On the Job with Dr. Robert Clay

Robert Clay has been a fixture around Lee County fixture for as long as most residents can remember. He graduated from Leesburg High School and drove a school bus when he was just 15. His favorite music includes Glenn Miller, Tommy Dorsey and even Lawrence Welk. While Clay figures he’ll just “fade away” one day, like the old soldier Douglas McArthur, he shows few signs of doing that so far.


Name: Dr. Robert A. Clay

Age: 85

Position: Owner of Clay Springs Farms, vice chairman Lee County School Board, former Lee County Superintendent of Schools

Family: Married to Betty Ann, with two grown daughters Carol Ann Peak and Melody Sheffield

Education: Leesburg High School (now Lee County High); University of Georgia; Doctorate, Nova Southeastern University

At 85, Clay gets up early every morning, because “you can’t sleep late when you have cows,” and to read the three newspapers he subscribes to, as well as his Bible and farm and financial magazines.

He’s a former superintendent of the Lee County School System and is currently vice chair of the board. He follows politics on a local, state and national level, and would love to meet Warren Buffett.

Clay recently completed this question-and-answer session with Herald reporter Jim West.

Q. What was your first job?

A. When I was a small boy, my daddy gave my brother and me 25 cents a week each to feed the mules and the hogs after school. The first real job, when I got a paycheck, was when I’d just turned 15 years old. I was in the 9th grade in Leesburg High School. In April, the school bus driver resigned. The superintendent asked me if I knew how to drive. I’d been driving farm tractors and trucks around here. So I was the new school bus driver, without a license or any training. I drove the bus until I graduated. When I started out, I got $35 a month.

Q. What was the first thing you spent money on when you received your first ever paycheck?

A. It was during the war. Everybody was encouraging patriotism and so on and so every month I bought a savings bond. That bond cost me $18.75 and in ten years it was worth $25. With the rest I probably bought clothes or whatever.

Q. What’s the single most effective technique you found over the past two years for keeping employees motivated?

A. I have two part-time helpers with the farm. I’ve always tried to lead by example, to do my job and show that I was serious about the job.

Q. What led you to your chosen profession?

A. When I went to college I got a bachelors degree in finance. I was a full-time farmer at that time. I grew cotton, corn and peanuts. Soon after college, I was appointed to the Lee County School Board. At that time the appointment was made by the grand jury. I served on that board for 12 years. During the latter part, the superintendent told me he was getting ready to retire. He asked me if I would consider going back to college, getting certified and running for county school superintendent. At that time it was an elected position. Several others in the community encouraged me to do that. Luckily, I ran without opposition. In 1965 I took office as superintendent of Lee County schools.

Q. Do you have a role model or mentor in your career?

A. My life was influenced mostly by my parents and my teachers. I learned a lot from them. To name one specific person, I don’t believe I could do that.

Q. What is the biggest lesson you as a business leader learned from the recent recession?

A. I think everybody has realized we have to be more efficient in everything we do whether its in education, agriculture or business. I think maybe business and all of us are realizing just how important it is to have good customer service. The successful businesses are going to be the ones that can provide this customer service. I think I see a change in the stores and in the people we’re dealing with. Along with this efficiency, we’re eliminating jobs. I believe society in the future will have to grapple with the idea of how we’re going to provide meaningful activities for people who are getting out of high school or college and getting ready to go to work. This is a problem not only in the United States, but worldwide.

Q. If you could turn the clock back on one aspect of technology – examples e-mail, automated phone systems, cell phones, PDAs, etc. – what would you most like to see go away?

A. I’d like to see the automated telephones go away.

Q. What is your favorite tradition?

A. Probably family get togethers at holidays and reunions and such as that.

Q. What was the last book you read? Do you have things you read daily or regularly?

A. I do read regularly. I take three papers and I read some online. I read the Bible and church literature some. I read Farm magazine and I read a lot of business publications, like Forbes.

Q. I’m up and going by? And what is your morning routine?

A. My alarm goes off at a quarter to six. I usually try to catch NPR news. I do a little exercise routine and then after showering and shaving I have breakfast, which is usually whole-grain cereal with a lot of fruit and a cup of coffee.

Q. What famous person would you like to meet, and Why?

A. I’d like to meet Warren Buffett. He’s made his money in business and investments. And I tend to agree with his political philosophy. I appreciate the fact he’s given billions away to worthy causes. Not only has he spent his own money, but he’s encouraged other wealthy people to give some of their’s away.

Q. Favorite hobbies or activity outside work?

A. Well, I don’t know if you could call it hobby. I do enjoy traveling. I enjoy reading and watch the political scene — national, state and local politics.

Q. If you could take back one business decision you made in your career, what would it be?

A. I missed an opportunity to buy a lot of land, you might say at no cost. That would be the one thing I’d like to change if I could. Back when land was cheap, often times timber would pay for it. I had an opportunity, but I let it slip.

Q. Best thing about your job?

A. I guess being my own boss. These cows will make you get up in the morning whether you want to or not, but if I get tired, I can stop. At my age, I get tired at lot. At the school board I enjoy my fellow board members, the superintendent and the staff. They’re a great group and work very well together. It’s been a pleasure working with them.

Q. Worst thing about your job?

A. Coming home some Sunday afternoon and finding the cows in the middle of the road or someplace they’re not supposed to be.

Q. The most beneficial course I took in school was?

A. Probably accounting. I’m not an accountant, but I took a couple of courses that have helped me in so many ways.

Q. What would be your dream job if you were able to pick a position outside your current career path?

A. Probably something in the financial area.

Q. Finish this thought; “on the first anniversary of my retirement, I see myself…

A. Just like General McArthur said: “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” I probably won’t retire, I’ll just sort of fade away.

Q. What is the one trait a strong business leader cannot afford to be without?

A. I think they need to be dedicated to the job. In education, they certainly have to have the trust of the people. I think they have to be consistent in what they do.

Q. What kind of music might I find on your list of most played on your iPod?

A. I don’t have an iPod. I like the oldies like Glen Miller and Tommy Dorsey, Jimmy Dorsey. I even like Lawrence Welk.

Q. What do you think is the biggest change Albany will see in the next 10 years?

A. Belatedly, I hope Albany and Dougherty County will realize that when you abandon the public schools you abandon a big part of your community. I see some signs of maybe a change there. The board now and the interim superintendent are moving things in the right direction, it seems to me. But too many people are ready to cast aside the public school system. You need a strong school system. The people who aren’t familiar with it are down on the the public school system.

Q. What was the best vacation you’ve ever taken? Why?

A. The best one was to Alaska. My wife and I and my brother and his wife went to Alaska and spent about ten days. We cruised the inland passages where the big ships couldn’t go. It was just a great vacation. That was in 1998.

Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in your specific line of business over the past few years?

A. In agriculture everything is getting bigger. When I was farming you could have a few hundred acres of cotton, corn and peanuts with some hogs and all. You could make a pretty good living and send you kids to college. Now, they’re talking in terms of thousands of acres. The little farms are gradually being taken over by large corporations. Technology is so much in use now, from the chemicals that you use to the genetically modified seed that you plant, to the GPS on your equipment. Tremendous changes in agriculture. In Education we’re providing many more choices for students, broadening the curriculum, offering just greater opportunities.