BY HOPE HARRINGTON OAKES
When graduating from Lee High School as a member of the Class of 1969, Bob Williford never dreamed that he would come back to Columbus after college and spend the next 40 years as an educator in his hometown. Ironically, he began that career at Lee High School, and his first fifteen years there were spent teaching world history, Mississippi studies and driver’s education. He also kept busy coaching basketball, football, and golf.
Williford said coaching seemed to be more fun than work. Working with kids, winning ballgames and trying to reach individuals or smaller groups really helped Williford get to know his students well. He branched out into administration, serving as assistant principal at Lee High and eventually, principal.
“Spending all these years in Columbus has been an awesome experience,” Williford said. “When I became principal, I had five teachers on staff that actually taught me in high school. They were my best supporters who helped me along the way — helped me grow up. It was a very unique experience.”
Being an administrator, he said, brought completely different challenges than Williford was accustomed to as a teacher. As an administrator Williford was responsible for all aspects in the operation of a school, such as curriculum, staff, budgeting, and issues within the child/parent community.
In 1995, the Columbus Municipal School District merged Lee High School with Caldwell High School to create Columbus High School. Williford went to CHS as the assistant principal. When he retired after 32 years in the CMSD in 2005, he had been principal for several years. He was happy that both his children graduated from Columbus High School, and also that he got to finish with his daughter’s Class of 2005.
Williford, though retired, still felt the need to work, so he began looking for jobs in Tennessee and Alabama. But he was soon hired as the new principal at Immanuel Christian School, a decision he said was not an easy one.
“I felt that God just plunked me right down in this place and I haven’t regretted it, since,” Williford said. “I’m finishing up my eighth year here and feel that I have served my purpose. As I leave the education career field after 40 years, I think of how blessed I am. I look out there and I see students whose parents were my students. I have this one child whose grandmother was in my class when I taught my first year. So that makes three generations I have taught.”
Married for thirty-five years to the former Nancy Weeks of Columbus, he considers his family a blessing. Nancy died in 2008 from ovarian cancer.
“God gave her to me for 35 years and we were blessed to have two wonderful children,” Williford said.
His son, Bud, lives in Madison, with his wife Andrea and their daughter, Spencer. His daughter, Sara and her husband, Matt Doss, also live in Madison.
“People think I’m moving to Madison to be with the kids, but not at this time,” he said. “I’m going to be patient. I’m looking forward to being at home for a while. I’m ready for a more relaxed time of life.”
When asked about the hundreds of students whose lives he helped shape and influence, he said an English teacher had influenced his life.
“I played under the legendary Billy Brewer and Tuffy Bourland as an athlete, but I’d say my former English teacher, Evelyn Rogers, was the most challenging influence I had in school,” Williford said. “I got the chance about twelve years ago to tell her so. I was at the Magowah Gun Club dinner and she was there. I went up and told her that as a student I tried to get out of her class, because she was so tough and it was a hard class to get through. I couldn’t get out of it, so I stuck it out and did well. I’m so glad that I could tell her that she made me a better student, and eventually, a better teacher.”
Another mentor whose advice and wisdom Williford valued was that of Dr. Bob Hudson. Williford was his Assistant Coach at Le High. Hudson eventually became the assistant superintendent. He retired from the public school system a year or so after Williford became an administrator, and he said he was a great influence.
“I enjoy the relationships I’ve had with the kids and love to see them grow into responsible adults. I’ve taught doctors, lawyers, building contractors, nurses, athletes, even an NFL coach (Leslie Frazier of the Minnesota Vikings),” Williford said. “One of my former students, Anthony Smith was in the military and got injured by a rocket grenade. He is a great participant of the Wounded Warrior Program.”
Williford readily admits he has seen students with problems and he has been through some challenging times, but he said he really loves it when they see it through and comes back to thank him for believing in them.Williford said one of funniest memories included a senior prank gone wrong at CHS.
“I got a call at 3:00 A.M. one morning from the police department telling me that they had some of my students,” Williford said. “The kids had planned to get on top of the building and get in to glue locks together. They were caught red-handed. I went down to the school to identify them. There were six of them sitting on the curb handcuffed. They were a sad-looking bunch, heads hanging, thinking it was ‘the end.’ I wanted to laugh, but I had to be stern with them. They were suspended a couple of days and reimbursed the school for the damage they’d done but got back on track and got to graduate. They’re all doing well today, to my knowledge.”
When asked what advice he would give to anyone who wants to be an educator, Williford said, “I think you have to set high expectations and stay with it. Always do your best. I always told my kids to ‘finish strong’. I have been so blessed and I will do my best until I walk out that door”.