He was firm but fair, knew every student's name, welcomed them to join him for lunch and was a booster of academics and athletics.

He was soft-spoken but always carried a bull horn.

About 40 people who went to schools where T.L. Collier served as principal honored him Saturday with a surprise 82nd birthday party. Collier retired in 1990 as principal at North Charleston High School, and before that he served as principal of the former Bonds-Wilson High School. He spent 42 years in the education field.

With a cake and a card, and with wishes sent from many states and troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, the former students shared dinner with the principal that inspired them many years ago. Some think Collier's firm hand prevented problems that could have materialized in the era when integration was taking place.

"He had a tough job on his hands managing the tensions that were there when they pushed us all together," Philip Weidman, who left North Charleston in 1980 when his family moved, and he finished school upstate.

"He got me through school. He was tough but he was fair, and if he said something, he meant it," remembers Carlos Wright, Bonds-Wilson's Class of 1981.

"He knew everybody's name and he always treated us with respect, and we knew we'd better treat him and our teachers with respect," recalled Tammy Drawdy Johnson of Sumter, a member of North Charleston's Class of 1988. "He knew if your grades were slipping, and if he knew what was wrong he would make you fix it. Failure was not an option," she said.

Collier enjoyed conversing with students during his tenure, and though he spoke softly and with concern, his bullhorn was always nearby. "He walked up and down the hallway with that bullhorn, saying, 'Students, let's get to class,' " recalled Kiki Doscher of Summerville, a member of North Charleston's Class of 1989.

Collier, who's enjoys golfing and bowling while retired, said the surprise party was a thrill. Some of his former students had not seen him in 20 years, but said he hasn't changed. Collier noted that the students have grown and matured since they were teens.

"I love my students and I didn't play with them," he said. He said he made sure students know: "I'm dad until you go home."