When Dr. Robert E. Hirsch landed his first teaching job at a Catholic school, he was a wide-eyed, hippy dreamer.
With a ponytail hanging down his back and starry eyes, Dr. Hirsch seemed to relate well to the young scholars, and it wasn’t long before he was tapped as the dean of students. But it didn’t go as expected. Since he was raised by a military father, and a military way of life was really all he knew, Dr. Hirsch soon discovered he was more drill sergeant than dean.
“I had no mentoring whatsoever and it turned out I was a yeller and a screamer,” Hirsch said. “I was only 29 and I hated it. I got a bad taste for administration, and I said screw this. I love the classroom and so I left.”
He found himself teaching French in the Ocean Springs School District and never looked back. The district was short of school bus drivers, and he was soon approached about driving a school bus route.
“I said absolutely not,” he said, and was then told it paid an extra $250 a month and he could park the bus at his home in Gulf Park Estates and pick up kids in his neighborhood. “I said sign me up.”
And so, for nine years, Dr. Hirsch taught French, had a ponytail, and drove a bus. He was feeling pretty good about where his life was and decided to give administration another go-round. He applied to be an assistant principal at Ocean Springs Middle School.
“I was told, ‘Robert, we really like your performance, your discipline and you’re one of the best teachers we have, but you’re not going to get hired in administration with the ponytail.’ I said, ‘My hair has never had any effect on my performance.’ And he said, ‘I know that, but I won’t scare the parents by hiring an assistant principal with a ponytail. The parents would be upset by it so get a haircut.’ So, I got a haircut and became an assistant principal at Ocean Springs junior high.”
Soon after, the Ocean Springs High School principal was terminated in 2001, and Dr. Hirsch was given an even bigger administration task — get the high school back on track. The graduation rate was down to 71 percent. The athletic teams couldn’t win a bingo game and test scores were at an all-time low.
“They said, ‘Robert go and fix it,’” he said. “And we turned everything around. Graduation was right back up to 93 percent. Test scores went back up and the athletic programs were winning. And it was pretty easy to do. There was no miracle to it. I went back to the basics of making the kids happy and making the teachers happy. People just want to be happy in life and they want to have a relationship with the guy in charge. And I never made a big deal about state testing. I never pounded the teachers about state testing. I hardly ever talked about it because I don’t believe in teaching to test.”
He did squash a few toes on the way but seemed to always recover. He incorporated his own childhood educational experiences into his administrative duties and picked up a few others along the way. He learned all too well in 1981 the toll mental distress can have on a person’s health. He was experiencing several personal issues and his mother died. Dr. Hirsch learned what he was feeling and experiencing was clinical depression and had to be hospitalized for a brief period. He took everything he had learned and included mental health techniques within his administration.
“I learned to understand kids with a chemical balance, and I learned to identify the hyperactive kids,” he said.
And when the superintendent retired in 2006, Dr. Hirsch tossed his fedora in the ring for the job. The Ocean Springs School Board was tasked with making the selection and he was appointed with a 3-2 vote.
“I got in by the skin of my teeth,” he said. “I thought I was the most popular guy in town. Everyone in town loved me but the town does not appoint superintendents. That’s the board.”
The selection committee narrowed it to Dr. Hirsch and a heavyweight candidate who was an assistant superintendent with the state Board of Education.
“There were two votes for me and two votes for him,” he said, adding it came down to one undecided board member with high school-age children who knew and loved him that ended up being the swaying vote.
“They told their dad, ‘You’ve got to hire Hirsch. He’s the best one for the job,’” he said.
In 2008, Dr. Hirsch wanted to build a new high school and was told by that year’s school board they didn’t have the money due to the ongoing Hurricane Katrina recovery and a countrywide recession. So, he dug in deep and started working to get a $37 million bond issue passed.
“I told them we have 38 trailers scattered around the district and I was looking at ordering 50 more,” he said. “We’ve got to give it a shot. People were so sure it wouldn’t pass that no one even created an opposition group.”
He gathered a team and had the bond referendum placed on the ballot. He held meetings and wrote personal letters to every doctor and businessman in the city. But it needed 60 percent of the voters in favor to pass, which was thought to be unattainable.
“I even went to the elementary school kids’ parents and told them their children were going to be in trailers unless they vote for this bond issue, and we squeaked by with 62 percent,” he said. “Just 2 percent over, but it’s what we needed. I was so worn out by the end of that process, but we built the school. I cut the ribbon and retired the same day. I loved the job. I loved every job I had. I loved driving the bus. I love being in the classroom. And I really loved being in administration the second time, but it was time for me to do other things.”
This is part three of a four-part series about the life and legacy of Dr. Robert E. Hirsch. Photos are courtesy of Dr. Hirsch.