The outgoing Harrison County Superintendent of Schools found himself speechless Monday evening during a dinner held in his honor at Robert C. Byrd High School.
That's a rare occasion for Robert E. Kittle.
More than 300 friends, associates and family members came together to celebrate Kittle's 43 years of service in the field of education.
Partway through the evening, Gov. Cecil Underwood made a surprise appearance at the banquet. He presented Kittle with a framed commendation designating the retiring superintendent as a Distinguished West Virginian for his outstanding achievement and meritorious service to the state school system.
"This is a night that I will never forget," an emotionally moved Kittle said.
"Forty-three years seems like a short time ago. I wondered then what I would say when I retired, and I am just about speechless. But I know my staff doesn't believe that," Kittle joked.
Don Molter, area representative for Bell Atlantic, served as the night's emcee. Molter credits Kittle with his decision to move to Harrison County eight years ago when he transferred to West Virginia from Maryland.
"I found a school system here that is one of the finest in West Virginia, leading in technology, demanding in principle and extremely well managed. Bob is a leader that is unequaled and he leaves some pretty big shoes to fill," he said.
Several colleagues shared stories about the retiring superintendent, including James Reaser, who served 24 years on the Harrison County School Board. Reaser said he first met Kittle when Reaser played basketball for Bristol High School and Kittle played for Flemington back in 1953. The meeting was not cordial, he said.
"Years later we had a chance to hire the most qualified person in the state of West Virginia for the superintendent's position, and that was Bob Kittle. He had been my adversary prior to that, and if we hired him, I would be his boss and I could finally get some revenge," Reaser told the audience.
Reaser said that, without question, Kittle holds records in this state that will never be broken.
"This man has had more ideas, started more new programs, and instituted more positive changes than any superintendent has ever done in the state of West Virginia," he said.
Former Harrison superintendent and current board president James Bennett said that when Kittle came to the county, he immediately faced some difficult times, including the flood of 1985.
"He was the fourth superintendent in five years and faced some real challenges. He made some tough decisions to reduce staff, and when that settled down, he faced a state-wide teacher's strike.
"We evolved from those times to a school system today in West Virginia that is second to none in buildings, academics and technology. Through his diligence, drive and vision it happened," Bennett said.
Kittle's last official day on the job is June 30. Though Kittle has no immediate plans, he said he intends to move on to a new career.
"I've had several inquiries about career changes and job opportunities, but I want to take some time and think about it. I want to work where I can make the biggest contribution to my community and to the state," he said.
Staff writer Gail Marsh can be reached at 626-1447.