Kendall Wildey sat on the curb in front of what was Jennings County Hospital in the early morning darkness in 1984.
His faith felt nearly as darkened after his 42-year-old uncle, Jennings County School Superintendent Carl Wildey, died after collapsing from a heart attack at Kendall and wife Sandy’s wedding reception.
“As I sat there, I was asking, ‘Why, God, why? Why this? Why him? Why now?’” said Kendall.
Finally, in the quiet came an answer deep inside him: You’re asking the wrong question, Kendall. It’s not why, but what. What are you going to do now?
Wildey, an elder and ordained minister, believed God spoke. And he believed the message was a reminder that time is short, and he must be focused on how God wants to bring good, and new direction, even from confusion and heartache.
“That experience,” Kendall said, “set the path for my life.”
That path has taken him through 27 years of public education and sports coaching in Jennings County and elsewhere and now a new turn — to administrator at the 200-student Columbus Christian School, opening its doors on a new era today. The 51-year-old Wildey replaces longtime administrator Amy Mathis, who is moving to Indianapolis with her minister husband, Dean.
The man who just left his post as Jennings County School Corp. assistant superintendent has had no time to decorate his spartan office at the corner of Marr Road and Indiana Ave. But he unfurled an oversized poster, made by one of his daughters, of his favorite Scripture from Jeremiah 29:11: “For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord. Plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”
He steps into a future and his new assignment with a rather bold, eight-year contract (“I know that’s unheard of”) — and a task of building enrollment, Christian character, and the physical structure of the school that nearly closed a few years ago due to sagging enrollment.
But the school’s board sees him as a good, seasoned pick to bring growth, according to Anthony Williams, board president.
“Enrollment and fundraising will be a major part of taking Columbus Christian School to the next level,” Williams said. “Kendall is very well known in this area and has a network of contacts across the nation.”
In fact, just before the former Jennings County High School principal moved into his office here, he spent a working vacation in Naples, Fla., where he spoke at a principal’s academy. He also serves as traveling fellow at the nonprofit Schlechty Center in Louisville, Ky., specializing nationally in changing schools by better involving students and staff.
“We do have a vision of growing here,” he said. “And that includes growing out of this building.”
Though he left a $90,000-per-year post and a school corporation where textbooks are being traded for iPads, he figures the tiny Columbus Christian still can invite students to openly use their cell phones in the classroom until better technology can be obtained.
“Why must we tell them to completely tune out and turn off what is their world, right when they get to school?” he asked. “And then, are we going to wonder why they’re bored until 3 p.m.?”
He said he knows he faces many challenges. But he is a man who hits the road for a run every other day at 5 a.m., and is behind his desk by 7 a.m. The North Vernon native and 1980 Jennings County High School baseball and basketball star has kept his 5-foot-11 frame fairly lean at 185 pounds.
And he walks down a hallway with the hurried gate of an administrator who’s just heard the fire alarm.
“My kids always used to say, ‘Daddy, would you slow down?’” he said, laughing.
That remains tough for him. He acknowledged that he still remembers that time can be short.
On this day, a rare fast food lunch remained in a sack on his desk a full 90 minutes after he purchased it. He already stocked part of one office shelf with a Bible, a copy of “Softball: Celebration of a Pastime,” and a book on “Kingdom Education.” Plus, framed portraits of his four children line the windowsill behind him.
“I think the biggest challenge for me now is leaving the bureaucratic world of rules and regulations and adjusting to this world that’s a little more about people and relationship building,” he said.
He added that he loves students partly because they keep him young. His first message to them this school year? “I don’t need to be your friend,” he said.
The leader who said he loves change believes he will see plenty of it this school year. And he swears that he’s ready for whatever future God brings him.
In fact, when he preaches Aug. 19 at East Columbus Christian Church, he already knows the title of his message.
Fittingly, it will be, “What Next?”