Every year, for about four decades, staff at First Colonial High School in Virginia Beach would get a simple, yet thoughtful, gift from one of their peers.
Quite a few students got one, too.
A red pencil, unsharpened, embossed with the words “Fred Britton.”
Nobody who ever spent more than a second or two with the man needed anything to remember him by.
Britton left more than a little bit more of an impression than any gift ever could.
A good-looking, blond surfer boy, he fit in with the school’s beach vibe like no other and everybody that was ever in his presence remembers him more than a little fondly.
In the FC hallways, girls swooned, boys wanted to be like him … he was just one of those guys that was pure pleasure to be around
Genuine might as well been his middle name.
Britton died last week. He was 77 and a 47-year veteran of the Virginia Beach Public School System.
Rumors of the reason why are spreading faster than California wildfires. But why isn’t important right now.
What is, is the legacy the man left behind.
As a cub reporter in the late 70’s, he welcomed this guy in like he had known me forever.
A memorial to a high school coach and teacher might seem odd on a hunting and fishing website. But he and joined-at-the-hip friend and long-time FC teacher and coach Norbie Wilson fished often together. They caught more cold beers than fish, but they enjoyed the time together on the water more than anything, and isn’t that what fishing is supposed to be about anyway?
“He was so unique,” said former FC student and current principal Dr, Nancy Ferrell. “He and Norbie were iconic and touched so many lives.
“Not many high schools can say they had two coaches and teachers who stayed at one school and did so much for so many people.”
Sam Scarborough grew up at FC. His dad and long-time football coach Frank Webster went to Virginia Tech together. Lee Scarborough was an always presence on the sideline as head of the chain gang.
“I was running around the stands or doing something from the very first day,” said Sam, who played football at FC and is now the head football coach. “Been a part of the First Colonial family since my infancy and Fred was always a part of everything.
“This has been very hard for all of us.”
No more so than for Wilson. If you ever ran into one of them, it was a sure bet the other was in tow.
“We’re all devastated,” said Larry Bowman, who left Salem – where he won a state championship – to coach at FC and took the Patriots to the state tournament for the first time.
“I went there because of Fred and Norbie,” he said, the sadness obvious in his voice. “There is no question that they were two of the greatest people you would ever meet.
“Fred was so supportive of everybody at the school. When we went to the state tournament in Northern Virginia, I looked up in the stands and Fred was there with a First Colonial girls’s basketball T-shirt on. He had driven all the way up there by himself to show his support. That was special.”
Wilson, who is dealing well with his own health issues, has had the help of a large support group that understands that his loss is similar to someone losing a parent, a favorite pet or the love of their life.
The two were that close.
Wavy TV’s Chris Reckling paid a special tribute to the duo when they retired on the same day.
“I really don’t know what to say,” Wilson said. “A part of me is gone and I’ll never get it back again. He was a special person and I loved him more than anyone can imagine.
“I’m gonna miss him every day.”
FC student activities coordinator Holly Godfrey has been trying her best to keep things as normal as they possibly can be during what are stupid crazy times in and of themselves.
The passing of a Patriots’ family member and icon aren’t helping.
“We’re all in shock and trying to figure out how we can honor him during these difficult times,” she said. “He was the heart and soul of this school and not having him around anymore is going to be tough.
“But we are a strong family and we’ll get by and appreciate the fact that we had him in our lives.”
Kim McCanna was an FC grad and taught physical education with Britton, eventually becoming the swimming team’s coach.
“I was involved in gymnastics, field hockey and track back when they were just opening sports up to women,” she said. “He was alway so supportive of all the school’s sports programs, but especially the women who were just getting their first chances.
“Fred Britton was First Colonial.”
Britton had a quirky habit of giving fellow teachers nicknames – many of them not suitable for publication.
When Bowman arrived, Britton learned that the new guy on the team had a fondness of old record albums and started calling him “Wolfman Jack” after the famous radio personality.
“He wanted to be close to everybody,” Bowman said.
When Scarborough was a sophomore football player, he was put on the part of the team that the seniors and juniors abused during practice. He remembers an insanely hot August 16th in 1977 when he was especially brutalized.
“Fred came in and said that practice was cancelled,” Scarborough said. “Elvis was dead was the reason.
“Elvis died that day and Fred just wasn’t going to have practice. None of us understood then, but looking back, he was just one of those special people.”
Coach Webster hired Britton after he graduated from Frederick College, where he as a wide receiver,
One of the things he admired about his new assistant was the way he looked out for others, especially those who weren’t as fortunate in life.
“He’d buy shoes and meals for the kids who couldn’t afford it,” coach said. “We were all a family and he cared about the kids, the coaches and the other teachers. He shared qualities that you don’t see .
“He was a very special person and he’s going to be sorely missed.”
The family will be welcoming friends from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday (Sept. 10) at the H.D. Oliver Funeral Apartments in Virginia Beach.