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Tendai Haggins: Portal helped save my life
Tendai Haggins

Life started out pretty rough for Tendai Haggins. But things are really looking up for the Portal resident. 

Haggins was raised in Portal, and went to school at Willow Hill. He later taught at the school, and now teaches physical education and health at Portal Middle High School.  He also coaches and officiates football, baseball and softball.  

But that’s not all he does. Whenever he can, he fires up his grill and cooks for anyone who wants or needs it. He’s helped with fundraisers, family and community gatherings, and has been there when the community has experienced loss. 

“I’m just a good old country boy who was raised right,” he says with a smile.

Rough beginnings

Haggins lost his mother when he was just 16 years old — she was 36. She had suffered from health issues for a long time, and since Haggins’ 

father wasn’t part of the picture, he had 

no one to turn to.

At the time of his mother’s death, Haggins says they lived in a small home with no running water, no indoor plumbing and they did their cooking outside on a makeshift grill. When she died, he had no money for proper clothing to wear to her funeral.

And that’s when the people of Portal came to his rescue.

I.W. and Virginia Stanton stepped in, along with way too many people to name, Haggins said. 

“I didn’t have clothes to wear that were nice and funeral-like clothes. Miss Virginia took me to buy clothes for the funeral,” he said, adding that the Brown and Spence families were also instrumental in providing for his care at that time. 

Haggins credits much of his care during after his mother’s death to his surrogate parents, Joyce and Tiny Williams, who he looked up to and still appreciates so much. He is constantly working to follow in their footsteps and be successful. But for him, success isn’t about having a lot of money. It simply means being able to pay his bills, live comfortably and be healthy. 

“What else can you ask for?” he said. 

As he was growing up, people in the community still looked out for him. Haggins discovered a love of sports, but often faced difficulty obtaining the needed equipment to participate.

“I worked on the farms in the summer and picked tobacco, and whatever I could do. But when I didn’t have the rest of it, all the teachers and coaches made sure I had what I needed,” he said. 

Haggins began picking tobacco as a pre-teen, and has worked hard ever since. He says that working is just in his bones, and he’s taken lots of odd jobs over the years, many of them provided by local residents who knew he needed the work. At 53, he still works even when he’s on break from school, and says he loves to keep busy in that way.

In fact, it was while he was working that he met a man who would change the course of his life. While working on the Nichols farm one summer as a teenager, Haggins met Coach Scott Baker, who was the third base coach at the time for Georgia Southern University. He noticed Haggins’ athletic ability, and challenged him to get in shape and stay in shape, so that he could try out for GSU’s team.

“I took it as a challenge, to get in shape, and I walked on and made the team, and it was one of the best experiences of my life,” he said. 

Portal steps up again

In 2013, Haggins found himself diagnosed with Sarcoidosis of the lungs. The doctor bills piled up, and Haggins says he got behind, and he was unable to work for a time. He eventually lost his home and his truck. The illness, he said, completely blindsided him.

His grandmother was living with him at the time, and was suffering with dementia and was on dialysis. She told him that he looked bad and admonished him to go to the doctor. 

“I was still being hardheaded, saying I wasn’t sick. All of a sudden one day, I couldn’t breathe. I lost 50 pounds in less than three months,” he said. 

After several visits to area doctors, he was sent to Charleston, where he finally got a diagnosis. He’s been on the mend for the past nearly five years, but still has no idea what caused the illness. He has had no setbacks or new symptoms, after lung biopsies and taking steroids for three years, as well as suffering through pneumonia. 

After their funds were depleted by hospital and doctor bills, and the expenses of going back and forth to Charleston for treatment, Haggins and his wife found themselves living in a 10-foot camper on his cousin’s farm. When things seemed to be at their worst, he says the community once again stepped up and provided for his needs. He points to Roy and Deborah Thompson, and the families of Carol and Ron Waters, Jimmy Parrish and Jimmy Huff.

“Those families, without them,” he said, pausing. “I don’t know where I’d be right now without them.”

These days, Haggins is doing much better. He works at watching his diet and making sure he gets plenty of exercise, walking at least 100,000 steps a week. The key, he says, is to keep busy.

It takes a village

Haggins says that his childhood experiences have taught him that it really does take a village to raise a child, and he and his wife, Jan have opened their home to many children over the years, offering them encouragement and guidance. In fact, for the first 15 years of their marriage, they were only on their own for about six or seven months, having opened their home to family and children in need.

Haggins calls his wife his “backbone and soul,” and says she keeps him grounded. 

“We have a lot of dogs and have helped raise a lot of kids in the community, and they probably wouldn’t have graduated from high school without our help,” he said. “But they are doing great things in the community today.”

When asked why he wanted to become a teacher, Haggins smiles and says that it was “watching his own high school coaches do what they did.” He looked up to men such as Coach Lee Hill, Andy Wall, Mike Sparks and John Page, among others, who to him, looked like they were just having fun. But they were clearly making a difference in his life and many others.

“Those guys just inspired me. Those gentlemen were the men I wanted to be like. I’ve got so many great friends and coaches that I’ve been able to go to and talk to, on a daily basis, or whenever I needed to. I just wanted to do what they did,” he said. “I call it playing with kids and getting paid to do it. It keeps me young. But if I touch one kid and direct him in the right path, I think I’ve done part of my calling.”

The man with the grill

Haggins’ other calling involves a lot of meat and a huge grill. He’s known all over Portal for his cooking skills, which he’s perfected over the years, although he will sheepishly admit that he burned a few things in the beginning. These days, people clamor for what comes off his grill, and he’s excited to be breaking in a new one.

His old grill, which he called “Big Ugly,” was on its last legs during a recent fundraiser, held behind the IGA in Portal. Serving hot dogs and hamburgers and assisted by Portal’s ninth grade class, the effort raised nearly $4,000. He mentioned to someone that his grill needed an upgrade, and word got around the small community.

“Today I have a beautiful ‘hogzilla’ grill that the town bought for me,” he says, smiling. The town raised $5,000 to purchase the grill for him, a Mega Pro Pitmaster BBQ Smoker Grill and Trailer. He was also presented a plaque by the town as its Man of the Decade.

“I am so honored and humbled,” he said. “I don’t think I’m deserving of something that big.”

After all the people of Portal have done for him recently and in days past, Haggins says he just has to give back. So he purchases meat himself and just shows up to grill, whenever and wherever it’s needed. He also cooks turkeys at Thanksgiving and Christmas for anyone who needs them.

“My grill’s gonna be cooking whether I put my one turkey on there or 40 turkeys on there. It’s just the love I have and I just do it. And I enjoy doing it. I just enjoy cooking,” he said. “I enjoy cooking for a crowd. Seeing someone else enjoying what you’re doing , or enjoy the food, and the taste of the food, it just gives my heart joy.”

As for being named an Everyday Hero, Haggins says he’s completely overwhelmed.

“I don’t think I fit that category. I just try to do an honest day’s work. Hopefully I can be a hero to someone,” he said.