The Scott County Board of Education last week voted to honor the school system’s long-time former technology director, Mike Lay, by renaming the technology building on U.S. Hwy. 27 in Helenwood the “C. Michael Lay Technology Center.”
The board voted to rename the technology center during an emotional session on Thursday, during which Lay — who is battling cancer — joined in via video-conferencing technology.
“Big Dog means the world to us, especially in the technology department,” the school system’s current technology director, Greg Bond, told the Independent Herald, referring to Lay by his commonly-used nickname. “He’s like our father, and the reason we’re all there together.
Each year, Bond said, the technology staff gets together on the abbreviated day before Christmas break and celebrates what has become known as the Lord of the Rings-A-Thon: 13 hours of “friends, food, and Hobbits telling stories,” he said.
“It’s all because Mike would save up his change throughout the year, then load us up in his Chrysler Town & Country minivan for an afternoon filled with steak, popcorn and the latest epic movie Hollywood had to offer,” Bond recalled. “The joy was the comradery and time spent with friends, and that has continued every year since — albeit, once it grew beyond three car-loads, we started hosting the event locally.”
Each year, Bond said, “The most important question is: What is Big Dog cooking for the event, and when will he get here with it?”
Mike Lay was not just the school system’s first technology director — he created the technology department. He was named technology coordinator in 1993 — under then-Superintendent of Schools Amon Lay — after the state launched its 21st Century Classroom program and required each school system to hire a coordinator in order to qualify for funding.
By that time, Lay was a long-time veteran of the classroom. He began teaching at Scott High School in 1978, and he had always incorporated technology. In his first year as a teacher, he convinced his principal to purchased a computer for the classroom. Four years later, the school’s guidance counselor, Gary Cordell, wrote a grant that brought in 25 Apple computers and printers over a span of three years.
“This was our first computer lab, out in a trailer,” Lay said. “They were used for software applications and credit recovery.”
Lay was a stand-out basketball player in his own school days, and had an offer to play for Roane State Community College. He remembers that Amon Lay — who was Scott High’s guidance counselor at the time — “forced” him to take the ACT.
“So, basically, I was strong-armed into going to college!” he said. “I am forever grateful to Amon Lay for his ‘encouragement.'”
It was at RSCC that Lay’s math instructor recognized his aptitude for math and suggested that he major in the subject. “Knowing I loved basketball and wanted to coach, studying a subject that would assure me a teaching position was a perfect fit,” he said. He later earned a scholarship to Stetson University and majored in mathematics.
Scott County Director of Schools Bill Hall said that his connection to Lay began as a basketball player, when Lay was still a coach.
“I had the pleasure of playing basketball for Coach Lay for two years and the impact he made on me personnally helped me be where I am today,” Hall said. “Coach has been a terrific mentor for me and many throughout our system, but more importantly he’s been a true friend. The impact he has made on our school system is beyond measure.”
Hall credited Lay with a forward-thinking and innovative approach that helped set apart the local school system’s technology department, differentiating it from other school systems across the state.
Later, after Lay retired from the Scott County School System in 2009, he worked for PCS and, later, Beacon Technology, as he continued working with school systems and technology from the private sector.
“I would always see him at superintendent conferences across the state and he was known as ‘The Big Dog’ by everyone,” Hall said. “He always enjoyed me coming by his booth just to hear me say, ‘Hey Coach.’ Whether it was technology or basketball, he was always coaching and he was truly in his element about both.
“It was truly an honor to be part of naming the technology center building after Coach Lay,” Hall added.
Bond credited Lay with helping him find a place in the educational technology field.
“From introducing me to computer networking to arranging my first interview — and resulting job — in information technology, he has always been there for me,” Bond said. “I believe when you speak with others, you’ll hear similar stories. He’s a people person, loves telling stories, and loves introducing folks with skills and abilities to those who need those skills and abilities.
“He has an uncanny ability to inspire greatness in others,” Bond added. “I think that’s the trait I am most in awe of. Just like all great coaches, he brings players together and forms them into a winning team.”
Bond said that no one, to this day, has brought in more “competitive” federal grant dollars than Lay — nor has anyone earned the local school system more national recognition. One that stands out was a half-million dollar grant in 2007 that helped establish a distance learning program. That program went on to earn the school district the National Laureate in Education & Academia award two years later, and spawned similar distance learning initiatives across the state.
Lay takes no credit for securing all of the funding. It was, he says, the school system’s unique traits.
“There were grant funds available to pay for the equipment if we could just put the right story together,” he said. “Scott County Schools had the right story. We said we could do dual-enrollment classes with RSCC, and we did. We said we could teach Algebra I to our best eighth grade students without busing them to Huntsville, and we did.”
In 2008, algebra teacher Tony Duncan was named the National Distance Learning Teacher of the Year for his work in the school system’s distance learning program.
Lay was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award in Distance Learning from the Tennessee Distance Learning Association in 2013. Before retiring fully in 2018, he helped school systems across Tennessee obtain $10.5 million in grant funding for distance learning and other technology. He always shared the success of Scott County’s approach during his tenure with the local school system, eventually carrying that message to more than 17,000 educators at schools and conferences each year.
“Asking me to talk about the impact Mike has had on technology is akin to asking me to try and fill his shoes (size 16 Bostonians),” Bond said. “It’s just not something that can be summed up in a few words.”
Lay said he was touched by the school board’s decision to rename the technology center in his honor.
“I am so humbled by this honor and was thoroughly surprised when they announced it at the board meeting,” he said. “My children and grandchildren can now drive by and recognize that I had a little something to do with what goes on inside that building.”
Lay said the work that the technology department does today is recognition of what was a successful career for him.
“To be recognized by your peers, for something you did for most of your career, is a wonderful feeling,” he said. “It means they bought into your philosophy of education.”
Lay points to the growth of the technology department since his retirement, including the advances that have been made in infrastructure and equipment.
“I have traveled across the state and can confidently say there is not a better meeting and tarining facility,” he said. “Not only is the infrastructure impressive, but they have the leadership and personnel to manage and grow it.”
Lay credited Bond and his crew — LeEtta Boyatt, Tom Holloway, Andrew Martin, Josh Byrd and Gary Smith — for their work in advancing the department.