Hagen: Graves had genuine care for Mitchell's schools, students
It wasn’t just the students where he made an impact. He was active at community events and consistently looked for areas that needed improvement, which is a fantastic quality in a leader.
The call came in around 3:30 a.m.
“Good morning, Luke. Sorry for calling so early. Letting you know Mitchell School District and John Paul II will be two hours late today.”
I figured it’d be the case, and I never sleep well knowing an early-morning weather announcement call would likely be coming. As the editor of our newspaper, it’s my responsibility to take that call and post a story on our website.
And for the first time ever, the call came from someone other than Joe Graves.
Mitchell’s superintendent since 2000 is now South Dakota’s secretary of education, appointed at the beginning of the year by Gov. Kristi Noem. He started his new job on Jan. 10, two days before Joe Childs made his first call to delay the start of school.
Later that morning, during more-normal work hours, I called Childs back on what was his third full day as Mitchell’s interim superintendent.
“I’ve got kind of a weird question to ask you, but did Dr. Graves have a script written or like a playbook for you to follow for weather delays?” I asked.
“We’ve talked about it in the past, but no. Why?”
Let me tell you — Graves and Childs were basically identical in the time they called. Not only that, the apology for dialing in the wee hours of the morning and the way they delivered the message. It seemed like Graves had a binder with everything that needed to be followed in case of inclement weather.
And you know what? It wouldn’t have surprised me if he did.
Graves loved his job; he told our newspaper that when he talked about moving on to his new position. But more so it was evident through years of observation and his involvement in the community. Mitchell is going to miss him.
When my oldest daughter, now 8, started elementary school, it wasn’t long before I got a taste of how Graves’ positive personal interactions with students was a regular occurrence.
One night, I was talking about a recent school board meeting and Graves’ name came up in the conversation. My daughter stopped me and said, “Dad, you know Dr. Graves? How?”
I explained to her that my job requires me to work with members of the community, including the superintendent, and that I had got to know Graves when I followed the education beat in 2013. It was then Graves and Mitchell Business Manager Steve Culhane did a wonderful job helping explain details that needed to be reported and were otherwise confusing.
My daughter then shared her anecdote that she was walking down the hallway before school and said good morning to a man, dressed in a suit and tie, she had never met. “Hello, Miss Hagen,” he responded to the kindergarten student. She had no idea how, but he knew her name and she was impressed.
He genuinely cares about making students feel special, and because of that she still remembers that interaction today. I can only assume thousands of students have a moment with him they hold special.
It wasn’t just the students where Graves made an impact. He was active at community events and he consistently looked for areas that needed improvement in the district, which is a fantastic quality in a leader. Did you know he wrote successful grant proposals that totaled in excess of $10 million over his years that helped enhance the educational opportunities for students?
But the moves he helped make and his decisions weren’t always met with acceptance. Graves was in an unenviable position as the top administrator in Mitchell.
He had to deal with some serious headaches, specifically school board meetings during the pandemic and recently during high school building plan discussions. No matter what was said or done, Graves always showed people respect during those public interactions, when he had a legitimate reason not to in many cases.
The ability to stay calm during contentious situations is an admirable trait and one he’ll need in his new job, but perhaps what’s most impressive about what Graves did for Mitchell is the state in which he left the district.
Multiple facilities were built or upgraded under his watch and he played a major role in setting aside funds to prepare for a new high school. Mitchell also made one of the largest increases in teacher salary statewide when that topic was magnified as problematic.
For 16 years, Childs watched Graves lead our public schools and called his former boss “a tremendous mentor and an impeccable leader.” After laughing about the weather delay phone call and saying it was reassuring he was doing his job like his predecessor, Childs summed up Graves’ tenure simply and perfectly.
“He just loves education.”