Former Bloomington principal retired, but still greatly admired

Photo Caption: Kay O’Brien, former principal of Holy Trinity School in Bloomington, was named the Diocese of Peoria’s 2011-12 Distinguished Principal.

By: By Jennifer Willems

BLOOMINGTON — It was never Kay O’Brien’s intention to become principal at Holy Trinity School here.

She was perfectly happy teaching sixth grade math when her principal, Ed Heineman, asked if she would be interested in serving as assistant principal. She said no — but that didn’t last for long.

“I went back to him and said, ‘Have you filled that position yet? I’ll try it,'” she told The Catholic Post. “I’m all about trying something new.”

Good thing.

Not only did the students at Holy Trinity School benefit from her four years as assistant principal and 13 years as principal, but so did the Diocese of Peoria. Her love for her students and Catholic education and the gifts she has shared with her fellow administrators and the Catholic Schools Office brought her recognition as the diocese’s 2011-12 Distinguished Principal.

While she was not able to attend the opening Mass and meeting for Catholic school principals last week — she retired in May — that didn’t stop them from singing her praises.

Calling her “a class act,” Dr. Sharon Weiss, superintendent of Catholic schools, used O’Brien’s own words to honor her: “It is a serious challenge to balance leadership and management duties while remaining focused on what is really important — that is, shaping and realizing our school-wide vision for improving teaching and learning. My strategy is to empower our teachers and staff to accomplish our mission to educate the whole child and to pursue high expectations in this mission. The best way to inspire is through example.”

Dr. Weiss also cited O’Brien’s longtime friend and principal Richard Morehouse who wrote, “I have admired Kay’s ability to run two buildings with a great amount of efficiency and strength while maintaining her compassionate heart for her students and for her staff.”

For her part, O’Brien called the recognition “a great, great honor. I’m just totally humbled by that, largely because I was on the same docket as Father Ric Schneider, who is a legend.”

The Franciscan priest, pastor of St. Mary’s Parish in Bloomington, was named the 2011-12 Distinguished Pastor for the Diocese of Peoria and honored by the National Catholic Educational Association in April.

O’Brien added that there are other principals who are more deserving, “but I humbly accept that nomination with gratitude.”

Raised on a farm near Lexington, O’Brien went to public elementary and middle schools and was sent to live with her grandmother in Bloomington so she could attend Trinity High School, now Central Catholic High School. She fell in love with the Sinsinawa Dominicans who taught there and went on to study at Rosary College in River Forest, now Dominican University.

She earned a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1967, a master’s degree in mathematics in 1996 and administrative certification in 1998, all from Illinois State University. O’Brien also did graduate work in music at the University of Grenoble, France.

She taught at public schools in Denver and Pontiac, but it was when she started at Holy Trinity in 1988 that she knew she had come “home.”

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful place to be,” O’Brien said. “The day I walked into my classroom as a teacher I remember saying to myself, ‘This is where I belong.'”

While she has loved working the school to thrive academically and form students who will graduate as well-balanced young adults and be leaders in the Catholic Church, she decided it was time to retire when her husband Dan did last year. Married 40 years, they have three children and “four wonderful grandchildren, with whom I can spend more time.”

They also plan to travel, and O’Brien is looking forward to playing golf.

“I will miss walking into the classroom. That’s probably the biggest thing,” she acknowledged. “You can’t not miss something that’s been wonderful.”

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