BY MELANIE BUCK –
Mitch Lankford graduated Dierks High School in small town Arkansas in 1966. Becoming an educator was far from his mind when he attended college at Henderson State and after two years of being undeclared, he chose chemistry as his major. “I went to college with the idea of majoring in art. I was kind of good at it. It didn’t take me but about two days in the fine arts building to know that’s not what I wanted,” laughed Lankford.
He was enlisted in a registered officer training program with the Army but his entry was delayed while he attended college. After college, Lankford went to work in the research and development sector of Weyerhaeuser before going back to finish up a few classes. “I went back in the fall and got those classes and worked as a math tutor. I wouldn’t have met my wife if I hadn’t gone back to school,” he smiled.
In fact, Lankford met his future wife, Rae, when she was his roommate’s blind date. “We first met and she sang Big Spender to me because I told her she couldn’t have a voice. She proved me wrong. When she left, I called a friend of hers and said ‘I want to date that girl.’” Later that night, Rae would also express to her friend that she wanted a date with him as well.
“After we met, three months later we were engaged and three months later, we were married. I knew when I first met her that’s who I was going to marry. It was one of those God things,” Lankford explained. Four decades, two daughters, and six grandchildren later, Mitch and Rae are still young at heart and full of love for each other.
The year the Lankfords were married was his first year of teaching. He explained that teaching was far from his mind, but on the last day of testing in college as he was walking across campus, he saw his advisor that asked if he had checked into teaching. “I had no desire to do that but the last words he said were, ‘have you checked into teaching placement yet?’ I told him no and he just looked at me and stared me eye to eye with a funny look and says ‘let me just remind you that final grades aren’t in yet’ and he walked off.’” After hearing that, Lankford went to the placement office and applied, just to make his advisor happy. He thought because it was the middle of the school year, he would be safe applying, but didn’t expect to actually start a career in teaching. Little did he know, there was a school in desperate need of a science teacher and he was hired almost immediately. “I didn’t really want it but I took it. That’s when I realized that that’s what I wanted to do. But after that semester, I went into the Army, active duty. That put a halt to teaching,” he explained.
He spent two years on active duty when his father passed. His mother owned an insurance agency and needed his help so he moved his family to Dierks. The family would spend nine years there, during which time, Lankford took a few more classes to get his certification to teach.
On a Friday, he applied for a teaching position at Wickes and decided to take a drive on up to Mena, just to check it out. He met with then superintendent, Bill Abernathy, who told him to speak with Mr. Taggart at the high school. “I asked if he was Quinton Taggart and it was. He used to be my high school football coach,” he smiled. Although they told him there were no positions open, they called him on Monday and said there was an opening for a science and math teacher. “I took it and have been here ever since. That was in 1981.” And there he would remain for the next 35 years.
His love for the Mena School District came quickly. “When I first came here, being accepted was a big question mark for me. I could tell quickly it was a family atmosphere but when you’re the new one coming in, you don’t know how you’re going to be accepted. But when I got here, it didn’t take long to realize that becoming part of the family wouldn’t be hard. The family is ever evolving but the atmosphere remains the same.”
Though he didn’t know it in the beginning, teaching was what he was meant to do and his love of sharing knowledge stretched much further than just science. “I tried to go beyond their formal education. I tried to give them helpful advice on their future plans, what to look for down the road, and how to prepare for it; always have a Plan B because Plan A doesn’t always work,” he said.
He described his “crowning moment” in 1989, when he was selected as Teacher of the Year by the honors college at Henderson. “One of my students, Alisha Geiger, recommended me and wrote up an article and sent to them. They selected from the nominations and I won. That was a highlight I was very proud of.”
Lankford retired this month and is looking forward to more time with his family and for traveling to indigenous countries. “When I knew I was leaving insurance, I was looking for a place with a small town feeling and I wanted a good school district for my kids. Mena fit the bill… activities for the kids, the school was good, the people were friendly all over Polk County. When you know your superintendent and principals and teachers are involved in church, I felt pretty safe in coming here and raising my family here.”