Wilton Public Schools Superintendent Dr. Gary Richards has informed the Board of Education of his intention to retire, effective Dec. 31.

Dr. Richards’ announcement is the current stopping point in a 42-year career in education, including 27 years of service as a superintendent and almost 10 years of service to Wilton. He has been superintendent of the Wilton Schools since 2004.

Dr. Richards was named “2013 Superintendent of the Year” by the Connecticut Association of Public Schools Superintendents.

“We accept Dr. Richards’ decision with mixed emotions,” said Wilton Board of Education Chairman Bruce Likly. “Our schools, our children, and our community have benefited tremendously from Gary’s commitment to educational excellence, and we will miss his guidance and leadership.

“At the same time, he has certainly earned a happy and fulfilling retirement, and we wish him the best.”

A 1969 graduate of Colgate University, Dr. Richards received a bachelor of arts degree in history with minors in political science and English. He earned his master’s degree from the University of Southern California in 1972, and stayed there to for a doctorate of education degree, which he completed in 1977.

He served as assistant principal for instruction and pupil personnel at San Marino High School in California in 1979. He ascended to principal of the school, located east of Los Angeles, in 1982, before becoming assistant superintendent and, eventually, superintendent.

He brought his family to the East Coast in 1993, when he became the superintendent of New Canaan public schools, staying in that role until 2003.

The Richardses bought a house in Wilton and were preparing to sell it when Dr. Richards moved back to California, to become the superintendent of the Oak Park Unified School District. He began his job on the West Coast, leaving his family behind for a year until fate intervened.

Dr. David F. Clune, the Wilton public schools head, decided to retire in 2004, opening the position to a list of candidates that were eventually whittled down to 53. Dr. Richards was one of those finalists.

“Several deals fell through on our house,” he told The Wilton Bulletin in 2004, “and the longer it went on, the more we realized that Wilton was home.”

He was offered the position and worked with Dr. Clune, a man he called “a longtime friend and mentor” to transition into his new job, while returning to Wilton.

“Wilton has meant a great deal to me and my family and I have enjoyed and appreciated the opportunity to work with such fine people all of these years,” said Dr. Richards. “There is never a perfect time to announce a transition such as this but I am confident now is a good time for me to make this change, given the leadership and direction in place within the district.

“While I am looking forward to fewer late nights and new horizons, I will miss the daily interactions with our wonderful faculty, staff and students.”

Under his leadership, the Wilton School District has become a model one, receiving high marks on national level, including as one of the top 10 schools districts in Connecticut, according to U.S. News and World Reports.

Mr. Likly said a search committee will be convened in the near future to begin the process of identifying a new superintendent. He also said the search would cast a wide net, and solicit qualified candidates to apply from across the country.

“Dr. Richards will leave a large pair of shoes to fill,” Mr. Likly said. “And given the critical importance of the superintendent’s position, we will take the necessary time to find the right candidate.

“The Wilton Board of Education met last Friday and appointed its members to serve as the personnel search committee for the purpose of conducting the search for a successor superintendent of schools.

“This group will be meeting frequently in the coming weeks and months to identify and hire Dr. Richards’ replacement.

“While we are at the earliest stages, I believe it is the intent of this group to conduct a thorough nationwide search in hopes of identifying a candidate of Dr. Richards’ caliber, experience and integrity who is worthy of leading the Wilton Public Schools. We have already taken preliminary steps to identify national search firms for consideration and will be consulting Dr. Richards as well as others throughout the process.”

Dr. Richards has offered to remain flexible with regard to his effective retirement date in order to help ensure a seamless transition.

“We are grateful to Gary for offering to push his retirement date back a bit if we need more time to find a successor,” Mr. Likly said. “This is indicative of the ‘students first’ attitude that has guided Gary throughout his long and successful career.”