Phill and his wife, Sue at Allora's Creekside Carols under the Stars.
Phill and his wife, Sue at Allora's Creekside Carols under the Stars. Deanna Millard

Emotional tributes shared as town mourns loved teacher

THE Warwick community is mourning the death of much loved and deeply admired school teacher Phill Higgins.

The Warwick West State School deputy principal was surrounded by family and friends when he passed away on Sunday, after a battle with cancer.

Phill Higgins was 49 years old and is survived by wife Sue and children Tom, Sally, Mary and Matt.

As the tributes flowed in from around Warwick and beyond, a beautiful and heartfelt letter from Warwick West State School summed up exactly what the school and the community will lose without Mr Higgins.

Principal Jason Callcott said on the report card of life, Phillip Higgins excelled.

"He was an A+ student," said Mr Callcott.

Colleague and school principal Jason Callcott said the school community would miss so much about the man who had "achieved legend status".

"We will miss his wisdom; we will miss our moral compass that helped us make difficult decisions with conviction; and we will miss his irreplaceable humour and sense of fun," Mr Callcott said.

"Phill's report card will sing the praises of his personal characteristics of kindness and compassion.

"He will receive a hearty slap on the back for his sporting prowess, particularly as a talented footballer and his sportsmanship on and off the field, along with his knowledge and commitment to building a strong team."

Mr Callcott said Mr Higgins ticked the creativity box for his innovation in education, which was more about doing what was right for individuals, rather than dancing to a particular curriculum formula.

"And he will earn a gold star for his active citizenship and the values and dedication he brought to community," he said.

"It was these values, along with optimism, enthusiasm, fun and fairness that were at the heart of his leadership.

"Whilst many of these leadership values are intangible, the effect of Phill's leadership in West School is palpable, in fact, extraordinarily powerful.

"He was the solid foundation of West School for over 20 years and the link between entering and exiting principals over those years.

"He was the one who kept the ever necessary routine going, whilst continually building the strong and vibrant culture of the school that people see today."

Mr Higgins started teaching in 1989, completing two years at Thabeban State School.

Wallaville, Winfield (where he became principal at age 25), and Alloway State School followed, before arriving at Warwick West in January 1996.

Mr Callcott said Mr Higgins was a natural leader.

"He didn't have to try to lead, people just followed," he said.

"Phill had an energy that inspired others to be around him and to mirror his attributes and actions."

Mr Callcott said after a couple of years as co-principals, he and Mr Higgins perfected a winning partnership that was the envy of many other school administration teams.

"I was moulded to fit Phill's idea of school administration and indoctrinated into the Phillip Higgins Principal School," he said.

"But then we became an effective three man team; Phill, Cheryl Harris and me.

"At any education forum or business meeting, we could be found working the room, leveraging the situation and extracting the information needed to better our school and keep us at the top of education best practice."

Mr Callcott described his friend and colleague as "so uniquely different".

"Over the years, Phill admitted to not being the greatest academic, but he had the highest emotional intelligence I've known," Mr Callcott said.

"I loved that he backed kids all the way. Perhaps his own school experience was the driver to his firm belief that no child should suffer disadvantage through their education.

"It was his mission to make teachers accountable and he emphasised that it was their job to enable students to be successful in life.

"I never called him my deputy. I could never put him in that box.

"We were co-principals and there was no hierarchy."

Mr Callcott confessed this may have added a layer of confusion for staff at the school.

"Alternatively, I think it was a bonus as staff could check their ideas with Phill, before sending them up the line, and at the same time, he had just the right words and sway to get a good idea over the line with me," he said.

"Phill was a master strategiser. He amazed me with his ability to operate within the shadow of the line.

"If I was to draw a parallel, I would say he was a champion board game player and had the ability to get inside the head of the other players and engineer the game to get the best outcome.

"Whilst this has an air of devious about it, his powers were only ever used for good, not evil."

Mr Callcott champions his mate and colleague as the 'best mentor in the office'.

"Every day, all day, there were professional conversations flowing around school leadership and student improvements," he said.

"It was a rolling role play.

"He was like an olden-day scoop reporter who was a brilliant source of information on every topic.

"Grants were a perfect example. He'd dream up a project to fit the grant criteria, wrap the words around his dream and presto, there would be tanks, a chook pen or ping pong tables!"

According to Mr Callcott, Mr Higgins could step onto any field and make a winning try.

"I was envious of his ability to play across every level of education life," he said. "He was the life of the party whether it was with staff, kids, parents or a room full of principals."

Mr Callcott recalled one instance where Mr Higgins' antics could have been seriously career-limiting for both of them.

"Phill convinced the Deputy Director-General of Education and the Director-General of Education to attend a dinner in Warwick," he said.

"Phill sweet-talked the owner into conducting a fire drill and while she ordered everyone outside, Nick Meyer assembled an Outback Spectacular style routine inside.

"Whip-cracker Nick, complete with a drizabone and stock whip, proceeded to whip a paper prop out of the DG's hand in a huge risk-taking, but highly entertaining moment."

Nowhere did Mr Higgins' love of life and sense of humour shine more brightly than on morning parade at West school.

Together with partner in crime, Nitwit Nick, they were the talking topic at many family dinner tables.

Little voices filled with excitement would enthral the family with what happened on parade that day.

Whilst Mr Higgins and Nitwit Nick's antics were not Oscar-winning, they hit a high with their young audience.

A lost football game bet with Aaron Payne saw Phill dressed in women's clothing for the school day.

Rodeo Queens were shown the Phill Higgins charm during October as some crazy skit was concocted for them to participate in, normally to the roars of the children and the 'oh no' of adults.

Growing up the youngest of six boys, it would have been easy for Phill to follow the lead of his brothers, some of whom have also found their place and success in the education sector.

But walking in someone else's shadow was never for Phill Higgins.

He had his own light to shine and shine it he did.

A normal school day for Mr Callcott, Cheryl, teachers, other school staff, students and parents will never be the same without Mr Higgins.

What will they miss?

Mr Higgins confided to a trusted friend that he wanted to be remembered.

But for the Warwick West community, it is a matter of "How could we ever forget him?".

His legacy is not just the bricks and mortar of West School, which has seen incredible infrastructure added during Phill's tenure. He leaves West School with its unique 'feeling'.

Its SHINE values of security, healthy relationships, integrity, nurturing and excellence, embody everything about him.

He is that teacher that students talk about and in years to come, will be relayed to their own children as the legend of their school days. .

He is the teacher who supported parents as they navigated the good, the bad and the ugly of parenting in modern society.

He will be that teacher who made a difference in young, impressionable lives and the man who showed firm kindness to the naughty kids, whilst helping to shape them into better students and human beings.

He believed that education was the gateway to success for all and he worked damn hard to make sure that on his watch, every 'kiddie' got the best possible start through their time at West.

Phill epitomised the quote that says, "You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough."

His footprint has been stamped on the education industry and the hearts of his teaching colleagues, students and parents.

His legacy will be the continued success of a school that he has been instrumental in building and a school culture that is the mirror to all the values he showed and taught us.

Mr Callcott said "We thank his family, Sue, Tom, Sally, Mary and Matt, who so generously shared this special man with all of us."

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