Educator Gary Autry reflects on 44-year career

As a young teenager at Waxahachie High School, Gary Autry was inspired by teacher and role model Ron Appleton, which led to a life committed to helping students achieve life goals, said Autry.

Now, more than 40 years later, Autry said he’s met his goals and had many rewards and blessings along the way. He retired last Wednesday and celebrated with friends and family this weekend after serving in several Ellis County school districts, including Red Oak, Maypearl and Waxahachie.

“Waxahachie ag teacher Ron Appleton was my role model and mentor. I wanted to be an ag teacher just like him,” Autry said. “I hung around the ag department and seeing Mr. Appleton teach, I knew right then that I wanted to be an ag teacher.”

The 1968 WHS graduate started on his journey to reach his goal by enrolling at Sam Houston University.

“I arrived in Huntsville ready to enroll. I had $500 dollars in my picket. The first thing I did was find a job to fund my education,” he said.

In 1972, he graduated with his bachelor’s of Science in Agriculture Science degree. In 1973, Autry accepted his first teaching assignment at Maypearl High School as a science teacher. Back then, the district offices and the high school were all in the same building.

“When I went in to sign my contract, John May, then the superintendent, handed me three keys. I asked what I needed three keys for,” Autry recalled.

Mays told him one went to his classroom, one went to the gymnasium and the other to a bus. Autry soon found that besides a science teacher, he was also the boy’s basketball coach and a bus driver.

“I knew nothing about basketball, but we only lost one game that year. I got the boys together and said that I was their coach and mentor. Luckily, they knew how to play basketball,” Autry said. “When that first class of students came in and looked at me, my first thought was that I had a degree to teach these kids, but what do I do now? My mother found my first contract. I was paid $6,000 dollars. Times have really changed. That was a learning experience for me,” Autry said.

After his first year in the classroom, Autry decided if he was going to make a career in teaching, he needed to go back and get more education. Returning to Sam Houston, Autry completed and received his master’s degree in vocational education.

Upon graduation, Autry returned to Waxahachie High School to teach agriculture with Mr. Appleton.

“It was great to be able to come back and this time teach with my role model,” Autry said. “Ron Appleton was a mentor to many, many men. I felt that I was in very good hands with him.”

After taking a few years of from teaching to start on his master’s in education administration at East Teas State, now Texas A&M in Commerce, Autry was called to be the ag teacher in Red Oak.

He headed the Red Oak ag department for a year and a half when then superintendent Ed Burleson came to Autry, telling him there was an opening for an assistant principal at the high school.

“John Sullivan was then the high school principal. I was sent up to help Mr. Sullivan. This was another mentoring experience. Learned a lot from him,” Autry said. “Working with Mr. Sullivan was a life experience that I will always treasure and no one can take that away from me. John was always a fair disciplinarian with the kids. Many looked up to him. He was really tall, and me being short, the kids called us Mutt and Jeff,” Autry said

A new junior high was soon finished, and Autry was asked to be the principal at the new junior high, all the while still working on his mid-management degree at night, Autry said. After being at the junior high for eight years, Autry went to Palmer High School as the high school principal in 1993 and served until 1998.

“I can say this, being a high school principal is one of the most demanding jobs I’ve ever had in a school district. In a smaller school district, the issues and the things that need to be done are the same, just fewer people to do them,” Autry said.

After five years, he decided that he no longer wanted the job as principal.

“Went to the superintendent and handed him my resignation. He told me he wasn’t going the accept it. I told him, well I’m not coming back next year,” Autry said.

Autry had no more than submitted his resignation the same afternoon he was called by a member of the Ellis County Co-Op and told about an opening.

“I called Joe Penn, who was the director of the Ellis County Co-Op at that time. I asked him to explain to me what the co-op was,” Autry said.

Autry described the co-op as an agreement between smaller school districts to provide special education services to learning disabled children.

“With all districts being required to provide vocational education, also called life skills, to children with disabilities; smaller districts do not have the resources to provide that type of special education. The smaller districts formed a combined co-op to fill this need. At that time we served districts in Palmer, Italy, Avalon, Ferris and Maypearl,” Autry said, describing his new role in education.

“I called Joe Penn, who besides the co-op director, is a vocational adjustment coordinator. He told me this job is teaching kids with disabilities how to find a job, fill out an application, how to dress for the job, show up on time and how to keep the employment,” Autry said. “I really enjoyed it. I’ve been in Ellis County all my life. I know a lot of people and was able to call on these people to help out with these children.”

Autry worked as a teacher for two years until he given the chance to become the county coordinator at the co-op.

“Mr. Penn came to me saying that he was retiring and did I want his job? I told him I loved what I was doing. I absolutely love what I’m doing. In turn, he told me that if the job went to someone else, I may get moved around. I told him OK,” Autry said

That was 18 years ago and the job Autry retired from last Wednesday. During that time, Autry also saw a direct correlation between working with children and developing and training with the farm animals he grew up with.

“There is no question about it. To these children, an animal is therapeutic,” he said. “Whether there is a an animal to pet, ride or prepare for a show, especially children with autism, the touch and feel is very comforting to them,”

Autry has been to many of the Ellis County Youth Expo events held annually at the Ellis County Expo Center.

“We’ve had several of the Vocational Adjective Class (VAC) kids out there and we have seen a lot of success with them,” Autry said.

Autry recalled a life skills student, who just last week, was working at Walmart as a cart boy where he has worked for many, many years.

“I had him for several years as a community-based instruction child. He is now a stock holder in Walmart. He dresses up every morning, he is proud of his job. He knows his job,” Autry said. “When people think that these children cannot be a contributing factor, they need to open their eyes. These people can and are being contributing factors to the community.”

The major reward for him has been meeting students who have gone on to be a success, he said.

“Not every child is college bound but all students need some form of secondary education. We need car shop mechanics, plumbers, air conditioning repair people. This is where my wish list for the kids is,” he said. “Get you a vocational trade and you will be successful. All over the county, there are kids that are plumbers, electricians, air conditioning repair people that I’ve encouraged to get a vocational trade education.”

In retirement, Autry has plans to restore old buildings and spend more time on the beach with the family.

“Being a teacher has been a great profession for me and I have enjoyed every minute of it. Seeing the many that I have had an influence on to become their own success is the greatest reward that I could receive.