40 years of Altoona community spirit

The temperature was dropping so quickly below tolerable that school had been canceled for the next day. Dick Lockard hung up his baseball cap and winter coat at the Altoona Area High School board room.

Wearing thin framed glasses tucked behind his gray hearing aids that are barely noticeable against his neat, gray hair, Lockard prepared for what would be two consecutive board meetings lasting four hours, until 9:30 p.m., and covering all that is mundane and also important to a school district.

An employee handed him an envelope containing some kind of school board business.

“My paycheck,” he laughed with the employee. It was a joke, and he, embarking on his 41st year as an unpaid public school board member, was the unspoken punch line.

A majority of school directors statewide devote 16 hours or more a month to school board business. Using that calculation, Altoona Area spokeswoman Paula Foreman said it would be conservative to say that Lockard has dedicated 7,680 hours to the students and community of Altoona Area School District.

He’s grown into a fatherly role in the district, weathering a revolving door of nine-member boards over the years, even though it wasn’t his plan.

His years of service on the school board have accumulated through losing two elections for other offices, county commissioner and city council, which he

doesn’t regret.

“I enjoy being on the school board. I enjoy taking care of the children,” he said.

First-year Superintendent Thomas Otto has learned much from Lockard.

“Since I’ve assumed the role of superintendent of the Altoona Area School District, Mr. Lockard and I have had numerous conversations on things relating to physical plant, board policy, athletics, and various topics related to the general operation of the district. He provides an historical background and perspective that has been very beneficial,” Otto said.

Through Lockard’s years on the board, he’s guided the construction of new school buildings and, in time, the shuttering of those same buildings.

His school board service ended – temporarily for four years – after his first two terms because he lost re-election when the board closed Logan Junior High School.

Currently, the district has eight elementary schools. When Lockard began his service in 1969, there were more than 20 schools. (Lockard’s no vote to closing Wright Elementary School last summer drew thunderous applause from parents and teachers.)

While he’s taken on countless school issues, it was one that motivated him as a 34-year-old, married industrial engineer to campaign for school board more than 40 years ago.

“Back in those times, they were taking prayer and Bible reading out of schools. That’s why I ran for school board,” said Lockard, a Baptist Christian. “Back in the day, we had meetings with ministers. They spoke before the board. We tried many, many ways to keep prayer and Bible reading in schools. I’m still working on things about getting it back. We are one nation founded under God.”

Lockard, 78, is among a few board members known by the Pennsylvania School Boards Association to have 40-plus years experience, according to a PSBA spokesman. About 4 percent of current board members statewide have served 21 or more years of service. But Altoona Area, Bedford Area, Elk Lake, Jeannette and Aliquippa school districts each have a board member with more than 40 years of service.

The long haul of these school directors began for similar reasons: ” I didn’t think things were going the way they should,” Bedford Area board member Ronald Markwood, 79, said. January marked the start of his 44th year as a school board member. The optometrist, still practicing, had first been elected after he spoke out against the elimination of a school crossing guard program.

In the eastern part of the state, a Meshoppen dairy farmer was nudged into the position of an absentee board member in 1961 – and has served on the Elk Lake board for 52 years, the most years of service in the state.

“I was minding my own business, but a neighbor came over and said, ‘Some of us think you should run for school board,'” Arden Tewksbury, 81, said.

“And I’ve been there ever since – just got re-elected in November.”

Lockard was re-elected in November, too. He’s not thinking of what he will do beyond this term.

“I’ll take it one term at a time, four years at a time,” he said. “If the Lord wants me to go on, He will send me on.”

That’s been his attitude for many of his re-elections beginning in the 1990s.

He suffered a heart attack in 1992, underwent heart surgery and spent 15 days in the hospital, he said. “After going through an operation like that, I had to take that into consideration each time I ran for re-election.”

He maintains his health by walking two miles each day, and coincidentally, that may be a reason for his public support. Lockard’s city is not a small town, but he likes to meet people, campaigning door to door. That’s what he said he believes has kept him on the board for so long.

Of the longtime school board members in Lockard’s company, none serve in a district as populous as Altoona Area.

Jeanette City School District’s William Brasco,76, was re-elected in November. This will be his 44th year.

“Everybody knows it’s a small town. People know my interests are sincere, I do work hard, and I think that’s what gets me elected,” he said.

He was an football and wrestling standout in high school. He was motivated to run for board because he cares about children’s education. Like the other board members in the 40-plus year club, his children all graduated from the district he serves. But the furniture store manager was elected to the school board prior to their birth.

“If you don’t have an education, you got nothing,” said Brasco, a proponent of the state’s new teacher evaluations.

He too, has been through construction and closing of neighborhood schools, multiple superintendents.

These fatherly board members have seen how demographics have changed since the 1970s, a change defined, especially in Altoona, by industrial decline and urban decentralization. They are concerned about how the economy is affecting their school district’s families and their children, many of whom receive federal free and reduced price lunches at school.

Aliquippa School District’s 40-plus year board member Arthur Paroles has seen enrollment decline 20 percent from what it was when the city’s steel mill was at its apex, said Superintendent David Wytiaz. The district has shrunk from nine to two schools total. Paroles, “a popular gentleman in the community,” Wytiaz said, was re-elected in November despite several new names on the ballot.

“For board members in the future, budgeting will be the biggest challenge,” said Bedford Area’s Markwood. Taxes haven’t been raised in eight years. “Our fist thing is the kids; does it benefit them? Then you have to figure out what the cost is.”

He had ensured that with Bedford Area’s recently renovated high school, the district allocated $1 million for technology to fill it.

“When you have a board member with that kind of longevity,” Bedford Area Superintendent Alan Sell said of Markwood, “they know the issues; they create a commonality [between past and present] that calms and leads a school district.”

It’s a delicate balance between the interests of taxpayers and needs of students, that school board members face as they plan for the future of a school district.

“We’ve kept taxes down and financially we are in great shape,” Lockard said. “You have to look at both sides, educational and where the money is coming from – taxpayers in Altoona. I feel board members have to realize they have to be dedicated and have to put time in.”

Mirror Staff Writer Russ O’Reilly is at 946-7435