In 1984, most believed a Mississippian would be selected by the newly minted Board of Education to serve as the state’s first appointed superintendent of education.
But a Mississippi State education professor from Ohio recommended that his friend – Richard Boyd, a local superintendent in Ohio – apply for the job. The first chair of the new Board of Education, Tupelo businessman Jack Reed, impressed with Boyd, convinced his fellow members that the Ohio native was the right person for the historic and pivotal post of leading Mississippi’s public schools into a new era.
Boyd, who died earlier this week at age 92 in a hospice in Cleveland, Ohio, close to his three daughters, was a bridge between the state’s old-antiquated education system and the education reforms that began in the early 1980s.
“Dick Boyd had a very difficult job. First of all, he was the first (appointed) superintendent and he was from out of state, a Yankee” said Andy Mullins of Oxford, who has had a long career in education in the state and served as a special assistant to Boyd during his time as state superintendent.
Before the 1980s, Mississippi’s schools were headed by a statewide elected superintendent of education. And the state Board of Education consisted of three statewide elected officials – the superintendent, attorney general and secretary of state.
In the 1982 legislative session, education proponents, including then-Gov. William Winter, were able to push through a proposal to amend the Constitution to replace the elected board with a nine member appointed board, referred to in the early days as the lay board of education, and to have that board select the superintendent. Education reformers argued the state’s schools should not be governed by politicians concerned about winning their next election.
Reed, as chair of the Mississippi Economic Council in the 1960s led efforts to keep public schools open when many political leaders were calling for their abandonment to avoid integration, was appointed to the new Board of Education and chosen by his colleagues as the first chair.
The new board’s first major task was selecting a superintendent. Most believed that choice would be either Biloxi Superintendent Olon Ray or Jackson Superintendent Bob Fortenberry, both viewed as strong proponents of Winter’s education reform efforts.
But Reed believed an outsider was needed – especially to enact Winter’s Education Reform Act of 1982 passed in a December special session after voters narrowly approved in November the constitutional changes to replace the elected superintendent and board with an appointed board and superintendent. Reed died in 2016 at the age of 91.
Mullins wrote in the Journal of Mississippi History that had Boyd not succeeded, “there could have been legislative efforts to return to an elected superintendent,” and the historic Education Reform Act, including mandated kindergarten, could have been jeopardized. The historic Education Reform also enacted a statewide testing program, compulsory school attendance and a teacher pay raise among other provisions.
Mullins said Boyd proved to be a professional educator and a person who was able to win the confidence of not only the governor and legislators, but also Mississippi educators who at first might have been skeptical of being led by an outsider. Boyd, and the local superintendents working together, were able to enact the Education Reform Act.
Boyd served more than five years as superintendent, returned to his native Ohio and came back to Mississippi in 1997 to serve an extended time as interim superintendent. He later moved to Oxford where he worked with the Barksdale Reading Institute* and taught at the University of Mississippi.
Boyd and his wife Mickee lived in Oxford for 18 years before returning to Ohio.
In 2019, when being honored by the University of Mississippi School of Education, Boyd said, “My advice to upcoming education graduates is to go to places where they believe they can really be helpful to students. Most graduates shy away from that because there are so many graduates who are afraid to step outside of their comfort zones. I admire graduates who will do that despite their own backgrounds.”
While Winter was out of office by the time Boyd arrived in Mississippi, they became friends. Mullins, Boyd and Winter were among a group that each summer visited Major League Baseball stadiums. Over more than three decades they visited all the stadiums – some more than once.
Mullins said the last time Boyd participated in the group was about two years ago when they went to Cleveland’s Progressive Field in Boyd’s hometown. He was no longer able to travel.
“He was kind. He knew education inside and out,” Mullins said. “It was a passion for him. He also was very patient and saw the good in everyone. There were times when I was so mad at someone and he would say he has some good attributes.”
Boyd, who in his retirement was an avid golfer and was a runner until late in his life, finally had to move to a hospice during his final days.
Not too long ago, an a cappella group from the first high school he served as principal, came to the hospice and sang the school’s fight song outside of an open window. Mullins said his daughters said the tribute seemed to put Boyd at peace.
Perhaps, some schools in Mississippi also should sing Richard Boyd’s praise.
*The Barksdale Reading Institute was founded in 2000 by Sally and Jim Barksdale. Jim Barksdale serves on the board of Mississippi Today.