When Oneida Middle School teacher Houston Byrd died suddenly two weeks before Christmas last year, his coworkers and administrators at OMS were stunned. The community was shocked. His family was shattered.
But in memory of the 25-year-old Byrd, who was in his first year as a special education teacher at Oneida, a massive fundraising effort has been undertaken that will eventually see his legacy live on in the form of an all-inclusive playground — a playground that will benefit the special-needs students that Byrd taught, and one that will bear the nickname that his friends used to refer to him since middle school: Byrdi.
Oneida Middle is $42,000 into a fundraising effort to build what will eventually be known as “Byrdi’s Playground.” With an ambitious price tag of nearly $300,000, the all-inclusive playground is an idea that didn’t start by Byrd, but it is an effort that he spearheaded.
A Dream Job
Byrd had only just graduated from Tennessee Tech in 2020 when he was hired as a special education teacher at Oneida Middle School.
“Coming home to Oneida where he’d gone to school and played football was a dream come true,” said his mother, Trina Byrd. “I’d told him if he didn’t get a teaching position in his first year to not be discouraged, (but) he never doubted that he’d go to work as soon as he was finished, and he did.”
Byrd had graduated from Oneida High School seven years earlier. But he went through some indecision after enrolling in college, which eventually prompted him to drop out and go to work in the construction industry.
“After one year of college, Houston came home and said he wasn’t going back,” Trina Byrd said. “Talk about a rough and trying few days!”
Byrd first took a job on a railroad construction crew and was soon promoted. From there, he moved into concrete work. Then, out of the blue, he told his family one day that he was headed back to school.
“He wanted to teach and he wanted to coach,” his mother said.
Roane State Community College’s 2+2 program, a collaborative effort with Tennessee Tech, gave Byrd — who had a young daughter, Marklee Mae — the flexibility to work part-time and go to school. He decided while substitute-teaching at Oneida that he wanted to go into special education, a decision that was influenced by another Oneida teacher, Stacey Barnes.
“Houston was a model employee,” said Oneida Middle School principal Kelly Chitwood. “He always had a smile on his face and you could tell he loved our kids. He did bus duty with me every morning and he always made our mornings fun.”
It didn’t take Byrd long to make his mark on the school he had attended as a student more than a decade earlier.
“We had a couple of boys who would go to tutoring, not because they needed the educational aspect of it, but because they needed the role model Houston was to them,” Chitwood said. “He just loved kids.”
Never Say No
A lack of confidence was never a problem for Houston Byrd. Maybe he inherited that from his father, Oneida pharmacist Mark Byrd. When the family’s pharmacy, located next-door to the Coffey medical clinic on Underpass Drive, was destroyed by fire, Byrd was undeterred. He quickly reopened in a temporary building off Main Street, and Mark’s Family Pharmacy recently moved into a new permanent home on 3rd Avenue. Byrd is currently on the Town of Oneida’s board of aldermen, a position he won in his first attempt at running for political office.
Maybe Houston Byrd gained that confidence from his coach, Tony Lambert. In 2012, Lambert’s first year back at the helm at Oneida following a two-year stint at Scott High, his Indians — with Byrd, a senior, helping to anchor the offensive line — won a district championship.
Wherever he got it, there was never any doubt in Byrd’s mind that he was going to land a teaching position as soon as he graduated college. And, once he had that job and learned that his school was looking to build a special-needs playground, he never doubted that it could be done.
“I have always wanted to build a playground at OMS for our kids, specifically our special needs kids,” Chitwood said, explaining that Dr. Melinda McCartt, Oneida Special School District’s school health coordinator, had written several grants but the funding had never been approved.
“Houston saw the need for his kids to have that,” Trina Byrd said.
As a special education teacher, Byrdi — as he was still known by his friends — saw first-hand the need for an all-inclusive program. Children who require special education often have needs that cause them to struggle on traditional playground equipments. It’s not unlike the need that spurred Oneida mother Amy Martin — who has a special needs son of her own — to raise money for an all-inclusive program at Oneida City Park, or for special education teachers at Huntsville Middle School to follow up with a fundraising effort to build an all-inclusive playground at their school. An all-inclusive playground enables kids with special needs to participate in recess and fun times with all their peers.
