy, a sage’s circumspection and the heart of a natural-born empath: These are the ingredients that make great, high-functioning adults — people who, intentionally or not, others instinctively look to for leadership.

Those qualities and something more — something intangibly but uniquely his own — signify the effect that David Wiggins has on people. As the soon-to-retire principal at East Elementary School, Wiggins picked a profession, some two decades ago, that tasks him with influencing children in particular.

But as his 17-year stint in Cullman has shown, Wiggins — a Eufala native who came to Cullman after teaching (and later administrative) stints in Phenix City, Auburn, and Alexander City — hasn’t only rubbed off on the kids: He’s rubbed off, in fact, on just about everyone with whom he’s come into contact.

It’s tough to pull up stakes and base one’s life anew in an unfamiliar place. Many people do it, but not many establish the kind of legacy in their new hometowns that Wiggins did after leaving an assistant principal’s position in Tallapoosa County and coming, back in 2006, to East Elementary. Now preparing for retirement, Wiggins’ legacy in Cullman was forged year by year; a legacy earned by exemplifying a community’s shared values every day. Wiggins hasn’t just integrated himself into the local fabric as the principal at EES: After 17 years, he’s himself become an integral and unforgettable part of it.

“I’ve worked with Mr. Wiggins for 17 of my 18 years at East,” says fifth grade teacher Lacy Cameron. “I guess you could say I’ve ‘grown up’ under his leadership. He has been a great leader over the years. Mr. Wiggins exhibits kindness, joy, and positivity with everyone he meets.”

Spend any time around Wiggins at school, and that almost comes off as an understatement. A big, gregarious guy with an even bigger spirit, he’s abundantly charismatic, yet tactful and delicate in the nuanced ways he juggles varied personalities — be they children, parents, faculty or staff — he encounters through a typical whirlwind day. As any teacher or coach will tell you, there’s nowhere for one’s true nature to hide in an environment that summons your ‘A’ game from the time you arrive at work until the final bell is rung, and few can say they’ve ever seen Wiggins drop his upbeat, eternally optimistic demeanor (or his locally famous high-fives for the students), even in the face of the worst professional adversity.

That sounds like high and perhaps too-fussy praise for a man who grasps the immutable simplicity of his role. “Kids are kids,” he recently told The Times. “Every generation says, ‘These kids are different!’ — and well, they are, because the world is different. But kids have the same developmental struggles as every generation that has come before.”

East is a repeat National Blue Ribbon Lighthouse School of Excellence, and Wiggins doesn’t downplay the inevitable community pride that accompanies perennially high test scores, low teacher-student ratios, and other data-driven success metrics. But measured accomplishment isn’t what motivates his approach, and after being infected by his all-around genial attitude, it’s a fair question whether there’s any studied calculation, on his part, to inform an “approach” to playing the role of Principal Wiggins at all. He’s just naturally good with people … and he’s most certainly naturally great with kids.

“I’m always happy at school,” Wiggins previously told The Times. “Even when things are tough, I’m happy to be here. There’s not any bad days, just bad things that happen that day.”

Simple, right? It’s that kind of open-hearted outlook that former EES students — many of whom Wiggins now encounters as adults — now affectionately remember, and more than high performance or test scores, it’s indicative of what’s always really mattered to him.

“I care about them. That’s it. It’s not the academic proficiency; not their level of achievement; not their test scores or ranking in the state … which I do promote!” he laughs. Whatever walk of life each student ends up finding — whether it’s contentedly blue-collar or world-conqueringly ambitious — he’s “just proud of them wherever they go.”

Wiggins says he’ll miss being the happy face of East Elementary, though he’s damming up the real emotion of his big transition for a time when there’s luxury to perhaps wallow a little. On learning of Wiggins’ upcoming retirement, Cullman High School English teacher Danna Putman had her students — many of them former EES kids — write him letters.

“I started reading the first one, and it just broke me,” he confessed. “I’ll probably sit down on Saturday or Sunday and just read through all of them. If you want to find me, that’s probably what I’ll be doing this weekend,” Wiggins said Wednesday while thumbing through the letters.

Wiggins never expected to set out on a path that would influence so many thousands of young people. He didn’t plan to be an educator. Working an early loss prevention job at the now-defunct Gayfers department store chain, he eyed law enforcement as a potential career, until he witnessed firsthand, on a police ride-along, the crueler ways that children’s lives can be shaped by the choices of the adults who surround them.

But as destructive a force as a thoughtless or neglectful grown-up can be, so too can can a grown-up be constructive. Acting with intent to offer children the basic accessibility of genuine communication, an optimistic spirit, and plain good faith — adults are capable of that too, if only they will choose. At East Elementary and in the wider Cullman community, our area is richer for David Wiggins having made that vital choice more than two decades ago.

“I just want them to know I cared about them,” Wiggins responds when asked how he hopes his students remember him.

“‘He cared about me.’ ‘He was funny.’ ‘I was sad one time and he made me smile.’ Some of them have said that. That’s what I want them to know: That they mattered in my life. I hope that I have mattered in their life, in some positive way.”

The Cullman Times is honored to recognize East Elementary principal David Wiggins as our Distinguished Citizen of the Year for 2023, and extends its warmest wishes as he embarks on what’s sure to be a happy and productive next step. Congratulations, Mr. Wiggins, on your well-earned retirement…and wherever you’re spotted in the years that lie ahead, please be sure always to give us a high-five.

Amanda Shavers, Patrick Camp and Trent Moore contributed to this story.

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