By MICHAEL CRIST
Special to Tri County
It's the end of the school year, and with it comes the tradition of taking down bulletin boards and cleaning out desks, revealing empty shells of what once were lively classrooms and offices.
But one such office, void of family portraits, stacks of paper and various diplomas, marked much more than the mere end of the past 180 days of academics.
It was around 11:30 a.m. on June 14, when Downingtown Area School District Superintendent Levi Wingard was putting some finishing touches on some e-mails.
"I believe thereÃ's only one 'Ã in diligence," Wingard said through his phone to another colleague.
His office was essentially empty, save for some pens and a few law books remaining on a set of shelves.
For Wingard, the bare-bones office signified the end of a career that began 35 years ago in McKeesport Area School District near Pittsburgh.
"I remember my first year in McKeesport. It was a large district at the time," Wingard said. "I remember being overwhelmed at the numbers and the experience in the room. It seemed everybody had more confidence than I. I was a little scared."
It was after graduating from the University of Pittsburgh when Wingard first interned in the McKeesport district: An internship that eventually led to his hiring as a teacher.
At the time, he had not even imagined becoming a superintendent of a school district.
"Heavens, no,"Wingard said. "I did not believe this would be my professional mark. I'm humbled by the opportunities IÃve been given."
He added that children today "really believe they can be president."
"Ã¬I had to grow into that," Wingard said. "Our kids are better prepared in my view. We've instilled in them they can be what they want to be."
And Wingard has come a long way in believing the sky was actually the limit.
Born in Ohio, he was sandwiched between two older brothers and three younger sisters.
His mother was the head custodian of Alyria High School, the school from which he graduated, located about 27 miles west of Cleveland.
She had an eighth-grade education, but went back for her GED. His father worked for General Motors and had only a fourth-grade education.
Wingard excelled, but still admitted that as a black high school student during the Civil Rights era in the mid-1960s, his outlook on the future was limited.
"My attitude about what I could be and about other contributions I could make were very different than they are now," he said.
Yet Wingard kept moving forward, and after five years at McKeesport, he found himself in Chester County.
In 1985, he was appointed principal at Downingtown Area Senior High School, holding the position until 1989.
"It was a large school, about 1,800 students. I was the first African-American principal in Downingtown and the man I took over for now has a stadium named after him," Wingard said, referencing to Raymond DiSerafino. "He must have done something good. That was one of my high points."
From 1989 to 1997, Wingard served as principal at Great Valley High School, after which he was appointed as assistant superintendent in the West Chester Area School District. He remained at that post until 1999.
Wingard then served as director of research and development for the Chester County Intermediate Unit.
And in December 2001, he was introduced to the Downingtown community as the district's newest superintendent.
"I didn't expect it," Wingard said. "The way I was selected was they asked, 'Do you want to be superintendent?' I said I did, and I became superintendent. The community was OK with that and it worked out."
"I am really pleased that twice Downingtown gave me the opportunity, because of my unique experience and personal skills, to lead this district.Ã®
Still, the position has had its challenges.
Wingard recalled some of the students who took longer to reach than he would have liked.
"Some made decisions that will have an effect on themselves or the community for some time to come," he said. "I wish we could have been successful in reaching everybody on our timetable."
Other obstacles were merely in the day-to-day operations.
"To market and manage the school district didn't always work out the way I would have liked," he said. Ã¬Sometimes the reputation that the school district has is difficult for me to protect. Sometimes the community may have thought we were going in the wrong direction.
"We were OK with wanting to stretch, in my opinion, as far as we could. Now we're trying to get everyone to stretch."
On June 30, Wingard will wrap up his 35-year tenure as an educator, but the work is not over.
He said he will remain on the board of directors for the United Way of Chester County, as well as the Brandywine Health Foundation. Wingard also indicated he would be heavily active at St. PaulÃs Baptist Church in West Chester.
But what he really looks forward to is having time for his family.
"My wife and I have been married 37 years, and weÃre going to try to reacquaint ourselves with one another," he said.
He was also happy to be on his way last week to see his daughter, Leslie, a B. Reed Henderson alumnus, graduate from UCLA with a doctorate in English.
His son, Jason, another Henderson grad, is moving back from California, with his children.
"It's going to be nice spending more time with him, my daughter-in-law and four granddaughters," he said.
But now he can look back at the empty office and say, 'Job well done.'
"I've touched a lot of people. I've made a lot of mistakes," he said. "I was unsure that now is the right time. I've made the right decision for me and my family. I've done a very good job over the years here and elsewhere and people are showing respect as I leave."