There are certain words that come up repeatedly in discussions about Ardith Grady: classy, diplomatic, conscientious, professional, gracious, efficient. The petite 65-year-old has been a fixture at Amphitheater Public Schools Governing Board meetings for 15 years, sitting just below the dais at a small table with a stenograph machine, quietly taking minutes. Come January, Grady will be at home instead of at board meetings, enjoying one of the primary benefits of retirement - relaxation.
"I am very much looking forward to having more of my own time," she said. "I'm looking forward to just being able to relax."
Since 1988, Grady has been responsible for gathering and organizing the myriad documents for the 21 board books that go to boardmembers, principals, the teachers' union and administrative staff, posting the legislative updates on the Governing Board Web site, taking meeting minutes, and scheduling special hearings and presentations at board meetings. She's been the board's collective memory and the one constant during three changes in superintendents. Those who have worked with her say she will be sorely missed when she retires Jan. 3.
"Ardith has a diplomatic ability and sensibility about her that leads to very smooth interactions with the public, with the board, basically with anyone she touches," said Amphi Superintendent Vicki Balentine. "When (assistant superintendent) Richard Hooley left, people kept asking me what I was going to do without him and I would just laugh, because I can do Richard's job - I can't do Ardith's job. I'm worried what I'll do without her."
Grady was the only child of Minnie and L. W. Cross. Born in Iowa, she moved with her parents to Tucson when she was in seventh grade, and attended schools in the Tucson Unified School District. Her parents were both educators in town, her mother teaching in private schools and her father teaching at Wakefield Middle School, 101 W. 44th St., and Amphitheater High School, 125 W. Yavapi Road, before becoming an assistant superintendent with Amphi Public Schools in 1959. (He retired in 1974 and Cross Middle School was named after him.)
After graduating from Amphi High School, Grady thought she would follow in her parents' educator footsteps and began studies in business education at the University of Arizona. But after two years at the UA, the travel bug bit her and she became a flight attendant for American Airlines. She was based in Chicago and working the non-stop to Mexico City.
"I qualified as a Spanish speaker by just having to say a few words I'd learned in school so I could get the Mexico City route," she said. "It was a very exciting job."
It also turned out to be providential in her personal life because Grady met her future husband, George, in Mexico City, where he was working in foreign trade. They married in 1958, lived for a while in Argentina and Boston, then settled in Tucson in 1961.
While her husband worked as a stockbroker, Ardith stayed home and raised their two children, Debbie and Philip, and finished her degree in business education at the UA. She was heavily involved in volunteer work during those years, splitting her time between the Junior League, Planned Parenthood and the Tucson Museum of Art.
In 1968, Grady started teaching business classes on a part-time basis at her old alma mater, Amphi High School.
"That was back when we still taught shorthand and typing, all the things that aren't taught today," she said. "You know, I don't know now if there is any place that even teaches the proper way to set up a business letter. People don't hire secretaries anymore, they hire administrative assistants, and the secretarial skills are not always coming hand-in-hand anymore with administrative skills."
Grady stayed at Amphi High School for six years before going to court reporting school and working in that field for six years, an experience that would serve her well when she became board secretary in 1988.
"I have always been interested in education and my father was so involved that when this job came open, I really thought it would be a good fit, with my education background and my court reporting skills," Grady said.
Her days in the airline business also came in handy, she said.
"The airline training gave me a lot of experience in how to deal with problems without becoming part of the problem," she said. "As board secretary you are there to facilitate the process and work toward the smooth running of things. I learned a lot of that as a stewardess because you have to deal with so many different kinds of people and expectations."
Grady worked with three superintendents, one of whom had a reputation for being volatile, and during her tenure sat through meetings described by current boardmembers as contentious and mean-spirited. But you will never hear a negative word about the school district, its employees or its administration out of Grady's mouth.
"Despite all the turmoil that we've sometimes had down there, Ardith has always been an ambassador for the district," said Boardmember Nancy Young Wright. "She is really very skilled in dealing with all kinds of people. She's a vanishing kind of employee, I think, one who has a whole lot of presence about her, who is always extremely poised, diplomatic and appropriate in all situations, at all times."
When asked about the controversial times, Grady responds: "Part of the job is having flexibility and over the years, you develop the ability to get along with many different types of people," she says. "Each superintendent had his or her own style, but they were all professionals with me."
Large smile and polite change of subject.
Richard Wilson, Amphi superintendent from 1981 to 1996, was the first superintendent Grady worked for.
"One of the things that Ardith brought to the whole operation was a certain amount of class and dignity way beyond her skills as a secretary," he said. "She has a bearing and presence that everyone notices. She was amazing to work with."
Grady said the thing she most enjoyed about her time as board secretary were the relationships she developed as part of the staff at Wetmore Center, 701 W. Wetmore Road, where administrative offices are housed.
"I've enjoyed working with the various boards and watching the process of governing schools change with the times," she said. "I have had great respect for all the board members and the difficulty of their job. And I'm happy to be leaving during a very positive time for the school district. But I've really enjoyed the camaraderie of the workers here at Wetmore. You form relationships and I know I will miss that."
Constance Cigliana, Amphi's finance director, said the staff at Wetmore will miss Grady as well.
"She is very efficient and always gracious," said Cigliana. "She's such a fabulous individual and we're going to miss her so much."
Athough Grady will no longer be involved on a daily level with the district, as part of the early-retirement program at Amphi, she can work 15 days a year in a substitute capacity for the next 10 years if needed by the district.
"This phase-out will be good in a way because it will keep me in touch (with the district) at some level," she said. "I'm looking forward to getting back into volunteering, taking (exercise) classes and hiking. And cooking - I'll enjoy cooking again. We're planning a cruise in the spring from Brazil to the Amazon and I'm very ready for it."
Margaret Harris, who has 12 years of experience in Amphi as an administrative assistant in various departments, will be taking over Grady's position as board secretary in January. Grady said, in typical gracious style, that Harris is competent, experienced and "will do a great job."
Has the veteran board secretary given her successor any advice?
"I am going to tell her to just enjoy her role and remember to be flexible," said Grady. "This isn't a 9-to-5 job, so you have to be flexible. Just look at the whole picture, know that things change, that there are cycles to everything and just enjoy it all."