The rocket hitting the school, the seven dead children, the scramble to save the wounded. For Tony Tata, it was a searing moment of clarity about the importance of education.
From the moment Tata was picked to become superintendent of Wake County's public schools, people have wondered why a retired Army general, sometime pundit and author of Tom Clancy-type thrillers, would turn to a career in education.
The tragedy at that Afghan school is one answer.
But there's another: Education is a nearly sacred calling for the Tatas, who have made it the family business.
Tata's father was a high school football coach, teacher and guidance counselor and is now Republican chairman of the education committee in Virginia's state House of Delegates.
His mother was a high school guidance counselor who served two terms on the Virginia Beach school board.
"To us, educators were the most important people, because that's what our parents did," said Tata's sister, Kendall Tata, herself a high school teacher and coach. "Our parents taught us to respect everyone who worked in the school system, from the custodian to the secretaries to the assistant principals, principal, teachers, everyone."
Tata starts work here Monday.
Tata, 51, a compact man who speaks in a calm, even tone, brings 28 years of military service, including a peacekeeping tour in Kosovo and combat tour as second in command of conventional U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan.
But he has just 20 months of experience in school administration, all of it as the chief operating officer handling logistics such as textbook purchases and lunchroom operations for the smaller Washington, D.C., school system.
And he had an unusual sideline for a schools administrator: Appearances and blog postings for media outlets including Fox News and websites operated by conservative activist Andrew Breitbart.
That has already made him a target in a county where the school board, and public opinion about it, are sharply split.
Liberals point to his punditry - particularly two postings that praise the ever-polarizing Sarah Palin - and say he isn't wise enough to be a superintendent. Some are suspicious that he will help resegregate schools, and say his military experience and short stint in Washington don't qualify him to lead one of the nation's largest school systems.
Conservatives who believe any Army general is a better leader than a typical candidate for superintendent, or who assume Tata is some sort of conservative crusader, have rallied behind him.
Those are just caricatures, though, based on a handful of facts. There's much more to Tony Tata than blog posts or a star on his shoulder.
Tata grew up in Virginia Beach, Va. His mother sometimes said he should have been named "Ray" because he was a bit of sunshine.
When he was about 12, he told his father that he wanted to be a teacher and a novelist.
Tata, Kendall and their older brother Robert lived by rules that reinforced the importance of education. Homework came before fun. They couldn't wear sloppy clothes to school. And they were expected to attend class unless they were sick.
They were reared not just to respect everyone who worked at their schools but to believe that education was a calling - and far more important than the modest paycheck that came with it.
"They went away with the idea that there was something other than money involved in going into education," said Jerri Tata, the superintendent's mother.
His father, Bob Tata, pressed his children to graduate from college. Each earned at least two degrees; Tony got three. He played on his high school's two-time state championship baseball team and was an all-state wrestler.
His skill and his size may be the reasons he became a soldier instead of a teacher.
Tata was recruited by the U.S. Military Academy, which needed a 134-pound wrestler.
After graduating from West Point in 1981, he discovered that he enjoyed the Army's constant focus on training and improvement, and molding young men assigned to the combat units he led.
It was like being an educator. "Here you have these 17-, 18- , 19-year-old products of our public schools, primarily, coming into the Army," Tata said. "And you've got a core curriculum and you're locally trying to implement that to educate and train and coach these young men."
Tata was promoted and assigned to some of the best units, including the 82nd Airborne Division, the 101st Airborne and the 10th Mountain Division. His stops in Fayetteville totaled about 10 years, making North Carolina a second home of sorts.
As Tata rose through the ranks, at least nine boards endorsed him for promotions, command roles, graduate schools and a National Security fellowship to Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.
The vetting he got would be hard to find in the civilian world. There are just 300 generals in an Army of more than 550,000 troops.
Along the way, Tata led a 3,500-soldier brigade for a peacekeeping tour in Kosovo and in 2006 was sent to Afghanistan as a deputy commanding general of all conventional U.S. troops.
Lt. Gen. Benjamin C. Freakley, his commander in Afghanistan, assigned Tata a dizzying array of tasks. Among them: partnering U.S. units with Afghan and NATO units from countries including Canada, Britain, United Arab Emirates, Romania and Holland - all with different cultures, languages, equipment, levels of drive and values.
He worked with hybrid civilian-military reconstruction teams, oversaw Army aviation units in the country and detainee operations, and was responsible for getting supplies, ammo and medical support to units across the country, right down to 30-man teams stationed on remote mountains at 11,000 feet.
"Nothing in Afghanistan is easy, because you're fighting poor infrastructure, vast distances, bad weather, mountainous terrain," Freakley said in an interview. "And Tony had a huge portfolio and just did a great job blending all that complexity."
Tata said that deployment was such a thorough experience that he felt he had achieved his military goals.
The rocket hitting the school helped him decide what to do next.
