By Abby Hoover
Beloved Northeast High School JROTC (Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps) instructor Colonel Richard Hilliard is retiring after this school year. As he reflects on his decades long career as a mentor and teacher, he’s realizing the impact he’s had on Northeast’s young people.
Hilliard served for 20 years as a career Army officer, retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.
“It is hard to believe that on May 25, I will have completed 42 years of service to our great nation,” Hilliard wrote for the NEHS newsletter. “Back in 2000 when I began, the district was transforming from the magnet concept, where students were bussed to a particular school based on their chosen theme, back to neighborhood schools. At that time, we had 1,300 students in the school, 350 of which were in the JROTC program. We had five instructors then, including myself. There was also a JROTC headquarters downtown with four fully paid positions. In 2010, all JROTC programs were taken down to two instructors and the headquarters was eliminated.”
Despite cuts to the program, NEHS’s JROTC program remained strong, led by Sergeant Jerry Lewis and Hilliard, and supported by administrators, faculty, support personnel and, of course, the cadets.
After school on Tuesday, April 26, his JROTC cadets surprised Col. Hilliard with a celebration of his 22 years of dedication to Northeast High School (NEHS) and Kansas City Public Schools. Hilliard was selected as Teacher of the Year in 2021.
“The surprise retirement party coordinated by the cadets just reinforced how blessed and lucky I have been to have the opportunity to invest in the lives of so many of our students,” Hilliard wrote. “Being a teacher will never be easy, and will be very difficult at times as most of you know, but it will always be rewarding. I will miss everyone greatly and I wish you all Godspeed, best of luck, and take care until you too are ready to join the ‘retired ranks.’”
Former teachers, former JROTC cadets, and several alumni of Northeast High School attended the festivities, and a special presentation was made by the Northeast Alumni Association.
“The retirement party was a proper send off to the man that made our school’s JROTC the best,” Cadet Ian Partain said. “He enjoyed it, we all enjoyed it. The alumni came back just for the party. It was great.”
Cadet Captain Bryce Abbot, who has participated in JROTC for three years, is close with Hilliard and Lewis, who retired in December.
“Being a Cadet Captain this year, as well as the armed drill team commander, I got together with the rest of the drill team and did what we felt needed,” Abbot said. “Personally, I made him a poster of the American flag customized with his name and rank, and had it signed by students, staff, and alumni of the program. Colonel Hilliard’s service to the JROTC program will undoubtedly never be forgotten and it’s up to us next year to keep his legacy going. We’re going to miss him but we won’t let his retirement be for nothing, next year he’s setting me up to be the Battalion Commander, and while it will be different without the instructor and mentor I’m used to, it’s time to rebuild.”
As Hilliard’s last assignment in the Army, he was Professor of Military Science at Southeast Missouri State University.
“We had some connections with Junior ROTC, I was actually the guest speaker at one of the JROTC military ball banquets,” Hilliard said. “I always enjoyed working with soldiers and, you know, JROTC students are high school students, not soldiers, but they’re young people, and I just thought it’d be kind of neat to kind of give it a try. And there I was, 22 years later, getting ready to retire.”
At a school like NEHS, where students can come from difficult backgrounds, students are at risk.
“Especially for ones whose life isn’t extremely stable, I think the class kind of gives them that structure, kind of gives them some focus and discipline,” Hilliard said. “Because we focus on so many different subjects, I tell people our curriculum is about a mile wide and an inch deep.”
JROTC teaches first aid, map reading, character development, leadership, writing, public speaking, and even etiquette, because they do a military ball each year.
“Not every subject appeals to everybody, but it’s interesting because in the final essay that I have the kids write about three things they learned in ROTC this year, there’s not that sort of common thing because it seems like different subjects have touched different students, which I think is pretty cool,” Hilliard said. “So I think that’s maybe the secret. It’s a very hands-on class. We don’t sit behind a desk for every class period. We’re up and moving and doing different activities, but we do academics as well.”
Lewis’s replacement, a Master Sergeant, is lined up for the 2022-23 school year, but Hilliard hopes they find an officer to come to NEHS soon.
Hilliard plans to do some traveling with his wife, since their family lives all over the country – South Carolina, Arkansas and Arizona – and his mother lives in assisted living in Maryland, near his sister.
“If I don’t retire, I’m not gonna see much of my family,” Hilliard said. “And my wife – I was in the Army for 20 years – my wife basically gave up all, whatever we needed to do for my Army career, and same for here because obviously you can’t take a vacation in October when you’re working for the school district.”
As he reflects on his career, the surprise retirement party will stick out in his head forever.
“Not just because of the current cadets, but quite a few previous, former cadets came that even graduated six, seven years ago,” Hilliard said. “I think the memory that will stick most on my mind is just the relationship I had with lots of students and cadets here. I think that’s going to be the biggest memory.”
Hilliard attended his last NEHS graduation as a teacher on May 22, and said it’s his biggest joy to see the students cross the stage.
“My seniors will walk across the stage, and especially the ones I really feel like are college and career ready, and kind of seeing the pride that they have that they know they’re ready for the next phase of life,” Hilliard said. “I’m sure every graduate kind of has a comforting feeling that they got a plan for the future, but it’s nice to see the ROTC cadets that I know have a plan for the future. They’re confident they’re kind of ready to tackle the world.”
His students take pride in doing something really well, Hilliard said, whether that’s color guard, or a personal assignment.
Hilliard said JROTC is similar to a sports team or club, where students form a tight-knit group in a large school.
“They have fun together and they look out for each other,” Hilliard said. “I think ROTC very much gives them that sense of belonging to each other… that sense of camaraderie and togetherness and watching out for each other in special friendships.”
He was happy to see two of his former students who attended the retirement party are now married and have a baby. During homecoming, alumni of JROTC visited him in his classroom and talked for hours.
“Some of them develop literally lifelong relationships with each other that continue for years,” Hilliard said.
For the future of the program, Hilliard hopes it continues, with the goal of excellence. He said the JROTC mission is not to recruit kids for the military.
“Really, the mission, all we care about is that we motivate young people to be better citizens,” Hilliard said. “I mean, that literally is the mission statement for ROTC. If kids who are part of this program go out and are successful, whatever their definition of success is, I’m happy.”
The focus is always going to be on excellence, Hilliard said, and a great group of young people and future leaders are graduating into the world.
“Relationships are important, and I think as long as people are willing to invest in the lives of other people, that your life will never be dull and always be fulfilling,” Hilliard said.