As Randy Tucker talked recently at Girls Preparatory School, he had the enthusiasm of a young teacher in his first week as an educator, not a 44-year veteran.
His modern American presidency class was able to use videos and all kinds of modern technology, and the students as a result could discuss bigger issues rather than getting bogged down in the rote memorization of facts.
“It’s changing what we teach,” he excitedly said. “More and more we are focusing on the power of thought. We are starting to talk about the big issues.”
For the last 26 years, Mr. Tucker has definitely focused on the big issues in his other job at GPS – that of being head of the school. Although he has volunteered to teach a class because he is a teacher at heart, he has also guided hundreds of girls, faculty and school supporters toward more collective goals in his administrative capacity.
And in that job, he has also been pleased with the changes that have come through the years.
“We built a program and physical plant that are a model for a lot of schools,” he said recently from his first-floor office in the Elizabeth Lupton Davenport Middle School building. “And we’ve built an academic program of which there are few better in the country. We admit a full range of abilities and we have every type of program for any girl going to college.”
As has been announced and planned for a long time, Mr. Tucker retired from GPS on June 30. Dr. Susan Groesbeck from Havergal College in Toronto will serve as interim head for a year while a search continues for a permanent head.
Before he left GPS, however, Mr. Tucker took some time to reminisce about his time, showing an obvious comfort in his position after more than a quarter century.
But he was not always like that. Although he had been a social studies teacher, successful baseball coach and assistant headmaster at the Bolles School in Jacksonville, Fla., he was admittedly scared and surprised – but overjoyed -- when he was chosen to succeed the retiring Dr. Nat Hughes beginning in 1987.
“I was over my head and I was thinking, ‘What am I going to do?’ ” Mr. Tucker remembered with a laugh.
Not only was he dealing with the natural nervousness of trying to maintain and build on the school’s rich educational tradition in Chattanooga, but he also had to focus on an additional challenge – the admission of girls at Baylor School.
For nearly 80 years, Baylor had been a friendly, all-male educational complement to GPS along with McCallie. Baylor students had sisters who went to GPS, while GPS had brothers who went to Baylor. Plenty of dating relationships and strong friendships also developed between students of the two schools, and some of that still takes place.
But after Baylor began admitting girls in 1985, the dynamics changed greatly as GPS aligned itself in a coordinate program with McCallie while remaining an all-girls school.
“All of a sudden, having competition forced us to step it up,” Mr. Tucker said. “And we have held our own.”
Although GPS and Baylor are now big rivals in academic and athletic endeavors, Mr. Tucker said GPS’ biggest competition is actually the public school system, because students can go to public schools for free.
Mr. Tucker has also had to face at least one other major challenge at the school during his tenure – the recent recession. However, he said GPS was able to balance all its budgets and keep its programs intact, although the economic crisis did teach the school to be more careful about how it spent money.
But he said the vast majority of his time at GPS has been very pleasurable and smooth. This has included every aspect of his job, from working with the nearly 600 students and roughly 70 faculty members, to helping implement the admission of sixth graders beginning in 1999, to the construction of several new buildings to update the campus.
“I’ve had very few bad days here,” he said. “Most of all I have enjoyed the relationships with the kids. I’ve enjoyed watching us grow as a school. And I’ve enjoyed watching young faculty turn into really good faculty.”
Mr. Tucker’s early years did not appear to be typical for someone who would one day head an all-girls independent school. An admitted “surfer and never do well” while growing up in Jacksonville Beach, he did, however, get to see early on how a woman – his mother -- could make a positive difference in the world.
His father was out of his life at an early age after his parents were divorced, so his mother had to work at Jacksonville University to support the family. This meant she could not always be with her son, which was somewhat unconventional at the time.
“She depended on me to stay out of trouble,” he said with a laugh.
He ended up attending Jacksonville University and later had to experience a far different life from the carefree one he found on the beach. The Vietnam War was raging, and he began serving there in the Army.
Although Mr. Tucker enthusiastically talked about his years at GPS, his tone obviously dropped when he discussed being in Vietnam. Volunteering only few details, he said, “I went to Vietnam not really an adult, and I came home a man. It wasn’t an easy time. It was not a heroic mission for me.”
He said he never mentioned his Vietnam experiences for the first 15 years after returning, but has slowly opened up since then. This has been in part due to curious GPS students believing his experiences were important and worth sharing.
“It gave me a very deep appreciation for all of us who served,” he said.
With the help of a well-connected acquaintance, he was able to get a job teaching at Bolles after his military service. In fact, he turned in his military weaponry and picked up a teacher’s textbook only days apart.
Eighteen years at Bolles and 26 at GPS soon flew by, and Mr. Tucker and his wife, Terri, are now looking forward to enjoying a more leisurely life. This will likely include spending more time with their children, GPS graduate Taylor, and McCallie alumnus Trey.
Although Mr. Tucker thought he might still enjoy doing some kind of work and was not quite ready to retire fully, despite being in his late 60s, he was surprised recently when he was offered the interim headmastership at Battle Ground Academy in Nashville for the 2013-14 school year.
“This wasn’t part of my plan,” he said, adding that he plans to commute from Chattanooga and stay here after his year is completed. “I did realize I wasn’t ready to quit, so this is kind of my way to step away gradually.”
Because of the new appointment, he is already looking ahead to another school year. But he is also taking a little time to look back and feel appreciative of the opportunity he was given at GPS beginning in 1987.
“I had never headed a school,” he said. “I’m not sure why I got the job. I think it even surprised the search committee. But something matched up as far as what the board was looking for.
“And I have been forever grateful. It literally changed my life.”