As far as “difficult and thankless jobs,” it’s got to rank up there right alongside umpiring behind home plate in a Little League game, commode cleaning in a quarantined hospital, and roofing on a hot summer day. (Hey, come to think of it, being a superintendent of public schools is a lot like all of those jobs put together.)

Nationwide, most superintendents don’t last much longer than a snowball in July. Stay five years in one place and that’s a very long time in the public school superintendent business.

I will now tell you a bit about the 10 separate superintendents with whom I’ve been blessed to serve the children and citizens of Bristol, Virginia, over the years.

Dr. David Lenker was my first “super.” I remember him as a largely “hands-off” guy. The type who let teachers teach. He was generally much loved by us all because of that fact.

Bill Shanks had a laid-back, approachable style that belied his tremendous problem-solving abilities. He often headed off and solved problems before they became noticeable, an oft-underappreciated, even unnoticed, skill. Mr. Shanks was also an ardent supporter of the value of students being involved in extra-curricular activities.

Dr. Idanna Aaron never had children of her own. I remember how indignant and angry I felt at a school board meeting when a citizen publicly questioned her ability to do her job well simply because she had no children. This dear and dedicated lady was better to children than many parents I’ve seen. Children were her literally her life. Thousands of them.

Dr. Francis Finan was a brilliantly intellectual man. Yet it was his genuine sense of humor and huge heart that allowed him to form very meaningful personal relationships. His quick and gentle wit often helped diffuse most any volatile situation.

Dr. Ina Danko was a diligent, hard-working, “hands-on” lady. Her relentless persistence and honest dedication to her job were contagious. You could not be around Dr. Danko for two minutes and not come away working harder at whatever you were called to do.

Dr. Doug Arnold was an ardent believer in American public education as The Great Equalizer. Dr. Arnold, a native Bristolian, was the ultimate example for all our students of meager means … of what grand heights they could attain, should they work hard and value their chance at public education.

Dr. Mark Lineburg was the model of limitless energy, topped by endless layers of vision. Though not a native Bristolian, he dearly loved our town as much as anyone. Dr. Lineburg may have generated as many progressive new programs/ideas as any super I ever knew. Several of those programs/ideas are still in place.

Mr. Rex Gearheart was so impressionable that I have devoted an entire column here to him before. No one loved the poor more. In fact, it was primarily his authentic connection to Bristol’s poor that made us close and true friends from the start, and we remained such until his untimely passing.

Mr. Gary Ritchie was the great “healer” of our entire school system. No one in all the world could have served as our interim superintendent (at such a critical time for us all) more wisely than did he. Look up the word “grace” in any dictionary, my friends. A pic of this man should forever be right beside it.

Dr. Keith Perrigan is my current super. Several qualities of my previous superintendents are readily present in Dr. Perrigan; he holds a passionate conviction in “education as the answer,” exhibits limitless energy and vision, and promotes an ardent belief in the value of extra-curricular activities.

Though I never served with him directly, I should also mention a former Bristol Tennessee City Schools superintendent, Dr. Steve Dixon, a friend who served the city for many years and has helped countless children on both sides of our town.

I have been honored to serve the children and citizens of Bristol alongside all these dedicated “super” men and women. Please honor your own local “super,” my friends, where ever you may live. Theirs is an extremely multi-faceted and difficult job.

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Ben Talley is an inductee into the National Teachers Hall of Fame, a former Virginia Teacher of the Year, and a McGlothlin Award Winner for Teaching Excellence.

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