Dr. Gary Richards: Superintendent says good-bye but he won't 'stop working'

On one of Dr. Gary G. Richards’ last days occupying the Wilton Public Schools superintendent’s office, he reflected on his 43-year career in education. His boxes were packed, and on July 1, he was all set to officially hand off his desk to Dr. Kevin Smith, a resident of Trumbull and former superintendent of Bethel Public Schools.

“Our legacy is what we leave behind,” Dr. Richards said.

Although little trace of him will remain in his second-floor office at the Board of Education, in his 10 years there he has supervised several core changes to the Wilton public school system that will endure beyond his tenure.

“One of the exciting and challenging aspects of this job is that there is no typical day,” he said of his role as superintendent. “You can have a plan every day of what you intend to do, and things happen. A wise person once said: ‘The challenge is to not let the urgent get in the way of the imperative. It’s a balancing act,’” and one that Richards has become quite adept at through 28 years as a superintendent in four different districts.

Work in Wilton

Under Dr. Richards’ guidance, the Miller-Driscoll schools were consolidated, updates to the science wing at the high school were completed, and changes to the math curriculum as well as language arts and literacy instruction were implemented.

Advances in technology as a communicative tool between faculty and students, including Edline and PowerSchool, have also been a part of Richards’ directive of continuous improvement.

Still, Dr. Richards insists, “Superintendents themselves don’t accomplish anything; it’s a team of people, a partnership. My biggest achievement is having been a part of the team [responsible for] bringing great teachers into our district. The most important variable in quality schooling is the teacher.”

In fact, he was responsible for hiring 68% of Wilton’s current administrative team. He is confident that these leaders, along with teachers and principals will “serve Dr. Smith and lead this great system into the future.”

In his commencement speech to the class of 2014, Dr. Richards acknowledges a special affinity he feels for this year’s graduating class.

“I am also commencing, and we share a parallel journey, although at very different ages. I’m not leaving home per se, but I’m leaving what has been my career for 43 years. To some degree, your career becomes your identity. I’ve always been a teacher, an educator,” he said.

“What am I now? What’s my place in the world going to be? It’s exciting; it’s not something that I’m dreading or I would not have done it. It’s another chapter, and I’m looking forward to that. But I share some of the anxiety and questions that the graduates are facing.

“What I’ll miss most are the people. I’ll miss being able to recruit and hire people, and working with the dynamic volunteers and community organizations like the PTA and the Board of Education.”

Past experience

Dr. Richards did not initially anticipate a career path in education. As an undergraduate student at Colgate University, “I thought I would follow my father’s footsteps and be a business executive,” he said.

However, during his junior year, he had the opportunity to intern at his former high school, Horace Greeley in Chappaqua, N.Y., during a January term. Teaching alongside one of his former instructors, Dr. Richards said, “I caught the bug. I just loved teaching, and it was something I was passionate about. It ended up being my life’s work.”

He received a master’s degree in education and later a doctorate from the University of Southern California, interning at Beverly Hills High School before receiving his teaching license and working for nine years as a social studies teacher at Glendale High School in California.

“The most important thing I’ve ever done in my life, besides being a father and a husband, is to have been a teacher,” Dr. Richards said. Throughout his superintendencies, he taught at the graduate level, working as an adjunct professor at the University of California, Los Angeles and Sacred Heart University in Fairfield. In 1979, Dr. Richards was hired as an assistant principal at San Marino High School, the district in which he would later serve as superintendent. Of the transition from teacher to administrator, he says, “I’ve always viewed myself as continuing in a teaching role; I’ve been teaching in a different way to different groups. As an administrator, I’ve always had the great respect, appreciation, and knowledge of teaching. I’ve tried to grow as a teacher and also help grow other teachers.”

Dr. Richards moved to Wilton in 1993, and was superintendent of New Canaan Public Schools for 10 years. He and his family had planned to return to California to finish his career as superintendent of the Oak Park district, but had trouble selling their home in Wilton.

When Dr. David Clune announced his retirement as Wilton superintendent in 2004, “it was quite fortuitous,” Dr. Richards said of the job opening. Dr. Richards’ youngest daughter was about to enter high school, and suddenly, it made more sense to stay put.

Looking ahead

In his next chapter, Dr. Richards plans to spend more time with family, but he does not anticipate a retirement spent eating bon-bons.

“I don’t think you just stop working,” he says, citing Emerging Leaders and Habitat for Humanity as organizations to which he hopes to contribute.

“I want to find what can give meaning to my life and the community I live in, and I think that will be evolving.”