There are few events that happen in life which impact us so greatly that the effect is akin to an earthquake. The event of September 11, 2007 was for me one of those days. It happened unexpectedly and was to be so final that it had the effect of altering the course of my life forever.
A week before, my family and I had returned from an extended vacation abroad and we were just settling into a routine for the new school year.
When I entered my office that fateful Tuesday morning, I had a busy day of meetings planned as the school year had just started. It was a beautiful clear, cool morning and I was eager to begin another school year as Superintendent.
Shortly after arriving at the office, I received an early call to meet with the officers of the Board of Education. An hour later, I was suspended from my position. I have not been back to the school district since that fateful morning when I drove to the off site meeting.
Reflecting back after these many years, I can completely and clearly understand what happened and more importantly why it happened.
By 9:00 am that morning, I found myself in an utterly devastating situation, and when I turned around I couldn’t find anyone else to blame. It was squarely on me.
Over the years, the most often asked question posed to me is … Why?Why did you throw your career away? Why did you treat your wonderful employer this way? Why did you risk losing your financial security? Why did you put your family at risk?
To be perfectly candid, I do not have a response that would satisfy your curiosity, because I cannot answer those questions myself. I was well paid, loved my job, was climbing the ladder of success and worked for a wonderful employer for whom I had much respect.
There is no excuse for what I did and the consequence was justly deserved. I harbor no ill will toward anyone: my former employer, the prosecutors, courts or prison officials.
Where did I go wrong? What made me do the unthinkable? Where was my life heading? There were so many questions that simply led into other questions that it causes one to begin to probe the most inner thoughts of ones soul.
For hours after leaving the district I drove around trying to process what just happened. I intuitively knew that my 18 year career was over and I knew the agony of what lay ahead. I had achieved my goal of becoming a superintendent by the age of 40; and, in a matter of minutes, I watched everything I worked for come crashing down.
I began to panic and hyperventilate. I started to think thoughts, crazy thoughts that would put a stop to this nightmare. I couldn’t go home, what would I say, what would I do? But I had to go home; I had a wife and two wonderful kids.
Driving home to tell Melinda what happened was the scariest and most difficult thing I have ever had to do. I remember walking into the house and my wife remarking that it looked like I just saw a ghost. She immediately knew that something was wrong. At that point, I didn’t know if my family was going to remain intact. Only time would tell.
Melinda’s reaction was first disbelief, then anger. As she processed the news, I could see the fear on her face as she was thinking about the practical things a family needs and what we were losing (income, health insurance, ability to make mortgage payments, etc). She then focused on the shame and embarrassment that would soon be brought upon this family in the newspapers and on television.
The ensuing weeks and months were very tough on my children; they could feel the tension in our home. Their world of stability was shaken just as my daughter was starting high school and my son was entering the 5th grade. They were not sure what would happen or if their parents would stay together. In short, the fast paced, self-centered world in which we lived was disintegrating before our eyes.
Melinda and I met in grade school and graduated high school together in 1984. She was raised in a Christian home. Dad was a Deacon and the family spent Sundays and Wednesday nights at church. The family was evangelical in their belief – accepting the Bible as the sole source of authority on God’s revelation. Melinda grew up 'doing church.'
It was Ken, Melinda’s father who shared with me God’s redemptive story. He was relentless in his pursuit of sharing God’s Word because he knew I was serious about his daughter. He so desperately wanted me to experience the saving grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God”, Ephesians 2:8 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
I accepted God’s gift of salvation in my late teens and we were married in 1990 at 24 years old. For the next 17 years of marriage, we were focused on building careers, raising a family, going on vacation, acquiring ‘stuff’ and fitting Christ into our lives when it was convenient.
There were those times throughout the years when we would worship God for a season. But it is clear now that we were simply enjoying life and family; and our faith was not a priority.
In the weeks following my suspension and subsequent resignation, I assessed my life in totality. Where was my heart? What motivated me? Why was I in this situation?
As absurd as it may seem, I even thought that God was being spiteful. I thought that somehow I deserved the life I had and he took it all away.
That second Tuesday in September 2007 was only one day out of 365 days in a year; but it represented the totality of the life that I spent building for myself. There were obvious symbols of success: diplomas, citations, awards and accolades that one receives throughout years of school administration.
