Destin Elementary School principal Al Gardner didn’t think he would end up working in education. In fact, after graduating from the University of West Florida with finance and accounting degrees, Gardner launched himself into the world of real estate and property management.
After a full career as an educator and administrator, Gardner is getting ready to retire in August.
Growing up, his mother was a third-grade teacher at Valparaiso Elementary, and his father was the assistant superintendent under Max Bruner and Pledger Sullivan in the late '70s. His brother and sister also worked in education for the duration of their careers.
Gardner was raised in Valparaiso and remembers visiting the beaches in Destin as a child.
“I grew up playing on the beaches of Holiday Isle when there were only three houses there,” Gardner said. “The lake at Shoreline Towers was spring-fed and we would swim in it. It’s parking lot runoff now. I’ve seen the changes here over the years.”
Gardner said he never planned on doing what his parents did for a living, but he spent so much time as a young teenager working small summer construction jobs at schools like Longwood, Meigs, Bruner and Fort Walton Beach that he almost fell into teaching, as if just working on school grounds was in his blood.
“One summer, I worked at Meigs County High School as a mud man. It was a dirty job. Back then, you threw the bricks up two at a time to the masons on scaffolds,” Gardner said. “You had to get there early to mix up the mud.”
He heard about a job opening for a construction teacher at the local vocational school and considered the pros.
“Insurance and summers off sounded appealing, so I started working on my master’s degree in education leadership,” Gardner said.
After about a decade teaching construction techniques in the classroom, Gardner shifted over to the administrative department at the vocational school.
When an administrative job became available at Pryor Middle School, he jumped at the chance to interview for the assistant principal position and was hired.
“I was at Pryor from 1998 to 2004. I’ve been an assistant principal now at Pryor, Meigs, and Destin Middle School. The last five years of my career have been in Destin, which has been very rewarding,” said Gardner. Two of those years were spent at Destin Middle School, and the final three years he served as Destin Elementary’s principal.
Gardner’s wife, Marti, also worked as a teacher and then became Destin Elementary School’s principal about 10 years ago before taking a job as the director of elementary education for the school district.
“For a few years, she was not only at charge of me at home, she was in charge of me at work,” Gardner laughed.
While working as an assistant principal, Gardner would get off work and immediately leave to work on building a new home for his wife and two sons.
“I built a house in Moreno Acres and we’ve been in that house since 2000. I would work on the house until ten o’clock at night and my wife would bring me dinner. It took me about a year to finish the whole thing,” Gardner said. “It was a love of labor, or a labor of love, or however you want to say it. I still like to do those kinds of things.”
Gardner’s ice blue eyes crinkled at the edges as he talked about his sons, Travis and Tray. His oldest, Travis, got married in Austin, Texas, last month, and he pulled up a photo of his special needs son Tray, smiling and dancing at the wedding.
As for retirement plans, Gardner says he’ll be at the Rocky Bayou golf course as much as possible, but he’ll also be around to help as a volunteer for the school.
“If you need me to proctor for a test, I’ll be here,” Gardner said. “I’ll miss the kids. A big part of being a school principal is building relationships with parents, teachers and the kids.”
Gardner, who will be 67, in October, says it’s time for the next chapter.
“I’m excited. I’m not sad at all. I tell people everyday that it’s time for me to turn it over. I can always come back here and volunteer.”