This morning I learned of the untimely passing of Kim Kearby last evening. As of this writing I’m not aware of the circumstances, my prayers go out to Jeanne and the Kirby Family for the loss of a truly special man.
Kim first and foremost loved the kids of Round Lake and wanted what was best for them. His actions continually reflected this and I will defend that to anyone who dares to say otherwise. Second, he was a proud leader of the teachers and staff of Round Lake. There’s a reason the Education Association of Round Lake grew to include virtually all staff members – you couldn’t do any better than Kim Kearby.
There was no reason for Kim and I to get along – he was an old hippie who had never given it up and I am a libertarian. Sure, we had some common ground on a lot of social issues but we had just as many massive differences. When I attended his retirement party I had to endure Union songs, that’s how much I liked him. Kim Kearby was a giant in a small man’s shoes who has left an unfathomable void.
Kim was, quite simply, a legend in Round Lake Area Schools – he was beloved and castigated in the same community. To some people he was a boogeyman; he was the one responsible for the discord in the running of the school district. The fights between him and Dr. Clif Houghton are legendary. Collective Bargaining in Round Lake at that time usually consisted of Clif and Kim getting in a room and screaming at each other for hours and days at a time before they shook hands and went out for a drink. They disagreed mightily but there was always a level of mutual respect.
I first knew “Mr. Kearby” as my tee ball coach. I can remember the day almost like it was yesterday when I took to the practice field. There was this disheveled man who looked like he had rolled out of a homeless shelter and I remember looking at my mom thinking, “this is my coach?” Kim never cared that much about appearances, to him it was what was inside that counted and inside was a heart of gold and eyes that lit up with this motley group of kids. Those eyes caught me as a kid and I instantly liked him.
In 2000, I joined a group of concerned citizens convened by the late Ila Bauer about what was happening with the failing school district. The district was imploding after a long teacher strike a few years before. I got up and told the group nothing was going to change until we voted the current Board out and my school board odyssey that concluded in 2010 began. Kim came to one of our meetings and had the union checkbook ready to assist us.
Kim and I had an earnest conversation, I told him I wouldn’t accept any quid pro quo. If the union wanted to support us that was fine, but I wasn’t going to be a union shill. I don’t think he even flinched at my rather direct union slight (I’m known to be direct), instead he scratched his head from a bit of a slouch he was known to have and looked up at me. “We just want people that care and will give us a fair shake,” he said. “That’s all.” We shook hands and through my years on the board Kim kept to his word. There was never a single instance of pressure or utterance of “we got you elected” from his mouth. Kim hadn’t changed since tee ball – he was a man of his word.
Over the next decade I would endure the tirades and emails and closed session rants of what a tyrant Kim Kearby was from administrators and board members. Even the board members that had taken the union money would bitch about him. I wouldn’t bother to defend him, I would usually just smile to myself at what a fantastic job Kim did. You see, Kim was an agitator – as President of his Union that was his job. The litany of people who never got that were astounding and were the principal architects of the district’s ruin and state takeover.
He had these people right where he wanted them – looking stupid and confused and they were always ready to comply. The Union took the School Board to the cleaners in arbitration and they never accepted that. Usually a community will vote that Board out but Round Lake is home to quite a bit of apathy so the culprits lingered on only to keep fighting while spending money like it was going out of style until the state had enough.
Eventually Round Lake got some people who “got it”. Starting with CEO Dennis Stonewall and then Dr. Ben Martindale. When we hired Ben I remember telling him most of what he had probably heard about Kim was untrue. He would find that Kim was quite reasonable and easy to work with if you respected him and his job. In fact, anyone who thought Kim was at the activist fringe of his union quite clearly didn’t know his union!
The road to recovery in Round Lake was laid by Kim Kearby. He was the one who had to go back to his members and sell the freezes and it wasn’t easy. The ability for the district to recover was due, in no small part, to the Union accepting freezes and reductions. Things were tense many times but I’m proud to say I signed the only contract renewal in Round Lake that anyone had ever heard of. That was due to the labors of Kim and Ben working together to fix what was so clearly broken and it all came down to respect and relationships.
It’s no surprise that when things started moving towards “broken” again that Kim was the first to step up and run for the Board to help make things right. I sent him an email wishing him luck, offering help and reminding him he can’t complain about being up to his neck in alligators when he volunteered to drain the swamp. I can only imagine the closed sessions that have occurred since!
It’s too bad that Kim won’t be there to see things fixed again and it will be Round Lake’s loss as well. He leaves a huge void of love for the kids and people of Round Lake Area Schools – one that isn’t easily filled and that’s a shame. It’s also a shame he didn’t get to enjoy many years of retirement he so richly deserved after so many of service. I suspect he figured it might be that way.
So, to a legend of Round Lake I bid farewell. I thank Jeanne and the Kirby family for loaning him to us. You sacrificed much so Kim could serve us, we can never repay that to you. I hope the knowledge of the thousands of lives he touched and the legacy he leaves behind can assuage the grief you must surely feel right now. Thank you, from all of us who were lucky enough to know him.
As for Kim, I’m certain he’s at the gates pacing restlessly wondering why the hell it’s taking them so long to open up. Take it easy Kim, I’m sure they’ll get to you eventually!