School board members often share a common goal and vision in leading their districts.
But the camaraderie among members rises to another level at Whitehall City Schools -- unlike almost any other district in Ohio.
All five elected Whitehall school board members are alumni of Whitehall-Yearling High School.
Board president Mike Adkins is a 1987 graduate; Darryl Hammock graduated in 1990; Leo Knoblauch is a member of the class of 1977; Jeffrey Lees earned his diploma in 1988; and Zachary Wright is a 1979 graduate.
In addition, Superintendent Brian Hamler is a 1977 graduate of Whitehall-Yearling.
"I feel blessed to have the opportunity to serve the community that raised me," said Hamler, 60, who lives in Gahanna with his wife, Wendy.
Hamler has been Whitehall's top administrator since 2013 after serving in the administration of the South-Western and Westerville school districts and as a teacher in Gahanna-Jefferson Public Schools.
"I have spent my entire life either working or living in this great city," he said. "I couldn't be more proud when someone asks me where I am from and I answer 'Whitehall.'
"The opportunity to serve and lead has been my inspiration in every position I have held in education," Hamler said.
"However, having the opportunity to lead in the town where I grew up is very special to me."
The experience of leading the district in the place he has always known as home is not one he plans to swap for any other job.
"Being the superintendent of Whitehall schools is my professional pinnacle, as I couldn't imagine a better place to serve," said Hamler, who graduated with a master's degree in educational policy and leadership in 1998.
While content to stay at Whitehall, he does look outward to make sure the district is a leader in public-education trends, he said.
"I stay current with educational trends and innovations through my professional organizations, attending conferences and workshops, as well as reading widely," Hamler said.
Whitehall's five board members also share a passion for giving back to the district and the community that shaped them.
Adkins, 51, has been a board member since 2009.
"(After) I got out of coaching, (I) wanted to continue to serve the kids in (our) community," he said. "I had a lot of support from people telling me I should run for school board."
Adkins said being an alumnus provides him deeper insight and a unique attachment to the district and for his colleagues.
"I think as a board, in whole, we know the community very well and what they stand for," he said. "They trust us and we can communicate with them. I am just proud to serve the community that elected me."
Adkins and his wife, Lori, have six children. Four are Whitehall-Yearling graduates; their two youngest both are students at the high school.
Hammock, 48, returned to Whitehall after attending college and graduate school for eight years.
"I wanted to come back and make a difference in the community that I grew up in (and) see the kids that live (in Whitehall) grow up to be successful and make a difference," said Hammock, who is an associate chaplain for Whitehall's firefighters and police officers and pastor of City of Refuge Baptist Church in Whitehall.
Hammock first was appointed to the board in 2010 and again in 2013 before being elected in 2017.
"Being alumni gives you such deep roots," he said. "I'm not just a board member in a district where I live but I'm part of the district where I grew up."
Hammock lives in Whitehall with his wife, Wendy; their two sons and one daughter also are Whitehall graduates.
"It's as personal to me as anything else in my life," he said.
Knoblauch, 60, first was elected to the board in 2013.
"Whitehall schools (were) good to me, and I wanted to give back and do all I can to make sure kids today have the same advantages I had," he said.
"We grew up in Whitehall, were raised here, and I think that's where our passion comes from."
Lees, 49, was appointed to the board in 2018 and elected in 2019.
He said he wanted to become a board member because of his love of public service and after watching his wife, Dee, volunteer at school activities.
They have a daughter and a son who are third-generation graduates of Whitehall-Yearling High School and a son who is a student there.
Lees' father, Patrick, is a 1967 Whitehall graduate.
"As a board member, and collectively as a board made up of alumni, I feel we take our positions more to heart and have a greater stake in leading the district," Lees said.
"We can look to the students and families we serve and explain we have been where you are, having gone to the same schools and do understand what our district needs."
The effort goes beyond the classroom's doors and windows, Lees said.
"We are all proud products of Whitehall schools, having learned the same lessons and values that we want to pass on to future graduates," he said.
"I take a great sense of pride in my position as a board member," Lees said.
"I feel there is no greater way to give back to your school and community that helped shape who you are than to return and help others become responsible and successful in the same manner that helped in your development.
Wright was appointed to the board last year and was elected in November.
Wright has even stronger ties to the district, having been an educator and coach for three decades.
Three of the board members -- Adkins, Hammock and Lees -- were students at Whitehall-Yearling during Wright's tenure.
Wright taught math to Hammock and Lees and coached Hammock in track to a record in the 400-meter dash. He taught math at Whitehall-Yearling from 1984-2012, coached boys and girls track from 1986-2015 and served as an assistant basketball coach.
Wright, 59, is a lifelong resident of the city, and with his wife, Shari, the parent of three sons and one daughter, all Whitehall-Yearling High School graduates.
"I've seen our district from all points of view: as a student, as a teacher, as a coach and as a parent. I think that serves me well as a board member," Wright said.
That all five board members are alumni "goes to show how much we each appreciated what our teachers did for us" to feel an obligation to give back to the district, he said.
The Ohio School Boards Association does not keep a record of the high school alma maters of board members, but officials agree it's a rarity that all members of any one board are alumni.
Cheryl Ryan, director of board-management services for the association, said she knows of only one other Ohio district -- Bellaire Local Schools near Wheeling, West Virginia -- whose five board members are alumni.
However, Bellaire's superintendent is not a Bellaire graduate, according to the administration there.
"If anyone does a good deed for you, you should return it tenfold," said Knoblauch, "(and) that is what we are doing (for Whitehall schools)."