As he congratulated the 2017 Palmyra High School graduating class one more time, longtime Superintendent Eric Churchwell closed a successful chapter on his career as he watched his youngest daughter embark on the next stage of her life.
As he moved from the role of Palmyra Assistant Principal to Superintendent over the course of 25 years, Churchwell forged countless friendships in the district and community, spearheaded several district improvements, met his wife in the district and got to see both of his daughters succeed in Palmyra schools — with his retirement coinciding with his youngest daughter Khloe’s graduation.
"It was emotional. I’ve been here 25 years," Churchwell said. "I planned if it was feasible that she and I could leave at the same time. And it worked out, and it’s been nice to see both of my girls grow and be educated in a great place. This district has given me and my family everything, so to be able to go out on a good note, it was a pretty neat feeling."
Before he embarked on his career in Palmyra, Churchwell started out as an educator for two years in New Madrid, Mo. Churchwell returned home to connect with his Northeast Missouri roots when his parents passed away.
He decided to get closer to the area he knew — joining the Palmyra R-1 School District and teaching industrial arts and coaching football.
Churchwell went to Hannibal High School to teach drafting for one year, returning to Palmyra the following year to take over for Tony Lenzini, who retired after years as Palmyra High School’s Assistant Principal.
Churchwell met his wife of 24 years, Cara, in the Palmyra School R-1 School District. Today, she teaches at Palmyra Elementary School. And Churchwell said it was great to see Khloe’s older sister, Carson, succeed just like her sister did in schools that reflect a supportive school board and a community where everyone works together toward every student’s academic success.
Oneta Crowe, secretary of the school board, said Churchwell was constantly "thorough" and consistently attuned to regulatory and legislative issues related to education.
"When he had a recommendation, you always knew that he had done his research, and that he was making a decision that was in the best interest of the education of the students and those in the community," Crowe said. She said his retirement will come with a mixture of emotions, but she looks forward to working with incoming Superintendent Kirt Malone, current principal at Palmyra Middle School.
"It’s definitely bittersweet, but I do have to say that it’s a transition that I think is going to be a smooth one, just due to the fact that Eric put so much into his job and so much into place," she said. "Eric was one who shared his knowledge, and because of that, it’s going to be a an easier transition. And I know he’s worked with our incoming superintendent very closely, and he’s made it clear to us that if we had questions, he would always be available to give his support."
During his tenure, Churchwell looked back on facilities upgrades that began with planning in 2005. Two no-tax-increase bond issues were overwhelmingly supported by voters in the district. He said the high school received updates, substantial upgrades and a new Pre-K program at Palmyra Elementary School. Churchwell also noted proudly that the district received academic accreditation with distinction in performance each year the accolade was available from the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.
Churchwell recalled that when he arrived, the school district was at the bottom of its conference in regards to base teacher salaries. Today, the district ranks second, thanks to efforts with a supportive school board.
"That helps us to retain and attract good quality teachers, and that’s the name of the game," he said. "They make my job a lot easier by being high-quality educators."
Churchwell looked back on watching his daughters, Carson and Khloe, grow with faculty members, administrators and community members who were all dedicated to their academic success. During Khloe’s graduation and the words he shared with the class and audience members, Churchwell commended the school board members, family members and community members who helped him leave a lasting legacy for the Palmyra School District.
"One of the things I always say is a school district is only as good as the community it serves, and we’ve got one of the best districts in the state, in my opinion," he said. "And it’s because of the quality of support from the community, it’s everything that comes together."
Churchwell didn’t hesitate to mention that he will miss all the kids and the people he worked with when he retires.
"Being able to be around the kids and see the kids and see them succeed is probably what I’ll mostly miss, and the people I work with," Churchwell said. "When you put 25 years in a place, all of a sudden it’s tough to leave. We’ve got great people to work with."
Churchwell said he looked forward to continuing to support the school district that is so close to his heart, while reaching out to other districts as he prepares for a career with Control Technology Solutions (CTS), who assisted the Palmyra School District with improvements. The company specializes in energy performance contracts with school district for upgrade work. Churchwell will be contacting school districts, working with them as they look at work similar to what Churchwell oversaw in Palmyra.
And he said he won’t ever forget the positive experiences and memories he’ll take with him from his tenure with the Palmyra School District.
"All in all, I wouldn’t change anything," he said. "It’s been a great career and I’ve had great support, and I’m thankful for that."
Reach reporter Trevor McDonald at firstname.lastname@example.org