“This walk called life has only just begun”
ROCKFORD — For 45 years, Don Gillingham was a teacher and administrator, giving instruction and guidance to students and sharing his vision of Lutheran education.
Now a month after retiring after 11 years as executive director of Rockford Lutheran School, Gillingham is enjoying what he calls his “listening tour”, a personal effort that involves daily conversations with colleagues, friends and current and former students to not only catch on to the good old days but to help him in his search for a second career.
Take a look at Gillingham’s Facebook page and you’ll be hard-pressed to find an ear-to-ear smile from him, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like to laugh – and usually at himself.
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“When people hear a listening tour. They say, ‘You never stop talking. How can you listen?'”
Gillingham, 68, from Loves Park, said he was fortunate to have made many lasting connections and impressions on the lives of students, who invited him to attend their wedding ceremonies and christenings , and on the lives of fellow educators who followed in his footsteps.
“I think back to the number of people who worked for me who are now school administrators, it’s kind of like Bill Wash’s (pro football hall of fame coach) training tree,” said- he declared. “They learn from your mistakes and they learn from your successes, but most of all I think they learn from your attitude and your values.”
Future of Education, Church
As for his second career, Gillingham keeps his cards close to his chest, but he shared that he still has a strong interest in education and the future of the church.
He is aware that COVID-19 has forced people to learn, do business and worship in other ways and doesn’t see that as a bad thing.
“I think in the future we won’t go to school from August to May,” he said. “We’re going to go to school 12 months a year, and I don’t necessarily think we’re going to go to school 7 hours a day. We’re going to be like ‘what do we need? learn and how long will it take to learn?” I understand that children need to be in school. Absolutely. But we have to consider that some children have thrived by not being in school. school and that some kids may need to take a distance learning course just to make their schedule work.
“So I listen to what people think.”
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Gillingham is also rethinking the need for a college education.
“When I was growing up, everyone aspired to go to college,” he said. “That was what you were supposed to do. I think what I hear from a lot of people is that college may not be necessary, but continuing education beyond high school and education for a trade really helps.”
Gillingham’s thoughts on the future of the church are not so clear.
“I talk to a lot of church people, and a lot of the stewardship of churches that worship from a distance is strong,” he said, “but how do you have a community? he get to church, because I care about the church. The church has been good to me, and I’m interested in the future of the church.
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If there was work that involved facilitating thoughts and ideas to make Rockford a better community in which to live, work and play, Gillingham expressed that would pique his interest as well.
“There was a big movement before COVID started in Rockford, 815 Choose Civility,” he said. “We have to be civil to each other. We have to learn to talk to each other. I hear people say that if we can’t talk to each other, we’re going to destroy each other. So what can I do to help people talking? Sharing the results of what I hear is one thing, but whether it’s a job, a hobby, or volunteering, I don’t know.”
Life is just beginning
Rockford Lutheran School’s chief financial officer, Becky Chewning, has worked alongside Gillingham for the past 11 years. She said whatever her old boss decides to do, she knows he’ll be good at it.
“He’s the most inspirational leader I’ve worked for,” she said. “His vision of forward-thinking educational models was so important to the school. He could see connections where the rest of us saw obstacles. And his desire for Rockford Lutheran to not only be part of the community, but to reflect the community is what brought the school to where it is today.”
Chewning appreciated Gillingham’s ability to recognize and respect people’s differences while finding commonalities and making connections inside and outside of school.
She added: “His time at Lutheran is over and he’s retired, but God isn’t done with him yet, and he knows it.”
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If not to reassure himself that age is just a number, Gillingham has posted a little information on his Facebook page for family and friends and perhaps a future employer to ponder. These are the findings of a 2018 New England Journal of Medicine study, which found that the most productive age in human life is between 60 and 70.
The second most productive stage is 70-80 years and the third most productive stage is 50-60 years.
Gillingham attached some smiley face emojis and wrote: “I’m sending you this info so you can think back when you say you’re old… Friends, this walk called life has only just begun.”
This article originally appeared on Rockford Register Star: Retired Rockford Lutheran School leader on tour to learn