If Burdette W. Andrews were a river, his waters would flow straight and sure through the village of Vandercook Lake, beside its two schoolhouses.
His presence as this southern Michigan community’s chief educator has been no less certain for the past 53 years.
At 92 years of age, Mr. Andrews is almost certainly the oldest and longest-serving superintendent in the United States. That fact isn’t evident in his wise but younger-looking face or his quick sense of humor, but the families who have trusted him to educate generations of children feel it every day.
“There’s never a question of ‘Is he going to be here?’” said Doreen Warner, a 5th grade teacher who grew up in Vandercook Lake and attended the local schools in the working-class residential community. “People know he will make sure everything is in order and won’t waste their money.”
Mr. Andrews has slowed down in recent years, allowing longtime Assistant Superintendent Ron Bennett to take over many duties in the 1,200-student district and its two schools. But there’s no doubt who’s still superintendent, and the man who carries the title is hardly hobbled.
“Did you expect to find someone carrying a cane?” Mr. Andrews asked jokingly over lunch in nearby Jackson, the city of 38,000 that borders Vandercook Lake.
He’s quick to list his small district’s educational accomplishments. For example, instructional aides are in every classroom from preschool through 3rd grade. And the district offers an extensive tutoring program that brings in senior citizens to work with children, an after-school program, and a summer retreat in which teachers gather to set goals.
“I think a lot of your success doesn’t have to come from the top down, but is generated and comes from your staff,” he said. “You’ve got people who believe the welfare of the children is of utmost importance.”
Paul Chilcote came to Vandercook Lake last year as the elementary school principal, replacing a principal whose health forced her to retire during the school year. Mr. Chilcote, retired from the Jackson schools, had planned to stay only the remainder of the year, but he’s back for a second year and has no plans to quit.
“He trusts us totally,” he said of Mr. Andrews.
Diane McQuillan, the assistant principal of the elementary school, said people in town hardly mention the superintendent’s age, except in disbelief. “There’s such respect. He loves to quote poetry from memory,” she said. “That just really impressed me when I first came.”
The stability creates an environment, Mr. Bennett said, where people who come to work in the district tend to stick around. He himself has been here for 36 years, and his wife teaches 3rd grade. “You look at the people as your friends. It’s who you’ve been with your whole life.”
Although Mr. Bennett, 57, with going on four decades in the district, would be the superintendent’s most likely heir, he might have to wait. The school board hired a fellow nearly 20 years ago as the high school principal, hoping he might become superintendent after Mr. Andrews retired.
That man has been dead for eight years and had retired before then.
Born in Oklahoma City in 1908, Mr. Andrews remembers traveling the countryside on a donkey- pulled cart driven by his father, a Methodist minister and schoolteacher. They would count the horses they passed on either side of the cart as a game.
Mr. Andrews spent parts of his childhood in tiny Campbell, Texas, and in Ohio. He graduated from Greenville College in Greenville, Ill., and became a teacher, first in South Dakota, then in several small towns in Michigan. He took his first superintendency in the village of Horton, near Jackson, in 1941, and moved two years later to Armada, just north of Detroit.
Mr. Andrews’ wife, Ann, who is now 83, had been raised in Jackson, and longed to return home. After three years in Armada, Mr. Andrews took the job in Vandercook Lake, where he’s been the superintendent since 1946.
In the years just after World War II, the district had a single, aging schoolhouse and no bus transportation or hot meals. The boys played football in a little hole called the Dust Bowl; the girls had no sports at all.
One major task during the 1950s was to convince the townspeople they needed a new school. Mr. Andrews preached the worth of a million- dollar investment, and debated the local newspaper editor at the Methodist church.
The people voted their approval on a bond referendum then, just as they did in the latest bond vote in 1997, for $5.5 million. “I never had a fight after the first one,” he said.
After the recent renovations at the town’s schools, the community dedicated the combined middle and high school campus in Mr. Andrews’ name
Like any district, the system has work to do. Test scores are about average for Michigan, and the schools are working with county-provided instructional leaders to update curriculum guidelines, Mr. Bennett said.
Occasionally, Mr. Andrews gathers to share a few memories and eat lunch with a local senior citizens’ group—the 31-member class of 1947, the first graduating class during his tenure, whose members are now in their 70s.
“He taught a government class that first year,” said Donna Treece, a ’47 graduate and retired teacher from Jackson. Mr. Andrews allowed students to grade their own tests, she said, when he had secretly graded the tests already. The students’ self-chosen grades often exceeded his assessment of their work, teaching them a “lesson in honesty,” the superintendent said, as laughter spread across the lunch table one recent afternoon.
As for the future, Mr. Andrews answered a question about retirement with a poem:
"I know by then I won't be fast and sometimes late, But it would be pleasant to be around at 98. I will have changed many things, And had a wonderful time, So I'm sure I'll be willing to leave at 99!"
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2000 edition of Education Week as Mich. Superintendent Still on the Job At 92 and Counting