By COLLIN BROOKS
It’s another late night as a 14-hour shift has ended, but the captain still mans his position at the helm.
The figurative waters have been choppy, even dangerous, at times, but never unmanageable. And like a true shipmaster, after every one of those nights, Washington County Director of Schools Ron Dykes takes time to commend his crew of over 1,350 people. He still has that same rally cry during the final days of his last voyage at the helm.
“It’s that group that row the oars, that hoist the sail, that stoke the boiler, they’re the engine that really drives it,” Dykes said. “The leaders just give them a little bit of direction and give encouragement when they think they can’t row that oar one more time.”
Dykes has a smile that constantly emerges as he meets with the Herald & Tribune on his last Friday in office. His complex grin emits a mixture of sadness, accomplishment and comfort. The Washington County Director of Schools will exit this voyage in only a couple of days and embark on another; its coordinates have yet to be charted. However, there is no doubt that he will take the lessons he has learned during his eight-year journey at the helm of the Washington County School System.
“We have had some serious issues to contend with,” said Dykes, pausing to mentally dissect his time.
Extreme financial constraints, bus wrecks, political spats and discipline issues — with both students and employees — have all reared their heads during the past eight years, but there have also been great strides made by Dykes and his staff.
“We are always talking about keeping this massive ship afloat, upright and steady, dealing with the storms,” Dykes said. “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that isn’t what ships are made for. But it is all about this massive educational family, controlling this massive ship and we talk about it often.”
The things that the crew have accomplished have been noticed by Dykes’ predecessor Grant Rowland, who held the office for almost 20 years.
“Academic-wise, he and the staff principals have done a tremendous time during his eight years,” said Rowland, who was also the principal at David Crockett when Dykes served as interim assistant principal. “The only thing that I could say is that he has done a great job and I am sure there are things he thought he could have done differently, but that is water under the bridge and he doesn’t need to look back.”
Some mementos that have reminded Dykes of those “water under the bridge” moments, which include two figures of ships, were packed away from Dykes’ office this week.
One of those relics is a statue of David, which has often been a symbol that Dykes will glance at to remind him no challenge is too large.
“I don’t have a lot of heroes, but if I did, he would certainly be one of them,” said Dykes, who became the first college graduate in his family after graduating from East Tennessee State University in 1975.
Another memento that will make the trip with Dykes to his next destination will be a painting of a group of Plains Indians on horseback. They are staring down at their grandest find — a large herd of buffalo — but off in the distance is an awaiting storm, with it’s black clouds starting to cover the blue skies.
“You’ve got a transition here of perhaps the best and the worst,” Dykes said, studying the painting with his hands held deep in thought. “I think what is sufficient is that no matter how much success you have or accomplish in one day, that you must be cognizant of that distant possibility of something negative impending.
“All of us will deal with major obstacles, all of us will get knocked down periodically…There is always going to be a massive challenge and something trying to take you to your knees, and it often times it will, the key is getting back up. It is that perseverance and constant drive of recovery, and I believe that is the whole key to life. Being able to deal with adversity effectively.”
All of these things and other, less symbolic pieces surround Dykes, who started his first day of first grade in a room that is just behind the spot where he now sits behind his desk. The now “Grant A. Rowland Jr. Building” once housed the first and second grades for Jonesborough Elementary School. Dykes’ educational career was molded in the classrooms of Washington County, as a graduate of Jonesborough High School in 1966.
Once he graduated, he had no intentions to ever reach his current seat.
“It’s nothing that I had ever planned, everything just occurred by circumstance,” Dykes said. “Although I had set goals for myself, I had never, until the very last minute, ever considered this position of Director of Schools. I just had different goals in life.”
Dykes had two options when his boss retired in 2008, he could also retire — having 30 years of experience — or he could dive in headfirst into trying to attain the title of director of schools.
“I could have climbed completely into that pool and dried off, or do a jack knife into the deep end,” Dykes said with a laugh defining his cheerful mood. “But I simply had an idea or two for some changes that we might make and it was either get out or try to lead.”
Dykes had goals to instruct at the college level, but he said, “while you are making plans, life happens.”
Dykes was the technology director for the school system for 16 years, after being plucked from the a Daniel Boone classroom by Rowland. But before being pulled from the classroom, he was able to reach some young minds. One of those was current Washington County Board of Education Chairman Todd Ganger.
Ganger was a student at David Crockett when Dykes taught there, but he never got to experience his class, and that wasn’t on accident.
“Back then you could pick your classes and he was a tough teacher, so I didn’t take him,” Ganger said with a smile. “But he had a reputation of being a good hard, teacher.
“The one word that I have always used to describe Mr. Dykes is professional. Even in the classroom then, he wore a suit and tie, you don’t see that out of a lot of people. He was always professional and upfront about everything that he did and he was just a class act.”
A young Dykes probably wouldn’t fathom his current position, as he admittedly said that he wasn’t the best student.
“I just always felt academically comfortable and I was challenged every year,” said Dykes, recalling some of his teachers like a wide-eyed school boy. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I received an excellent education from my teachers through school.”
Marion McKinney knew Dykes’ father J.C. and mother Jean and she said that the younger Dykes didn’t fall far from the tree.
“J.C. was a nice person and evidently he instilled that in Ron,” McKinney said. “I think he’s done a wonderful job during his time. His primary interest has always been children. He cares about the kids and you’ll find that most of the children that he taught remember him well.”
Dykes taught his first class in Greeneville, as no jobs were available in Washington County, he was then hired into Washington County where he taught three years at Westview. Before stepping into the role as technology director for the system in 1992, he taught at David Crockett, Sulphur Springs and Daniel Boone.
But his educational career now ends right where it began all those years ago.
“My first day of formal education began right here in this building, right here in this classroom,” Dykes said as he pointed to the board- room which sits just behind his office. “And my last day of formal education — on the other end of the spectrum of education — ends right here in this same building, technically in the same room.
“I came in crying and I leave crying.”