By Phyllis Zorn, Staff Writer
Enid News and Eagle
ENID, Okla. —
Gary Lee Kirtley is a fine example that if you do a good job, you aren’t permitted to retire.
Kirtley gave 49 years of his life to education as a teacher, principal and district administrator, but since his 2003 retirement as assistant superintendent of Enid Public Schools, Kirtley has been summoned back several times for short-term assignments that have turned out to be anything but short term.
“I ended up back five full years,” Kirtley said. “This was an accident — I didn’t mean to do it.”
He is one of five finalists for the annual Pillar of the Plains, created by the Enid News & Eagle and its community partners, to honor people who have taken on tasks and projects to better the quality of life in the community. Other finalists are Dr. David S. Russell, Martie Oyler and Larry and Rick Simpson. The five will be honored at a public reception at 5:30 p.m. Jan. 10 at Convention Hall.
Kirtley initially returned to temporarily fill in for the principal at Garfield Elementary School, who was having some health issues.
“I told them I’d come for a week or two,” Kirtley said. “I ended up there a long time.”
Then, he was called to operate the switchboard at the central office.
Later, the district needed a technology director fill-in. Then, EPS needed a personnel director.
EPS Superintendent Shawn Hime gave part of the credit for Kirtley’s indispensability to his listening and decision-making skills.
“From our perspective, the thing that stands out about Gary is he has a very rare wisdom,” Hime said. “He always stays calm and makes very good decisions. One thing we could all learn from Gary is stay calm, listen to all sides and make a good decision.”
Hime said Kirtley’s essential knowledge of people is a factor in this skill.
“One thing about Gary is, no matter what profession he chose, he would have been equally successful as a CEO, a banker or whatever he selected, because of his intellect and interpersonal skills,” Hime said.
Kem Keithly, who retired as EPS superintendent in 2008 after working alongside Kirtley for 24 years, also lauded Kirtley’s interpersonal skills.
“Gary is one of the finest administrators I ever knew,” Keithly said.
But there was one goof Keithly said they never let Kirtley live down.
“Jim Gelsthorpe and Gary were driving some buses back from a trip, and they decided to stop at the World’s Fair, in Tennessee at that time,” Keithly said. “Gary got way too close to a chain-link fence and knocked it down. We didn’t let him forget that.”
Kirtley got his first teaching job in 1959, at Clinton. In the 1960s, he taught at Perry. Then, he was a principal at Arkansas City, Kan.
EPS called him to be principal at Emerson Junior High School. He then became the district’s director of federal programs. From there, he became assistant superintendent.
The most challenging thing about working in education is you never know what’s going to happen next, Kirtley said. That made for going to work every day with an attitude that he’d take whatever came along.
“I never wished I didn’t have to go,” Kirtley said, “but, there were times I wished I hadn’t gone.”
Kirtley said being elected to Enid Public School Foundation Hall of Fame in 2010 was one of the things that thrilled him the most over the years.
Kirtley also has been a dedicated community volunteer, particularly in areas connected to education. He’s been a member of Enid Metropolitan Area Service Commission, Youth and Family Services board, Northern Oklahoma College/Northwestern Oklahoma State University advisory committee and many other volunteer endeavors.
But of all of them, the one Kirtley values most was serving on the Hospice Circle of Love board of directors for several years.
“He just has provided so much volunteer service through the years,” said Ruth Ann Erdner, assistant EPS superintendent. “He just doesn’t have the word ‘no’ in his vocabulary. He’s really community oriented and has a love for Enid. He wants to be involved in community progress.”