April 29, 2013 10:07:51 AM
Sarah Fowler - [email protected]
Bob Williford has been reaching students for 40 years, but as he enters his last month in the education system, he says he views his departure more as taking a break than walking away.
"I'm not really saying retiring," Williford says. "I think God is letting me know it's time to get out of education. After 40 years, you can only imagine the blessings I've received from students that I've crossed paths with and to go and see them do well in other areas. I think there has come a time in my life that I finally have a grandchild, both my kids live in Madison and I think it's time to spend a little more time with them," he said.
Among the various mementos on his desk is a Bible verse, Isaiah 26:3 that has guided him as an educator. It reads: "You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in you."
A self-proclaimed "Columbus boy," Williford graduated from Lee High School in 1969. He graduated from Mississippi State University and then returned to his alma mater to be a teacher and coach in 1973. He taught at Lee High School for 15 years before he became the assistant principal in 1988. After five years as assistant principal, he became principal of Columbus High West in the fall of 1993, where he worked for three years. When Columbus High West merged into Columbus High, Williford was the assistant principal of the new school for one year. In 1997, he became principal. After 32 years in the public school system, he retired in 2005.
With a chuckle, Williford recalled having teachers on his staff while he was principal who had taught him in high school.
"Can you imagine? I went to the school, went to college and came back to my school and eventually became principal," he says. "How amazing. But of course they were my best supporters because they had seen me grow up."
After his retirement from Columbus High, Williford said he and his wife, Nancy, were exploring other options and tossing around the idea of leaving Columbus. Then one day Immanuel Christian School came calling.
"Nancy and I had lived here forever and we thought, 'OK, God, we're going to be open to wherever you want to send us.' I had talked to people in Memphis and the other side of Tuscaloosa about jobs. I was still at Columbus High and Immanuel called me and said 'We hear you're retiring, what are you going to do?' I said 'I'm going to go to work, I'm only 53."
"God plunked me down right here. And then within a month, Nancy was diagnosed with cancer. I think all the time about, 'Man, what if we were moving, what if we had left here?' The support system that we had, Fairview Baptist Church, Columbus High people, Immanuel people, God meant it to be."
Williford said while he felt support during his time in both public and private school systems, being a principal at a private school like Immanuel is vastly different.
"It's a different setting in that it is a Christian school and the things we can do, thank goodness, are based on God and we keep God at the center of what we do."
No matter where he has been or what role he has played, Williford said he looks back on the 40 years and sees his chosen profession as a blessing.
"There's not one negative thing," he says. "The 40 years have been such a blessing, I really can't go anywhere in Columbus where I don't see a student that I've touched, parents that I've touched. That's what makes your heart feel good about it."
When asked if he had a special memory or one child that stuck out in his mind, Williford's expression changed from bright to somber. Recalling a memory from years ago, he quietly spoke of a young man who died tragically in a street fight.
"When you read it, it broke your heart," he said. "Sometimes there are children that we just can't reach. It doesn't matter how hard we try, the strategies you use for them. I don't think we can get every child. I wish I could sit here and say that I'd touched them all and they've all done well but there have been some along the way that you tried to warn them about some things that could happen and going down some paths and they still went down those paths."
That sobering reality is brightened by thoughts of students who did succeed.
"I'm a pretty positive person," he says. "I think about all the positive and the good things that we've done and the good kids, even the ones that had trouble and struggled and turned things around, the kids who actually got in trouble in school and you had to do discipline measures and then you're sitting up here five or 10 years later and you get a call from them or a letter from them and they say 'You know, you were right. You helped me.' That's what I look at far more than the ones that didn't quite make it."
Although he devoted his life's work to education, Williford really didn't choose the profession as much as it chose him.
"I definitely feel like this is where I'm supposed to be. It was unreal because I was a senior in high school at Lee and one of my high school coaches, Tuffy Bourland, he asked Birney Imes and Andy Brislin and I to help him coach spring training with this little football team," Williford says. "At that time I was just a senior headed to college and that's when I kind of fell in love with working with kids and doing that. So it was just kind of a natural thing. I fell into it and then when I went to Lee High School I was blessed to be back at my high school."
While he is leaving the school system, Williford admits he's a little uncomfortable leaving a vocation he has pursued his entire adult life.
"Whew, it's nervous, it makes me nervous," he says. " It's like, 'OK, you've been doing it so long,' but I'm comfortable if this is what God wants me to do and it's where I'm headed."
Sarah Fowler covered crime, education and community related events for The Dispatch.