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Claud Kitchens: A gentle man's passing

November 21, 2008

At Washington County School Board meetings, former Superintendent Claud E. Kitchens sat low in his chair on the dais, back in the days when puffing on cigarettes during meetings was as unremarked upon as the random shuffling of papers.

He unerringly guided the meetings without dominating them. If asked, he would provide a solid, detailed - but uncomplicated - answer that was as reassuring as the sunrise. If unasked, he remained characteristically silent, although his twinkling eyes would sometimes give away an amusement with the process.

There was little drama in his board rooms, though drama was on the horizon as a previously industrial community came to grips with a new era in which education would become uncustomarily necessary.

Kitchens died this week, a month shy of his 80th birthday and his passing offers a moment to remember and celebrate not just the man, but the civility and sense of purpose he brought to public discourse.

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Serving 13 years as superintendent through 1986, Kitchens was recalled this week as a southern (South Carolina) gentleman with a southern drawl, but those easygoing characteristics belied a man with keen knowledge of the school system and a talent for boring through bureaucracy and politics to get to the root of public service - or in his case, to the benefit of the children of Washington County.

The role of superintendent might be the most difficult of any local-government job. The post involves formulating educational policy on one hand, while directing the operation of what is the equal of a multi-million-dollar business. It is a job that virtually guarantees that for every constituent you make happy, another will be equally and oppositely unhappy.

Yet Kitchens' ship sailed these choppy waters with a minimum of pitch and roll.

A key to his success was his own personal policy of treating everyone he met with respect. He showed the utmost patience with the greenest of reporters who didn't know a budget from a bird dog, treating everyone as an equal and never showing a hint of annoyance at even the silliest questions or opinions.

His philosophy was as simple as it was effective. "I give (the board) credit for everything that goes well, and I take the blame for everything that doesn't."

The ability to put one's own sense of self on the back burner in order to promote the greater good is perhaps one of the choicest qualities missing from public service today. In truth, it takes a tremendous amount of courage and confidence to treat the ego as a falling leaf, letting the winds of dissension and controversy blow it where it may, without taking offense, without letting distractions cloud the vision of what is in the best interests of all.

When men and women who are blessed with such qualities speak, people listen. In his day, the board might have bantered back and forth, but when Kitchens spoke, all were silent. Because of the man he was, his opinions were valued and, above all, respected. That's an honorable place to be.

Those interested in public service who wish to provide maximum benefit to the people they serve would do well to study the term of Claud Kitchens.

(Editor's note: Kitchens recently began writing a column called "Classroom Reflections." It will continue to run as long as The Herald-Mail has previously unpublished material available.)

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