Teacher remembered for leadership, generosity

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 11, 2011

By Sarah Campbell
During his time at East Rowan High School, Michael Phelps was more like a parent to Michael Rothwell than a teacher.
“That was his style, he was like a father to every one of his students,” Rothwell said.
Phelps, who taught at East Rowan for 15 years, died at his home Sunday after suffering a heart attack.
Col. Rollins Collins, head of East Rowan’s JROTC department, said Phelps coached drill team and started the school’s scuba diving program.
“He was a good guy to work with,” he said. “He worked very hard and put in lots and lots of hours, he was always willing to come in whenever we needed to make something happen for the kids.”
Collins said Phelps typically joked around with the students, but the mood was somber Monday.
“There was a cloud over the place,” he said.
More than 25 former students dropped by the school Monday to share their memories with Phelps. The class of 2004 painted bright yellow Army stripes on the school’s spirit rock in honor of the man so many loved.
“We’ve had a huge outpouring of support for Sgt. Phelps and his family,” East Rowan Principal Kelly Sparger said. “The students loved him, he was very personable and very pleasant to be around.”
Rothwell said Phelps was always around if he needed a favor. When Rothwell couldn’t afford to join the scuba program, Phelps took money out of his own pocket to make sure he didn’t miss out.
But Rothwell said the greatest gift Phelps ever gave him was simply believing he could succeed.
“He encouraged me when others doubted me, and he never had any doubt that I could go forth and do great things,” he said. “He was the type of leader and motivator that you can’t replace, and he will be greatly missed for a long time.”
After graduating from East in 2007, Rothwell kept in touch with his teacher and followed in his footsteps by joining the Army ROTC at N.C. State University.
“First sergeant had a huge impact on where I am now and he helped me out as much as he could,” Rothwell said. “He was and still is my motivation for making it as far as I am now and my commissioning as an officer in the U.S. Army soon.”
Shannon Elrod, a 2008 graduate of East, said Phelps was also like a father to her.
“He was a great mentor, someone to always look up to,” she said. “He touched so many people’s lives and helped us become who we are today.”
Elrod said Phelps’ mood was always light and his tone humorous.
“But he was also known for being someone you could always talk to when you needed advice,” she said. “He helped so many people through challenges and the life-changing events.”
A memorial service for Phelps will be held at 6 p.m. Wednesday in the auditorium at East Rowan.
Contact reporter Sarah Campbell at 704-797-7683.
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