One of Joe Ovick's favorite songs is Kenny Chesney's rendition of "Thank God for Kids." He's especially partial to one refrain: "The nearest thing to heaven is a child."

Colleagues who've worked alongside him won't be surprised. That perspective has been the hallmark of Ovick's 18-year tenure as Contra Costa County superintendent of schools.

"Whether it's a business decision or a technology decision," said Deputy Superintendent Karen Sakata, "he's always reminded us that the reason we're here is for the kids. When the recession hit and school districts faced budgetary issues, Joe never cut any positions that were on the front line working with kids."

The lifelong educator -- his first job was as a substitute teacher 45 years ago -- will slide into retirement in two weeks. At 67, he will remain a passionate advocate for children but at a slightly less strenuous pace. His imprint on those who know him, however, won't soon fade.

There was his calmness under fire. "Part of that comes from all his experience, but that's his demeanor, too," said Associate Superintendent Pam Comfort. "He quickly sizes up what his options are."

There was his collaborative leadership style. "The most important thing he's told me is you have to listen to people and be thoughtful and thorough in your decisions," said Sakata, who was elected to succeed her boss.



There was his tension-breaking sense of humor. "At one point in my final interview for this position," said Comfort, "he turned away from me, and when he turned back he was wearing a clown nose. He's serious about his work, but he knows how to have fun."

Ovick, who majored in history and political science at San Jose State, said it was a happy twist of fate that led him on his path. When he was 21, a friend's mother helped him land a teaching job at a school for severely handicapped children, where he showed an aptitude for special education. He climbed the ranks of school administration before being named director of special education for Santa Clara County. In 1985, he took a similar post in Contra Costa, and in 1996 he was appointed superintendent when his predecessor stepped down. Four elections later, he looks back fondly.

"Whether I was a teacher or assistant superintendent of student services, the focus was always on the children," he said. "We only have one shot at trying to move them in the right direction and give them the skills and knowledge to be responsible adults."

Among Ovick's challenges was balancing the county's special education budget, which was running a $600,000 deficit when he arrived. Later, his guidance helped several of his 18 school districts avert insolvency during the recession. He created an emergency crisis team to aid schools stricken by tragedy.

But Comfort appreciated the little things -- his personal connection with staffers and understanding of their projects. "In an agency this size, you wouldn't expect the big boss to know what exactly everybody's doing," she said.

His belief in the power of education traces partly to personal experience. When Ovick's younger son, John, was a toddler, he had communication problems before enrolling in a preschool special ed program. Today, John Ovick is a school principal in Tracy.

"Early intervention really makes a difference with children," Joe Ovick said.

So does having the right person sitting at the county superintendent's desk.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.