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My Benevolent Dictator

by Chuck Warwick

Chuck Warwick Chuck Warwick was Principal at MDR High School from 1952-1957. He is retired and living in Urbana. To learn more about Mr. Warwick, click here.
During my seven years as a teacher and administrator in the 50's, in downstate Illinois, I served under R. L. Yates. He was the only public school educator that I know who was always the head of every school system he worked in. Mr. Yates started out in a one-room school. On his next job, he was the principal of a very small high school. Later on, he was the superintendent in four different Illinois rural school districts during the remainder of his career.

It was a good thing that Bob Yates was always the top dog wherever he went. He laughingly told the story of wanting to join his brother as a navy officer during WWII. His brother strongly advised him to remain a civilian. "Bob, unless you become the President of the United States, you would have to report to someone with a higher rank. Frankly, I don't think you could handle that situation."

During my first year of teaching, I taught every 7th grade subject in Smithfield, Illinois, a town of 400 located in Fulton County. That year, I didn't see Mr. Yates very often. When the current grade school principal resigned in late spring, I told Mr. Yates that I would like to be considered for that position. He replied, "Thank you for your interest, but you are not ready to be a principal." He was, of course, absolutely right.

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However, the fact that I had expressed an interest in being a principal paid off very soon. When the unit school board decided to transfer the principal of its three-room school in an even smaller community, it was almost time for the next school year. Desperation reminded Mr. Yates of my interest in school administration. Desperation convinced him that I could handle the administrative duties in this smaller school. My ambition made it easy for me to accept his offer despite his previous reluctance to consider me for a principalship.

During my first year of teaching, I was able to turn around a bad situation, which I had created for myself. Having been a psychology major as a college undergraduate, I tried unsuccessfully to be "a nice guy" to my seventh graders. Very quickly I lost control, and my classroom was in total chaos. I then made a 180° turn and became a complete despot. By the end of the school year, I had cleaned up this mess but at a considerable cost to the students and myself.

Being one year wiser, I laid down the rules the first day I entered the new school. The first time anyone stepped out of line, I quietly, but firmly, reminded them of my rules. Later on, I eased up a bit without causing any problems. In this way, I gained the respect and liking of my pupils. Mr. Yates visited the school frequently and was pleased with both my teaching and administrative efforts. This job was mine for keeps.

As it turned out, I would soon move to my third position during the first three years. On a hot August night around midnight a loud knocking on our front door and the shouting of Mr. Yates awakened my wife Betty and me. "C'mon, Charlie, get your butt out of bed and open the door!"

"When I drowsily opened the front door, Mr. Yates started talking. "Charlie, I'm sorry to disturb you, but I must talk to you. As you know, I have accepted the superintendency in Minonk. I went to my first board meeting there tonight and the high school principal resigned. I want you to fill that position. In my confused state of mind, I acquiesced.

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For the next five years, I was the principal of the Minonk-Dana-Rutland High School in Woodford County. Mr. Yates and I occupied offices in the same building. We were in contact with each other on a daily basis. Despite his hard-nose, hot-tempered approach to almost everything, I came to have a great liking and respect for this driven man.

From day one, Bob Yates let everyone know who was in charge. He was a strict disciplinarian who ruled with an iron hand. When he was particularly vexed, he sometimes manhandled male students who did not fall in-line immediately. In the 40's, the 50's, and even the 60's, his students, with a few exceptions, accepted his brand of discipline. Their rural Illinois parents had great respect for Mr. Yates because he made their offspring behave. Today I don't think Mr. Yates would last one hour anywhere, except San Quentin.

Mr. Yates insisted that every pupil from first grade through the senior year of high school obey his commands. On one occasion, the grade school children were marched across town to attend a special program in the high school gym. Our Commander-in-Chief noticed that a third grade boy was chewing gum, which was a "no-no." "Son, get rid of that gum!" "But what do I do with it?" this culprit asked. "Swallow it!" Gulp! "Yes Sir."

