NEW BREMEN — Al Willis, superintendent at Auglaize County Developmental Disabilities, recalls how is career in education administration began with fond memories.
His education career had already started in 1969 as a teacher in the Lima Shawnee School District. A few years later, he was remodeling a home when he was approached.
“Dave Lytle came and picked me up and said he wanted to take me to lunch,” Willis said. “Anyone likes a free lunch.”
Lytle told Willis he would like him to apply for an open assistant principal position in the school district. Willis finally gave in and was ultimately given the job.
It was the beginning of a long career for Willis, who will be retiring. His last day at Auglaize County DD will be Jan. 30. It was also the beginning of a lifelong friendship for Willis and Lytle.
“Everything I have done I learned all from him,” Willis said of Lytle, whom he called his mentor. “How I do things, how I manage, I got it from him.”
Willis even bought Lytle’s mother’s house 15 years later, and still lives beside him today. He said the motto in which he went by came from Lytle.
“You learn from the past, live in the present, and plan for the future,” Willis said.
That, along with a “team” mentality, rewarded Willis with a successful career. Willis left the Shawnee School District in 1993 to take the superintendent job at the Darke County DD. After short stints there and in Crawford County, he came to a program in Auglaize County that was in disarray, broke, and clinging just to get by. Willis helped the program improve to being one of the best in the state. He said there is enough credit to go around.
“Leadership is a team function,” Willis said. “Everyone does their part. No one is afraid to come in here and say ‘Al, I think you are in left field on this.’”
Willis said it was with the help of four new board members as he was taking the job that helped the program get to where it is today.
“I got four board members,” Willis said. “Jim Becher, Bob Kohlreiser, Chuck Gregorovich and John Hassenauer. Working with those four and a great staff changed the program around.”
The quick turnaround in the program immediately was noticed. As a result, Willis was appointed to several boards and committees by both Govs. Ted Strickland and John Kasich. The notoriety reached its peak in 2011 when Willis received the Betty MacIntosh Award. The award is given annually by the Ohio Association of County Boards of Developmental Disabilities for outstanding professional services to individuals with developmental disabilities.
“That is a team award,” Willis said. “The people that put you in that position are your board and staff.”
Willis said he feels being prepared helped him be successful. The Auglaize DD has managed to keep its finances in check and avoid financial trouble when many identities are struggling.
“When you set accountability and have a team focus, you’d be amazed at what you can do,” Willis said. “You need people to be honest and direct, but still compromising. For several years I have been blessed with that.”
The Auglaize program received a 99.6 rating out of 100 on its most recent rating and still remains one of the highest among the state today. Federal and state regulators have geared toward more independence for clients and asked that county DD boards aim for a 70 percent ratio of clients to be working in the private sector by 2019. Auglaize County has already reached 72 percent. Willis said a focus on independent living and respect and dignity for clients is one of the biggest changes he has witnessed in the field through the years.
Willis said he will miss the people the most.
“I will miss my board, staff and the clients,” Willis said. “When things were stressed, I would just take a walk and watch the early-intervention teachers with the students or go to Auglaize Industries and get hugs from the clients.”
In his newfound spare time, Willis said he plans to spend time in his wood shop, traveling with his wife golfing or researching the Civil War.
“My father-in-law told me I would find myself more busy than when I was working,” Willis said.