One of the most meaningful traditions at the McCallie School happens during Commencement exercises. As the names of the graduates are read, they receive their diplomas then walk across the stage to shake the hand of the headmaster as he welcomes them into the ‘long blue line of McCallie Men.’
May 18, 2014, marks the final McCallie Commencement for Headmaster R. Kirk Walker ’69 as he sends off the Class of 2014 with the tools to tackle the next stage in their lives, an encouraging word and the promise of a lifetime of brotherhood. He is retiring at the end of this school year.
Commencement has a very personal meaning for him as he reflects on his own McCallie graduation in 1969 (he gave the valedictory address) as well as those of his sons Rob, 1999, and Whit, 2002. His daughter Caroline graduated from Girls Preparatory School in 2004.
His McCallie career began on February 1, 1963 when he received a letter accepting him into the seventh grade.
“The next six years were some of the most important in my life,” he says. “The school helped to shape my character, my sense of honor and my commitment to service. It challenged me to be my best, and it inspired me to be a lifelong learner. Of course, it also taught me how to shine my shoes for the daily military inspection.”
Dr. Walker’s early career ambitions were to be either a lawyer or a journalist. He remembers fondly his work as editor of the eight-page, monthly student newspaper, “The Tornado,” and the sense of accomplishment he received as he met deadlines and it went to press.
But his experiences with great teachers ultimately led him in a different direction.
“Over time, I realized that the interactions in the classroom between teachers and students could be life-changing,” he says. “They had been for me, and I felt that I was called to continue to be a part of that, even if it was on the other side of the desk.”
One would think that a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of North Carolina could write his own ticket in the job market.
“I sent out 120 applications,” Dr. Walker says with a laugh. “For several days, I was getting rejection letters faster than I could type new applications. In the end, I received three inquiries and one offer."
His first teaching job was at a school in Nashville where he taught English and speech and worked with the debate team. He also coached football and track and anything else they asked him to do.
School administrators suggested he work on a master’s degree which led to a doctorate and eventually a job as a Secondary Supervisor with the Ft. Campbell, Ky., School System.
“At a school system on an Army post where the rate of student and faculty turnover was extremely high, I learned that being able to engage students quickly was the key,” he says.
His career as a headmaster began in an atypical way. He received a letter from an acquaintance in Chattanooga that said, “If you are willing to be considered as headmaster of Bright School, do nothing.”
“That is what it said, honestly,” he says. “So I decided to do nothing; and the rest, as they say, is history.”
“It was a great opportunity. It was a wonderful job that led to another wonderful job. I really feel like I was called to all three of the significant jobs that I’ve done in my life.”
A Leader of Schools
Dr. Walker accepted the position of Headmaster at Bright School in Chattanooga in 1982. Bright is a co-ed day school for pre-K through sixth-grade students. He returned to Nashville in 1990 as the Headmaster at Ensworth School, leading the K-8 co-ed day school.
While in Nashville, he was serving on the McCallie Board of Trustees when Spencer J. McCallie III ’55 announced his retirement.
“I never really thought about applying for the job at McCallie. I was very happy and my family was very happy in Nashville. I was also confident that they had lots of outstanding candidates for the position. So when the head of the search committee called me and asked me to apply, I assumed that they just needed someone to swell the crowd. I told him, ‘I will do it because McCallie asked.’”
Dr. Walker was hired by his alma mater in 1999 to take over the leadership of the school. A unique element about his appointment to McCallie which was not lost on alumni and friends was that he would be the first administrator outside the school’s founding family to fill this role. He was also stepping into the large shoes worn by popular Headmaster Spencer III, grandson of one of the founding fathers and Headmaster on the Ridge for 25 years from 1974 to 1999.
If Dr. Walker felt any apprehension at all, he never let it show.
“On one level, I tried not to think about it too much,” he says. “I felt that I’d been called to do this. I decided I would give it my best shot and see what would happen. I knew that statistically anyone following a long-term head and lasting more than three or four years was fairly rare. I expected that might be the case for me.”
