Charles I. Ecker, the new interim superintendent of Carroll County schools, was born on a 28-acre farm in Uniontown and grew up milking cows, feeding chickens and gathering eggs.
He still rises every day at 5 a.m., doesn't talk much and doesn't like to spend money.
Those attributes have served him well.
In his career as a government official, the former Howard County executive established himself as a budget expert.
Ecker's experience working for Howard and two other Maryland counties, and his advanced degrees in business and education should help the troubled Carroll school system regain the trust and confidence of residents, said school board members, school administrators, former co-workers and politicians.
"You couldn't have picked a better person," said Don Pyles, principal of Sykesville Middle School, who has worked for Carroll County schools for 33 years. Ecker, he said, is honest and fair.
Ecker replaces Superintendent William H. Hyde, who surprised parents, school board candidates and county officials when he announced his retirement in July. During Hyde's tenure, the school system became embroiled in legal troubles, including a lawsuit filed by a contractor hired to build an elementary school and another brought by homeowners near Francis Scott Key High School whose property was paved over without permission.
The school system also faces a lawsuit related to an $800,000 wastewater treatment plant that was built illegally at Francis Scott Key, and a grand jury is investigating the management of school construction projects.
"We have some public relations problems," said Susan W. Krebs, a Carroll school board member. Ecker "is the perfect person to help us through this," she said.
"Principally, we're looking for stability, someone who is respected both in educational and leadership circles," said C. Scott Stone, school board president. "It's important that we restore the public's trust and credibility in the school system. We feel Dr. Ecker is the right man for the job."
Ecker declined to comment specifically on Carroll's school problems yesterday. "I don't know that much about it," he said. "I'm going to have to get caught up to speed."
Although his contract doesn't start until Sept. 1, Ecker said he plans to spend the next few weeks meeting school administrators, reviewing the issues and visiting schools before classes begin Aug. 28.
"I just want to get a general sense of the system," he said.
Ecker will earn $10,000 a month. his 10-month contract ends June 30, when the Carroll school board is to have a permanent superintendent.
When he's not working, said Ecker, 71, a resident of Columbia, he likes to refinish furniture, mow the grass and play baseball with his grandchildren. He has been married to the former Peggy Brown for 47 years. He said he's a committed but lousy golfer.
"If I can break 100, that's a really good day," he said.
Ecker was a teacher, coach and assistant superintendent in the Carroll County schools for 15 years. He went on to work in the Prince George's County schools from 1967 to 1974 before joining the Howard County school system, first as superintendent, then as deputy superintendent. After that, he was elected Howard County executive.
In December 1990, Howard County was in its worst fiscal crisis in years. As the new county executive, Ecker inherited a deficit that eventually grew to $3.4 million. In response, he froze salaries, raised taxes and eliminated 200 positions.
"When he came into office he made some tough, tough decisions and he caught some political heat for it," said Darrel E. Drown, a former Howard County councilman and Republican activist who was school budget director during Ecker's two terms as county executive. "Eight years later, when he leaves office, the county is running absolutely fine. The man makes tough decisions and sticks to them," he said.
"Even though we disagreed on how much [money] the school system needed, I still respect his personal responsibility to monitoring the county's budget," said Howard school board Chairwoman Sandra French, who has known Ecker since 1985.
His budgeting skills weren't always appreciated.
In 1998, when Ecker refused to hand out millions of dollars requested by Howard school officials, despite a $16 million surplus, Linda R. Betts, an Ellicott City PTA member, protested.
"I felt the cuts were too deep," Betts said yesterday. "Schools suffered. We weren't keeping in mind that we were trying to maintain our reputation as the best school system in the state."
The memory of that episode has stayed with Betts. "I'm very surprised he got this job," she said. "His record in Howard County was less than stellar."
When Howard County Republicans began recruiting Ecker for county executive in 1989, he was retiring from his job as second in command of county schools. Ecker prepared to step into a new arena.
There was just one problem: He was a Democrat.
Ecker switched parties and challenged County Executive Elizabeth Bobo. He was a long shot, and he won.
"He was the same person, whether he was a Democrat or a Republican," said Margaret Rappaport, Howard County clerk of the Circuit Court. "He always had the philosophy of less government, and education and public safety were always important to him. It was not an issue."
When it comes to schools, Ecker said, he is more concerned about students than about money.
"I love kids," he said. "I've always loved kids."
"He's not just a money guy," said Pyles. "His reputation in education has always been to help the administrators and teachers in schools do what's best to help children get the best possible education."