FORTVILLE — It felt like home from Day 1.

Bill Riggs said that from the minute he started working as superintendent of Mt. Vernon schools in 1994 he could tell it was a special place. 

“It’s an easy place to fall in love with,” he said. “It has a feel of a hometown, of a close community.”

Now just weeks from retirement, Riggs will be honored for his 21 years as head of Hancock County’s northwest school district during a community open house Sunday.

Friends and colleagues say they appreciate Riggs’ caring leadership style, his integrity and his loyalty to his staff and community.

After 44 years in education, you’d think Riggs would be ready for retirement. But the self-proclaimed workaholic says the more he tries to tie up loose ends, the more he finds things to do. But he’s looking forward to it. And, he says, it’s time.

A native of Blackford County, Riggs taught math to alternative education students in Marion before getting into administrative roles in Rochester. He served as superintendent in South Newton and Scott County schools before coming to Mt. Vernon.

Those communities never really felt like home, Riggs said, but Hancock County did.

‘For him, it’s about family’

Riggs has been moving toward retirement since last year, when voters passed a $2.5 million referendum to help eliminate the district’s short-term debt. After two failed attempts in 2010 and 2012, the passage came as a wave of relief to the school district strapped under property tax reform and the housing recession.

“Back in 2008 I told the school board I wouldn’t take a raise until we corrected the financial problem, and I wouldn’t leave until we fixed the financial situation. I love this place too much,” Riggs said.

Since then, Riggs said, the school district has been able to make a few more hires and install the technological infrastructure to set the schools up for one-to-one computing, where laptops will be provided for students.

Technology is not his forte, Riggs said, so he’s glad the incoming superintendent, Shane Robbins, will be on top of the advancement. Mt. Vernon will be the last corporation in the county to initiate a one-to-one computer program.

“It’s in a position now where Dr. Robbins is going to come in to a wonderful, wonderful school district, and people are on the same page, going the same direction,” Riggs said. “There are some real opportunities here that he has the qualities to pursue.”

But Riggs will be missed. Colleagues say he’s not simply a boss but a friend who cares about how people are doing personally.

“There is a leadership style that is about you on the clock and it’s nothing else, but for him it’s about family,” said Bernie Campbell, principal of Mt. Vernon High School.

Campbell said that over the years Riggs has gotten to know administrators and staff. He’ll let principals do their job and will be supportive of their decisions but also let them know if they didn’t follow the right process.

Always, Campbell said, Riggs took a personal interest in his community.

“He’d give you a call and ask how things were going, and he was always so considerate,” Campbell said.

‘Nothing but supportive’

Assistant superintendent Mike Horton said in a news release that Riggs leads with a genuine concern and kindness to others.

“He is so well-respected in the state. He could have left when times were tough and made more money elsewhere, but it’s the measure of this man as he chose to stay, roll up the sleeves and get to work to resolve issues in the best possible way for the school and community,” Horton said.

Riggs also left an impact on other superintendents in the county. Eastern Hancock Superintendent Randy Harris said that, when he came on board six years ago, one of the first phone calls he made was to Riggs in hopes of some friendly advice. They met and have since had a solid professional relationship.

“He has been nothing but supportive and helpful to me personally but more so to educators in general,” he said.

Riggs’ leadership has gone beyond education over the years. He has served on community mental health boards, the Fortville Lions Club and the multiyear initiative to pursue higher education programs in Hancock County. He was one of the founding members of Leadership Hancock County and has spoken to emerging community leaders over the past two decades.

Riggs has taken only one, two-week vacation in his 21-year tenure.

With a chuckle and a shrug, Riggs said both he and his wife, Linda, were so dedicated to their professions over the years that time away was never really a priority.

‘A very special place’

So what is retirement going to look like? That’s a good question, Riggs says.

He hopes to sit back and relax for at least a year. Maybe visit Niagara Falls. Or attend a painting class. He might pursue old hobbies like fishing, hunting or golf. He wants to do the things he’s put off over the years since he’s been focused on work.

And he’s looking forward to more time with their two children and two grandchildren. Then after a year of relaxation, Riggs might think about picking up something new or volunteering. 

One thing’s for sure: The Riggses will stay in Hancock County. It’s a community they have grown to love too much to leave.

Looking back over his 44 years in education, Riggs said, he’s grateful for the multiple school corporations he served.

“I learned a lot about Hoosiers and different ways of relating to people, different ways of getting people involved because of the differences in those communities.”

A rural southwest county resident, Riggs said he doesn’t know exactly what’s in the water that makes Mt. Vernon community so close-knit. Maybe it’s because the No. 1 priority of every job interview, he said, is that the prospective candidate must love kids.

“I just hope the people who have lived here their whole loves and the people who have been here a long time realize what they’ve got,” Riggs said. “Those of us who have been other places and seen other things know how unique Mt. Vernon schools and Hancock County are. I hope they allow some time to enjoy that because it is a very special place.”

If you go

What: Reception for retiring Mt. Vernon superintendent Bill Riggs

When: 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday

Where: Fortville Elementary School. No reservations necessary.

At a glance

Bill Riggs is set to retire next month after 21 years as superintendent of Mt. Vernon schools and a total of 44 years in education. Here’s a look at his career and community involvement

  • Hired as Mt. Vernon superintendent in 1994, after having served as superintendent in South Newton and Scott County
  • Started career in 1971 as a math teacher in Marion and worked at an alternative school. Went on to become a program coordinator in Marion and an assistant principal and assistant superintendent at Rochester Community Schools.
  • Holds a doctorate and master’s degrees from Indiana State University and Ball State University
  • Civic involvement over the years includes Mental Health Association of Indiana and Hancock County, Leadership Hancock County, Gallahue Mental Health Services, Fortville Lions Club