But where were those principles that should matter most to a man? What would be his legacy? I had lost my moral compass and integrity. I had become dishonorable. I had belittled my faith and treated it as eternal fire insurance. I had lost my foundation and began leaning on my own understanding of right and wrong. I justified my actions, because my standard of what was right was subject to change based upon my circumstances.
The Turning Point
As I reflect back, the day I sought Godly counsel was my turning point. It represented the beginning of a new life for me. Yes, I had to begin this new journey in the midst of a pile of debris that represented my shattered life and personal pain. But, it was the day when I earnestly began to think about my life in ways I never thought about before.
It was a few weeks after my fall, when I made an appointment to see Larry Burd, the Senior Pastor at Calvary Baptist Church.
Melinda and I had become members several years before. Our commitment to Calvary was lukewarm over those years. We would attend occasionally as long as nothing more important was happening on Sunday mornings.
I am not sure what prompted me to see Pastor Burd, other than I had reached a point of utter desperation. I didn’t know what to expect. But, I am sure glad we met.
My encounter with Pastor Burd was firm and frank but compassionate. He stated the obvious … I had sinned.
He showed me scripture and explained I was being disciplined due to my disobedience. “For the Lord corrects those he loves, just as the father corrects a child in whom he delights.” Proverbs 3:12 New Living Testament (NLT); “Those whom I love I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent.” Revelation 3:19 New International Version (NIV)
It wasn’t God’s fault, it was mine.
I choose to act in disobedience and ignored many warning signs. The one way He got my attention was to allow this horrible event to take place in my life. He was working on my heart and I knew I needed to repent and seek God’s forgiveness.
I left his office with a charge to surrender, to trust God and to obey his Word. I had sinned – that was clear. There would be consequences for sure, but God could use this disobedience in His plan for my life. I was now deliberately following a path that I have never been down before.
Shortly after our meeting I was overwhelmed with conviction and the shame of my sin. I began walking in my neighborhood and trekked several miles before I realized where I was. I was gone for hours crying out to God and repenting of my sins and disobedience. I was a broken man.
When I came back home, I wasn’t tired, I felt exhilarated. I was determined to face what lay ahead knowing I was forgiven; and, no matter what happens, I knew God was with me. That day represented a new beginning, a spiritual renewal and I vowed that the moments of living for me was over.
I was committed to relinquishing control of my life and surrendering my will to the Lord - to follow his commandments regardless of the consequences. I felt free as if a huge burden was lifted away.
I chuckled as I thought of how I ran my life into the ground when I was in control. I knew that God could do so much better if I allowed Him.
There was a Christian radio station in the Lehigh Valley, WJCS 89.3 FM which I discovered. I became a regular listener to the various programs as I went about my day. It was a great source of encouragement.
For the first time in my life, I began to read the Bible and pray regularly. I learned to simply take one day at a time as Jesus taught in Matthew 6:34. I knew that God was teaching me in this trial of life.
It wasn’t easy and I was frightened at times, but I knew all would be well. I had hope because of the promise of scripture, “…and we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” Romans 8:28 English Standard Version (ESV)
Within days of my new beginning, I had repented to my wife, children and extended family. I knew I had to follow God and trust Him. He knew my heart and I was encouraged daily as I learned more about doctrinal truths.
Four months after my suspension, my children were baptized at Calvary. It was wonderful how they made a public profession of their faith in Christ. It was especially touching since their decision was a bright light during a dark period. I praise God that He was working in my family despite what was going on in my life.
I have seen God do amazing things in our family. I get overwhelmed with joy thinking about it. For the first time in our lives, we made a commitment to tithe. When I began to realize I was robbing God – it made me shutter. “Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings.” Malachi 3:8 English Standard Version (ESV)
Melinda and I realized that everything we have has been given to us by God – He owns everything. We are called to be good stewards of His provision. It completely changed our perspective. We now joyfully give Him back a portion of what He has given us. If only we had realized that before.
I praise God for Melinda and the change that has occurred in her life. We went from having a distracted and detached marriage that was shaky on the day of my suspension, to one that is more confident and much stronger.
You may wonder how this happened.
Melinda has often remarked that my downfall wasn’t just for me, but it was for her too. Melinda had deep anger and resentment issues that she repressed for many years – going all the way back to her childhood.
Those feelings had an adverse affect on how she interacted with her family - her husband and children. We knew the strongholds of bitterness, but God showed both of us the power of forgiveness. We learned that unforgiveness is a form of bondage and God can free us from our past.
