When Kirk Walker was a student at McCallie School in the 1960s, he thought he might follow his father, the late Robert Kirk Walker, into law or maybe become a journalist due to his involvement in school publications.
He did end up helping write and create stories, but those of McCallie, Bright and Ensworth schools through his guidance and decisions as headmaster.
“At some point in college I realized what I wanted to do is teach,” the current McCallie headmaster recalled recently from his office in the Maclellan Academic Center. “I realized how much I enjoyed the interaction that went on in the classroom.”
After nearly four decades of teaching, working on advanced education degrees, and serving as an administrator, Dr. Walker has decided to retire at the end of June and will be succeeded by Lee Burns.
However, the 62-year-old is admittedly not retiring from the working world, as he is looking at continuing to work in some area. It might include a consulting group he plans to start to work with independent schools, his foundation to support community-based youth development programs, or something else.
“This is my 32nd year to be a headmaster, and I thought it’d be fun to see what’s next,” he said, sounding as enthusiastic as a 22-year-old just getting into the professional workforce. “I’m waiting for life to surprise me how else I’m supposed to serve. It will be fun to see what’s next.”
One area where he knows he is not going to serve – even though he admits a number of people have asked him recently due to his father’s career as a former Chattanooga mayor – is in politics.
“I have a lot of respect for those in public service, but right now I’m looking to serve in other areas,” he said.
Dr. Walker has been finding ways to serve and achieve since his years at McCallie, when he was the valedictorian in the class of 1969 and received a prestigious Morehead Scholarship to the University of North Carolina.
While at Chapel Hill, his father was elected mayor.
Despite an impressive resume for a college graduate, however, he found limited job opportunities when he decided he wanted to teach.
“I sent out a lot of applications, and I got a lot of letters back that said thank you but no thanks,” he recalled with a laugh.
However, one school – Montgomery Bell Academy in Nashville – was interested and hired him.
Eventually, he started taking some part-time and later fulltime classes while obtaining his master’s and doctoral degrees in education at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.
After finishing his work, he became supervisor of instruction at Fort Campbell, Ky., in the Clarksville, Tenn., area. But he also became a student learning about love about this time, as he met and married his wife, Patsi, who was from Clarksville.
They have three children: Rob, who graduated from McCallie in 1999 after being a boarding student before his father arrived; Whit, who finished there in 2002; and Caroline, a 2004 Girls Preparatory School graduate who now works in the McCallie development office.
Although enjoying his work in Fort Campbell, he soon learned that opportunities might be available in his former hometown of Chattanooga.
“I got a call saying they were considering me to be the head of Bright School, and the rest followed,” he said.
He began serving as headmaster of the historic independent elementary school in Riverview in 1982, and became popular with parents and others. As a result, other opportunities soon arose, and, in 1990, he became the headmaster of Ensworth School in Nashville.
At the time, the school was an independent institution in the West End area of Nashville for male and female students from grades 1-8. Many of its male graduates attended nearby MBA, but that all changed in 2004, well after Dr. Walker had left.
As has been publicly documented, wealthy MBA alumnus Tommy Frist – the founder of Hospital Corporation of America and older brother of former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist – offered MBA $100 million with the stipulation that it start admitting girls so his granddaughters could attend.
MBA rejected the offer, so he worked with Ensworth, which built a new high school campus next to Edwin Warner Park. The school has become quite popular as an independent high school, and has had the best Division II high school football program in Tennessee in recent years.
Dr. Walker said the idea that Ensworth might one day change and expand did come up during his time at the Nashville school, but it was still off in the future.
“The planets were aligning but they hadn’t aligned completely,” he said with a smile.
Instead of being there for all the changes, Dr. Walker headed back to Chattanooga in 1999 after being asked to become McCallie’s first non-McCallie family member to serve as headmaster.
Despite following a zig-zag pattern back and forth from the Chattanooga and Nashville areas over the years with his car, Dr. Walker tried to follow the same educational path in terms of helping the three independent schools maintain similarly high standards.
And while each school had similarities to the others when he was there, they also had their own personalities, he added.
“All of them were interested in providing really strong programs for students,” he said. “All of them were interested in offering a wide range of activities developing the whole child. All of them also were nurturing communities, and all of them set high expectations for the students.
“But every school has its own mission.”
During his 15-year tenure at McCallie, the school has built Burns and Pressly dormitory halls and a new dining hall, expanded some athletic facilities, expanded and remodeled the chapel, and increased the academic course offerings, including the math, foreign language, drama and Bible ethics programs.
But Dr. Walker, who likes to pick up trash as he walks around the McCallie campus, apparently did not see his ego expanded, as he says few of the accomplishments were due to him.
“I can’t really take credit for being a part of what has been a wonderful team,” he said. “But I’m probably most privileged that I’ve been able to help move the legacy forward and to help interpret the school’s mission for the next generation of men.”
While independent school headmasters have different styles, with some teaching classes or eating lunch daily with students, Dr. Walker said most of his time during an average week is spent in meetings.
“It can be with faculty or the administrative team or board members or alumni or parents,” he said. “Generally it’s one meeting after another.”
During one recent board meeting he attended, he learned that the new science building planned for the campus would be named in his honor after it is funded and built. Dr. Walker admitted to being speechless after learning of the touching gesture.
“It’s overwhelming,” he said. “When the board told me their decision, it was one of the few times I didn’t know what to say. I was overcome by it and was excited the science building will become a reality.”
But Dr. Walker has plenty to say about McCallie in general, where his life has come full circle.
“I had so many wonderful teachers when I was here,” he said. “That is one reason I decided to get into teaching.
To hear a brief audio interview with Kirk Walker, click here.