That forecast couldn’t have been more off. The school continues to thrive under Dr. Walker. Over his 15-year tenure, McCallie has added a sixth grade class level, expanded enrollment by 30 percent and enlarged the campus grounds from 105 acres to 140. Under his leadership, the school has raised $57 million in new capital and $65 million in planned estate gifts, and the annual fund has increased by more than 90 percent.
Mr. McCallie is quick to praise Dr. Walker and his achievements.
“I have known hundreds of heads of very good schools during my decades in several headmaster associations and as a board member of four independent school associations,” he says. “Occasionally, there was a consensus that the long-term good work of one head had been diminished by his or her successor, to the great regret of the alumni and to the dismay of the retired headmaster.
“I have had the great pleasure of seeing McCallie prosper in every way under Kirk and his Board of Trustees. I have enjoyed hearing about progress and new programs on every front. Parents, alumni and faculty have given me glowing reports, and I was thrilled with the recent McCallie experience of my grandson (Spencer Gardner ’12). I know that the McCallie family headmasters before me would agree that Kirk Walker has enhanced our legacy.”
That legacy has been very important for Dr. Walker.
“I remember when I was interviewed for the position, people would ask me ‘what is your vision for the school?’” he says. “My answer then is still my answer now. McCallie has a powerful and clear mission. My vision is to advance that mission, to help to translate it for the next generation of students, to assist in setting goals and to provide encouragement and support for those individuals who make that mission a reality every day. I have felt privileged to be part of moving the legacy forward.”
Of all the changes that have been made during Dr. Walker’s tenure, the facilities are the most obvious. McCallie has added a dining hall, an indoor tennis complex and two dormitories under his watch, along with the renovations of multiple facilities. Construction will begin this summer on a new science, technology and engineering building in the heart of campus which will fittingly be named “Walker Hall.” (See page 9)
“While all of the projects have been important for the school, I have been particularly pleased about the Dining Hall and the enhancements to the Chapel,” he says. “Both are such important spaces for fostering community.”
Other changes are less obvious. The curriculum has expanded. Courses have been added in drama, robotics, sculpture, Biblical ethics, Chinese, German, advanced mathematics and guitar. Additionally, a Saturday enrichment program was initiated for boarding students.
Beyond facilities and the curriculum, he notes how the students themselves have changed.
“I am very impressed with the way that our students treat each other; with respect and encouragement. I’d like to believe that I played some role in encouraging an environment in which that happens.”
Perhaps the most trying challenges of his time at McCallie occurred because of the nation’s financial crisis in 2008. The school’s endowment declined by 25 percent, and parents were losing their jobs or, at the least, had diminished resources.
Virtually every independent school in the country was affected by the shaky economy. Many schools chose to downsize personnel, students or financial aid, or to reduce all three areas. Guided by a steady mind, a diligent spirit and a strong administrative team, Dr. Walker steered McCallie through the rapids of a recession, and did so without sacrificing jobs or students.
“I decided we needed to make a commitment to people,” he says. “We would remain committed to the faculty, and we would remain committed to the students. The faculty was our greatest asset, and the students were our future. We had already invested a lot of time and love in them. The challenge was to find more resources and to make the right cuts.”
Budgets were adjusted. Early retirement incentives were offered. Salaries were virtually frozen, and professional development opportunities were limited. The annual fund had to fill many more gaps than usual. Luck, Dr. Walker says, also played a role.
“Our team was able to work together to make it through some very difficult financial times,” he says. “To do that without losing faculty and students and continuing to keep the doors open for talented and deserving boys from families with modest means was important to all of us.”
Given the 24/7 nature of his job, many might assume that Dr. Walker does not have a life beyond the campus. This is not the case. He has been involved in a variety of community activities. He teaches a Sunday School class at First-Centenary United Methodist Church. He has a long-term involvement with Chambliss Home for Children and has served as a board member and also as chairman.
He has also served as a trustee and treasurer of the Southern Literary Alliance (formerly Arts and Education).
