DIXON, Ill. — When Mike Grady officially left his office at Dixon High School for the last time on June 10, he traded his office view of the Rock River and Page Drive for a farm field and a tractor cab.
It’s a view that Grady is used to, having grown up with his father, James Grady Sr., farming land as the family lived in town.
And it’s one that Grady has seen as he’s helped his brother, James Grady Jr., who now operates the family farm, their father having retired a few years ago from running the equipment.
“I am so much looking forward to it,” Grady said, a few days before he officially retired.
Grady has spent 31 years in education, 18 of those years as principal of Dixon High School.
“I think growing up farming — it sounds cliché, but it’s true — it gave me a work ethic. It gave me a greater purpose. You are working toward helping your family, helping others. You sacrifice your time for the greater good of your family and others. It’s a great lifestyle and a great teacher of what you are going to encounter in life,” he said.
But Grady readily admits he didn’t always see it that way — and growing up, didn’t see farming as the career path he wanted to take.
“I didn’t see the value in farming. We didn’t have great equipment. It was always breaking down. I saw my dad working really, really hard for very little return, in my opinion. We didn’t sit down and have those deep conversations — like, why do you like farming, Dad? Well, you’re your own boss, you get to do all these different things,” he said.
Grady earned a bachelor’s degree in agricultural economics from the University of Illinois and was a substitute teacher for a year.
He returned to Western Illinois University for his master’s degree and began teaching and coaching basketball at Amboy High School in 1989.
He moved to Dixon, teaching math and coaching basketball, in 1991. In 2003, he took over as principal, having been dean of students.
Without a doubt, Grady said the high point and lowest point of his career at Dixon came on May 16, 2018.
On that morning, a former student, Matthew Milby Jr., approached the high school, armed with a gun. The senior class was in the gym, practicing for graduation.
Milby entered the school and opened fire, shooting at a gym coach and the school’s resource officer, Mark Dallas.
Dallas pursued Milby and returned fire, striking Milby and wounding him. Milby was arrested.
In July of this year, he pleaded guilty to two counts of aggravated discharge of a firearm. He will be sentenced in October.
None of the DHS students, teachers or staff were injured in the incident.
Dallas, who received numerous awards and commendations for his actions that day, has since retired from the Dixon Police Department.
“The way our kids reacted, the way Officer Mark Dallas reacted, we couldn’t have had a better outcome. A higher power was looking over us that day. I just felt overwhelmed with the support that the community gave us and the way the community responded. It showed me the quality of individuals who work here and it really opened my eyes to how good the Dixon Police Department is. They are awesome. They have a great relationship with the school district. They train really well. They train our kids. Everything fell into place that day,” Grady said.
Grady said once he gets back into the farm routine, he expects he’ll be assigned to drive the tillage tractor.
“The real expensive stuff, my brother doesn’t let me run and I totally understand it. I think, in my years of helping him, I probably have logged maybe two or three hours in the combine. Because when you screw that up, it’s a problem. I’m more the tillage guy. It’s so relaxing. There’s pressure there, but it’s a different kind of pressure,” he said.
He’s helped his brother before, but his new schedule will allow him to take on more work.
“I really enjoy working with my brother. He’s a good guy. We had a conversation and he said what do you want to do and he said if I’m interested in helping, he wants to continue. I said absolutely. That farm has been in our family for over 100 years. It is important to my parents, which makes it important to me. Now I see why my dad was doing what he was doing,” Grady said.
He plans to use the downtime to travel with his wife of 30 years, Renee.
“I hope I can coax her into riding in the tractor with me every once in a while. I think when we have our off-time, we’re going to travel. I owe her a lot of time. You spend all this time supervising these activities with other peoples’ kids and you forego that time with your family. So, I owe her quite a bit,” he said.
Grady said the lessons of patience that he learned on the farm have translated into his work as an educator and principal.
“If you are in a hurry all the time, as a farmer, that’s when accidents happen. If you are in a hurry at school and you want kids to learn on your timetable, it doesn’t always work that way. With farming, when it rains, you can’t help it. You get in the field when you can get in the field. You can’t force things and it’s the same with kids,” he said.
The work ethic and working until a job is done is something else that translated into Grady’s classroom work.
“Kids know if you care about them. Kids know if you are willing to put the time in to help them. If you do that — and that’s one of the things longevity has done for me — you tell them over and over and over again the same message: I’m here to help. I’m here to try to get you help. Then you follow through and do those things and that’s when you make your strides with those kids and it’s the same on the farm. You work and you work and you work and you work and eventually, you get there,” he said.