Sometimes our best-laid plans lead us to our true calling. And for Dr. Tom Kimbrell, recently retired superintendent of Bryant Public Schools, that calling wasn’t foreign to him. His father, Jim Kimbrell, retired from the Corning School District as superintendent, and now the younger Kimbrell is embarking on retirement to slow down and enjoy his family.
But growing up in a small, northeast Arkansas town, Kimbrell had other plans that didn’t involve a career in education. He looked up to his Sunday school teacher, who also was the town’s local pharmacist.
“He was a really good guy, a good fisherman and had the biggest truck and nicest fishing boat in town,” Kimbrell recalls. As a boy with all of those interests, he wanted to know how he could have those things when he grew up.
Kimbrell went to college with becoming a pharmacist in mind. The education bug got to him, however, and he switched paths to teaching and coaching. He notes he always enjoyed math and science, and during the summers in college, he would go back home to work with his alma mater’s high school football team. He grew up playing basketball, football, tennis and running track.
Five years after he started his teaching and coaching career, Kimbrell jumped into the administration ring at 29 to become the assistant principal at Corning. At 32, he became superintendent at Paragould School District.
In 2003, Kimbrell was approached for the Bryant superintendent position but said it wasn’t the right time and he decided to stay at Paragould. The school board hired Dr. Richard Abernathy, who stayed until 2010 when he took over the executive director position at the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators (AAEA) – the position Kimbrell had at the time.
“Abernathy did a really good job at Bryant, and it’s interesting how he ended up taking over the job I had,” Kimbrell says, noting his father was one of the original seven members of the AAEA.
The AAEA job was one of two dream jobs for Kimbrell, he says. The other was commissioner of education for the state of Arkansas, a governor-appointed post. He served under former Gov. Mike Beebe from 2009 to 2014.
In his three years at Bryant, Kimbrell says one of his main goals was to develop a contingency plan for developing leadership in the schools. “Recognizing talent in our own district is important. I said I would help develop the next leader and I have in Dr. Karen Walters. She is going to be a great superintendent.”
Upon taking the Bryant job, Kimbrell says he’s had to overcome the loss of trust in leadership from the community. There has been true shift in focus on the students and efficiency, he says. “We’ve saved $6 million in the past three years, didn’t expand any programs or give raises, and with the community passing the millage in March, they have shown their trust and support. It was a tough road, but I’m really pleased with the community support.”
One of Kimbrell’s favorite activities associated with the school has been the Salt Bowl, which pits the Bryant Hornets against the Benton Panthers.
“I was used to Paragould with two school districts that competed for everything,” he says. “Our stadiums would be full, so when they told me about the Salt Bowl, I thought, ‘No big deal, I’ve already seen it.’ Wow, at my first Salt Bowl game, I realized I had seen nothing like it. It is a whole county event. I broke out in goose bumps.”
When asked what’s next on his life’s journey, Kimbrell says he plans to stay close to home to be fully present for his family.
“I’ve pulled my wife everywhere in my career pursuits, and she’s never complained. She has been responsible for raising our kids. I’m committed to being the dad they never saw and the husband I wasn’t.”