Robert Killackey went from the world stage to a small classroom in Norwalk, but the role he plays in the lives of young people has not been diminished by the change in geography.
In 2005, the U.S. Marine Corps infantry officer, who retired with the rank of lieutenant colonel, transitioned from military service to teaching when he joined the staff of Brien McMahon High School to take over a Junior ROTC program that was on probation.
"I think there is a direct correlation between leadership and teaching. ... The leadership I learned in the Marine Corps definitely prepared me for the classroom," said Killackey, whose service included combat operations in Panama and deployments to the Middle East.
The leadership skills that the civilian Navy JROTC teacher learned in the military and that he works to instill in his JROTC cadets at McMahon have earned him the respect of students, parents and his fellow educators, many of whom nominated him for Norwalk Public School's Teacher of the Year. He was awarded the honor recently by a district-wide committee.
"I'm humbled. I don't consider myself the best teacher," said Killackey, who will be recognized by the Norwalk Board of Education later this month. He also will be considered for the Connecticut Teacher of the Year Award, which will be announced in the fall.
McMahon Principal Suzanne Koroshetz said Killackey is in a special category.
"I'm blessed with a lot of wonderful teachers at McMahon, but he was an easy choice because he's amazing," Koroshetz said. "He really is someone who goes above and beyond the call of duty every day. Not just with students who are assigned to his classes, but he tries to reach out to other students at McMahon also.
"He's such a compassionate educator who actively engages everyone in the Brien McMahon community."
Since he came on board in 2005, he has turned the JROTC program around, receiving the highest inspection rating from the U.S. Navy every year since, and even receiving the Unit Achievement Award twice, according to Koroshetz.
JROTC is a peer leadership organization that uses a military model and engages in military drills.
"(Killackey) has taken our JROTC program 180 degrees," Koroshetz said. "It is because of his experience, drive, great organizational and teaching skills, and, above all, concern for his students, that our program has shined, allowing our cadets to receive more than $600,000 in scholarships, including one Naval Academy appointment and two four-year Navy ROTC college scholarships."
Killackey, a native of Yonkers, N.Y., who now lives in Torrington, also has contributed to the School Safety Committee, helping the staff to expand and use best practices in the high school's emergency preparedness planning, Koroshetz said.
During Killackey's tenure, the JROTC program has more than doubled from 60 cadets in 2005 to 130 this past school year, and the cadets now put in more than 900 hours of community or school support service annually. Their projects include maintaining the Brien McMahon High School Veterans Memorial Garden, organizing Veterans' Day and Memorial Day presentations at the school, supporting American Legion Veteran Flag Appreciation ceremonies, and providing color guard support for many Norwalk Public School activities.
"The primary goal behind the JROTC program is character development, developing leaders and making better citizens," said Killackey, who was involved in Operation Just Cause in Panama, Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom. "While what we do is academic in nature, we're able to focus on meeting the social expectations of our school's mission.
"You've got to motivate them and train them in the skills they have to know. I love to motivate young folks and assist them in finding out what their intellectual curiosities are and how to pursue them."
While the JROTC uses a military model, Killackey said, "It's a misnomer that Junior ROTC programs are recruiting tools."
Killackey said the program does not collaborate with military recruiters, and, in fact, he said more McMahon students outside the JROTC enlist in the military than those who participate in the program.