FORT WALTON BEACH — Rodney Walker says he wouldn’t change a thing about his more than 50-year career with the Okaloosa County School District. Working with children is something he always wanted to do.
After 32 years as a guidance counselor and 24 years on the school board, Walker decided not to run for reelection.
He will retire later this month.
“It’s been such a privilege and honor to serve with the school district for all these years,” he said. “I don’t usually have much to say, except when I’m raising hell in the board meetings.”
Walker was born and raised in Florida. When he graduated from Troy University, he immediately began working at Choctawhatchee High School in the guidance department.
Things were different then. He recalls a time when there were only two guidance counselors for 4,400 students. Students were allowed to smoke in designated areas on campus, and girls couldn’t wear clothes that were shorter than knee length.
“I came here in 1962 as a guidance counselor,” Walker said. “At that time, Choctaw was the only school in the south end of the county. ... We did guidance and discipline — the whole nine yards.”
He eventually transferred to the district office and was the director of student services. When he retired, he immediately ran for school board and won.
Walker has been reelected five times since then. From 1996 to 2002, he served as chairman of the board.
Walker’s last term will end on Nov. 20 when Linda Evancyk takes his District 3 seat.
“I’ve had the opportunity to work with some very great educators during my career. I’ve seen a lot of changes, good and bad,” he said. “I’ve been fortunate because of the great community, students and teachers I’ve been able to work with all those years.
“I’m sure the person replacing me will do a much better job than I was able to do.”
When asked why he’s decided to retire, Walker’s answer was simple.
“I’m 81 years old,” he said. “I think it’s time for new ideas and fresh ideas.”
Walker plans to spend his extra time off doing the things he enjoys, like fishing. He fishes anytime and anywhere he can, he said.
“I’ve been very active in the community throughout my career, but mainly I’ve devoted my entire life to education,” Walker said. “It’s been very rewarding, and I’m just thankful I was able to come to Okaloosa County.”
Max Bruner was Walker’s first superintendent. He learned a lot from Bruner, he said. Walker also spoke of his admiration for former superintendents Pledger Sullivan and Don Gaetz.
Gaetz and Walker worked for the school district together for 12 years — six while on the school board, and another six after Gaetz was elected superintendent. They were both elected to the school board in 1994.
During that time, the men were not only colleagues but also good friends. They remained close when Gaetz became senator and have been friends for 24 years.
“Rodney has been the brains and guts of Okaloosa schools,” Gaetz said. “He is the most intelligent and informed person I know about Okaloosa schools, its finances, its people and its potential. And he is one of the gutsiest public officials I have ever worked with.”
Walker’s frankness is a good thing, Gaetz said. He is a genuine person who’s not trying to impress anyone. What you see is what you get.
“He’s a throwback to those better days of politics … when people could disagree fiercely and then go out and have supper together,” Gaetz said. “And then the next day, go fishing together, and then disagree fiercely again. Rodney and I have done all those things.”
Gaetz said he loves Walker like an older brother.
“And he’s treated me like a younger brother in the sense that he has taught me a lot and kicked me in the pants and enjoyed it,” he said.
Walker said he also appreciates his time working with Al Gardner, former principal of Destin Elementary School, as well as the district’s former financial officers.
“Especially the one that we currently have, which I think has been probably the greatest asset Okaloosa County has ever been fortunate to have,” Walker said of Chief Financial Officer Rita Scallan.
Walker and Scallan worked together for 19 years, and he calls her “the glue that has held this district together.”
“Mr. Walker has been a proverbial advocate for students and employees,” Scallan said. “I believe his heart and soul is invested in the school district and has never wanted anything but the best."
Scallan said there will be a hole in the district without Walker there.
“He’s had such an impact for so long. He has so much knowledge,” she said. “For me, its great sadness to see him leave because I know there will be a tremendous void there.”
Although Walker won’t be directly involved in the school district after he leaves office, he looks toward the future, hopeful that progress will be made in his absence.
Walker said he hopes the district will eventually pass a temporary sales tax that will repair or replace an aging infrastructure.
Most of the schools in Okaloosa County are about 50 years old, some even older.
“I think that all of the parents and citizens of Okaloosa County need to realize that we must have additional revenue to fix our aging buildings,” Walker said. “I would hope in the future we can pass the sales tax that is desperately needed to fix our facilities.”
In the end, Walker looks back on his 56 years with a smile, grateful for the time he’s spent improving the lives of Okaloosa County students.
“I think it would have been difficult to ever find anywhere that I could’ve worked in education that would’ve been better than here,” he said.