Former Principal Bill Byrd reflects on West’s 50th anniversary


Courtesy of Jeremy Mitchell

Bill Byrd (center left) stands with current principal Jeremy Mitchell, and former principals Dave McMillan and Beth Plunkett at West’s 50th anniversary football game and celebration. Byrd had continued to stay connected to the West community even after leaving his post as principal in 1987 through his three children’s enrollment and attendance to football and basketball games. “We currently have a granddaughter [sophomore Susie Seidel] at West and enjoy attending her activities and listening to her West stories. I feel very honored and fortunate to have been a part of West High for the past 50 years,” Byrd said.

Pathfinder: How did you become a principal at Parkway West?

Byrd: I was teaching social studies at Hickman High School, Columbia, Mo. In 1969, when I interviewed for an assistant principal’s position at West Senior, I was hired. For the next 15 years I held that position until appointed principal in 1984.  I was West’s third principal and held this position for three years before leaving to become Assistant Superintendent in 1987 for the Parkway School District.

What were some things that changed at West while you were principal?

A major change at West Senior High was adding the ninth grade and becoming a four year school when the junior highs became middle schools. For several years, one half of the freshman class attended school in the morning at the nearby building now used for Parkway’s Early Childhood Center. The other half of the class went in the afternoon.

The first freshman class to be a part of this space solution voted to name the annex ‘West Point.’ I liked the name Byrd Nest, but the freshmen did not at all.

Starting in 1986, West began its participation in the Voluntary Desegregation Program with 300 new students from St Louis Public Schools attending. Previously, West enrolled less than a dozen African-American students. The goal of the program was for every Parkway school to have at least a 19 percent minority enrollment. Melding two cultures was a challenge for everyone at West.

Another major change at West Senior High was adding the ninth grade and becoming a four year school when the junior highs became middle schools. Senior was dropped out of our name and we became West High School. Yes, I do believe some freshmen boys were put in lockers and  a few were not tall enough to reach the drinking fountains. The positive side of a larger student body, however, allowed West to have many more honor, Level IV and AP classes. Co-curricular activities like sports teams, marching band, speech and debate teams were large and very competitive in area, state and national competitions.

What were some of the unexpected challenges of being a principal?

The student body size was a challenge during my time at West before starting to decline in the 1990’s. There were 10 lunch periods scheduled to accommodate students in the cafeteria. Only juniors and seniors could drive on an A-B day schedule, [which was] not a popular solution, and class sizes were very large in order to find classrooms for all the students.

The 60’s brought on a cultural revolution in the United Stated with a great deal of resistance to the Vietnam War and unfortunately the start of widespread drug use. Both issues impacted life at West. There were a few students who had left home and lived in the woods between West and West Point. Early in the morning, a P.E. staff member would let them in to take a shower, clean up and they then attended classes. Drug users were not treated as kindly. The 60’s brought on other ‘displays,’ one being streaking. During lunch one day, a naked male streaker wearing only a fencing mask ran through the cafeteria starting in the foyer and out the back door. Even with only the fencing mask on, he was recognized, caught by the cross country coach, brought to the principal’s office and sat without clothes until his mother came to pick him up. There were quite a few students in the hall cheering as he left the building for home (with clothes on).

What are some things you hope have changed since leaving West?

West was a premier high school during my tenure from 1969-1987, excelling in every area.  I believe that spirit has continued through the years so there is little I would hope has changed since leaving. Stated slightly different today, the original mission statement for West was “Teaching and learning is the reason we occupy this hill top.”  My sense is that this mission has not changed in 2018. Facilities have vastly changed during the past 50 years making the teaching-learning process environment quite modern and supporting the Mission.

What did you pursue after being a principal? How did your experiences at West affect these pursuits?

After leaving West High in 1987, I was an Assistant Superintendent for the next eight years supervising all four Parkway high schools. Following that, I worked for the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Schools and the Missouri School Boards Association for six years. At West, I learned that if you make every decision based on the best interest of students, you will never make a bad decision. And second, surround yourself with people who are smarter than you are and listen to their counsel—including students.  

Are there any ways you still try to stay connected to the community and to West?

After leaving, I had many friends who were still at West and I continued to stay in contact with them and attend school activities. All three of our children attended West while I was an administrator there. That made for some interesting times and stories for our family. On one occasion I came across some boys, including my son, throwing chalkboard erasers out a second-floor window during lunch period. And before all the electronics, school closing notifications were announced to the staff through a landline telephone chain before TV and radio stations broadcast the closings. On possible school closing days, the friends of our two daughters would call very early asking “Has your dad heard anything yet?” If yes, they would start making their ‘snow day’ plans. Another time returning to the office, a student named Jeff was sitting on the couch in the waiting area. I asked if he needed help and he explained he had been unruly in Ms. Smith’s class and she was going to talk to me about his behavior. Jeff had decided to turn himself in before Ms. Smith reported him. West kids have always been the greatest. We currently have a granddaughter at West and enjoy attending her activities and listening to her West stories. I feel very honored and fortunate to have been a part of West High for the past 50 years.