ALBANY, Ga. -- It was the week before new Dougherty County School System Superintendent Joshua Murfree would be moving into the office Sally Whatley had occupied for the previous nine years.
As movers carefully put boxes into her car, a Herald reporter asked Whatley if she would be open to taking a picture in her now empty office to run with this story.
Whatley, 54, graciously declined the offer because she knew her emotions would be hard to keep in check.
Since Whatley announced her retirement late last August, she has received an outpouring of gratitude and awards -- many of which were unexpected -- from the community.
"You're humbled by it," Whatley said of the appreciative gestures. "You don't expect anything, and you're certainly humbled by it when people say you'll be missed."
After spending the last 15 years of her 33-year education career with the Dougherty County School System, Whatley's absence will be noted.
"I've said of her in public, she is the hardest working leader I've known," Public Information Director R.D. Harter said. "You can't out-work or out-prepare her. No matter how early you go in, she's in the office when you get there, and she stays until all the buses have completed their evening routes and children are safely home. Every challenge is studied to find the best course of action."
Former Deputy Superintendent Carlos Keith, who retired Wednesday with Whatley, said her legacy will be tied to how she looked after school system employees and students.
"Her professionalism, love for the children and the staff members in the school system, her emphasis for academic excellence and compassion for people and many, many other things; those are the things that come to mind right off the bat about what she'll be remembered for," said Keith, who worked 40 years as an educator. "She was always cool and calm under fire under all issues, whether parent or other issues. She was always a professional, and she has a sense of humor."
Georgia Leadership Institute for School Improvement Performance Consultant Penny Smith said Whatley's "shared leadership" approach will also define how she's remembered.
"The legacy that Dr. Whatley leaves behind is one of sustainable success, shared leadership, and empowerment of internal and external stakeholders," Smith wrote in her "A Leadership Legacy: Dr. Sally Whatley -- The Case for Sustainable Success in Dougherty County."
"By leading the district in creating the conditions for continuous improvement, personal self-efficacy and accountability for success, she has altered the culture of the district," Smith continued. "The work of the district is now performed in teams with input from internal and external stakeholders, decisions are made collaboratively with joint ownership for success, a systems approach to improvement is taken, and a system of managing, measuring, and monitoring success is in place for each school and each department."
Whatley's professionalism was tested often during her last year at the helm of the 16,000-plus student school system. When the controversial appointment of Murfree was made by the Dougherty County Board of Education in a 4-3 vote, some members of the community took the chance to take shots at Whatley. Those critics clamored even louder not soon after, following the Governor's Office of Student Achievement's announcement that Dougherty had some of the most alarming figures in the state's first erasure analysis investigation of 2009 Criterion-Referenced Competency Tests.
"During my 33 years as an educator, (the state's CRCT investigation has) been one of the most challenging things I've ever dealt with," said Whatley, who served six years as deputy superintendent under former Superintendent John Culbreath. "I felt good about our executive report. We had the board consultant, James Wilson, and a member of the Professional Standards Commission, Dr. Gerry Eads, and we did everything humanly possible with the information we were given to investigate thoroughly."
Helping her throughout her tenure, particularly in the last year, was Whatley's Christian faith. She told a Herald reporter that she prayed prior to leaving for work each morning and had to make sure she wiped off all the lint from her dress from kneeling.
"Daily, hourly, moment-to-moment, and that's the honest truth," Whatley said of how much she relied on God. "It was important to me to be obedient to Him. There are times when I would've liked for Him to ensure an easier ride or easier path, but that's just the human part of me. But regardless of what I went through, I knew He'd be with me."
Working with students and staff members are some of Whatley's favorite memories as an educator. When asked to elaborate, she said the school system improving its graduation rate from 50.1 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2010 was her favorite memory.
"Probably the progress we made in graduation," she said. "More children completing the graduation requirements and being able to move forward in their lives to be able to celebrate that accomplishment with family and friends at graduation, as well as the teachers and staff members who helped them reach that milestone."
Nearing her retirement wasn't easy for Whatley, but it was something she learned to take in stride.
"Anytime you're reaching the end of your career it's difficult because you know you're working till the end, but I've tried not to think about 'this is the last time I'll do' ... because that makes me very sad," she said. "I'm immensely proud of our children, our teachers, our support staff and our administrators. I've been very proud of our support from parents and partners in the community."
In her last day as superintendent, Whatley issued what is believed to be her largest disciplinarian action, a 35-day suspension without pay to DCSS Police Officer Keith Frazier. The 14-year police officer was recommended for termination by school system Chief of Police Troy Conley in April because Frazier allegedly failed to notify Conley of serious incidents/intelligence and for dereliction of duties as a law enforcement officer.
Whatley was forced to issue the suspension after the School Board didn't approve the system's recommendation of terminating Frazier following a 3-1-3 vote in late May. Board members Velvet Riggins, James Bush and Anita Williams-Brown abstained from voting on the recommendation.
Criticized at times during her career for not being tough enough on personnel matters, Whatley's 35-day suspension spoke volumes. The last two sentences in her June 7 letter to Frazier explaining her rationale for her strong disciplinarian response illustrated this. They read:
"Although you seemed highly upset about the suspension, I reminded you that you had not been terminated and that the suspension was in lieu of the termination.
"I trust that there will be no further problems."
Since Whatley issued the 35-day suspension, those four board members who voted against terminating Frazier -- Bush, Williams-Brown, Milton Griffin and Riggins -- were seeking to reduce his suspension to 15 days. No further official action has been made in the case.
After issuing Frazier's 35-day suspension, Whatley mentored Murfree during the remainder of June. However, Whatley didn't consider what she did for Murfree -- who lacked K-12 experience and Georgia Professional Standards superintendent certification -- as mentoring.
"I felt my job was to ease in that transition, and I wanted to do whatever I could to assist in that transition," she said. "As much as I've loved the (school) system, it's important to me that he's extremely successful."
As far as regrets, Whatley said she doesn't have many.
"You always wish that some of the challenges weren't as challenging, but that's just real life; that's just part of it," she said. "I believe my commitment couldn't be greater. I loved the children and the staff. When you love what you do, you don't mind working very hard at it. It's just what you're supposed to do."
On her last day of work, Whatley and Keith were invited by Murfree to attend the afternoon School Board meeting so that he and the Board could thank the pair one last time "for their dedication, hard work and service to all the children and the system."
"She has been there for me, not only as a mentor, but as a friend," Murfree said of Whatley. "She has stuffed my head with as much information as possible."
Williams-Brown said she had worked with Whatley when she was an assistant principal in the Dougherty County School System.
"I've watched her throughout the years, and I learned a lot of my leadership from her," Williams-Brown said.
Retiring board member Michael Windom, who has served on the board since 1995, also thanked Whatley and Keith for their efforts.
"Good luck to both of you in your retirement, but don't change your phone numbers because we may need to talk to you," he said with a laugh.
In Whatley's retirement, she said she plans to spend more time with her husband of 11 years, Steve, who's the president of a family business that his parents started in Cuthbert -- Whatley Oil Company. Steve Whatley's also the mayor of Cuthbert. Her stepson, Slaton, is working on his master's degree at the University of Arizona.
"At this time, I truly have no plans other than to make my family a priority," Whatley said. "I plan to sell my place here and move to Cuthbert on a permanent basis rather than living here during the week and Cuthbert on the weekends.
"I've applied for retirement and I've prayed about what I'm supposed to do, and it may be that I'm just supposed to do things for other people in my day-to-day life," she added. "I've prayed about everything and He (God) may just want me to be a wife, a daughter, stepmother and a friend."