An appropriate nickname for Bob Gross might be "Boomerang," because after working for Brainerd Public Schools for 31 years, he left, only to return once more.
On July 1, Gross took over as interim superintendent in a position that feels familiar and different at the same time.
"It can seem like this is not the place I left," Gross said. "But that's an understanding I really tried to reconcile with myself."
Gross said the saying you can't put your foot in the same river twice is true, but at the same time, you know which way the river's flowing.
"In that sense, I feel like the new kid on the block," Gross said. "And yet, there are so many things that are so very familiar."
Gross served as superintendent of the district from 1981 to 1999, and when he left, Forestview Middle School wasn't built yet. District offices were in the Brainerd High School south campus building and Washington and Franklin elementary schools were middle schools. When he looks at the staff directory, about 80 percent of the names he sees weren't there when he left.
"But in terms of knowing something about programs," Gross said. "So much of that is very familiar territory."
Gross has experienced a lot since he left the district, but his roots as a self-described "farm boy" haven't changed. He still looks at issues through common sense, with decency and a respect for others, regardless of their position.
"That hasn't changed one bit," Gross said. "I place such high value on just treating people decently and having high expectations of them."
When it comes to key matters for the district, Gross said he doesn't think people will notice a difference. He still views education as a "human business," one reliant on getting the right people in the classrooms to teach the students.
Working as superintendent at the Singapore American School in Singapore has given Gross a different, more worldly perspective on life. In Singapore, he said there's a reverence for education and teachers that's lacking in the United States. Teachers, parents, media and the culture at large in Singapore places a high importance on education.
"Being in a society that just views that so differently," Gross said, "it was such a great experience just to see the impact that that has on people."
The world is becoming more interconnected, and students need to develop a global perspective in order to keep up, Gross said. Students should understand the interdependence in the world today, in order to become a "global citizenry."
Being away from the United States for a period of time also made Gross miss certain things he took for granted before he left.
"How much you learn to love your own country more when you leave," Gross said. "This 'distance makes the heart grow fonder' kind of thing."
Gross spoke at the local rotary club Wednesday morning, and while saying the Pledge of Allegiance before the talk, he realized the pledge has more meaning now.
"There's just so many things that we do here that we take for granted that are so very special," Gross said.
Gross comes into the fold after former superintendent Klint Willert took the superintendent position for the Brookings School District in South Dakota. He said he was aware of Willert's intent to leave, thanks to weekly visits to the Brainerd Dispatch's website.
When Gross heard the district was searching for an interim superintendent, he thought any one of a number of retired superintendents in Minnesota would fill the role. Humbly, he didn't think of himself, thinking his age might be a detriment.
"They may think, 'Well, maybe he's too old for an assignment like this,'" Gross said.
Gross has stayed fit over the years, and remains energetic at 72 years old.
"I've got the energy, I always say, of a 55-year-old," Gross said.
After being prompted by a phone call, he applied for the position following some self-evaluation. His experience in the district would give Gross an advantage coming in as an interim.
"When you're just here for a year, and if you're going to make a difference, it's really helpful to know the district," Gross said.
One of Gross's goals for his time as interim is to work with the school board and Steve Lund, director of business services, to get a better handle on the district's finances.
"Are there things we can do to mitigate annual concerns regarding finance?" Gross said. "When you're working in the public sector, that's always a major challenge."
Outside of that, most of Gross's outlook is based on instilling confidence in the district and moving existing initiatives forward.
"(To) reassure staff that things are going to be just fine," Gross said. "This is the third superintendent they've seen in three years."
Gross also isn't interested in starting new initiatives during his tenure, as there's always "enough initiatives going at the schools anyway." Rather, he wants to work on current initiatives and see them move forward.
"It would be wrong for me, I think, to start new initiatives not knowing what the next superintendent would say," Gross said. "I don't think that that's what's needed right now."
At the same time, there's going to be a strong temptation to put in new things, a temptation Gross will need to fight. He also doesn't see himself as an "interim," which might conjure up images of a caretaker.
"We need to have the confidence there's going to be stability," Gross said. "I want people to take a look at this, that I'm here to do work."
A current district push to evaluate how to use technology in the classroom is a familiar topic for Gross. Since he left Brainerd, he's been a part of organizations using a 1-to-1 student-to-device ratio in classrooms.
"At the same time, I think I can bring some perspective to that, because technology can be such a black hole," Gross said. "You can just dump so much money into that."
If a district invests in technology, it needs to make sure teachers are well trained with it, and the technology is used to raise the achievement level.
"We've just spent a lot of money and sometimes put a lot of fancy equipment in front of kids just for note-taking," Gross said.
Technology is the way of the world though, and students today need to excel at using technology if they want to succeed, Gross said.
If it takes the district more than a year to find a permanent superintendent, Gross said he'd be open to talking to the school board about staying on a little longer. But with so much time to conduct a search, he'd be "surprised" if the district didn't find someone.
"Brainerd is a regional center in the state, and it's an attractive place to work and live," Gross said. "So I would be very surprised if they weren't able to identify someone that's very capable to come here."
With a year to conduct a job search, the district has the "opportunity to attract the best in the state and the country, for that matter," Gross said.
You can't teach an old dog new tricks, but thanks to his experience, Gross said he could probably pull off an impressive one.
"With the exception of Forestview, I could probably walk these buildings blindfolded."