In his years working alongside John Daniels, a former Amherst County Public Schools superintendent, Madison Heights resident John Walker recalls asking his former boss why he went so long in one stretch without hiring an assistant superintendent.
“He said ‘John, you want to hire the best person you can find,’” Walker, who succeeded Daniels as head of the division 19 years ago, said of the helpful advice for hiring educators. “I learned from Dr. Daniels to be patient, find the right person and the right match. I think if more people would learn that from John Daniels their tenures would have been a lot easier.”
Walker and other Amherst educators are remembering the leadership of Daniels, who died on Jan. 11 at age 84, and the impact he had on the county school system he steered from April 1992 through June 2001. The Roanoke native began his career as a teacher and coach and served as an elementary school principal and assistant director of personnel for Virginia Beach City Public Schools and later became director of personnel for Lynchburg City Schools and assistant superintendent for Loudoun County Public Schools.
He retired after nearly a decade of steering Amherst County schools and, according to News & Advance archives, called the post the highlight of his career.
“He worked very hard. He did a lot of good,” Daniels’ wife, Ellen Janette Daniels, said of his time in education. “He loved it.”
Walker recalls Daniels hiring him in Lynchburg when he became the head football coach at Heritage High School. Daniels later hired Walker as an assistant superintendent in Amherst where he worked under him for more than four years in areas including business, finance, maintenance, transportation, food service and construction.
“One thing Dr. Daniels was very good at was identifying and hiring quality administrators,” Walker said. “He was very adept at doing that and was very good about including his fellow administrators in on that process.”
Walker, who served as superintendent from 2001 to 2008, said he enjoyed working with Daniels. “I learned a great deal,” Walker said of his time with Daniels in Amherst. “It was a really good opportunity for me to learn and grow professionally.”
Walker also praised Daniels’ efforts to improve instruction and the curriculum in Amherst schools and contributions to helping make the county an attractive place to live and work. Improvements in areas such as air conditioning and technology also saw strides under Daniels’ leadership, Walker said.
“The changes and renovations that took place in the school division — they were impressive,” Walker said.
Daniels, an avid golfer and slow-pitch softball player, served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and received an honorable discharge in 1959. He received a bachelor’s degree in education from Catawba College, a master’s degree in school administration from the University of North Carolina, an advanced degree in educational administration from Old Dominion University and a doctorate in education from the University of Virginia.
Amherst County School Board Chairwoman Priscilla Liggon said Daniels was the first superintendent she worked with when she joined the board in 1999. She recalled being truly excited for the opportunity to serve the county’s District 4 seat when she received her appointment from the Amherst County Board of Supervisors.
“Dr. Daniels explained things to me with a smile and made me feel right at home at all times,” Liggon said. “I will always remember his leadership skills for the county and the great relationship we had working on the board with him. He will be greatly missed.”
Former Amherst County Public Schools Superintendent Brian Ratliff, who succeeded Walker, described Daniels as an honorable man and a gentleman who afforded him the opportunity to serve as principal at Amherst Middle School in 1997.
“Whether it was deserved or not, he believed in my capacity to grow and learn as a school leader,” Ratliff said. “For that, I will always be grateful.”
Ratliff also praised Daniels’ leadership skills. “He did not just set high expectations, he actually held expectations which is not always the case but so critical to being a strong leader of learning.”
Walker complimented Daniels’ hiring practices, which he said well paid off for school systems in Lynchburg and Loudon and Amherst counties. “So many of them were very successful,” Walker said of educators influenced by Daniels. “He impacted a lot of people with his leadership and the people he brought on his team.”
In addition to his wife, Daniels is survived by three daughters. The family wishes that those considering memorial contributions on his behalf make them to the Alzheimer’s Association.