It was April 2006. The school was in a mountainous part of northeast Afghanistan. Seven children and a teacher were killed; 34 were wounded, and troops under Tata had to deal with the aftermath. As U.S. medical personnel treated the survivors, Tata asked one of his staff to add up the toll of Taliban attacks on schools.
He found that 100 schools had been attacked, up to 40 teachers killed, some of them in front of their students.
"And I thought at the time, the enemy really doesn't want our allies, the Afghan public, to be educated," he said. "That really sent a clear message to me that the education of our nation is so important, that it is the most important thing we can do."
After Afghanistan, he was assigned to a group tasked with countering the improvised bombs that are the biggest killers of U.S. troops in Afghanistan and Iraq (see related story). It would be his last military job.
Tata was already looking ahead to civilian life. He was writing his thrillers, which involve two brothers - one a soldier, the other a CIA operative - under a pen name at that point.
At a conference, he learned about the Broad Superintendents Academy, which prepares unconventional candidates such as military officers and business executives to lead urban school districts. Broad involves several intense weekends of training but mainly is independent study. Tata began courses before retiring from the Army in 2009.
He was quickly hired by Michelle Rhee, the Washington superintendent known for closing underenrolled schools, firing hundreds of teachers who she said weren't performing and introducing a merit-based teacher pay system.
Tata's role with the Washington school system wasn't glamorous. But he tackled long-standing problems, such as late-arriving textbooks, inefficiencies in the purchasing system and notoriously bad cafeteria food. He brought in chefs and fresh ingredients to allow cooked-from-scratch lunches.
The Washington system has roughly one-third as many students as does Wake County. It has a much higher proportion of minority students.
Rhee, who has become popular with politicians interested in school reform, quit in October. An aide said she was unavailable for an interview.
What he brings
Nothing guarantees a general will make a good superintendent. But they have leadership skills that apply to the civilian world, said William E. Rosenbach, a retired Air Force officer who teaches leadership and management at Gettysburg College.
Rosenbach doesn't know Tata but said he would not be surprised if a retired brigadier became an excellent superintendent.
But Tata may struggle to win support. His punditry was a mistake for a leader who knew he wanted to run a school system, Rosenbach said.
The job is volatile enough - many superintendents last less than four years in a job - that opening himself to partisan criticism was creating a gratuitous liability. "In school systems, it's important to build alliances, not drive wedges," he said.
Tata appeared on several networks, often to offer analysis on military affairs.
The commentary that has received the most attention in North Carolina, though, are blog postings involving Palin and President Barack Obama. He called Obama "an aloof Ivy League intellectual with tremendous contempt for the people he allegedly serves" and wrote that Palin is "precisely the kind of leader America needs."
Many of his criticisms of Obama center on what Tata perceived as dithering early in Obama's administration on the decision to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan.
But he also has written glowingly of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling himself "a huge fan." He says he prizes a letter from her thanking him for his support.
Tata says all of his media work - which tapered off last year - was unpaid and was designed to help sell his books. He is donating all the proceeds to the Washington, D.C., USO for programs to help wounded troops. A USO spokeswoman said that so far it has received $27,000 from the books.
Tata understands that his opining means he'll have more people to convince with his performance. And if he can't, he says, that might not have anything to do with his efforts.
"I'm a reasonable person and I listen, and I'm a pretty good learner and I think I'm a pretty good leader," he said. "So whatever people are pre-supposing, they probably ought to look in the mirror and wonder where their bias and prejudice comes from, and wonder if they're as diverse as they want other people to be."
Tata said in an interview that he plans to steer clear of politics now and concentrate completely on his new job.
"I'm going to be devoutly apolitical in this position," he said. "And I'm going to continue to focus on student achievement."
Reaching his critics
Tata has already begun reaching out to critics. He recently spoke to black leaders who oppose the school board's plans to stop using diversity for school assignment.
He didn't promise to keep the schools racially diverse. But he said he values diversity and had always built diverse leadership teams in the Army and would in Wake. He vowed to make sure their children's schools got the resources they need, and that he would work to close the achievement gap with white students.
The group, while not completely won over, gave him a standing ovation.
During the same visit to Raleigh, as he smoothly handled reporters during a stop at a high school, his escort, school board Chairman Ron Margiotta, looked on. After months of standing in front of the television cameras and dealing with controversy, he's looking forward to stepping into the background and letting Tata do some of the talking.
The relief showed on Margiotta's face as he watched Tata. "Oh, he is good," Margiotta said under his breath.
Tata's father said he was surprised when his son said he was going to become a schools administrator. Retired generals often take jobs with defense contractors, and Tata had several offers. And school administration can be volatile work.
"When he took the D.C. job, I told him: 'Tony, don't buy a house, because you're not going to be there long,' " BobTata said. "And I was right. Michelle Rhee left. And I probably ought tell him that again.
"But he wants to prove that he can do it. He wants to prove that he can be successful as a school superintendent."
News researcher Brooke Cain contributed to this report.
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