Sometime today, Superintendent of the Payson Unified School District, Casey O’Brien, will lay down the heavy weight of responsibility for 2,400 children and walk through his office doors for the last time.
He has seen the Payson schools through great growth and terrible challenges.
He helped to build a new school and close an old one.
His tenure encompassed scrambling to find room for a burgeoning enrollment to triage budget losses and the loss of students.
He started new classes in technology, and closed down Career Technical classes that could not support themselves.
He remained dedicated to teaching the whole child, but had to scramble to find ways to raise money to retain athletics, music, drama and art in the schools.
While superintendent, he worked with parent groups to provide academic challenges to students, but also labored to support students with special needs.
Through it all, he had an open door, a courteous manner and a commitment to the families of Payson.
Granted, he earned his share of critics — by making tough decisions no one would want to face. But he remained as calm under pressure as the Navy fighter pilot he used to be and unfailingly professional in his priorities and his approach.
Perhaps it’s good that he came to education after learning the hard lessons of a fighter pilot — the no-win choices, the terrible cost of even the wars you win, the necessity for sacrifice.
But he remained true to his principles — and to the parents, teachers and students who relied on his judgment.
For here’s the hard truth that warriors and teachers and school administrators must learn. You cannot know how things will turn out, you cannot control what happens, you cannot even choose your battles. All you can do is fight your best fight, remain true to your principles and your comrades and get up every day ready for whatever they throw at you.
By that hard measure, Casey O’Brien has fought the good fight and lived a life of honor and service. And in the end, that’s all any man can ask of himself.
So we’re grateful for that life of service.
Then again: Perhaps there’s another fighter pilot saying that applies: Any landing you can walk away from is a good one. Nice landing, Casey. You brought it home safely.
Kudos and challenges
The Forest Service fire managers made a stop by the Gila County Board of Supervisors meeting this week to offer an update on the $9 million effort to battle that 12,000-acre Poco Fire — and thank the county for its support.
Turns out, the county’s effort to establish an emergency water supply for firefighting helicopters played a key role in slowing down the fire just long enough for the Forest Service to get the resources it needed into the area.
The county has labored to put in place a network of the so-called water bladders, each with enough water to fill up a couple of water-dropping helicopter runs. The county can keep them refilled with water trucks in an emergency. Some have pumps to connect them to irrigation wells, stock tanks or even streams.
This emergency water supply can play a crucial role in the opening assault on a fire and so spell the difference between containing the fire to a frightening, but manageable total like 12,000 acres, and an uncontrolled disaster like last year’s 600,000-acre Wallow Fire.
So we’re grateful for the county’s foresight in providing the water supply for the firefighters.
We should probably leave it at that — a nice compliment for a job well done. Except, we can’t help but mention one thing more. The water bladder network provides a great example of the tremendous benefits of planning for a disaster, instead of reacting once catastrophe finds you.
Now we hope that the county and the other planning agencies in Rim Country will take note — and move toward the adoption of a true, firewise building code. Other more farsighted counties and cities have already demonstrated the value of a building code that insists on fire-resistant roofs, screens to keep sparks out of attics, a ban on flammable, overhanging eaves and a preference for fire-resistant building materials. Neither Payson nor Gila County have such a building code in place.
Make no mistake, a wildfire remains the one thing that can destroy the communities of Rim Country. If you’ll drive through any of the isolated communities on county-managed land you’ll see a disaster waiting to happen. If you drive up Airport Road, you’ll see the flammable roofs of all our homes lost in a sea of trees.
So we hope that the county will collect its kudos this week and dedicate itself to overhauling its building codes to reduce fire danger next week.