Jackson County had eight graduating classes this year with school personnel, board members and superintendent in attendance at each one. They are pretty much in agreement that none were more inspirational than the Jackson County Adult Ed graduation with speaker Bill Conrad delivering his speech.
The crowd knew they had a special graduate following Director of Career and Adult Education Phyllis Daniels. Daniels said of Conrad, “It has been my privilege to know tonight’s speaker for approximately 45 years. In that 45 years he has acquired many titles...husband, father, grandfather, farmer and now graduate. Having acquired an interest in farming at a very early age and having a work ethic second to none, Mr. Conrad has become somewhat of an Agricultural Icon. I’d like to share just a few of his agricultural awards as provided by Jackson County Extension Agent Doug Mayo: 1996 Hog Farmer of the Year, 1999 and 2000 Corn Farmer of the Year, 2013 Outstanding Farm Family, 2014-2018 Hay Farmer of the Year (5 consecutive years). And recently, at the request of the Auburn University Agricultural Department, Bill served on a Hay and Forage Advisory Panel. Clearly, the awards he has amassed in his agricultural career are impressive. More impressive is Bill Conrad the man. Not only is he a humble man with amazing character, he is a servant leader who shows integrity in all walks of his life. In addition to operating his own farm, for many years he supplemented the farm income as a custom service provider. In business, there is always the risk of misunderstanding, but I have never heard a single story regarding Bill Conrad that was anything but complimentary. C. M. Ward said, “A man is not responsible for his name, but he is responsible for what people think when they hear it.” When I hear “Bill Conrad” I think exemplary family man, accomplished farmer, impeccable character and now high school graduate!”
Conrad lost his wife of 30 years in 2017. They had five children and all were present Monday night at their father’s graduation. He accomplished the one mission his wife wanted him to accomplish and that was to obtain his high school diploma.
His speech said it all to everyone there and left few dry eyes, “Welcome graduates, family and friends, In August of 1969, my parents started me on my official educational journey. It was the first year that Malone School offered kindergarten class. My parents assumed 13 years later, that they would see their son receive his high school diploma. Well we know that didn’t happen. I remember in elementary school I liked math and history. I had a hard time learning to read, and having a speech impediment didn’t help any either. I did go to therapy and my speech improved some, CAN’CHA TELL. I like third grade so much, I had two years of it. In middle school, I did okay in math, history and science, but English was getting harder. I was still struggling to read, but I figured out how to get by and made it to high school. Math was my best subject until we had to learn algebra. Well, that was the last straw. I persuaded my parents that it was time for me to join my father on the family farm. So, I quit school and was helping my father and bought my first farm land at the age of 17.”
Conrad continued to a silenced crowd, “Around 18, I went to night school at Malone High School and learned to read. Wow, what a difference being able to read made. I remembered when I took my written driver’s test at 16, I had to take it a couple of times and I barely passed it. When I took it again after learning to read, I passed the first time with a 100. Being able to read changed my life. I should have stuck with night school and got my education, but between work and girls, I just didn’t have time. In 1985, I bought the family farm, the next few years proved to be every bit as challenging as they were rewarding.”
Conrad brought a little laughter to the audience, “In 1987, I did something I said I would never do. I married a Yankee and visited New York City. My wife Donna was from Long Island, New York and had a degree in music therapy. She adjusted well and fit right in here. Donna was working at Florida State Hospital where she worked with the criminally insane when I met her. My friends used to joke with me, asking if that is where we met. NO, we met at church. Over the next 12 years, we had five children. My wife stayed home with them for 18 years, then she went back to work at Sunland for extra money and health insurance. With her education, she was able to get a state job. She would often say to me, you need to get your GED, and I would respond back to her saying I don’t have time, I got to work and make money to feed all these kids.”
On a more serious note, Conrad continued, “You know life doesn’t always go the way we plan. We learned how important health insurance is when I got sick in 2008 and could barely walk in 2009. In October of 2017, my wife of 30 years was diagnosed with cancer and passed away in December, 2017. If it was not for my faith in God and support from my family and friends, I don’t know how I would have gotten through this event in my life. With that life changing event, I had to make some choices about my education. So, I could be able to get a job with insurance. So, in September 2018, I enrolled in the Jackson County Adult Education Program. It was a challenge to go back to school after so many years. I’m a lot older and my eyes and memory are not as good as they once were, but it was time for me to finish this journey. Over the course of the next six months, countless hours and with the support of great teachers and family, I earned my high school diploma. I’ve received several awards and recognitions over the years for farming, but none of them felt as good as getting my GED.”
Conrad concluded, “Challenges will come in life and it’s how we react to them that defines us as a person. To my fellow graduates, please don’t focus on the circumstances that brought you here tonight, focus on the fact that you are here. My parents thought I would be in the Malone graduate class of 1982, but her I am 37 years later, an Adult Education graduate, class of 2019. Congratulations to all the graduates. We did it!”
Conrad’s five children were all smiles as their dad stood before the crowd, Joseph, BJ, Elijah, Rachael and Heidi.
Daniels summed up Conrad, “His life changed when he learned to read. Linda Hall, former teacher and Principal at Malone taught night school for a while. She taught him how to read. Secondly, of all the awards he’s won in his career as a farmer, none felt as good as earning his diploma. You won’t find a finer fella anywhere.”