If you had predicted 40 years ago that Joseph L. Shilling would someday be a visionary state superintendent of education, you probably would have been laughed out of Westminster.
The 54-year-old Kent Islander leveled another shocker Tuesday, when he announced that he is resigning his state post effective July 1 and taking a $9,000 pay cut to become superintendent of Queen Anne's County public schools.
"I wanted to go back into a local school system and do it now," he said. "It's the next step. You can roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty."
During his three years as state superintendent, the former Westminster resident established the Maryland School Performance Program, a plan to raise student achievement across the state. The program monitored each school's performance through testing and other data and is considered a model for national education reform.
Shilling said that he wants to put his plan into action locally by heading a county school system. He said his goal is to make Queen Anne's schools a nationwide model to prepare students for the increased expectations they will face in the next 20 years.
"I want Queen Anne's County to be the very best school system in the state and the state to have the best school system in the country," Shilling said.
R. Edward Shilling, superintendent of Carroll County schools, said hisbrother's decision to leave the state position for Queen Anne's was an opportunity he felt he couldn't pass it up.
"It really presented an opportunity to go back to the local level and do the kinds of things he's interested in doing," the younger Shilling said. "It will give him an opportunity to make it all work at the local level and have more time for other things and his family."
He said his brother has lived on the Eastern Shore for 15 to 20 years.
The youngest ofthe elder Shilling's seven children is a junior at Queen Anne's County High School.
When he himself was in high school, the farmer's son wasn't even considered college material.
"I had a dickens of a time in school til the 10th grade," Shilling recalled with a smile. "Then five teachers decided I was going to be a good student and that I would go on to college. If it hadn't been for them, I probably wouldn't have gone."
Without the influence of Westminster High School football coach Herb Ruby, Shilling might never have attended Western Maryland College.
Shilling was ready to accept a football scholarship at Bridgewater College in Virginia when Ruby called WMC coach Charley Havens to urge him to sign the youngster.
Western Maryland College got the raw end of the deal, Shilling claims.
"I was not a very good football player, and I wasn't worth the scholarship," he said
At WMC, Shilling lettered in football, basketball and baseball, while marrying and fathering two children before graduating in 1959 with a degree in English and physical education.
In 1971, he becamethe state's youngest county superintendent, when at age 33 he took over the Dorchester system. The average age of a county superintendentthen was 52.
Shilling had served a broad apprenticeship in Carroll County -- which he credits with his rapid ascent in the state system.
"I was very fortunate when I began teaching in Carroll County schools that the superintendent of schools was Sam Jenness," Shilling said. "He was determined that after my first year of teaching I was going to be a superintendent.
"I had just about every job in the school system. And after every job he moved me on to another.
"I never felt that I gave much back -- I was always learning. It gave me a tremendous advantage."
Shilling, who earned a master's degree in education and a doctorate at the University of Maryland, gives a greatdeal of credit to WMC for his rapid rise in the field of public education.
"At one time, 12 of the state's 24 local superintendents were Western Maryland College graduates," he said. "That's because Western Maryland was -- and continues to be -- an outstanding school.
"We all had a firm liberal-arts background when we came out. There was a broad breadth to the content. It's an excellent program to prepare for teaching, due in no small measure to Joe Bailer."
Shilling was honored in 1985 as the first recipient of the Joseph R. Bailer Award, named for the director of WMC's graduate studies program in education from 1949 to 1971. The award celebrates alumni who are distinguished in education.
After heading the Dorchester system for six years, Shilling was selected in 1977 as deputy state superintendent.
In 1986, he was named executive director of the Eastern Shore Education Consortium, where he worked for two years to unite nine Eastern Shore counties on education issues.
He accepted, in early 1988, the executive directorship of the Sondheim commission, which studied problems in education in Maryland's poorest counties.
Soon after, he was offered the state superintendent's job, which requires him to commute daily from his Eastern Shore home to Baltimore. He still keeps the farmer's hours he learned from his parents (he's at work at 7 a.m. and leaves for home at 7 p.m.).
Shilling's other sibling, too, is an educator. Sister Sandra is a high-school counselor in Florida, where their parents now live.
Ask Joe if it's strange that a farm family would turn out a trio of top educators, and he will tell you, "Both my parents valued and continue to value education very highly.
"When we grew up, to be a teacher was something very significant in the community. For some reason, we've lost a part of that."
In Maryland, Shilling is out to restore that lost luster.Reprinted with permission of the Hill, Western Maryland College's magazine.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.