If he hadn't been her boss for several years, said retired Aiken principal LaWana McKenzie, she would have loved to have Dr. Joe Brooks as a next-door neighbor.
Brooks, 81, died Friday. He spent eight years as the Aiken County School District superintendent before retiring in 1995. He and his wife Fern remained and were active in the community.
"I remember him as a kind person who had not forgotten what it was like to be in the schools," said McKenzie, a longtime Aiken County Council member. "He was easy to talk to and took the time to listen to us before he responded."
A memorial service will be held in Aiken on Saturday, Nov. 17, Brooks' wife said Sunday.
"He was kind and gentle and loved children and loved education," Fern Brooks said. "Recently, a lady who had been a teacher for many years told me Joe was the only superintendent who came into her class and stayed and listened. He liked to know what was going on in the classroom."
Dr. Bill Gallman, a retired deputy superintendent, was an Area 5 assistant superintendent when Brooks took office.
Gallman said his friend will be remembered in part for implementing a middle school program that replaced the old junior high structure. That was significant in bridging the transition from elementary to high school by removing ninth grade from the then-junior high schools, Gallman said.
"Joe also laid the groundwork for new instructional technology programs," Gallman said. "He helped us understand that we needed to head in a different direction. He also was a mentor to a lot of people, boosting a lot of people's careers - a real people person and very supportive of them."
Bill Clyburn, a retired school administrator, was the Aiken High School principal when Brooks arrived.
"It was a very good experience to work with him," said Clyburn, a S.C. state representative for many years. "He was a good supervisor who was honest about our weaknesses and strengths, telling us the things we needed to do good work."
Brooks is also survived by three children and also grandchildren. After he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in June, at least one of the children was present at the house since then, said Fern Brooks.
He began his career in education as a teacher in Cabarrus County, N.C. After two years in the military, the couple returned to North Carolina, where Brooks worked for the Mecklenburg County School District in Charlotte. Brooks taught English and later became a principal. He was serving in that capacity in 1970 when the federal courts ordered desegregation of schools in the Southern states.
"It was such a rewarding experience for him," his wife said. "Charlotte had so much cross-burning, and it was a tense time for the schools. He felt they were successful at his school."
After serving as a district administrator in the Greensboro, N.C., school system, Brooks was offered the superintendent's position in Aiken and in Athens, Ga. He and his wife had visited both communities.
"We had come to Aiken without anyone knowing us, visiting the downtown and the other activities," Fern Brooks said. "We got a good picture of what Aiken would be like as a place to live. It was so wonderful."
Brooks was a member and past president of the Aiken Rotary Club and was an active member of First Presbyterian Church. When the Rev. David Cozad, now retired, arrived as the pastor 10 years ago, Brooks was serving in a leadership role in the regional presbytery.
The two members developed a strong, personal friendship. Cozad finds it sadly ironic that Brooks was diagnosed with an illness that would take his life so quickly. Brooks had put a lot of effort and discipline in taking care of himself - working out at Gold's Gym and walking 2 miles every day with his pair of golden retrievers.
"He was someone whose basic approach was a learning approach," Cozad said. "He would periodically summon me to lunch at Woodside to talk about something on his mind. He always wanted to understand it better or talk it through with someone."
McKenzie recalls visiting Brooks at his office once and explaining what she regarded as a serious issue at her school. He leaned back and didn't say a word as she spoke of the situation.
"Then he said, 'That had never crossed my mind,' and he fixed the problem in the next school year," McKenzie said. "He saw things from a principal's perspective. Joe also tried to make teachers understand that he felt they were worthy for the sacrifices they made in their salaries and for the money they spent for the classes. He was a very compassionate man."