Published on September 29th, 2015 | by Millennium Magazine Staff0
District Five design and construction director retires after a 40-year career in education
Pictured: District Five Director of Design and Construction Keith McAlister
IRMO – Nostrils flared and eyebrows furrowed, Keith McAlister is in a heated September phone conversation about construction projects he wants completed “ASAP.”
With the booming voice of a former high school football coach, McAlister’s points are clear. The call ends with a brusque “thank you, sir.” The phone rings again, and a similar verbal exchange ensues.
“I know it doesn’t look like I’m about to retire,” McAlister notes.
But on Sept. 30, the Lexington-Richland School District Five design and construction director officially did just that. He’s held many positions in his forty years since leaving professional football to become an educator. And after walking the halls of many South Carolina schools and impacting many students’ lives, McAlister says he’s now ready to hang up the hard hat and settle into life as a retiree.
“I’ve been in this business for 40 years, and everywhere I’ve ever been my goal was to leave it better than I found it,” he said. “As a teacher and a football coach, the goals were just to impact young people’s lives. As an assistant superintendent the goal was to impact others so that we can impact young people’s lives. The goal has always been the same for me, and I feel proud to have been able to do that…just help young people.”
District Five officials credit McAlister with successfully overseeing bond referendum projects to build new schools and renovate others. These projects have changed the landscape of District Five, and provided facilities vital to keeping the district among the best in South Carolina, said Superintendent Dr. Stephen Hefner.
“Mr. McAlister has been a pillar throughout the construction project in District Five,” Hefner said. “His background as an educator has given him unique perspective and genuine care and concern in ensuring our students get the best facilities to grow their skills. We want to thank him for his many years of service to the students, staff and families of District Five; and wish him a long and well-deserved happy retirement.”
District Five Board Vice Chairman Robert Gantt said McAlister served as the district’s “boots on the ground” contact during construction projects.
“We wanted boots on the ground…someone who was going to make sure the projects were done right. Keith was that person for us,” Gantt said. “His background and experience as a coach and teacher, gave him great insight on the projects and in some cases coordinated efforts so that we were more efficient. He was a real vital member of School District Five. Like a quarterback he was the guy that made it happen sometimes, and we’re just grateful for his service.”
‘Not on my watch’
Before coming to District Five, McAlister served as an assistant superintendent for operations at Kershaw County School District, supervising a multimillion dollar building program that included 12 renovation, addition and new construction programs along with supervising the district’s food service, transportation and maintenance divisions. He was principal at North Central High, Lewisville High and Chester High and athletic director and football coach at several schools, including Strom Thurmond High School from 1978 to 1987 and Swansea High School from 1976 to 1978.
Though the decision to become an educator wasn’t immediate, he now realizes that “subconsciously” he had long been making plans to be a teacher and coach.
“Oftentimes, I would hear my high school coach explain something, and in my mind I would say ‘well, that’s not the way I would do it. That’s not the way I’m going to coach it.’ So, I think I started to realize then that I was going to be a coach,” McAlister said. “And sitting in class, I would hear teachers, and I’d say ‘I like the way she explained that. That’s the way I’ll do it.’ I never planned on becoming a coach and a teacher, but maybe subconsciously it snuck up on me.”
While playing professional football with the Oakland Raiders, McAlister says he ‘got the call’ to teach.
“I came out of college and went into the building business with my dad before playing with the Raiders,” he said. “I was in Santa Rosa, California at training camp when one of my high school coaches got his first head coaching job. He called me and said ‘have you had enough of that foolishness…Are you ready to come home and coach my offensive line?’ I said, ‘yes, sir. When is the latest I can be there?’”
In August 1974, McAlister started his career in education at Thomas Sumter Academy in Dalzell, South Carolina. Though his job locations and titles changed, McAlister maintained a reputation for being direct and outspoken throughout his 40-plus year career – something he says has served him well.
“The bottom line is what’s worked well for me is, yes, being outspoken at times and letting people know where you stand. There’s not much doubt in people’s minds when they leave a conversation with me where I stand on things,” McAlister said. “That makes it so much easier to operate. Whether you’re a football coach, high school principal or construction director; don’t leave anything to chance. And in this business…heading construction projects for the district, I have no patience for people who just don’t want to do a good job…ain’t gonna happen, not on my watch.”
‘I was lucky’
When McAlister joined District Five in 2009, voters already had passed a bond referendum, and construction was underway on the first of several projects.
Now nearing completion, the projects have included renovations at Leaphart Elementary, Seven Oaks Elementary, Irmo Elementary and Chapin Elementary. Dutch Fork High and Irmo High schools received major upgrades and new buildings, and Chapin High School was completely renovated and expanded. Spring Hill High School, the Center for Advanced Technical Studies and the new Chapin Middle School were new construction projects under the bond.
District officials modified plans over time to respond to the needs of the district, and a new elementary school was not built in order to provide “equitable” facilities at all the district’s high schools.
“Clearly Keith was at the table when plans were being made to ensure all four high schools had quality facilities,” Gantt said.
Among them, the renovation and additions at Chapin High School are among the most cherished for McAlister.
“…Because they needed it so badly,” McAlister said. “There was no space for the school to grow, there was no room for the staff and students at the school, and my main concern was safety because of the portables. …The portables are now gone, and what we have now is something those kids can stick their chest out about and say ‘look where I go to school.’”
In the end, bond projects have reduced the number of portable classrooms used for instruction from around 117 in 2009 to 23 today. Projects have been completed on time and in many cases the district found ways to maximize construction because of McAlister’s expertise in education and construction.
“In my opinion, his real super strength was just the passion he had for seeing that the projects were completed and completed on time and in good order,” Hefner said. “He is just very tenacious, and it’s not about the project. For him, it’s about what the completion of the project will mean for students.”
A few days from officially retiring, McAlister was working his way down a “punch list” of minor projects and taking inventory of his work. Walking pass the glass-front classrooms of the new Chapin Middle School, the last project of the bond referendum, McAlister occasionally peers through a few windows – a look of satisfaction on his face at what he sees inside.
“This ones okay,” he said, the corners of his mouth turned up in a wide smile.
Whether referring to the room or the students learning inside it, it’s all the same, McAlister said. As a teacher, principal, coach or school builder; he’s always had one thing in mind.
“The kids … I just wanted to help kids,” McAlister said. “And I was lucky. I got to do that.”