Yesterday, my hometown's local newspaper (The Indiana, PA Gazette) published this article about my father. He is, by far, the greatest role model in my life and the person that I most want to emulate in all that I do. This interview will provide a little bit of insight into the man that really shaped me in so many ways.
MONDAY Q&A: Retired superintendent looks back over years in education
Published: Monday, March 16, 2009 2:41 PM EDT
EDITOR'S NOTE: Dr. David Laird retired in 1997 after 39 years as a teacher and administrator, including 18 years as district superintendent in the Indiana Area School District. He recently spoke about his career with John Como, retired Gazette staff writer.
Question: Why did you decide on a career in education?
Answer: I was going to be a forest ranger. During my senior year of high school, some of my teachers suggested that I go to Pennsylvania State University to take a series of aptitude tests. I did that and the results of the tests showed that I had an interest in working with people. I had also been teaching some Sunday school classes. Teachers told me that I would be alone in the forest as a forest ranger and suggested that I go into social service, or being involved with people. A friend of mine, who wanted to be a math teacher, was going to Indiana State Teachers College (now Indiana University of Pennsylvania) for an interview and asked me to go with him. To be perfectly honest, I went with him because I thought it was a good way to get out of school for a day.
Question: So, how did your day out of school go?
Answer: My friend had an interview with Irene Russell, the head of the college's elementary education department. After she was done with him, she asked me what I was going to do. I told her about my experience at Penn State. She told me that some men were really needed in elementary education. She interviewed me after I showed some interest. I didn't make my mind up then, but the interview opened an avenue of thought that I hadn't had before. My folks had no money, but I had worked weekends and had some money saved.
Question: So, you decided to go to college?
Answer: Right out of high school, I got a job at Christy Park Steel Mill in McKeesport. I adapted well to the job and became a machine operator making $3 an hour that summer. Back then, that is what a lot of guys did, get out of school and go to the steel mills or coal mines. My teachers had encouraged me to go to college. When I told my uncle I was going to leave the steel mill and go to school to become a teacher, he told me to think about it twice because I was making good money. I started school at Indiana State Teachers College in September 1953 and became involved with the Army Reserves Officers Training Corps to help pay for my education. I adapted well to elementary education. I decided that was where I was heading. I became a hall counselor in the dormitories and, because of my involvement with the ROTC, I was offered a commission as lieutenant in the regular Army during my senior year. After deciding to become a teacher, I opted for six months of active duty in the Army and a total of eight years in the reserves after I graduated with a degree in elementary education in 1957.
Question: What made you decide to become a teacher?
Answer: I had done my student teaching my senior year at Horace Mann Elementary School and, because of my experience at the school and with Jack Kuhns, my supervisor, I decided to go into education. Waldo Johnson, the elementary principal in the Indiana School District, offered me a job, and the Indiana board hired me and then gave me a leave of absence so I could fulfill my six months of active military duty in the Army. I was discharged Jan. 31, 1958, and started teaching fifth grade Feb. 1 at Eisenhower Elementary School. The school board was very generous about military obligations and there was never any question about my leave of absence. I taught one and one-half years at Eisenhower and then became assistant principal and taught fifth grade for five years at Horace Mann.
Question: When did you decide to go into administration?
Answer: I started working on my master's degree in elementary education in 1958 and received it from IUP in 1962. I also began having aspirations to be an elementary principal and began taking evening classes at the University of Pittsburgh. I received a principal's certificate in 1963. I started looking for a change in 1965. At about the same time the federal Elementary-Secondary Education Act was passed. Paul Getts, superintendent of the school district, knew I was looking and made me federal programs coordinator in 1966-67. I wrote quite a few programs that brought a lot of federal money to the district. I also applied for money that was already allocated for the construction of the new high school at its current location in White Township. The money for the high school was allocated through the National Defense Education Act and I filed the paperwork to get the money released for the project.
Question: What kind of programs did you write?
Answer: Most of the programs involved remedial reading and math and summer programs. Money also was available for innovative programs during the time that the East Pike Elementary School was under construction. We also got a lot of money for planned continuous advancement that gave us a chance to try different things. Some things worked and some didn't. We implemented some of the programs while I was principal at East Pike in 1967. In 1968, I was named director of elementary education and Dr. Robert Martin, district superintendent, asked me to develop programs in all the elementary schools - East Pike, Horace Mann, Eisenhower and Ben Franklin. We tried to implement team-teaching and diversify. We did a lot of workshops and led the way for the team teaching concept. I also began taking evening courses at Pitt to get a doctorate degree and learned that I had to do a one-year residency on campus to complete a lot of course work. Dr. Martin made it possible for me to take a one-year sabbatical in 1970-71 and I decided to work on my doctorate at Penn State in State College. I finished my course work and dissertation and received my doctorate degree in June 1972. I received a doctorate in administration and a minor in labor relations. Hurricane Agnes hit Pennsylvania in June with major flooding all along the Susquehanna River and highways were closed in a lot of towns. At first, I couldn't get through Tyrone but I told my wife I was getting through to get my degree if I had to tie a boat on my car.
Question: When did you become superintendent of the district?
Answer: I continued as director of elementary education until I became assistant superintendent in 1974-75. Dr. Martin took a medical sabbatical in 1979-80 and I was named substitute superintendent. When he did not come back, I was elected superintendent in 1980-81. I was very fortunate because I rose through the ranks to become superintendent. I had a good understanding of the community and school district.
Question: What are some of the changes over the years that stand out?
Answer: The school district evolved into a big business. Indiana Borough built Horace Mann, Thaddeus and Eisenhower and the junior high (former high school). Ben Franklin and East Pike were built by a jointure of Armstrong and White townships and Shelocta Borough. The new high school was built by a joint board of the two townships and the two boroughs. Consolidation replaced three boards and created a big business. Another major change came when teachers were given the right to strike and be recognized as a bargaining unit. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, we also changed from independent contractors for school bus transportation services to one contractor. It was primarily an economic move that also enabled us to computerize and better control bus runs.
Question: What do you think you accomplished the most?
Answer: I tried to set a high standard for students and relationships among staff and parents to cooperate and work together. I tried to set a positive and moral example. I hope I was successful in setting a positive climate and role model for the community.
Question: Any advice for improving education?
Answer: The most important thing is for the home environment and the community to support the schools. People should not be critical but do their best to support the students to get the best education possible.
Dr. David H. Laird, at a glance...
Occupation: Retired Indiana Area School District superintendent
Residence: White Township
Family: Wife, Nancy; children, Julianne, Scott, Stephanie; and five grandchildren
Where I grew up: West Newton, Westmoreland County
Hobbies: Gardening, woodworking, fishing
Favorite foods: Seafood and steak
Food I refuse to eat: Squid and anchovies, or anything that looks like fish bait
Last book I read: ``Chesapeake,'' by James Michener
Pet peeve: Abuse of power at any level
People who most inspired me: Uncle Dave and Aunt Sarah Neth, who raised me and my brother, Bob, after our mother died when I was 5. And my fourth-grade teacher, who gave me a D instead of a C in math because she thought I could do better.
Something people don't know about me: When I was a senior in high school, I witnessed an accident involving my school bus and a train just before it got to my bus stop. Four people were killed and a lot were injured. That had a big impact on me, especially when driving, because I knew what could happen at any time.