MERIDEN -- Washington Middle School Principal Raymond Southland died unexpectedly from a medical incident late Saturday night, school officials said Monday. He was 58.
Superintendent of Schools Mark Benigni said the news came as a “complete shock” when he found out Saturday night. “All indications” are that Southland died from a massive heart attack, said Benigni, who has been in contact with Southland’s wife, Andrea.
Southland had experienced some heart issues over the years, Benigni said, but recovered to the point where he could walk upwards of five miles in a day. “Everybody was so happy with the progress he had been making,” Benigni said
“Nobody expected this call,” Board of Education President Mark Hughes said.
Hughes and Benigni said Southland’s death is a huge loss to Washington and the entire Meriden education community. Southland, born and raised in Meriden, was hired as assistant principal at Washington in 2010 and later succeeded Robert Montemurro as principal in 2012, when Montemurro left to become principal of Platt High School.
“Ray was the best of the best,” Benigni said. “Everyone got along with Ray because he was such a wonderful person. He made kids and staff feel special every day. Ray just modeled every day how you should treat people and how you should never give up on kids.”
Hughes said he’ll remember Southland for his “contagious earlobe-to-earlobe smile” and glass-half-full attitude. Southland was “extremely student-centered” and often stepped out of his office to interact with students, Hughes said.
“Any time I had the privilege of walking through (Washington), never did they have to pull him out of his office. He was always with students,” said Hughes, who works as a school administrator for another school system.
Hughes said Southland’s interface with students earned him their respect and admiration over time.
“One of the most important things any administrator can do is be out of their office and interacting with kids. That’s how the kids got to see his personality,” Hughes said. “... For Ray, he was a part of their learning. It wasn't so much the principal was a scary thing, it was something to look up to. He was the leader of the school, there was no doubt about that.”
After graduating from Maloney High School in 1979, Southland worked for 10 years at the Mountainside Special Event Facility in Wallingford, a job that had him running parties and working with children and teens.It was during those years that one of Southland's former wrestling coaches advised him to get into education. Southland enrolled at Central Connecticut State University and got his teaching degree. His first job was at Southington High School. After that, he taught at Platt High School for five years and then was hired as athletic director at Maloney. At the same time, he attended classes at Southern Connecticut State University to get his sixth-year degree in administration.
Benigni said Southland recognized the impact that public education had on him and got into education to give the same to others.
Southland first became an administrator in 2005 when he was hired as an assistant principal at Cromwell High School. Benigni worked with Southland for two years in Cromwell while he was principal of the high school from 2008 to 2010, when Benigni became Meriden’s superintendent.
That same year, Southland wanted so badly to work in and give back to his hometown that he made a lateral career move -- from high school assistant principal to middle school assistant principal -- to come to Meriden.
"I want to work in Meriden,” Southland was quoted as saying in 2012 Record-Journal story about his promotion to principal. “This is where I grew up, it's exciting. It's the best place to work in the state; such positive things are happening."
“It allowed him to try to give back,” Hughes said about Southland’s return, “and do something in the community that made him who he was.”
Washington Middle School staff members and families were notified of Southland’s death Sunday, Benigni said. Benigni, who has two children attending Washington, said breaking the news “wasn’t an easy conversation.”
“He just had a way of making kids feel special,” Benigni said.
“Ray's steadfast leadership, compassion, and generosity will be honored and cherished by his WMS family as we remember the way he touched our lives,” Washington assistant principals Jessica Showerda and Daniel Corsetti wrote in an email to staff.
Washington Middle School was open from 9 to 11 a.m. Monday morning to allow staff members to meet and grieve, Benigni said.
Southland’s family is currently planning to hold a memorial service sometime mid-August to allow the community to commemorate Southland, according to Benigni. Details will be communicated as they become available.