Rick Walker isn't a native of Science Hill, but for more than a decade, he might have been the most notable figure in town.
Science Hill is a quiet hamlet of under 1,000 citizens in the northern reaches of Pulaski County. At this point in its history, its most prominent institution might be its school. Though it only goes up through the eighth grade before sending kids out to one of the other two school districts' high schools, the single-facility school system has earned a reputation over the years for academic excellence, and Walker was a big part of that in his role as school superintendent.
I served the children and their families in Science Hill for 14 really great years," said Walker. "I was honored to be contacted more than once about bigger and higher paying superintendent positions while at that position but never even interviewed. That school was too important to us and it would have broken our daughter's heart to leave."
In April of 2017, that time came to an end, as the Science Hill Board of Education decided to move on from Walker, and bump principal Jimmy Dyehouse up into effectively a dual superintendent/principal role.
As such, Walker has been spending his time enjoying retirement and taking life easy, hanging around Pulaski County as his daughter Chesney just graduated from Somerset High School.
"I absolutely love being retired," said Walker. "I'm financially secure and mentally, physically and spiritually healthy. I work out every day and stay available to my daughter, who just turned 18 and is headed to college."
Walker said he also tries to get back to southern Illinois as much as he can to visit his mother. He grew up in that area, the son of a school superintendent and third-grade teacher. Though his first eight years in education were spent in Mt. Vernon, Ill., teaching children with learning disabilities and coaching, he soon found his way into the Bluegrass State.
"My dad owned a Dairy Queen in Princeton, Ky., and while working there one summer I was offered a job teaching in Marion, Ky., which I accepted and where I spent the next two years," said Walker. "I then took a principal position in Livingston County, Ky., where I was honored to serve the children for the next 2 years, before taking a teaching position in Nashville, Tenn."
Before long, he was promoted to principal in Nashville and had "a very successful stint" which lasted eight years. After marrying and having a baby, Chesney, Walker and his family moved to Science Hill to be superintendent. It was a decision that "brought our family much joy and happiness," said Walker.
"My best memories all involve children and their happiness and success," said Walker. "I always knew school could be fun while also having high academic standards and I have proven it every stop of my journey. I also had a great sense of pride seeing the looks on the faces of parents when they would pull out of the parking lot on their way to work feeling confidence their children were in good hands, which they certainly were."
Walker was willing to let himself be silly in his job to forge a better connection with students -- one Halloween, as part of the school's annual costume contest, Walker dressed up in a fox mask with a sign on him asking, "What does the fox say?" and an attached radio blaring the song of the same name popular at that time.
"Without a doubt my favorite part of that job was being in the same building with the kids who brought tremendous joy into my life," added Walker.
Walker was also an advocate for school choice, which led to conflicts with a bigger school district over how many children from one school system's territory to allow to attend in the other. Walker was outspoken on this issue, and always stressed that what he wanted was what was best for the schools and their families.
He said he wants the kids he oversaw to know he still loves them and wants them to succeed in life, and also thanked the teachers he worked with for striving toward the goal of "reaching all children" in their school.
"I had two main philosophies during my career, both of which I adopted at a young age and learned from older wiser people than I was and of whom I respected very much," said Walker. "One was the theme 'reaching all children' which was my main operating principle. The second was this: Our role as public servants is to represent those with no representation.
"I prided myself on representing those kids that many times did not have an advocate," he added, "and will always look back on that fact and know I did the right thing."