Sep. 2—EDITOR'S NOTE — This story celebrates the American work ethic as the community recognizes Labor Day 2022.
When Robert Kerley started working for the Cobb County School District, Jimmy Carter was in the White House, the Bee Gees topped the Billboard charts and Cobb's population was about 287,000, less than half of what it is today.
Kerley still remembers his first day on the job, when he was 21 years old — Jan. 4, 1979. After 42 years in Cobb schools' fleet maintenance division, he retired on Sept. 5, 2020.
Kerley was one of about 170 former CCSD staff honored at the district's retirement luncheon Tuesday at Roswell Street Baptist Church. In fact, he was the longest-serving employee honored at the event.
The annual luncheon celebrating retirees was canceled in 2020 and 2021, so employees who retired in those years were invited back to be recognized.
"It's almost kind of a little bit cooler, if you will, to be able to come back after you've been retired," Superintendent Chris Ragsdale told the crowd, joking, "so you got kind of a taste of retirement, and now you're able to come back and really put it in everybody's face."
As metro Atlanta school districts compete to recruit teachers and bus drivers, the superintendent also joked that he'd welcome any of the retirees who want to come back.
"But in all seriousness, thank you for coming today, because it truly shows how much of a member of our team you truly are. ... Thank you all for the part that you have played for our organization, and I wish you much success, much rest and relaxation, but most of all, much enjoyment in your retirement," Ragsdale said.
The district will host another luncheon on Sept. 13 for this year's retirees.
'I just got hooked'
When Kerley started his Cobb schools career, the district had about 340 school buses, he said. When he retired, that number was more than 1,100.
The job also changed.
"When I first started there, you did a little bit of everything. If a bus broke down, you went and got it," Kerley said.
Over time, Kerley's role became more specialized, and he mostly focused on body work for district vehicles, including school buses. The buses themselves became more modern over the years, incorporating more electric components, lighting and air conditioning.
There was never a lack of repairs that needed doing, Kerley said.
"It was steady money. I worked for a few years before that at different shops and stuff, and they're either feast or famine out there. This is steady," Kerley said. "But then, the bigger we got, the pay started getting better, because nine months out of the year we'd be working overtime. ... These cars run into buses every day, ain't even the bus drivers' fault."
A Marietta native, Kerley now lives in Paulding County, enjoying retirement and hobbies such as hunting and fishing.
Nancy Wells was the longest serving teacher honored at the luncheon, having taught high school English for 40 years before retiring in May 2020. Among the attendees, her tenure length was tied for second with Steven Hardin, a former plant operations manager for the district.
Wells, a native of East Point, was hired at Campbell High School right after graduating from Georgia State University. She taught at Campbell for 12 years, then spent 28 years at Pope High before retiring. At Campbell, she worked alongside people who had taught her husband, a Campbell alumnus.
"When I was in high school, I was working in a classroom where there were students struggling with reading, and I just got hooked," Wells said. "The kids kept in contact with me after I graduated, and I just felt like I was really making a difference in their lives, and they made a difference in mine, too. So I just went into that career, and I've just enjoyed every second of it.
While she taught all four high school grades, Wells spent most of her time teaching freshmen.
"Just because they're new to the school, you know what I mean? They're kind of the babies," she said. "And I just feel like at that point, you can still really make a difference. Not that you can't with the upperclassmen, but there's still something innocent about it."
One fond memory Wells recalled was seeing a rat scurry across her classroom, causing her to scream and flee the room.
"It was actually a student that brought his pet rat," she said.
Wells had planned to retire at the end of the 2019-2020 school year, but her last semester was cut short in March, when the pandemic forced schools to go virtual. She regrets not being able to say a proper goodbye to her ninth-graders that year, who are now Pope seniors. She hopes to visit and see them off when they graduate next May.
Wells now lives in Cumming and likes to spend her time with her children and grandchildren. Wells enjoyed seeing old friends and colleagues at the luncheon, including Marion Lister, her co-teacher of 28 years.
"It was just a pleasure working in Cobb County. It was an awesome county, and I still look at it and how proud I am to have been a part of such a wonderful staff," Wells said. "The administrators I've had over the years have just been wonderful. The teachers, my friends ... will be my friends for life."