Commentary: The Lasting Impact Of A Cherished School Volunteer
2016 marked five years since the death of a special volunteer in Richardson schools. Anne Foster reflects on the example Art Middlebrook left behind about the importance of public schools.
Art Middlebrook was never supposed to be a legend. He was like many other senior citizens in the Richardson Independent School District: Art had a full and satisfying career as an electrical engineer and an executive in the defense industry, had raised and educated his children, loved his wife Bev, and was enjoying a nice retirement.
Then something happened. I still remember the night I met him. I spoke as a school board member to the Richardson Citizens Fire Academy about the upcoming bond election. I explained the need for building new schools and renovating existing older schools. Art was in the audience and came up to me afterwards saying he had had no idea about the needs of the community’s schools. It was as if a light went off in his head.
Soon Art began showing up at schools asking how he could help. He started attending events, competitions, and committees. He could be found in schools five days a week, supporting teachers and students. He would find out about classrooms needs and surprise teachers with what they needed. He tutored and mentored kids and was strongly drawn to the kids who needed it the most. He encouraged them to go to college and to believe in themselves. It was known that he sometimes bought instruments for kids whose families could not afford them. He sent kids to camps and paid for summer classes. Sometimes he bought DART passes.
Over the next decade, Art became a fixture at RISD schools. His support got him dubbed as a “volunteer extraordinaire,” and he was given numerous awards, but Art wasn’t looking for recognition for himself.
One teacher, Christy Robbins said it like this:
“Art Middlebrook is the person I want to be when I grow up. Year after year, he shows up at my school to offer a hand, share life experiences, serve on the PTA, or just say hello. He taught my students about World War II. He helped find instruments for budding musicians with dwindling funds. Mention concern for a student one time, and he follows up week after week, year after year with that student. He gets to know them. He talks about their future in 2nd grade, in junior high, in college and in life. He brings current magazine articles on their favorite topics, birthday cards, encouraging letters, and college shirts. He is their constant. If I told Mr. Art a pony was a critical tool in my classroom curriculum, he’d probably find me one and bring the hay to feed it.”
When people’s kids are grown and out of schools, often they don’t think of schools as that important. But schools need the help and engagement of the community. Art Middlebrook became a legend, a true servant leader, a man cherished by so many, a man who touched hundreds of lives. Art’s brand of community engagement inspired many others in the community to support public schools. It has been over five years since his death, but the lesson he taught us lives on.
Anne Foster is a former Richardson school board president.