By God’s grace Melinda gave her anger and resentment over to the Lord. She forgave those that caused her pain so many years ago. We learned that forgiveness is a gift from God. We realized if Christ sacrificed his life to give us eternal life when we deserved eternal punishment, we had to adopt a forgiving attitude toward others.
We realized if the person to whom we offered forgiveness reacted positively, then that was a bonus.
Our Lord continues to grow her faith and as I continue to learn from her. God has given women a unique perspective on marriage, family and life. We would be wise to realize how important and special they are.
Day of Reckoning
About a year after my resignation, I was called to a meeting with federal authorities to discuss their investigation into my financial improprieties. The whole experience was intimidating, but I had peace and knew that God was right beside me.
After being grilled by FBI agents and prosecutors for several hours, the meeting was adjourned to allow consultation with counsel. I decided to give a full account of what happened, answer any questions and authorized my attorney to negotiate a plea agreement.
Going to trial was not an option.
I knew God wanted me to be honest and take responsibility for my actions.
It was clear that I was no longer in control of my life and there was nothing I could do to change the outcome. In the several years since my fall, I realize more then ever that God is in control of every situation.
My job was simple. Pray about everything, trust Him by walking in faith and leave the consequences to Him. Of course, I was afraid at times, but I reminded myself of God’s promises. Sometimes it appeared that I was heading full steam ahead to the edge of a cliff and then God stepped in at the last moment. Walking by faith has truly taken on new meaning in my life. This whole experience has caused me to build my spiritual muscles – and not by choice.
In early January 2009, I appeared before US District Court Judge Bumb to enter a guilty plea of embezzling $90,000. According to the sentencing guidelines, I faced a 12-18 month period of incarceration.
I am so ashamed of my actions. But, God’s Word is clear; I am reaping the consequences of the sin I have sown. “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.” Galatians 6:7 New International Version (NIV)
A Truth About Sin
Some time ago, while listening to a sermon the following truth about the effects of sin spoke very loud to me:
Sin will take you further than you want to go; Sin will cost you more than you want to pay; Sin will keep you longer than you want to stay
I desired to be transparent about my crime. In fact, I needed to be. Since my crime was so public, my reaction needed to be equally public.
Toward that end, I confessed my crime before my church congregation at the three Sunday morning services and at a special Thanksgiving Eve service. I spoke to the parents of Brianne and Alex's friends and my neighbors.
I needed to accept responsibility for my actions - for both the good and bad choices we make in life – to be an example for my children. Their dad messed up, that was clear. But how I responded was also important. I couldn’t run away from my crime and the resulting fallout. I had to deal with it head-on.
I was blessed to learn the relationship between my children and their friends was unchanged; and, I can now speak to those parents and neighbors without embarrassment or shame.
There were days while awaiting sentencing I felt depressed and I didn’t want to get out of bed in the morning. Thankfully that happened only a few times. I was able to face the reality of prison with peace. The verse that became very real for me was … “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Proverbs 3:5-6 New International Version (NIV)”
In May 2009, I was sentenced to federal prison for a period of 12 months, 1 day. I was grateful to Judge Bumb for showing mercy since that one extra day triggered a 15% credit off my sentence and allowed me to leave after 10.5 months. Ironically, I was in prison a little longer than a typical school year. If I was given 12 months, I would have been required to serve the entire sentence.
As I was elevated to Superintendent of Schools, I vacated my previous position as the district's school business official. That move required me to choose a replacement which was accomplished using a selection committee.
It was this person who alerted school authorities, which resulted in my suspension and subsequent resignation. As superintendent I was the person who had the final choice in the recommendation of all district employees. Without my approval, a candidacy could not move forward. Despite some hesitation, I recommended the candidate to the school board and the person was hired.
One person close to me suggested that I gave this new hire the gun that was used to shoot me. In one sense I understand the metaphor.
Having enjoyed full support by the board of education, it was a risky and gutsy move to raise allegations against me.
I guess with our relationship deteriorating after only a year of working together and contract renewal at my discretion this person made a calculated decision to report me. The decision was probably made easier since I was out of the district for a month on vacation.
My arrogance and pride created the environment for the perfect storm. God hates pride because that breeds independence. Who needs God when you have lifetime tenure, a six figure salary, perks, and prestige.
