ALMA — Jerry Valentine graduated from Alma High School in 1975 — a standout athlete, well-mannered, respectful teenager with high aspirations.

Jerry Valentine was good at baseball, too. But he had enough smarts to know the St. Louis Cardinals wouldn’t be calling him one day.

But a superintendent might.

“I told Mr. (Charles) Dyer when I interviewed for the baseball job, ‘I’m not going to coach very long.’ I knew I wanted to be an administrator,” Valentine said. “Two years later, the assistant principal’s job opened up.”

Three years earlier, a spry Valentine pounced into the coach’s office shared by John Grant, his former basketball coach, with a piece of paper proclaiming him to be a recent college graduate.

Valentine was ready to go to work.

But Grant had some stern advice for the 22-year-old.
“I told him, ‘I’ve graduated from college; Do you know of any coaching jobs?’ He told me, ‘If I knew of any, I wouldn’t tell you.’ That caught me off-guard,” Valentine said

Grant continued to preach.

“He said, ‘Listen to what I’m telling you. I know you’re broke, because you’ve been in college … you don’t have any responsibilities, so get your butt back into school and finish your master’s degree!’ … In the fall of ’81, I was ready to look for a job, and who knew a job was going to open up at Alma High School?”

In May 1981, Valentine sat down with Dyer, the school’s superintendent, having completed his master’s in educational administration from the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville.

“I was ready to go to work,” Valentine said.

This month, Valentine will shake hands with the senior class for the final time. Ironically, his last day to patrol the hallways at Alma High School will fall on Friday, May 24 — almost 38 years to the day (May 14, 1981) when the Alma School Board voted to hire the former Airedale as a seventh-grade football coach, head baseball coach and head football coach Frank Vines’ defensive backs coach.

The Alma High School principal announced earlier this spring he was retiring after 33 years as the school’s principal — with an assist from John Grant, of course.

“I remember Jerry was our seventh-grade football coach,” Grant said. “He was coaching one night, and had a pretty good lead late in the game, and he hollered for his defensive backs to loosen up. What he meant was, ‘Don’t let anybody behind you.’”

“I look up and they’re doing jumping jacks.”

New opportunity
Right on cue, when an assistant principal’s positioned opened up, Valentine went to Dyer. In August 1983, Valentine put away his coaches’ whistle for a coat and tie.

Valentine replaced current superintendent David Woolly as the school’s second in command to Leonard Daniel that fall.

“When you talk about Jerry, you talk about integrity, high moral character, honesty and great work ethic,” said Dr. Mike McSpadden, assistant superintendent and an Alma employee since 1979. “He has possessed those qualities since I met him in 1981.”

“He (Woolly) was moved to central office to become assistant superintendent,” Valentine said. “I was the assistant principle under Leonard Daniel.”

Daniel was diagnosed with terminal cancer early in 1986. That fall, though he dutifully had been coming to work, he became too ill to get out of bed.

“Mr. Daniel passed away on Labor Day 1986,” McSpadden said. “Jerry became the principal and I became the assistant principal.”

Daniel was just 48.

“Mr. Dyer called me and asked me to come out and meet with him,” Valentine said. “He told me he was going to recommend to the school board that I be the principal. Mr. Daniel was very well respected; I learned a lot from being around him for three years … He and I had a lot of the same values.”

Early drama
It couldn’t have been easy. But Valentine, in some cases 25 to 30 years younger than some of Alma’s faculty, made it work.

A month later, though, things went from busy to insanely crazy. Alma High School student Henry “Mack” Dozier II, who had hemophilia, was diagnosed with the AIDS antibody he contracted through a blood transfusion.

Dozier, 17 at the time, was the first public school student in Arkansas to be identified as having the antibody for AIDS in his blood.

But Dyer was adamant Dozier remain in school.

Then, before anyone knew what was happening, NBC, ABC and CNN had flooded the parking lot with hulking satellite trucks, hoping to get a glimpse of Dozier, talk to students, and get comments from Valentine and other administrators.

“Actually, what happened was nothing,” Valentine said. “A large number of students went outside and yelled at the TV reporters, shouting, ‘He’s our friend! Leave him alone!’ … It was really neat to see the community come together.”

‘Make it work’
As a somber Alma tried to move past Daniel’s sudden passing that September of ’86, Valentine already had the support of an older faculty — established teachers like Shirley Donnohue, Ted Burkhart, Sherry Carter, Jack Watson, Doug Ritchie and Jerry Vincent.

