Editor’s Note: This the next installment of our ongoing series looking at people who grew up in Fort Madison and have either stayed or moved back to the area and are making contributions to area communities.
BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – One of the worst kept secrets in Fort Madison is that high school wasn’t Greg Smith’s cup of tea.
But now the Fort Madison High School Principal says his most valuable message to students is to not burn bridges because you never know where life’s going to take you.
Smith, who attended Fort Madison High school in the 70s, says coming out of high school, a career in education wasn’t even on the radar. And staying in Fort Madison was probably not in the cards either.
“I got out of high school and my only choice was the military because I wasn’t going to college and jobs weren’t anything I was interested in at that point,” Smith said. “The military sent me to California, so I was out there at 18 years of age and just fell in love. California is the place for young kids and still is today in my opinion.”
After working through his military service and being discharged in 1979, Smith went about finding work in California and bounced from job to job working in security positions because of his experience in the military police corp. But eventually he moved back to Fort Madison in 1985 and got a job at the prison and helped out his parents. He said he liked the job but missed California so he moved back out to the west coast.
“The worst decision I’ve ever made,” Smith said.
He said again he moved around from job to job but it wasn’t the same as it was as a young kid and he missed the feeling of community and self he had in the midwest and he said people from California have opinions of people from the midwest and typically they are opinions of being hardworking, honest and truthful.
“I just started thinking, you know, they’re right. I’ve never had a problem with those people. It wasn’t what was going on out there. Lots of back door stuff going on. I came back because I never had a bad experience here.”
But when he again moved back to southeast Iowa, he said it was very slow going and the re-acclimation took some time, but the one thing that started happening that solidified his decision was the people. People started talking to him about his childhood and his parents and he quickly realized that this was the right move.
Then Smith decided to get a degree and ended up teaching elementary school as a second grade teacher, before moving to the local Area Education Agency. That’s where Smith found his way into administration. Former Superintendent Ken Marang had asked Smith to write up a job description for a curriculum director for the Fort Madison Community School District. Marang couldn’t find anyone during interviews that he was comfortable with and then told Smith he wanted him to take the job.
All the while Marang encouraged Smith to pursue an administration certificate. After several years as the curriculum director he got a call from Marang again when the former FMHS principal left for another position. Marang told Smith he wanted him to take the job, but Smith said he would do it only if Marang would let him have the curriculum position back after a year if it wasn’t working out.
Clearly, the move worked out for everyone and now Smith uses that position to try to help other kids see the future and execute it with a bit more focus than what he went through.
“Being in education is the perfect scenario. This is one of the most important four years of kids’ lives,” Smith said. “I come back home and have this connection to the community and the high school makes it even more so because everyone knows who you are. At the end of the day, people do know you and have a respect for the job you do. It’s really a love affair, I’ve fallen in love with Fort Madison all over again.”
Smith is actively involved in many organizations in Fort Madison including Kiwanis, the Fort Madison Chamber of Commerce, among others including a new committee formed to look into a regional education center for Lee County.
“Here you have the ability to maintain a feel of community,” he said. “You don’t lose that. Granted, now I walk down the street and don’t know half the people. I couldn’t say that 20 years ago, but the people that are coming in have the same mindset. The one thing I hear from people over and over again is, ‘When I got married and decided to have children I wanted to bring my kids back to a place where I knew the community was going to show them what a good kid looks like.'”
“I do think, like I do, that they see something they really enjoyed as a kid. You don’t know as an adult if you’re going to keep those values and those things that are important to you…but come to find out I think we do. They are so much of a part of who we are. I don’t know that it’s like that everywhere. It’s safe here, people care about you here and I just love that. I wish more people would catch on to that.”
Smith said he hears all the time from students who are just excited to get out of Fort Madison when they are done with school and students don’t necessarily want to hear stories about coming back to the area, when all their thoughts are about seeing the world. Smith said he doesn’t try to show them the values of staying here and raising a family.
He said his tactic now with students is to ask why they want to leave. He says his experiences may be able to help them reduce the amount of time they spend trying to figure out what they want to do.
“I think its a good thing to go and come back. But if we can help them not waste 10 years. 5 years is ok to go out and see what’s out there, but 10 is too much,” Smith said. “It’s grand that you go out and see something else, because in the long run, if and when you do come back, it helps perpetuate what we have here.”