One can scarcely think of Buford City Schools without having a mental picture pop up of one of the loveliest ladies to have ever graced its hallways. Mrs. Pat Pirkle began her career in Buford City Schools in 1960 as the bookkeeper for the school system. At the age of 86, on Dec. 6, 2021, she will attend her last board of education meeting as a member of the school board, marking her retirement and the end of a remarkable 61-year career serving students in our community.
Patricia Ann Taylor, or “Pat” as she has been known, was born on June 25, 1935, as the baby of four children and grew up on Foe Killer Creek in Alpharetta. She graduated from Milton High School in 1953.
In 1955, Pat met Dan Pirkle at a dance in Flowery Branch. Dan was a fifth or sixth generation Bufordite, as his ancestors had settled in Buford in the 1800s. Also born in June 1935, Dan had graduated from Buford High School in 1953. The two quickly discovered in one another the love of their lives and were soon married. Dan “brought her across the river,” as the family calls it, and the young couple moved to Hill Street in Buford.
Pat and Dan brought four children into the world in close succession. Deborah was followed shortly by Beth (who passed away in 2014 from cancer), followed by a son, Jeff. In 1960, Pat gave birth to Ginger, named for Pat’s beloved sister Virginia. Tragically, on Sept. 23, 1967, 7-year-old Ginger died in a head-on collision on Interstate 85, struck by a drunken driver going the wrong way.
Pat was a devoted mother and, although she worked outside the home, found a way to be closer to her four young children in 1960. She had worked for Southern Bell at the Hurt Building in Atlanta and, before I-85 was completed, was commuting daily from her home in Buford. The distance and roads were taking a toll on Pat. After her maternity leave with Ginger, she resigned from Southern Bell when a friend, George L. Kelly, mentioned an easier work scenario. Kelly was on the Buford Board of Education and was the owner of GL Kelly Ford at Hill and Moreno streets and told Pat about an opening for a bookkeeper for the city school system. The applicant would work for the superintendent. Pat was interested. She left the familiarity of five years at Southern Bell and went to work for her new hometown.
In those days, there was no building set apart as the central office, so Buford’s superintendent’s office was located inside whatever school had space and moved to various locations through the years. When Pat started in 1960, the superintendent’s office (and consequently hers) was located at the elementary school. In the years to come, she would work at the high school and at the first Buford Middle School — which was first housed at the former Greenard Watson School. It was during this same time (about 1970) that Buford would undergo an almost seamless process of integration, a fact which Pat was always particularly proud of and remembers vividly with fondness.
“It was a smooth integration because the Buford community came together and worked together,” Pat said.
Of all the schools she worked at, she said she liked working at the middle school the most, and there, even more than working on the board of education. Ever a “people person,” it was the personal, daily interaction with the students and the community that made Pat thrive and be happy.
After Ginger’s death, Pat left the school for a year and opened a grocery store on Hill Street.
“She thought she couldn’t be around the kids anymore,” Deborah explained.
After a year, Pat closed the grocery store and went back to work at the school system.
“That’s where she belonged,” Deborah said.
Deborah, Beth and Jeff graduated from Buford in the 1970s and survived having their mom in their school every day during certain years. Deborah laughed as she recalled those years and said, “If she was working at the school I attended, I couldn’t get away with anything!”
Pat worked closely with many superintendents in her years as bookkeeper, but she particularly loved working for Joe Avery, who recently passed away in November, and Beauty Baldwin. These were her “standouts,” as she called them.
“I never had to worry about one thing with Pat as bookkeeper; she made sure that every penny went where it was supposed to have gone,” said Beauty Baldwin, who worked closely with Pat as superintendent of Buford City Schools from 1984 to 1994. “And I’ll tell you something else about Pat most people won’t know: about once a week, she’d put on that apron and go in the kitchen and cook for the whole central office! If somebody came by to visit, they were welcome, too. She took care of everybody! Even when funds were cut from the state, she was always good at making sure the finances worked out when it came to the schools and everyone had what they needed.”
