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The right man for the job 5/17/22

The right man for the job

By Kevin Taylor 

Alma Schools 


It was just after noon on a breezy fall day some 50 years ago when David Woolly set forth toward the 500 hallway (they called it D Wing back then) at Alma High School. The doors to the wing are open; there’s a nip in the air. 


Just then, as Woolly turned to his right, there was a boy riding a horse — down the hallway at Alma High School.


No, this isn’t the lyric for a country song; this was real life Alma, Arkansas, in the early 1970s — safe, simple, easy.  


Is this for real? How did I get here; who are these people?


“If I could drop a high school today into Alma High School in 1972, with time travel, it would be unrecognizable to them — both physically and with the quality of instruction,” Woolly said. “I’m not saying we weren’t doing some good teaching back then. But the whole state of Arkansas, the expectation of what school was, was just dramatically different — and Alma was not in the forefront.


“Alma was a small town with small town expectations.”


Back in the 1970s, teenagers flocked to the Burger Run, a walk-up burger joint adjacent to the Pizza Parlor, just up the road from the Dairy Queen, which stood at the corner of Hwy. 71 and Collum Lane. The Burger Run featured deep-fried burritos covered with onions and chili and served with onion rings. 


Meanwhile, over at Alma High School, just up the street from the Missouri Pacific railroad tracks, fresh-faced David Woolly is trying to figure out why a boy is riding a horse down a hallway in the middle of the day. 


“My first year, on Homecoming Day, I was walking down the sidewalk around noon on what was outside of the building. The doors were open because it was fall and it was nice weather,” Woolly explained. “I turn down the hallway and there is a horse with a student riding it.”


Americans were traversing Interstate 40 back in the early ‘70s, just as they do now. But the link between Fort Smith and Alma was more like driving from Fort Smith to Arkoma. There was no housing along Collum Lane; no Eagle Crest Subdivision, either.


“It was right at the beginning of Alma becoming a bedroom community for Fort Smith, but mostly it was a country town,” Woolly said. “There were a whole lot of adults who were like, ‘An eighth-grade education was good enough for me, it’s good enough for my kids.’ 


“I remember in those days if we had 10 students with cars, that was a lot.”


Woolly summarizes that Alma schools enrollment was smaller than Mulberry schools. 


“But Alma grew and Mulberry went down,” he said. “The physical facility at the high school was bare bones back then — it would be unrecognizable today.”


These days, Alma High School is the Mecca of Crawford Country — with a sprawling football stadium, a 3,500-seat sports arena, and a spiffy theater that’s hosted everyone from Roy Clark to Peter Noone. Barbara Eden and Ray Price … they've performed here, too. 


David Woolly is sitting in a corner office at the Alma Public Schools Administration building — his office includes two windows and two comfortable chairs — where some dreams are born and others die. Woolly has lived through everything, from Disco to Aids, from the Gulf War to Grunge, from 9/11 to COVID. 


Incredibly, the district’s flagship school, the aforementioned Alma High School, where Woolly once served as an assistant principal before being elevated to assistant superintendent, has had just three principals during his five-decade run — Leonard Daniel (1972-86); Jerry Valentine (‘86-2019); and Brian Kirkendoll (2019-present). 


This June, David Allen Woolly will hand over his keys.  


“Fifteen years ago, I would have never told you I would still be working today,” he said. “But as it evolved, I never got to the point that I didn’t want to be here. In the last few weeks, it hit me, ‘Why did you stay in the job this long?’ 


“And the answer popped into my head almost immediately: this is where I wanted to be. I never have considered this my job; this has just always been my life.”


Woolly spent more than 30 years as assistant superintendent, deputy superintendent, and superintendent for Alma Schools. After 50 years, the first four of those as Alma’s band director, Woolly is retiring — something he had talked about doing more than a dozen years earlier, just before the sudden passing of longtime Alma Superintendent of Schools Charles B. Dyer. 


Woolly had been Dyer’s right-hand man for more than three decades. They could finish one another’s sentences. “Our strengths and weaknesses complimented each other very well,” Woolly said. 


A year after Dyer passed, Woolly’s wife, Marsha, lost her battle with breast cancer. So, David Woolly dug in. 


“I told the (school) board that I would stay for at least five years,” he said. “Organizationally, it wasn’t much of a transition for me. We did a little reorganization with Mike (McSpadden) and Pamm (Treece), and that worked really well.”


“David was (Dyer's) right-hand man for all those years. I don’t see how anybody else would have been able to step in for him,” recalls longtime Alma businessman and Alma schools associate Ed Thickston. “David got to where he was hands-on, particularly with construction projects. David was the glue that put it all together. 


“As for 50 years, even in business, that’s not normal, where you stay with one company your whole life. It’s pretty unique; I don’t see that ever happening again.”


Woolly didn’t just keep the train on the track, he thrived. 


“That’s what we hoped he could do,” longtime Alma school board member Mike Higgins said. “Knowing the details of how everything works, that was huge. (But) being on the board, we were a little concerned about how he would handle the public relations with the general public, because he had been in the background for so long, and to be honest, he seemed to enjoy that. He really surprised us. 


