Accident created opportunities for school superintendent

By Wayne Bryan Published March 31, 2014 at 8:28 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Nathan Gills has been superintendent of the Glen Rose School District for 13 years. After beginning work at a sawmill near his hometown of Gurdon, Gills had a workplace accident. That event put him on the path to college and, eventually, his current position. Recently, Gills accepted the position of superintendent for the Stuttgart Public School District. His last day at Glen Rose will be June 30.

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Junot Diaz wrote, “It’s never the changes we want that change everything.”

Nathan Gills, who has been superintendent of the Glen Rose School District for 13 years, understands what Diaz meant. A terrible accident changed the direction of Gills’ life in a way that he never imagined, and he is glad it happened.

“When I finished high school, college was not in reach for me, and I went to work at a sawmill near Gurdon,” Gills said, sitting at his desk in his small office in the Glen Rose school system’s administration building. “There was an accident.”

He lost one finger and part of another.

The good part of the story came when the doctor treating Gills said he would increase his disability ranking from 50 percent to 75 percent, but only if Gills promised to attend college.

“I tell people about the accident, and they will say, ‘How terrible,’ but I tell them it was a blessing,” Gills added. “I went to Henderson State University, walked on to the football team, eventually got a scholarship, and the rest, as they say, is history.”

Gills had always been interested in coaching football. While he was a player at Gurdon High School, he helped coach the junior high school team. Yet even when he entered college, he was not considering teaching or coaching as a career.

“I never had any real vision of what I wanted to do when I grew up,” he said. “I started school as a business major.”

In his freshman year in college, he was still not thinking about studying education and coaching.

“My uncle suggested I talk with coach [Ralph ‘Sporty’] Carpenter, and the coach allowed me to try out,” Gills said. “I played on the offensive line, usually on the left side.

Although he missed the 1972 and 1973 seasons because of an injury, Gills came back to be named All-Arkansas Intercollegiate Conference during two years that were among the most successful seasons in Reddie football. The team was 11-2 in 1974, losing the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics national championship game. The team was 11-1 in 1975 and 8-2 in 1976.

“I sat out the spring semester so I could play football in the fall of 1976, and I graduated in December,” Gills said. “I was a physical education and social studies major.”

He taught and coached in Magnolia for a year and in North Little Rock for another year before he was invited to be the assistant high school football coach and social studies teacher in Springhill, La. He was later a teacher and coach in Cotton Valley, La., for five years before returning to Springhill as the high school principal.

“I was a teacher and a coach for 16 years,” Gills said.

But football and the classroom were not the only things going on Gills’ life. Even before his accident, he joined the U.S. Air Force Reserve when he was 17. After moving to Springhill, he spent 18 years in the Louisiana Army National Guard. He retired as a sergeant major after serving 29 years, which included a tour in Operation Desert Storm as a member of a battalion of Army engineers.

“We built Rapid Runways, and the famous berms in Saudi Arabia that the tanks pushed through during the invasion into Iraq,” Gills said. “Later, we built POW camps.”

Gills said he took early retirement from his job as a principal in Louisiana to return home to Arkansas in 2000.

“We had decided to find somewhere in this area and get paid for it,” he said. “I applied for the job as superintendent at Glen Rose.”

Gills said he believes he has made a difference in the school district.

“The main thing I’ve accomplished while I have been at Glen Rose is to develop facilities. There is not a building on campus that I have not had a hand in fixing, expanding or building,” he said. “I was here for the building of the elementary wing and the storm shelter. We replaced the roof of the middle school and expanded the [vocational and agriculture] shop at the high school. We have also tripled the number of seats at the sports arena.”

Gills said he has one project left.

“The installation of a new turf [football] field will be my last project,” he said, “and I want to see it completed before I go.”

Gills said the school system already had strong academic and athletic programs before he came to Glen Rose. He said he hopes he helped make those areas even stronger by raising expectations for the system.

Gills said that when he announced his resignation earlier in the school year, his plan was to retire for good.

“But soon afterward, some friends in Stuttgart called me and told me about the opening.” he said. “I almost didn’t apply for the job, but three weeks after I sent in my application, they offered me the job.”

Gills said he has plans to stay in an RV while working in Stuttgart, at least for the time being. He said he and his family have put down roots in the Glen Rose area, and he considers it home.

“I hope I am leaving the school system better than I found it,” he said. “It is a very good [system] with some very good people.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 and at wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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