I was humbled. I needed to be.
In the years since my departure, I see God at work in all my decisions, even the poor ones. I am convinced the hiring of this new school administrator was part of God’s plan in bringing about my downfall. Scripture has shown us that God uses all types of people and all kinds of circumstances to achieve His plans. He is sovereign and no one can thwart the plans of God. It is clear He used this newly hired and seasoned school official as part of His plan to get my attention.
On the day I was sentenced, Pastor Burd and my dad accompanied me to court. When the hearing had concluded, I spent about an hour completing paperwork while these two men waited in a reception area.
Dad had struck up a conversation about matters of faith and family. My parents were faithful Catholics, had seven children and active in a local parish for many years. My parents had instilled traditional values in their children and taught us to adhere to the Golden Rule. We were a close family.
But, as the Walsh seven grew up, married and started our own families, some of us had returned home and announced that they had become born-again Christians. My parents were always curious about that phrase as they often heard about it in their church. Since my mothers’ untimely death a few years ago, I knew that Dad often thought about his own mortality.
Pastor Burd spent the next hour sharing scripture with Dad as questions arose. They had a wonderful time of fellowship.
During our drive home, we stopped at a local eatery for a late lunch. Dad shared with us during the meal that he grew up believing in the story of Jesus and spent years serving in the church. He never thought about what it meant to ask Christ to come into life and forgive him of his sins. Dad said he finally understood that his sin separated him from God. He prayed to ask for forgiveness and opened his heart to Jesus Christ.
I was overwhelmed and asked Pastor Burd to confirm what Dad just told to me. I have learned over the years that God’s timing is always perfect; He is always on time and never late.
As I sat in the restaurant, I contemplated how only God can turn a horrible day into a beautiful one. On the very day I was given a prison sentence for a crime I committed by an earthly judge, Dad was pardoned for his sins and given eternal life by the final judge.
Having that assurance about Dad took the sting out of my sentence, which was a wonderful blessing. I was informed that Dad was admitted for emergency heart surgery right before Christmas 2009. There was a real possibility that Dad could have died while I was still in prison. It gave my much comfort knowing if that happened, all would be well.
Although these past several years have been excruciatingly painful, I am thankful that God altered the course of my life on September 11, 2007. That is not easy to say, but my sentiments are sincere.
Why do I feel that way?
-Did I enjoy losing my job?
-Did I enjoy being on the front page of newspapers and on the nightly news?
-Did I enjoy the interrogation process by federal and state officials?
-Did I enjoy standing before a judge to admit I violated a sacred trust?
-Do I enjoy the distinction of being remembered as a disgraced school leader?
-Did I enjoy having my family suffer because of my selfish acts?
-Did I enjoy spending almost eleven months in a federal prison?
This may sound very strange, but by His intervention in my life, God rescued me from myself.
But why do I feel this way?
That is simple. My downfall was the catapult that God used to place me on a new path. This journey has taken me to a new level in my faith. God has revealed Himself in ways I would have never imagined.
He has increased my faith in Him. I have learned much of what the Bible teaches about trust and obedience.
I have learned how to have joy despite unpleasant circumstances. I have learned to live above my circumstances.
Happiness is determined by our circumstances, but real joy is a gift from God.
Throughout this experience, I have learned that life is not about me.
Life is not about Bob Walsh. It is not about my happiness, comfort or pleasures.
It is about bringing God glory in who we are and what we do.
I approached my time in prison as if I was given a one year sabbatical to study. I spent my time reading many books sent to me by a lot of wonderful people. I completed several bible correspondence courses with organizations that have prison ministries. I was given several study bibles along with detailed commentaries. I kept detailed journals of my experience while engaging in other writing. I considered my incarceration as a personal case study on all aspects of prison life.
That is what helped me to cope. That is what allowed the days to roll by quickly. It is what helped me get through those special family days of the year.
One of the many gifts I received while in prison was a book by Max Lucado, It’s Not About Me. It is an easy read. A simple, but profound book.
Elsewhere on this site, I have listed those resources I found to be helpful for practical living, for my spiritual growth and my faith.
All of my life experiences, from the highest point in my career as School Superintendent to having those loud prison doors slammed behind me, are who I am. I embrace those wonderfully good and awfully bad experiences in my life as I seek to build a lasting legacy.