“Mr. Woolly, what he’s been able to do and carry on, is huge.”


Now, with incoming Alma Superintendent Dr. Bryan Duffie ready to take the reins, Woolly has become reflective, with a softer tone in his voice. 


“I’ve always said you’ve got two lists; the things you like about the job and the things you don’t,” Woolly said. “When the ‘don’t like' list gets longer than the ‘like' lists it’s time to go. 


“But that really didn’t happen to me.”


Two-and-a-half years ago, when he told the school board he planned to retire at the end of the 2021-22 calendar school year, things were almost on autopilot. 


But not for long. 


In the summer of 2019, just after Alma school veterans Valentine and McSpadden retired, the arena flooded. 


Then in the spring of 2020, COVID-19 brought the world, and Alma schools, to a screeching halt.  


“The last few weeks it’s starting to hit home,” Woolly said. “Up until recently, I’ve been as busy as ever. Of course, COVID had a lot to do with that. The workload was just horrendous, especially last year.


“Every time we thought there would be nothing else to work on, there would be 10 more things that came up.”


“The legacy of David Woolly who has been at this district for 50 years will be more than just the

recent achievements of the past few years at Alma School District,” said longtime Alma High School science teacher Lisa Neihouse. “The fine arts this district and its patrons, staff, and students enjoy today are the result of David Woolly's vision, hard work, and dedication to seeing a project from start to finish that began in the 1990s. Everyone in Alma and the surrounding area benefits from this vision. His passion for fine arts allowed Alma School district to offer students a state-of-the-art education in theater, band, choir, dance, and also gave the community access to an entertainment venue right in their own town.”


‘I didn’t have a plan’ 


Ironically, prior to Dyer’s illness in the winter of 2010-11, Woolly had planned to retire. Then, after Dyer passed away, Woolly promised his constituents he would ride it out.


“I didn’t have a plan 10 years ago as to how long I would stay, and I wasn’t trying to figure it out, either,” Woolly said. “I remember thinking, my dad (Max) retired at 67 and I’ll be 73 (in May). I remember him saying when he retired, ‘I’m just tired all the time.’


“Well, for the last several weeks, that’s happened to me. I don’t have the energy level to do this job anymore. If I go home at five o’clock, by six o’clock, I'll doze off. That’s what happens when you get older.”


Five years ago, about halfway into his tenure as superintendent, Woolly started to contemplate retirement. “I thought, well, (50 years) is a good number,” he said. “That makes it a nice round significant number.  


“I actually told the board 2 ½ years ago that’s what I was going to do.”


Woolly admits dictating the fate of people’s lives has become, in many respects, overwhelming.


“A great deal of his job is significantly affecting other people's lives, whether that’s staff, students or parents,” he said. “I realized I was growing weary of doing that — the pressure of trying to be sure that was the right decision, because you’re affecting a lot of people’s lives, and I’ve been doing that for a long time.


“For me, it’s always been something I paid a great deal of attention to — it was part of the job. But if you do that enough, it wears you down.”


Something for everyone


Band. Football. Robotics. Choir. Baseball. (Soccer, track, and DECA, too). 


“I’ve always wanted our kids to have the very best that we can provide for them,” Woolly said. “There are some Texas schools where we don’t stack up as well as we’d like. But buildings are just buildings; they just provide kids opportunities. 


“(But) sometimes if you don’t have the right buildings, and the right quality of buildings, you can’t provide opportunities, either.”


Woolly believes in the same things Dyer loved to talk about — equality for all students. Alma schools are about co-curricular activities as much as academics.


“It’s all about people in programs. This is something I’m very passionate about,” Woolly said. “To me, it sums up what school is supposed to be. Co-curricular programs are where our kids learn to function as adults — they learn time management, commitment to a cause, and supporting teammates. You can be the smartest guy in the world, but if you don’t have those attributes, you’re not going to be successful. 


“You don’t get those skills in algebra class, although algebra and other academic classes are vitally important. Plus, we now have this (smartphones), which gives us way more information than we can attain otherwise.”


Alma Schools, through the eyes of Dyer and Woolly, have become a smorgasbord of different activities—a mini-mall, if you will, of everything from bowling to basketball, from sports medicine to dance. 


“I've seen a lot of changes in the district over his administrative tenure: student growth, building expansion, the addition of facilities, changes in the athletic complexes, etc,” said Cara Witherspoon, the district’s retiring Special Education Supervisor. “The one constant has always been his unwavering commitment to the students of Alma. He wants all K-12 students to have opportunities to enrich their lives and prepare them for post-secondary goals whether that involves field trips, academics, athletics, ROTC, agriculture, the arts (band, choir, theater, visual), business, WATC, or social interactions.”


“There is no one program that is right for all kids,” Woolly said. “Not everybody wants to, or can be a football player or in the ROTC program. What is important is to have a wide variety of programs. The evidence is that all but a dozen or so high school kids are not involved in something, and our college completion rate is very high because they learned those skills in co-curricular programs.”