It took awhile, but eventually this tough nut began to take my suggestions seriously. In addition to my duties, as principal, I taught English and social studies. In 1952, a presidential election year, I proposed that I teach a writing course based on the qualifications of Eisenhower and Stevenson along with the issues being discussed. The first time I approached Mr. Yates, he curtly said, "No;" end of discussion.

The second time that I mentioned this idea, he said, "I'll think about it." When I raised the question again, he responded, "Yes, I think it's a great plan! More to the point, Charlie, you've learned a valuable lesson. When you really believe in something, you don't give up. I always say ‘No’ the first time because I want to find out if you are really serious. You have the guts to come back at me when I have already told you it's no dice. You are shaping up very nicely."

Mr. Yates was a dyed-in-wool Democrat who always served in a strongly Republican area. No matter, he never hid his political beliefs. He referred to Everett Dirksen, the Republican Senator from nearby Pekin, as that tub of g---.

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When several Republican candidates for State offices came to our high school unannounced, the following conversation took place. "Mr. Yates, we would appreciate it if you would call a school assembly so that we could speak to all of your students." "Sorry, gentlemen, I will not have the school day disturbed so that you can have a big audience for your propaganda. Even though I am a Democrat, I would make the same decision even if you were members of my party. However, I would be happy for you to appear before our Civics class, which will meet in 15 minutes, to discuss campaign issues. You can provide the Republican point of view, and I'll explain the Democrat position." The Republican delegation angrily left the building while Mr. Yates waved them a hearty goodbye with a huge grin on his face. On another occasion, Mr. Yates stated that his conscience once made him vote for a Republican. He exclaimed, "I almost puked in the voting booth!"

Mr. Yates did not enjoy the visits made by State school officials. In one case, he and several teachers met with a visitor from Springfield in the men's basement smoking lounge. He purposely brought up a controversial issue and took a very strong stand. The visitor fully agreed with him. Awhile later, Mr. Yates brought up the same subject again but took the opposite point of view. Again, the State school official agreed completely with my boss. Mr. Yates then exploded, "You are nothing but a gutless sycophant! How can I take State school officials seriously when they hire people like you? Please leave, we have nothing to talk about!"

Mr. Yates appearance matched his personality. His craggy face, steely blue eyes, and muscular body presented a picture of strength. In his younger days, his favorite sport was boxing. There was no doubt in anyone's mind that he had been very good at it. His other hobby was hunting. During the fall pheasant season, his every free moment was spent in the fields.

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His wife, Lois, was a quiet lady who, nevertheless, was an equal partner in their marriage. When my wife Betty and I visited Lois after her husband had died, she jokingly told us that she couldn't stand the man when they first met in college. No doubt her initial rejection made Mr. Yates even more determined to win over this reluctant lady. It was a good match because Mr. Yates needed someone whom he could respect. Over a period of time, Lois learned to appreciate the finer qualities of this man, which were hidden by his rough exterior, both physically and psychologically.

Yes, Mr. Yates did have many gentle qualities. During the nine months my polio stricken wife Betty spent in a Peoria hospital 40 miles from Minonk, he excused me from duty at football and basketball games so that I could make nightly trips to see her. When Betty came home, and I was out of town on school business, Mr. Yates would drop by our house to see how she and our two boys, age two and four, were doing.

When Mr. and Mrs. Yates lived in Cuba just before coming to Minonk, they became very attached to two neighbor children from a large poor family. When the childless Yates' came to Minonk, they adopted eight-year old Patty and five-year old Roger. It was a good deal for all parties concerned. Patty and Roger now had a chance to be influenced by educated and dedicated parents who would help them make the most of their potential. The children, in turn, fulfilled the yearning of Bob and Lois to be parents.

In casual conversation with his staff, Mr. Yates would often start out by asking, "Do you know what those little bastards did yesterday?" Then with a twinkle in his eyes, he would tell us about their latest shenanigans.

What did I learn from this combative man who kept his heart of gold well concealed? First, initial appearance can be deceiving. Secondly, have the courage to live up to your convictions. Thirdly, support your staff when they follow your directions. In the fourth place, give your staff due credit whenever they meet or exceed your expectations.