The Man Behind the Magic of Manual

Principal Jerry Mayes with a group of students. Photo courtesy of Erin Woggon.

Principal Jerry Mayes with a group of students. Photo courtesy of Erin Woggon.

The principal’s office at duPont Manual High School is a place of distinction. It’s no secret the school is among the nation’s best.

In that office, Jerry Mayes effuses a palpable ambition. But in an apparent paradox, his most salient quality is humility.

“I take what we do seriously,” he says, “but I don’t take myself very seriously.”

When Mayes recounts his journey to the prestigious post, he makes scant mention of the attainments that landed him there. The principal himself seems mystified, being loath to own that his merits indeed commended him for the job.

“What’re the chances of me, out of a nationwide search, becoming the principal of Manual High School? I just feel like for some reason I’m supposed to be here. I don’t know.”

Growing up in Louisville, Mayes wasn’t into sports – which is ironic, considering that he’d go on to become a football coach. His mother, who’d been among the second co-ed class to graduate from Manual, gave him a compulsory introduction to the sport.

“When we went to the Manual-Male football games, I really didn’t know what was going on,” he recalls. “But I knew every Thanksgiving, I had to go to this game or we weren’t eating Thanksgiving dinner.”

When Mayes was in the seventh grade, his parents divorced. “This guy by the name of Milon Perpich became my surrogate father, basically, and all I wanted to do was spend time with him,” he remembers. “And in order to spend time with him, I had to learn how to play sports.”

Mayes graduated from Butler Traditional High School then earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Morehead and UofL, respectively.

He took his first teaching job at Paul Blazer High School in Ashland, Ky., where he worked for two years. Then, he moved to St. Xavier High School, where he taught and coached football for about four years.

After that, he accepted a coaching position at Morehead. A few years later, he was back in Louisville at Doss High School, and after that, he returned to St. Xavier as athletic director.

“Then, I had the itch to get back into coaching,” he says. So he took a job as head football coach and advanced biology teacher at Manual. He subsequently became an assistant principal at Pleasure Ridge Park High School, where he spent 10 years. And in fall 2013, he became principal at duPont Manual High School.

Without question, it’s a station of honor. U.S. News and World Report ranked Manual No. 205 in its most current list of America’s best high schools and the second best high school in Kentucky. placed it at No. 112 nationally and best in the state. And on, the school came in at No. 45 in the U.S.

“We have great schools all over Jefferson County,” Mayes says, “and each one of them serves a certain purpose. Ours just happens to be this unique set of kids who want to be in a very rigorous setting. I have the hardest working kids in town – no question.”

Last year, Manual’s students earned $63 million in scholarships. The school offers 30 advanced placement courses, meaning students can graduate with as much as two years of college credit.

“We take ownership of every kid in this building,” Mayes says.

Manual boasts exceptionally gifted teachers who regularly meet to discuss their students’ development. “I’m the smallest cog in this wheel,” Mayes says. “I really am. And that’s not some false humility. My biggest thing is to stay out of the way and let these guys do their job.”

Manual has a rich tradition of success, and Mayes preaches it to the freshmen: “When you come in here, understand this is a different cat.” As Mayes speaks, he taps the table repeatedly for emphasis. “… You have to accept carrying the torch for the hundreds of alumni that have gone before you.”

Manual is also rich in socioeconomic diversity. Minorities make up more than a third of its student body. The environment feels a lot like home to Mayes, whose daughters – 23, 20, 17 and 10 – are all adopted.

His wife, Marla Mayes, is a real estate agent with Breland Group Realtors. “My wife is phenomenal,” he says. “… She actually pushed me to go for this position and to do this.”

The statement is illustrative of Mayes’ career, even his personal life – he’s an unassuming man with a record of responding with mastery to a good push.

Mayes turns around the yellow notepad where he’s prepared his comments. Across the top he’s written: “May this be to your glory.”

Mayes doesn’t typically grant interviews, but he’s welcomed this one in the spirit that perhaps his story will inspire someone. “I really lean on my faith,” he says. “… That’s my base. That’s where everything comes from.”

It’s a faith that God makes everything happen for a reason, which is the only way Mayes feels comfortable accounting for his success.

“Out of the blue, after a nationwide search, how do you explain that I end up being at one of the greatest places on earth?” VT