Remembering ‘Mr. K.’

By Billy Woods

He made his mark the old-fashioned way. Bill Kessinger didn’t get to be the most beloved men in West Memphis and one of the largest figures in Arkansas education by running over people. He didn’t get there throwing people under the bus. He didn’t get there by scheming. No, Bill Kessinger did it with a sweet personality. He did it by his very disarming, calming nature. He could charm the socks off the most hot-headed folks. West Memphis without Bill Kessinger is going to be like the Vatican without the Pope. And that’s how it’s going to be around here now. We’ll not only miss Kessinger, who died early Thursday morning, we’ll be kicking ourselves for not doing all we could to stop it. The great superintendent of West Memphis Schools retired after a 40-year run in that role in June of 2013 and he was given a big send-off by his fellow administrators from around the state in the form of a golf tournament at Cabot. Kessinger’s brother, Donnie, the former baseball star himself, was there along with so many of the big names from Arkansas. All of it unbeknownst to Mr. K. When he finally realized the big gathering was for himself he was noticeably embarrassed and a bit sheepish, especially when a brand new Blue Devil golf cart with all the bells and whistles (including his name Mr. K) was rolled out to present to him. It was the first time many in attendance saw Kessinger moved to tears. Kessinger was born in Forrest City, but he was West Memphis all the way. He came to town in 1962 to coach football and he did just about all you could do in education here. He was the West Memphis High School principal from 1968-72, he spent one year as an assistant to superintendent Oscar Shultz before he passed away. Then the torch was passed to Bill. And he led the local school district through some of the greatest times in the history of the city, as it was finishing off a meteoric rise as the hub of Eastern Arkansas. And he did it with the down-homeness of Will Rogers. We who worked in the school district’s administration office remember how he would take time almost daily to visit the building’s foyer, alternately greeting passersby with a “Whaddya know!” while jiggling the change in his pocket loud enough to be heard on the other end of the office, to stopping by for a five-minute-or-so chat with each of us. Socializing apparently was one of Kessinger’s favorite pasttimes. Oh, he played golf, but as he would be quick to tell you in his later years he wasn’t nearly as good as he used to be. It was just a great way to spend a few hours with his buddies that included Lloyd McCustion, Jack Woodard, Roy Kirkland and others. He was also one of the pillars of a daily morning visit to the coffee shop, otherwise known as Shoney’s, to ramble about everything from high school sports to politics. Kessinger’s first love was sports. He arguably was the primary figure in building West Memphis’ greatest run through athletics from the mid-1970s through the mid-2000s. He hired some great athletic directors and coaches who did a great job in those capacities, but the CEO was Bill Kessinger. He loved to win, but boy how he hated it when the Blue Devils lost. There is so much tangible evidence of Kessinger’s legacy in West Memphis education. It would take more space than this paper allows for us to cover all of it. But the thing we’ll remember most about the man is way he treated folks. He knew how to do that. And while none of us will ever forget that part about him, most assuredly some of it rubbed off on us.

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