“I remember those people coming by and talking to me,” Valentine said. “Basically, they said, ‘We’ve got your back.’ They said ‘We’re going to do this, and we’re going to make it work.’”

Valentine was 27 when Dyer ushered him into his office. A few days later, on his 28th birthday, Jerry Valentine was announced as the school’s new principal.

He remained there through 2019.

“Ironically, when I announced my retirement, Dr. McSpadden went into where they keep the records and found the minutes from the Sept. 18, 1986, school board meeting,” Valentine said. “He made a photocopy and gave it to me. That was pretty cool.”

‘Kids are kids’
“It doesn’t matter where you go, kids really just want to be loved and they want to be respected,” Valentine said. “They have a lot of challenges, though. I’ve been able to watch over the years; those challenges and obstacles in their lives seem to be getting bigger.”

The key, says Valentine, is how the students are approached.

“We as educators have to work harder,” he said. “When you see a challenge, you can’t just sit back and think, ‘Well, it’s going to take care of itself.’ I think that’s one of the things I’ve been blessed with … being able to work with teachers.”

Valentine said he has been fortunate to hire “quality people” who really care about the kids both on and off campus.

“So many kids come to school with a lot of baggage,” Valentine continued. “So many of our teachers in this school district, they just embrace the fact if I’m going to be successful, then I’ve got to do everything I can to make every kid successful, and that all boils down to opportunity.”

Men at work
It’s 10:22 on a spring morning as Valentine strolls through the promenade connecting the front entrance near Crabtree Gym to the multimillion dollar Charles B. Dyer Arena. The state-of-the-art facility is home to Alma’s basketball and volleyball teams.

Across the way, Airedale Stadium is now covered with a plush artificial turf. It’s hard to imagine Alma without turf, or enclosed classrooms. But in the late 1980s, Alma High School was still without simple modern conveniences such as air conditioning and carpeted rooms. The parking log adjacent to Crabtree Gym, the heartbeat of the school, was a gravel parking lot. There were potholes. It was muddy when it rained.

In 1989, there were no covered floors; everything was concrete. There were no drop ceilings.

“Mr. Dyer asked the patrons of Alma to vote for a millage increase,” Valentine said. “I think 72 percent of the voters voted for it. It was a very big district-wide building program.”

The school became a maze of construction workers.

“With all four schools, they covered the floors with carpet,” Valentine said. “They added drop ceilings, insulated the rooms and added air conditioning. That was such a culture change. It really put a big emphasis on how important it was to provide quality facilities.”

Valentine said it made a huge difference with the school environment. McSpadden says a true test of leadership is what an organization looked like when they took over as leader, and what it looks like when they leave.

“If you look at what Alma High School looked like in 1986, compared to what it looks like today, it’s night and day,” McSpadden said. “The climate for our school, Jerry has set the tone for the last 30-plus years.”

This past week, as the chilly spring gave way to humid temps, pop-up thunderstorms helping to soften the green grass, Valentine attended the National DECA competition in Florida.

Alma was well represented.

“When I took over as principal, I asked Mr. Dyer about taking our kids to a new level, to see them not only compete on the state level, but also on the national level,” he said.

Dyer told Valentine that if he got students to the next level, they’d figure out the rest.

“There are opportunities out there in the form of scholarships,” Valentine said. “That’s why we have so many students do well in History Day competition and in regional and state science fairs.”

True to form, and never a man to pass up a day at the office, Valentine returned with Alma’s DECA students from the national convention from Orlando at 1:45 a.m. Thursday.

By 7 a.m., sporting a clean white dress shirt and tie, Valentine was back to work, ready to tackle the day.

Good advice
The son of the late Ross Valentine, an Arkansas state trooper, and Hilda, a longtime Alma schoolteacher, Jerry Valentine is really no different from his brothers, Roy and Carl.

“This is my 38th year with Alma schools,” Valentine pointed out. “I have an older brother that works at the 188th in Fort Smith. He’s been with them probably 41 or 42 years. I have a younger brother (Carl) who is with FedEx, and this is year 32 for him. All three of us, we found something we enjoyed and we stuck with it — I think that’s a testament to my parents.”

Ross Valentine taught his boys to look people in the eye and the value of a hard-earned dollar.

“My dad told me, ‘You need to be a teacher or a police officer, because they’re going to be teachers, and there’s always going to be people to arrest,’” Valentine said. “I believe people are called to preach, and people are called to teach. There have been so many things happen in my career where doors were opened.

“There’s no doubt, this is what I was supposed to do.”