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Algonquin-based District 300's first safety director caps nine years on job

H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com
Community Unit School District 300's first safety director Gary Chester monitors all the district schools from his office in Algonquin. After nine years with the district Chester is retiring. The former police and fire chief in Coldwater, Mich. plans to return to the state to spend time with family.
H. Rick Bamman - hbamman@shawmedia.com Community Unit School District 300's first safety director Gary Chester monitors all the district schools from his office in Algonquin. After nine years with the district Chester is retiring. The former police and fire chief in Coldwater, Mich. plans to return to the state to spend time with family.

Retiring District 300 Safety Director Gary Chester remembers former Superintendent Kenneth Arndt asking him whether he would be one of those six-month wonders who stays for a short while until something better comes along.

Chester's background made him more than qualified. He spent 35 years as a police officer – 22 of them as a police chief and 15 of them as a public safety director, plus military experience and a certificate from the FBI national academy.

However, his family lived in Michigan, and while Chester reassured Arndt that his stay would last longer than half a year, in the back of his mind he thought he would take the next job offer he got closer to home.

Instead, despite several job offers, Chester spent the next nine years working for the district on weekdays and commuting to his Union City, Michigan, home on the weekends.

He never imagined he'd stay as long as he has, and now, as he moves on to retirement, he faces the challenge of leaving the friendships he's built and the community he's grown to love behind.

If his family was nearby, Chester said they would have to drag him out in his coffin.

"There are bookmarks in your life as you go on. Usually, it's marriage, it's your first kids, it's all your kids being born. It's graduation of the kids," Chester said. "This [job] is one of the big bookmarks of my life."

Looking back, Chester believes the most important part of his job was what staff affectionately dubbed the "Scary Gary Show" – training that covers what to do during weather emergencies, fires and violent situations.

How staff responds to an emergency situation is what ultimately determines the outcome, Chester said, and working on managing staff's psychological response to emergencies is important.

Knowing where to go and what to do in a crisis situation does not matter if a teacher or supervisor freezes up, he said.

"The general public and parents don't really understand how much responsibility we place on the shoulders of those teachers," Chester said. "It's hard enough to get through [a crisis situation] alone and now, we throw 20 to 30 kids at them and say protect them as well."

One piece to that training that Chester said many other schools and school districts fail to do is include substitute teachers.

There are anywhere from two to 20 substitutes in each school on any given day, which is why Chester made sure every substitute is required to watch a two-hour safety presentation before filling in for teachers.

"It's not just ensuring that our students have a safe environment," Superintendent Fred Heid said, "but that our staff does, too."

Heid said that the staff appreciated Chester's presence, and the training Chester gave was always well-received.

"It's easy to put policies into place," Heid said. "It's hard to get people on board with them."

Heid said he has seen safety directors at other districts have an intimidating presence and create an uneasiness when they enter a room. This is not the case with Chester, Heid said. Chester is just there to help.

Chester said he leaves District 300 feeling the appreciation of the community he served over the last nine years. A joint effort of several grateful staff members led June 14 to officially become Gary Chester Day.

Several staff members, local fire fighters, police officers and Algonquin village officials that Chester worked with over the years came together to celebrate his retirement and announce that his name is in several village calendars.

"Even though we promised not to make a huge fuss, we did anyways," Linda Keyes, Heid's executive assistant, said.

Keyes went to all nine municipalities that the district serves and asked them to put together a resolution for Gary Chester Day which was eventually passed with each one.

Chester started as safety director when it was a brand new position to the 22,000-student district. Todd Rohlwing will fill the position after spending the past two months being trained by Chester.

Rohlwing worked for the Illinois State Police and has a military background. To learn more about how school security works on the ground level, he took on the role of student security officer at Hampshire High School.

Chester believes he is leaving the district in good and capable hands, but still finds it to be a challenge to leave the position behind.

"What happened to all the years that [have] flown behind me? It's a transition," Chester said. "If I didn't love what I was doing, it would be a lot easier, but it's hard to walk away from something you love and the love I also get from the staff."

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