Alumni Spotlight

Paul R. Setser, '61

By: Devin Hanners, '09
June 12, 2014

There are individuals we encounter in life who are so inspiring that we cannot help to do our best around them; individuals that remind us that at the end of the day the only effort that we should ever give is our best. The only job that we should ever do is one where nothing is left on the table – a job where nothing else is ever acceptable. They help us stand up a little straighter, work a little harder and even take a little more pride in what we do. We are better because of them. Some even seem born to play the role. You know them well – they might have been a parent or a teacher. Or in this case, a high school principal.
 
Born in Auxier, Ky., Paul Randall Setser grew up with a tale that is unfortunately all too common to residents of the mountains. Economically challenged and impoverished during the best of times, he lost his father at age nine. That all changed when he came to “The Hill” in 1957.
 
Recommended by former high school classmates to then Pikeville College head basketball coach John Renfro, Setser was invited to attend a workout with the team. Coach Renfro had one scholarship available to an athlete of outstanding promise, but his goal was to split it in half to give two athletes at 50 percent tuition waiver, thereby affording two opportunities for education.
 
This was a good plan, except for the fact Setser had no money. He explained to the coach that he could not attend school unless given a full tuition waiver. Fortunately for him, his athletic prowess impressed the coach so much that by the end of the workout he had altered his plan to give Setser the entire amount of funding.
 
In 1957, Setser came to Pikeville College on a basketball scholarship. Setser says that “Pikeville College was like a Godsend to me. After I received the scholarship, that opened up everything for me.” He says his time spent on “The Hill” was quite productive. Having little extra money, his time was spent working hard – both on and off the court. He notes, “I could not have asked for a better place to have gone to school.”
 
When I asked about some of his favorite memories, Setser informed me that to this day he still has a scrapbook filled with the memories and events from his collegiate basketball career, including sophomore year when he was hurt during the game that determined who advanced to the national NAIA finals in Kansas City. He still remembers scoring 26 points. Setser, number 32, would later go on to be among the first class inducted into the Pikeville College Athletic Hall of Fame.
 
He also entertained me with the tale of acquiring his first business suit. Unable to afford one at the time, Setser said then president emeritus Dr. A.A. Page wished to “… congratulate me on conducting myself both on and off the court.” He brought Setser to his home and allowed him to choose a suit he wanted from Page’s personal collection, a memory he says stands out among all others to this day.
 
Setser says his time spent on “The Hill” prepared him for his lifelong dream – to make a difference in young people’s lives as a high school principal. “I always felt if I became a principal that I could do the things that students needed. I felt like I would be best there.” He credits the institution with giving him the education and drive to both lift himself out of poverty, and to help others do the same.
 
Graduating in 1961, he took a job as a basketball coach at Oil Springs Elementary School in order to get his foot in the door of the education system. He held the position until 1969 when the superintendent asked him to move into the principal position (called head teacher position since at that time Setser did not yet have his master’s degree in school principalship). After one year, the superintendent was so pleased by Setser’s performance and asked him to complete his master’s in school principalship and to officially realize his dream.
 
Setser pursued his master’s degree “piece meal,” noting that he would drive down a couple nights a week. As the time drew nearer to completion, he relocated to Morehead for a while to finish the degree full-time.
 
After graduation, Setser went to Porter High School to serve as elementary school principal before the superintendent approached him once again. Four schools were consolidating to become new Johnson Central and the superintendent was looking for a youthful and energetic individual to lead the new school. Laughing wistfully at the memory, he noted that he was somewhat intimidated at the job. At the young age of 34, to be a leader for 1,200 students was a daunting task. He had only been a principal for three years at a smaller elementary school.
 
Despite his fears, Setser knew he could not let his reservations stop him from realizing his dream. This would prove to be the most influential decision of his life. He says that when he moved into Johnson Central, “Everything fell into place.”
 
His tenure began in the 1973, and lasted until 1991. He is the longest serving principal for Johnson Central. In honor of his contributions and outstanding service, the gymnasium at Johnson Central was renovated and named the Paul R. Setser Eagle Fieldhouse in 2013.
 
A humble man, Setser never mentioned being a hall of fame inductee for Pikeville College, or later being recruited for the Cincinnati Reds professional baseball team. Instead, he was eager to share his advice he often gave students. “I had two rules. First, be the best student you can possibly be. If you’re an A student, be an A student. If you’re a C student, be the best C student you can possibly be. Second, be the best person you can be. Never do anything that would not reflect well on you, your school or your family.”
 
Setser shared many stories about his experiences with students. These ranged from incidents of turning incidents of stolen articles into lessons about honesty and compassion to being there for students having a hard time at home. As someone who had grown up impoverished and able to make it because of a scholarship at Pikeville College, Setser always tried to impress upon his students the importance of an education, especially if they were similarly challenged.
 
His kids have never forgotten him or his life lessons. For his 75th birthday, his daughters Paula and Sheri gathered comments and stories from his former students. The project exceeded their expectations, with hundreds of fond memories for the principal. There were accounts of how he treated everyone equally, making himself available when someone needed him and always impressing the need for students of the mountains to have an education. He says the memories were overwhelming. “It validates my work.”
 
Sharing advice for today’s young people, he said, “An education is even more important today. Treat others with respect, and command respect for yourself.”
 
Today, Setser enjoys his retirement. He likes to landscape and travel with his wife Pat. He also enjoys spending time with his children and grandchildren. “I never dreamed they would name a building after me. I couldn’t believe it. You don’t hear that about principals.”
 
At that moment it occurred to me that it is this kind of humble dedication to a lifetime’s worth of values has both guided one man over the path of a successful career, and life, and also thousands of others along the way. This kind of discipline is a rare thing indeed. We can all take a page out of this former athletic star’s playbook.

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