This Sunday, May 5, from 1-3 p.m., patrons of the Nevada School District will have the opportunity to offer thanks and well wishes to the man who describes his years as superintendent of the Nevada Schools as a "time of chaos," due to the ongoing building projects that have occurred through his tenure.
"No one building avoided being under some type of change, from having third and fourth grades at the middle school to construction taking place around you," Walker said, but adds he’s grateful that the students, staff and community all "went with the flow."
Walker, 62, who could be coined a quiet, thoughtful and considerate leader, was named Nevada’s superintendent of schools in 2004, after serving the district in other capacities for 28 years prior to that. From 1976-1979, Walker was an assistant principal and teacher at the old Milford building for grades five and six. Then in 1979, he was named middle school principal for grades five through eight, a position he held until being named superintendent.
His decision to take the district’s top job eight years ago is something that just kind of happened. "I was not actively seeking this position, but had applied at a neighboring district. I was thinking about a change in my career," Walker said. A Nevada School Board member asked Walker if he might be interested in applying for the Nevada position. "After thinking about it, I decided to," he said.
Now, after 41 years of dedicating his life to education, Walker will celebrate his retirement at the conclusion of this school year. He will be succeeded by Steve Gray, who is moving to Nevada from Janesville.
How it all started
As a youth, Walker attended Catholic schools. His grade-school years were spent at St. Michael’s School in Whittemore. His high school years were spent at Algona’s Garrigan High School, which served five area parishes.
Walker said his high school physical education teacher and coach was a very positive influence in his life, and led him to begin thinking about going into teaching and coaching as a career. "I also pondered getting a business degree," he admitted, so with both thoughts still going through his head, he studied courses in both education and business when he attended Briar Cliff College in Sioux City, earning a bachelor’s degree in physical education (his major) and business and biology (his minors).
He went from Briar Cliff to Iowa State University, where he worked on a master’s degree in educational administration and eventually landed his first PE teaching job as a graduate assistant in the Iowa State Physical Education Department. For one year, Walker taught PE 101 classes for the university.
In 1973, he took his first job in the K-12 educational system, becoming a PE and science teacher at Granville Spalding Schools. He taught PE to students in grades four-12, and taught science to students in grades six-eight. He also taught high school biology.
Also at Granville Spalding, Walker was the head high school baseball coach and an assistant coach in the basketball program. Having baseball as a passion is something not everyone may know about Walker, who also coached baseball as an assistant at Nevada High School from 1976-78. Though he hasn’t coached it in years, Walker, a diehard Yankee fan, said, "I love baseball and continue to enjoy the sport. My oldest son and I took a 10-day road trip to visit nine major league ballparks about six years ago."
Coming to Nevada
But baseball didn’t bring Walker to Nevada. In fact, quite the opposite. Walker was looking to not be as involved in coaching, so he could focus on the administrative side of education. He wanted to complete his master’s degree, and he knew being closer to Iowa State would help him do that.
He interviewed for the assistant principal/teaching position at Milford a year earlier and was offered the job, but he had to turn it down because of timing – he couldn’t get released at the time from his contract at Granville Spalding. But the person Nevada hired stayed only a year, and Ken Shaw, superintendent at the time, still had Walker’s number. "I got a call from Ken and … I said yes, and came and met with the school board and was offered the job."
Walker and his wife, Madeleine, who was also a teacher at Granville Spalding, were excited to come to Nevada. It put them closer to ISU for his master’s work, and it put them closer to Madeleine’s parents, who lived in Des Moines.
Those first few years at Milford were a charming start to a long Nevada career. Walker said he still remembers Milford’s "Olympic Day," but his fondest memories are of the "uniqueness of having around 200 fifth- and sixth-graders in a building seven miles out in the country. And the closeness of the staff," he said.
When he became principal of Nevada Middle School, Walker said he was excited for the opportunity to have a role in shaping kids’ education. He also enjoyed getting to know the students.
"That is one piece I missed when I moved to the superintendent’s position. The opportunity to be around them and really get to know them dropped, since I was not around them on a day-to-day basis," he said.
Over his years as an educator, Walker said he has enjoyed watching students succeed at what they are doing, whether that be with a History Day project, a class presentation on plant cells or accomplishments in athletics. He believes that being a leader to kids requires that you have patience and ask the right questions when you are chatting with them. "Kids will tell you what they think you want to hear, and if you don’t ask the right question, they won’t tell you."
In his time as superintendent, Walker has definitely seen his share of construction. But he said the biggest challenge as the district’s leader has always been the budget – "trying to balance the budget and not short-change the programs and offerings we provide for our kids."
His greatest accomplishments over the past eight years, Walker said, also involve construction in that it was a way to improve the facilities for teachers and students – giving them the opportunity to learn in an environment conducive to that undertaking. Walker has also been very proud of the district’s move into 1:1 laptop learning.
As he looks ahead to retirement, Walker said he is excited to have his evenings free and to spend more time with his kids and grandchildren, as well as his own mother.
The Walkers have two grown sons; Matt, who with his wife Jill, have two children and are expecting a third in late summer and Eric, who with his wife April, have two children. Both boys live in the Minneapolis area, about four miles apart.
While he’s been chided by many that he should now run for mayor, Walker with that quiet, kind smile that so many have gotten to know over the years, says "no thanks" to that opportunity. He’s ready to unwind.
"Overall, Nevada has been good to me and my family. I have met so many great people during my career. I will miss the people I work with, from the school board and administration to the teachers and support staff. The 37 years (in Nevada) have gone by really fast, and it has gone that way because of these people and their commitment to kids."
And one more thing Walker hopes for in retirement – running into former students. He said he always enjoys hearing the stories of where life has led these young people, many of whom he played a part in leading down the path of education.