Published April 04. 2012 4:00AM Updated April 05. 2012 12:25AM
Waterford - Dave Moorehead arrived in the summer of 1981 for his first visit to the Waterford Country School, and he contemplated finding his way back to the highway and never returning.
The school was in bad shape, both structurally and financially. But there was something intangible - something special - that caught Moorehead's attention.
"I could just see the spirit of the school," he said Tuesday. "I'm happy to say, in the 31 years since, that has never waned."
Moorehead announced on Tuesday that he will retire at the end of August. He has been the Waterford Country School's executive director since 1981, when he took over for 30-year director Herbert Schacht, whose family founded the school.
Waterford Country School is a private, nonprofit agency that offers a variety of residential and community programs, including foster care, for at-risk children and families. William Martin, the current assistant executive director who also has worked at the school for more than 30 years, will take over after Moorehead retires.
During Moorehead's tenure, he has overseen an extensive renovation project at the school's campus off Hunts Brooks Road in Quaker Hill. The project created four new "cottage style" residences and an emergency shelter for short-term placements, among other improvements.
The school's programs also have increased dramatically with Moorehead at the helm. The school provides a residential treatment program that offers therapeutic services for victims of domestic trauma or abuse. Emergency short-term placement and special education programs are also a fixture at the school and at its other offices in Norwich and North Windham.
Many credit Moorehead's leadership for the growth of the school, which was first founded in 1922 in Brooklyn before coming to the town in 1929.
Robert P. Anderson Jr., chairman of the school's board of directors since 1976, said he often runs out of superlatives when trying to describe Moorehead's impact on others.
"I think his youthful enthusiasm and exuberance is the same today that it was 31 years ago," Anderson said. "He has a very can-do type of attitude."
Moorehead, 66, briefly served in the Army and eventually worked as executive director of Baptist Children's Services in Philadelphia before coming to town.
He said the unique attributes of the Waterford Country School continue to be something of which he is proud. For instance, he said, the school turns to unique learning techniques for children who may not necessarily respond to a traditional classroom environment.
"We'd just as soon have students outside under a tree," he said. "I really enjoy it when you're in the type of environment where there's so much you can do. There are a lot of ways to help kids in unique ways."
One of Moorehead's final duties will be to guide fundraising and the plans for the Otto Graham Gymnasium and Activity Center, a $3.5 million facility planned for the school's campus. It is named for the late NFL quarterback who was a longtime supporter of the school.
Moorehead said Tuesday in an interview in a conference room near his office that he's happy he has had the chance to help so many children.
Others also have seen the way he's impacted young people.
"I think Dave Moorehead has been for the past 31 years the face and voice of Waterford Country School," said Dr. Raymond B. Johnson, another member of the board of directors. "Under his leadership, the superb staff has turned around the lives of literally thousands of kids."