Bill Kessinger, longtime West Memphis Superintendent, dead at 82

Colleagues, friends remember legendary community leader

By Billy Woods West Memphis School District

Bill Kessinger, the superintendent of West Memphis Schools for 40 years, died early Thursday morning from complications stemming from a blood clot. He was 82. Funeral services for Kessinger will be Saturday at 1 p.m. at First Baptist Church of West Memphis. Visitation will be at noon on Saturday. There will be a graveside service following the funeral at Crittenden Memorial Park. One of the most beloved West Memphians of the last half century, Kessinger was the unquestioned CEO of West Memphis Schools from 1973-2013, before retiring in June of 2013 and handing the torch to Jon Collins. He formed a tight grip on the local schools with his vision for the future, respect from his employees, a towering state-wide presence and a calming personality. A native of Forrest City and a graduate of Arkansas State Teachers College (now the University of Central Arkansas), Kessinger came to West Memphis in 1962 to be the head football coach of the local high school. He continued in that role through 1964 before being named principal of WMHS until 1972. He served one year as the district’s assistant superintendent before taking on the role he was most remembered, in 1973 following the passing of previous superintendent, O.M. Shultz. Along the way, Kessinger earned many honors, including Arkansas Jaycees’ Outstanding Young Educator, president of the Arkansas Association of School Administrators in 1994-95, president of the Arkansas Activities Association and the state’s Superintendent of the Year in 1987-88. During his early years in town as West Memphis went through its biggest economic surge and growth period, he was the benefactor at the high school, which exploded in classification from a Class B school to Class AA in one year. Kessinger was also a star athlete in high school in Forrest City and as a four-sport letterman at Arkansas State Teachers College. He signed with the Bears out of Forrest City as a basketball player, but also played football, track and field and baseball. For those accomplishments he was inducted into the UCA Sports Hall of Fame. West Memphis superintendent Jon Collins, who succeeded Kessinger at the helm of the local schools, said, “We lost a giant. To me he was a great mentor and a good friend to have.” Collins, in his third year in the top role at the WMSD, said Kessinger’s legacy in education reaches far beyond local measures. “He’s nicknamed The Godfather in Arkansas because he was here so long and had such a great impact on education,” said Collins. “He developed such great relationships around the state that somehow I feel he might have not gotten the credit locally that he’s gotten around the whole state. There will never be another like him, that’s for sure.” News of Kessinger’s death reached statewide quickly on Thursday, and Johnny Key, the state’s Commissioner of Education sent out a statement to all media outlets, tipping his cap to the West Memphian. “Bill was a friend and mentor to many school leaders in Arkansas,” Key said in the statement. “His contributions to the education of students in West Memphis were immeasurable. Please join me in mourning his passing from this life and honoring his tireless work on behalf of West Memphis Schools.” Grafton Moore, the longtime football coaching legend in West Memphis, played for Kessinger when he coached the Blue Devils in the early 1960s. Kessinger hired Moore to be the high school’s head coach in 1978, where remained through 2000. “For me, personally, it’s a great loss,” said Moore. “He was my high school coach and my boss for 50 years. Everything I feel like I accomplished Mr. Kessinger was by far the biggest influence. We’ve lost an icon. He put his heart and soul into this community. He once told me that West Memphis may not be the prettiest place in the world to live, but it’s got the best people in the world and that’s what made living here so wonderful for him. There won’t be a day that goes by that I won’t miss him.” West Memphis mayor Bill Johnson, one of Kessinger’s close friends, echoed the sentiment of so many others. “I don’t know where you’d start when talking about Bill Kessinger,” he said. “He was a great friend of mine and a great servant of this community. It’s safe to say Bill touched the lives of thousands of students in West Memphis and it’s safe to also say that he touched the lives of thousands of adults. He’ll be remembered for a long, long time.”

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