TALLADEGA COUNTY, AL (WBRC) - Students and faculty are finding numerous ways to honor an ROTC instructor at Talladega High School who died over the weekend.
SFC Michael Tatum died on Sunday at UAB Medical Center after what was described as a lengthy illness.
Tatum, who lived in Georgia but commuted to Talladega every day, had been a drill instructor at the high school's ROTC program for seven years. Prior to that he worked at Wenonah and Ramsay high schools in Birmingham.
Since Tatum had been place in the ICU in April, students met at the Talladega High School flagpole every morning to pray for him. On Monday morning, most of the student body and faculty joined them. After that, school officials say counselors and ministers spoke to students.
On Wednesday, a bouquet of flowers remained at the flagpole.
The student who led the daily prayers, Conner Gaskin, remembered SFC Tatum as someone who often looked out for students who especially needed help.
"They had nowhere to turn, you know, they didn't know what to do, he'd just guide them and put them on the right path," Gaskin remembered. "They could be failing school or wanting to drop out, and he'd get them jobs, help them join the military, have productive lives."
Tatum was also remembered as a tough drill sergeant with a heart of gold and a sense of humor, often assigning nicknames to his cadets.
"He was very lovable," recalled Saryna Thacker, another ROTC student and Talladega High School junior. "He did intimidate us, but, you know, you always felt welcome here. And even after he's gone I can still feel it."
On a week filled with preparations for final exams and graduation, the outpouring of grief and tributes to Tatum continued. As late as Wednesday, blackboards were still full of messages to Tatum from people who remembered what he meant to them.
"Heaven has truly gained an awesome angel," wrote one student. A blackboard devoted just to tributes from faculty included a message calling him "the best coach in the building" and saying "Polo Fridays will never be the same."
His supervisor at Talladega High School, Lt. Col. Sonia Deyampert, remembered him as a whole list of things.
"He was a soldier, first of all," Deyampert recalled. "He was a leader, he was a mentor, he was a friend, he was anything that you needed him to be."
Funeral services are set for Thursday, May 21 10 a.m. at the Oxford Civic Center in Oxford, because, as the parent of an ROTC student told us, "it's the only place around here big enough" for the number of mourners.