JACKSONVILLE In a borrowed building off of West Main Street in Jacksonville, decisions are being made and pieces are falling into place as the new Jacksonville/North Pulaski School District takes shape.
Sitting at the helm of this operation — at least for a few more months — is interim superintendent Bobby Lester. After moving through the ranks from teacher to superintendent, with stops along the way in other administration roles, Lester retired in 1999. That hasn’t stopped him from being involved in the education system, including his current position to help form a new school district.
Lester grew up in Rose Bud, where he and his siblings helped their father, Amos Lester, on the farm while he ran his veterinary practice. Lester said he learned a lot about hard work from his father.
“At one time, we had 700 or 800 acres of land,” he said. “We had 300 head of cattle. When you’re bailing hay and putting up feed for the cows and feeding them in the wintertime, you learn a lot. It was a seven-day-a-week job. You really worked hard.”
Lester went to Rose Bud High School and played on the basketball team, even making all-conference one year. He said he enjoyed science and math, which led him to major in biology and minor in chemistry when he went to Arkansas State Teachers College, now known as the University of Central Arkansas, in Conway.
While he was in school, Lester said, he assumed he would go into veterinary medicine like his father, but some influential teachers from his days in Rose Bud caused him to step back and reconsider his career path.
“I kind of thought because Dad was a vet, I was going to be a vet,” he said. “Then as I got closer to graduation, I had a high school coach, a high school ag teacher and a high school principal that all had influence on me. I turned suddenly and wanted to be a teacher.”
Lester taught science in in south Lonoke County at Humnoke, and after two years, he was promoted to high school principal. He was principal in Humnoke for a year before he moved to Pulaski County, where he was assistant principal of Jacksonville Junior High School North for a year. After that year, he served as principal at Jacksonville Junior High School North for four years.
As he was moving up in the school district, Lester was asked to take over as principal of Jacksonville High School in 1975. He transitioned in the middle of the year, and he said there was a lot of strife at the school that needed to be addressed.
“My job was to figure out how to get the campus under control, bring the campus together and to stop the fighting,” he said. “That’s probably one of the biggest accomplishments of my life. Within about six months, we had the school under control and we had the kids working together. … We got the campus under control and we got the kids back in class.”
When Lester arrived at Jacksonville High School, the campus was torn along racial lines. He said there were two of everything — student councils, prom committees, other student organizations — and part of his job was to bring the groups together and unify the school.
“I told them, ‘We’re a school. We are one whole. We are not going to do this this way anymore,’” he said. “One of the funny things we did is bring both bands that had been hired to perform at prom. We had one band play, and then they’d break and the other band would play.”
After his time at Jacksonville High School, Lester went on to be director of secondary education, assistant superintendent, then superintendent of the Pulaski County Special School District. He served as superintendent for 15 years with the district before he retired in 1999.
After retirement, Lester became director of the Arkansas Retired Teachers Association, a part-time job he held for five years. Then he started helping with superintendent searches for McPherson and Jacobson, an executive-recruitment and development firm based in Nebraska.
Lester was a member of the Jacksonville Education Foundation, for which he served as an advisor to aid in the movement for Jacksonville schools to break off from the Pulaski County Special School District.
“When they needed something done, they looked to me,” he said. “I got Dr. Don Stewart, who was one of my former employees, to do the first feasibility study. Later on, when the wheels slowed down again, I went out and got Dr. Winston Simpson, who did the last feasibility study.”
Once the votes were in and the new school district was within reach, a superintendent had to be found. Lester helped with the search, but he said it was hard to get anyone to commit with all of the uncertainties still ahead for the district. He agreed late last year to be
interim superintendent. Recently, Tony Wood was selected to be the first full superintendent of the district. Lester’s last day will be June 30, and Wood will take the reins July 1.
Lester said that when his term as interim superintendent is over, he looks forward to traveling again with his wife, Laura Beth. The couple have traveled extensively over the years, and he said this will likely be a hobby they continue.
“We’ve been all over Europe,” he said. “We’ve been to Russia. We’ve been to China. We’ve been to Australia, New Zealand, Fiji. If you look at Europe, we’ve just about covered it all, almost all in about a 15-year period.”
It is hard to pick a favorite destination, Lester said. He and his wife like Austria for a strictly good vacation, and they like Russia for educational purposes, and “it really makes you realize how much you ought to appreciate America,” he said.
Still, there is no place like home. Lester owns about 100 acres in Rose Bud, including the land where he was born. That area has become a refuge for him and his family — including his children and grandchildren — and he said he looks forward to spending more time there.
“I was born in the old house on the farm,” he said. “I built a cabin up there where I was born. My grandkids and our family really enjoy that. That’s the light of our life right now. The kids grew up hardly knowing milk comes from cows. They have really enjoyed going up there riding horses, riding four wheelers, fishing in the pond, catching frogs and tadpoles. … I love Rose Bud. I love the cabin,
and I love the people up there. I enjoy that so much.”
Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached at (501) 244-4307 or firstname.lastname@example.org.