John Williams talks to Mason Bhola, 11, during an activity in Williams' fifth-grade class at Sunrise Drive Elementary School. Also pictured are Elise Imbody, 10, and Clarissa Peress, 11, far right. Williams, known as a child advocate, is retiring after 36 years.


Some people say they're born with certain skills or talents. If that's true, then John Williams, 63, was born to teach - and his more than three-decade run as an instructor in the Catalina Foothills School District proves that.

Williams, who is retiring this month after 36 years, has the longest tenure of any instructor in the district. He's spent his entire teaching career at Sunrise Drive Elementary School, 5301 E. Sunrise Drive.

He'd originally studied hospital administration, and worked in that field for three years. But he wasn't prepared for the politics that were involved with that job, he recalls now, and soon found himself unhappy and looking for another career.

It was natural for him to turn to teaching. Williams' grandmother was a teacher and his father was a professor at the University of Arizona. His wife, Ann, 61, teaches in the Tucson Unified School District.

The couple has two children, John Jr., 31, and Michelle, 30, an art teacher in the Marana Unified School District.

"It just seemed like the natural thing to do," Williams said. "With my history and background, I would do this job for free if I didn't have to pay a mortgage."

Williams teaches fourth- and fifth-graders, though he said he originally wanted to teach younger children. But his principal at the time felt Williams would be a good mentor to older students.

"A part of my job is to be a positive role model for the kids," Williams said. "I know which kids have a single parent, which kids are lacking a male figure, so I find myself reaching out more to those kids."

That ability to connect with children, and going above and beyond for his students, has not gone unnoticed.

Sunrise Drive principal Julie Sharroll said Williams is particularly dedicated and in tune with his students.

"If he's having an issue with a kid in class or is having a hard time connecting with them, he'll reach out by trying to get to know the child better," Sharroll said.

And he's known for attending extracurricular activities.

"John is always very visible at school events," Sharroll said. "People are so busy with their own lives to come back at 7 o'clock, so you don't see that as much. The school is going to miss that 'rah-rah' support and the love of the school."

Williams has attended everything from Pop Warner football games to birthday parties and soccer games to drama productions.

"When something is special for a child, I think it means a lot for their teacher to be there," he said.

Williams has witnessed innumerable changes at the school. The biggest, he said, is technology. He remembers when the district got its first Xerox machine around 1978. And he was around when the school got its first computer lab in the 1980s.

These days Sunrise Drive has a mobile computer lab with laptops for each grade level and Smartboards in classrooms.

Williams stayed on top of these changes, and learned to adapt with the trends.

"I was so proud of John because he embraced the new technology and has been right there alongside the 24-year-olds learning," Sharroll said. "He's not just going to sit back and be satisfied with what whatever he's done. He's a continual learner."

Williams taught two of Kathleen LaPrise's children and one of her grandchildren.

LaPrise's kids, Aaron, 33, and Courtney, 31, were in Williams' class in the early 1990s.

LaPrise's other daughter, Danielle Parsons, has a son, Reese, 11, who was in Williams' class last year.

"Mr. Williams could just explain things and teach so well," Kathleen LaPrise said. "The children felt free enough to ask anything. He was just that born-to-teach person."

Williams has influenced more than students and their families - he's had an impact on teachers and faculty as well.

Margaret Scofield, a fifth-grade teacher at Sunrise Drive, has been working with Williams for 20 years, but has known him since they went to Rincon High School together.

"When I think of John's teaching style, I think of a teacher who is a total child advocate," Scofield said. "He does whatever it takes to get a child to succeed whether it's emotionally or academically. He's taught me to always be there for the children."

Williams plans to be a substitute teacher and a volunteer at Sunrise Drive. Other than that, he doesn't have any plans, a first for him. But he knows it's time for him to retire.

"I've loved every second of this job," he said. "It's making me very sad to leave, but I've just reached that point. I've seen so many evolutions over the years, so I think I've just reached the point where I think I've evolved all I can."

Sunrise Drive will miss Williams, but Williams said he'll miss the school more.

"This place has become a part of me."

"It just seemed like the natural thing to do. With my history and background, I would do this job for free if I didn't have to pay a mortgage."

John Williams, retiring teacher

If you go

What: Reception for John Williams as well as Margaret Scofield, Lori Patton and Susie Speelman, who are also retiring from the Catalina Foothills School District.

When: 3:30-4:30 p.m. May 16.

Where: Sunrise Drive Elementary School, 5301 E. Sunrise Drive.

Scarlett McCourt is a University of Arizona student who is an apprentice at the Star. Contact her or 573-4117.