In the spring of 1993, after 32 full years with Buford City Schools and about five years after Dan retired from the Gwinnett County Water Department, Pat announced her retirement as bookkeeper. She and Dan were 58 years old, and it was time to start enjoying the golden years and do some traveling.
“They burned up the roads,” Deborah recounted and shared how her parents drove all the continental states and Alaska, into Canada, took cruises and flew to Europe, wearing out Dan’s truck a time or two for years after they retired.
But it didn’t take long until Pat missed her daily interaction helping the schools. She wanted to find a way to give back to the community she loved. It was about the summer of 1993 when a community member dropped by the house one day, begging Pat to consider running for the school board. He gave her a $100 bill to start funding her campaign. She ran on a $100 campaign budget with Dan making the hand-drawn signs. In November 1993, Pat was elected to a board seat and was sworn in January 1994.
The expansion that took place in the 1990s saw Buford grow from a single A school to a 7-A school come the fall of 2022, and rested, in large part, to the vision and support from the board of education. I can personally attest to this because I lived it with my husband, who was the choral director at Buford High School from 1992 to 2020. The support the choral program had from the board of education and city commission was rare and unique to Buford. If we knew about it, there was never one child we served who did without in that department, thanks to the generosity of those men and women.
“Pat Pirkle has been there for my 46 plus years as an elected official,” said board chairman Phillip Beard. “You can see the results of her years on the board; great schools in every way; facilities, faculty, community and family support. It’s the best district in Georgia. She was a major part in making it happen. I sincerely thank her for her years of service to our community.”
The success of the school system is plainly evident. Behind her votes and decisions, there was a gentle, grace-filled heart who loved Buford and children; a large part of what helped to make Buford the number one school district in the state of Georgia, though you’d never hear her take an ounce of credit for it.
If you remember the water towers that stood along I-85 for 40 years, you’ll recall their “Gwinnett is Great” and “Success Lives Here” slogans greeting passers-by in huge letters. I suppose that resonated with Pat since Dan worked for the county’s water department. She said she wanted success to live here — in Buford.
These days, it seems we tend to elect leaders to public office who are handsome, slick talkers with a shiny resume. However, according to Buford’s success, the best leaders are those who love their community and are genuine servants. Pat Pirkle has been one of those. To her, her biggest accomplishment was the growth; “being able to see the pride in the city” and to be a part of “building and financially supporting the schools to become the best in the state so that success could live here.”
When it came time to seek reelection in 2021, Pat talked with Deborah and Jeff, and they agreed that, because her term would end at age 90, it was time to not seek reelection and retire from the board. Pat is looking forward to spending more time with Deborah, Jeff, her grandchildren and great-grandchildren, two of whom are current Buford students.
Though she’s retiring from her board seat, she will not soon be retiring from the bleachers in her role as one of the biggest Buford Wolves fans to ever cheer in the stands. Without fail, Pat has faithfully attended just about every football game for 61 years, still sitting amongst the crowd in the cement bleachers at age 86. She plans to particularly continue attending football, baseball and girls’ softball and basketball games, cheering on “her kids” to victory, just like she has done behind the scenes as a decision maker for the school system all these years.
In my own 28 years in Buford, I’ve never heard a single disparaging word about Pat Pirkle. Much to the contrary. She has perennially been a classy example of a giver. I say “suffering grows grace,” and Pat has grown a ton of it, having buried two of her four children and her beloved Dan in 2011. Ever humble, she still lives in the same house on Hill Street that Dan brought her to in 1955.
“She joked she got married so she’d have an indoor bathroom,” Deborah said. “I think that’s just partly true.”
What is true is that Pat never forgot her roots as she walked out her Christian faith, humbly serving “the least of these” as an unpaid, public servant for the past 28 years. Her legacy is one of grace, growth and obstacles overcome — a true, shining example of what it means to be a Buford Wolf.
A celebration is being planned in Pat’s honor for a grateful community to say “thank you” for a job well done.