So, being a first-year teacher didn’t deter Byrd from taking a lead role in the effort to bring an all-inclusive playground to OMS.
“One day Houston came to me and said, ‘Hey, I hear you want to build a playground,’” Chitwood said. “When I told him that we had tried and weren’t successful, he replied, ‘Well, we are going to build a playground. I just needed to hear it straight from you.’”
Getting to Work
As Chitwood tells it, Byrd left her office after that conversation and went straight to work, designing fundraising ideas to generate money for the playground.
The first thing he did was design a t-shirt, which was sold to earn a few bucks at a time to go towards the playground.
“I laughed at him and told him no one was going to buy that shirt because it was so ugly you could tell a guy designed it,” Chitwood recalls with a laugh. “Boy was I wrong.”
People always gravitated towards Byrd. He had a larger-than-life personality and an infectious smile. Perhaps it should’ve been no surprise that people wanted to buy his t-shirt and help build a playground for his students.
Byrd was already planning follow-ups to that initial fundraiser, but he wouldn’t be able to see them through.
On Dec. 10, just over two weeks before Christmas, he died suddenly and unexpectedly at his home. It was a stunning tragedy that gripped the community, especially his school.
But OMS administrators were determined that Byrd’s death wouldn’t be in vain. They picked up the t-shirt fundraiser and kept it going. Then they started selling snow cones at school. From there, they raised funds through concession sales at basketball games, the sale of candy at Valentine’s Day, an Egg Your Yard fundraiser at Easter, and through the sale of hiking t-shirts once the Independent Herald’s Twenty Week Hiking Challenge began.
Soon, the decision was made to name the playground “Byrdi’s Playground,” in memory of Byrd, a decision that Trina Byrd said has “honored and humbled” the family.
From there, other community partners jumped on board. Pizza Hut hosts regular fundraisers, donating a portion of its proceeds to the playground effort. The Roost hosted a poker run, as did Moose’s Sports Bar & Grill, where you can find “Byrdi’s Sammich” on the menu.
Everyone involved with the fundraising effort is constantly looking for new ideas to generate funds. While the Byrds were vacationing, Trina Byrd read an an advertisement that suggested homeowners rent their pools when they aren’t in use to generate extra cash. When they returned home, Mark and Trina began renting out their pool, a fundraiser that will continue through the end of July.
“We rent the whole (pool) area, provide a restroom, party tables and a cooler,” she said. “It’s been a good fundraiser.”
Oneida Middle is about to undertake a brick paver sale. Meanwhile, Pizza Hut Wednesdays will continue, and Snow Cone Fridays will resume once school starts back next month.
“It just can’t go without saying that the people of this community have been so generous with personal donations,” Trina Byrd said.
With $42,000 down and nearly $250,000 to go, Byrdi’s Playground might seem a long way off. But as a new school year approaches, no one is showing any signs of letting down the effort. They’re determined to see it through — for their son, their coworker, their friend.
“There just aren’t any words that convey our appreciation for this community and the kindness and generosity shown to us in memory of Houston,” Trina Byrd said. “Not just the playground, but the cards, letters and memorabilia. It’s been a very humbling experience. I cry a lot.”
No one has forgotten Byrdi. And, thanks to the playground that will soon bear his name, no one ever will. Oneida’s special needs students of the future will never know him as a teacher, but thanks to the playground and the name that’s on it, they won’t forget that he went to bat for them — proof that a teacher can make even a big impact in a short period of time.
“Houston was a father, son, brother, teacher and loyal friend,” his mother said. “He was loyal and fun. He wasn’t a man without flaws, but he had such a big heart. He could argue any situation and leave you feeling like you were wrong, even though you knew you were right — giving you his infamous grin the whole time.
“He is loved. He is missed.”