He currently serves as Chair of the Southern Association of Independent Schools Board. For well over a decade, he has been actively involved as a trustee with the SAIS. As Chair of the Accreditation Committee, he oversaw the revamping of the process by which schools are accredited. Along the way, he served on more than 25 accreditation school visits.
“I believe in the process of peer-to-peer review and in the advantages of school’s undergoing a self-study,” he says. “All individuals are a work in progress. We can always get better. Schools are no different. It has been very satisfying to be part of a process that improves the educational experience of thousands of students by helping schools improve.”
On a personal side, he enjoys time with his family, travel and reading. He has had the opportunity to visit 23 countries. His favorite novel is “All the King’s Men.”
“I read it for the first time in the 11th grade at McCallie,” he says. “It is a wonderful study of power and the various forms that it can take. Sometimes a force for good and sometimes not. And sometimes a force for good wrapped in less than positive motives. My favorite non-fiction is McCullough’s “Path Between the Seas,” a fascinating story about how it took the vision and determination of multiple people to bring the Panama Canal to completion. It was a team effort. No one individual had all the answers to the engineering puzzle.”
The McCallie community serves as an extended family to every student who walks the campus, especially its boarding population. The function of family, both school-related and immediate, has been central to Dr. Walker during his career.
The past 15 years marked the first time Dr. Walker, Patsi, his wife of 34 years, and the children lived on campus as part of a school’s residential community. Both parents termed the experience “wonderful.”
“It has been interesting for me to live in and be a part of this community and watch those who have bought into the mission and really try to make a difference in the lives of young men,” Mrs. Walker says. “They have chosen to make this a career. I am impressed with the integrity and genuineness of the whole community. As a wife, you have to buy into it too. When I see the young women who are raising their families here on campus, that is a tribute to the school and to the community. It has been a real blessing.”
Dr. Walker grew up on the east side of Missionary Ridge, not far from the school property. He and Mrs. Walker have started refurbishing a house near that same area with plans to move in after the school year. But he has enjoyed being able to walk to his office daily and eat dinner at the dining hall a few nights a week. Especially, he says, on pot roast nights and fresh-baked cookie Fridays.
“Part of the reason I was drawn to this job was that my oldest son was a four-year boarder and had been embraced by the larger McCallie family,” he says. “The experience of living on campus for our other two children has been life-changing. The community has also been very nurturing and supportive of my wife. In turn, she has done a remarkable job of pulling together that community as well.”
The End of an Era
Dr. Walker announced his retirement Jan. 30, 2013, 17 months in advance of his last official day which will be June 30, 2014. Thinking only of McCallie till the end, the early notice afforded the Trustees sufficient time to conduct a national search and to set the table for the next headmaster.
Dr. Walker will ensure the transition is a smooth one for incoming headmaster Arthur Lee Burns III ’87. Like Dr. Walker, Mr. Burns was a student leader at McCallie and brings experience as a headmaster at an independent lower school.
“We have already started that process,” he says. “I’ve invited Lee to be involved in several kinds of discussions. We’ve had him here to speak at as many of the day parent coffees as possible simply because I wanted those who were trying to decide about McCallie to get to know the person who would be the head when their son was here.
“I’m also in the process of trying to make sure that the information I provide for him in terms of policies and reports and a variety of other things is as clean and organized as much as possible. I’m hoping he can hit the ground running which will be good for McCallie.”
Soon his books will be boxed, along with the Mickey Mouse clock, the family photos, his die-cast car collection and the countless trinkets from his foreign travel that fill the office shelves. The artwork will be removed from his walls.
As he reflects on his final weeks as headmaster, the memories he has made become more meaningful. It’s the people, he says, which he will miss the most.
“I will definitely miss the teachers, the staff, the students, and the parents; I will miss working with the Trustees,” he says. “Every day has been different in its own way, sometimes very challenging. Other days have just been very joyful. But at the end of the day, it is really about the people. When I watch some of our faculty work and watch what some of our students do, it just inspires and impresses me. I feel lucky that I been privileged to be in their company.”