COVINGTON, Ga. — Lee Autry, who worked as a teacher and head coach for Indian Creek Middle School’s football and wrestling programs in Newton County, died Saturday, Sept. 4, at the age of 59.
Former students, athletes, coworkers, church members and friends took to social media to mourn the Oxford native’s passing and reflect on his “inspiring” personality.
“I can’t believe he’s really gone,” said Vance Lewis, who identified as one of Autry’s former players. “He pushed every athlete and every student at Indian Creek to be their best. I remember how much he cared for students in ISS and how much he poured into every student to go farther.
“He truly will be missed … I was lucky enough to be an offensive lineman and spend many hours with him in [eighth] grade but it was the [four] years in high school where he would be intentional about seeing me and asking about everything on the mat, field, in the classroom, or at home. I look forward to teaching and inspiring just like him.”
“Coach Autry, I wish someone had told me that a couple of weeks ago would be the last time I saw you,” Tomasina Hall wrote on Facebook for her son, Stevie. “Thank you for your encouragement on the field and off. Thank you for always checking up on me and my sisters. Thank you for always supporting my football efforts, from buying popcorn to help with my fees, to coming out to games. Thank you for making [No.] 24 my number. You always had my back. You are in a better place now, but you will always be missed. It just won’t be the same anymore. Rest easy Sir. Love, Stevie.”
“This one hits way too hard,” wrote Michael Smith-Foot, who works at the middle school. “Head football and wrestling coach at Indian Creek Middle School and good friend has passed away due to COVID. Contracted it a few days ago. Thought he was getting better and then passed away at home. He was fully vaccinated. People, this pandemic is NOT just about the virus. Please take care of yourself…”
A source close to the family confirmed Autry was battling the novel virus, and his death was classified as a COVID-19 death.
Rob Gourlay, a close friend, fellow church member and colleague of Autry, said Autry would be remembered most for his heart.
“His passion for Indian Creek Middle School; his passion for Allen Memorial United Methodist Church; his compassion for others; his heart,” Gourlay said. “He absolutely had the biggest heart.”
Gourlay said Autry took pride in seeing all of his students and athletes be successful, even when they couldn’t see that such success was possible in themselves.
“He loved unconditionally,” Gourlay recalled. “He never saw his students for what they were in the moment, but rather, he saw who he thought they could be … He was so quick to forgive … He encouraged. At times he gave you tough love, but it was from a guy with a heart of gold.
“He was the definition of what a Christian should be,” Gourlay added. “I don’t really know how else to put it.”
According to his obituary, Autry was a 1980 graduate of Newton County High School. He attended Oxford College and graduated from Emory University. He earned his teaching certificate from the University of Georgia.
Gourlay said Autry would also be remembered for being a “home-grown boy” who “came back to give back” to the community.
“His undergrad was in social work, so he could’ve gone anywhere,” he said. “Instead, he came home and made a difference in the lives of thousands of students.”
In addition to teaching and coaching at Indian Creek Middle School for 25 years, Autry spent two years at Eastside High School.
Newton County Schools released the following statement concerning Autry’s death and his impact on the school system:
“Newton County Schools suffered a tremendous blow this weekend with the passing of veteran teacher, Mr. Lee Autry, of Indian Creek Middle School. In addition to his teaching duties, Mr. Autry served as both the head football and head wrestling coach at the school. His death leaves a tremendous void in the Indian Creek family. As such, counselors have been made available to both students and staff as they work through the grieving process. They will remain on campus as long as needed. On behalf of the entire Newton County School System family, we send our heartfelt sympathies to Coach Autry’s family during this very difficult time.”
Autry was preceded in death by his mother, Mary Polson Autry. He is survived by his father and step-mother Andy and Sherry Autry of Covington, his brother Dan Autry of Oxford, and his step-brother and sister-in-law Kevin and Kathy Stallworth of Lake Wales, Florida.
Due to the pandemic, the family has chosen to hold a private funeral service, conducted by J.C. Harwell and Son Funeral Home. Donations may be made to the United Methodist Men at Allen Memorial Church or the Indian Creek Middle School football and wrestling teams.
Gourlay said there would be a Celebration of Life Ceremony held Sept. 18 at 10 a.m. at the Indian Creek Middle School football field.
Gourlay believed it would take a while to move forward from Autry’s death, not only for him personally but the entire community.
“He loved, loved, loved, loved this school, his church, these people and these students,” Gourlay said. “The students could not have a better champion — a better person who was always willing to support them and protect them no matter what … That was Lee Autry.”