Seven principals reflect on what life holds after retirement
By: By Jennifer Willems
PHOTO CAPTION: Principals who are retiring this spring are, from left, Kathryn Bennett, Mary Paula Schmitt, Winnie Pratt, Pat Kellogg, Jerry Carls, Jim Flaherty and Colin Letendre. (The Catholic Post/Jennifer Willems)
They may be retiring from the daily routine of a Catholic school principal, but the seven school administrators who are stepping down this spring don’t plan to be idle for long. In addition to travel, they are lined up to do everything from painting houses to evaluating schools as part of the AdvancED accreditation process.
“My wife and children are planning my retirement for me,” said Jerry Carls, who has served as principal of Peru Catholic School in Peru for four years. “I hope they give me a little bit of say about what I’ll be doing,” he quipped.
Joining him in retirement are Kathryn Bennett of Immaculate Conception School, Monmouth; Jim Flaherty of St. Malachy School, Rantoul; Pat Kellogg of Holy Family School, Peoria; Colin Letendre, Alleman High School, Rock Island; Winnie Pratt of St. Jude School, Peoria; and Mary Paula Schmitt of St. Louis School in Princeton. Letendre was featured in the May 10, 2015, issue of The Catholic Post. The others shared their plans with The Post last week and their responses follow.
“I’ve been here 10 years. I wanted to be here to celebrate the school centennial, help with the capital campaign and move into the new school wing,” Bennett said. “Enrollment is good. We have a beautiful new facility. Now it’s time to hand the baton over.”
She has moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her husband, George, and they plan to spend more time with their “three beautiful grandchildren” — Wil, 10; Ava, 8; and Jack, 7.
While she has been at Immaculate Conception for a decade, her background in Catholic education includes 17 years as an English teacher at St. Francis Borgia Regional High School in Washington, Missouri; six years as a media specialist at Santa Fe Catholic High School in Lakeland, Florida; and two years as assistant principal at St. Joseph Catholic School in Winter Haven, Florida.
“I love the fact that I can live my faith during the day while I’m at work,” she said, adding she has taken great satisfaction from being able to evangelize and “make saints of all these children so they can get to heaven. I wouldn’t trade it for a bigger pension!”
Bennett said she feels blessed to have served at Immaculate Conception and credits the good counsel and prayers of Msgr. Thomas Mack, pastor, and Father Tim Hepner, former parochial vicar, for her success. She also praised the faculty and staff for their dedication and the parishioners for their support.
“It is they who have blessed me,” she said.
When Carls looks into the future, he sees woodworking, house painting and baseball. A Chicago Cubs fan, he plans to take trips with his buddies to see the team play throughout the summer, and hopes to go to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum in Cooperstown, New York.
Carls has worked in Catholic education for 26 years. He was a teacher and athletic director at St. Patrick School in LaSalle — his alma mater — for 13 years, and served as principal at St. Bede Academy in Peru for nine years. He has been at Peru Catholic School since 2011.
His background also includes 18 years as principal, athletic director and director of the physical plant for LaSalle Elementary School District 122.
He said the highlight of his career is “just being with the kids.”
“Being with the kids every day has been so much fun. I got paid to have fun — especially when I taught,” he told The Post. “When I got into administration I still tried to be involved. I learned the name of every kid and tried find out one thing about every kid that was different.”
Carls has taught more than 20 of his nieces and nephews and one of them, Amy Perona, will succeed him as principal at Peru Catholic.
“I’ve loved every place I’ve ever been,” he said. “I’ve been so fortunate.”
After more than 40 years in education — 30 of them as principal — Flaherty said, “It’s time to sit back and spend time with family and do some things I haven’t had the chance to do.”
That includes attending games, musicals and other school events for his four grandchildren along with his wife, Pam.
Flaherty taught at Von Steuben Middle School in Peoria and served as principal at Melvin-Sibley School in Gibson City, Clara Peterson School in Paxton and Paxton-Buckley-Loda High School before retiring the first time. That didn’t last long.
He went to St. Malachy School in Rantoul to turn in the forms to be a substitute teacher and Sister Sara Koch, OP, principal, asked if he would be interested in her job. He succeeded her in 2006.
“I love being around kids,” he said. “I don’t care if it’s high school students or preschoolers. It keeps you young.”
Flaherty said being at St. Malachy has rejuvenated his faith.
“I’ve taken far more from this school than I’ve given them,” he said. “St. Malachy is a blessing and a treasure of a little school.”
This isn’t the first time Kellogg has said goodbye to the students, faculty and staff of Holy Family School — or the first time she’s retired. She was principal there from 2003 to 2005 and came out of a brief retirement two years ago to fill in when the school had an unexpected opening.
She served as associate superintendent of schools for the Diocese of Peoria during the years in between.
Her background also includes 34 years in Peoria Public Schools, 23 of them as a kindergarten teacher.
Kellogg got into Catholic education as a way to “give back” for the good experiences she had as a student at St. Cecilia School and the Academy of Our Lady in Peoria. She would like to continue that in retirement by being a team leader for accreditation visits to schools as part of the AdvancED process. She will be doing the training for that soon.
“That will give me some freedom — I won’t have to work every day — and I’ll get to travel some,” she said.
A member of Holy Family Parish since 1970, she said it is well named.
“Once you come here, you become part of the family,” Kellogg said.
Pratt was principal of St. Jude School even before there was one. Now she leaves the newest school in the Diocese of Peoria in the hands of Sister Maria Christi Nelson, OP, knowing it will enroll a full roster of students in the fall.
“I feel like I had a role to play to get this school off the ground. If I was going to be here five to seven more years, OK. But going forward it needs a vision for kindergarten through eighth grade,” she told The Post. “It’s just the time for new eyes.”
As she looks back, what brings her satisfaction is that St. Jude School has become the “very loving, very close community” she dreamed it would be. The weekly school Mass continues to ground them so the school is a place where the children get a good education and a sense of how important their faith is, she said.
“I want to take some time to reflect on this whole experience. Even for the parish I want them to have something so they know everything that’s happened,” Pratt said. “I can’t wait to sit down and start recording it.”
Her husband, Don, works for Caterpillar and has no plans to retire yet, so she’ll have the time she needs to reflect and spend more time with their four grandchildren and look forward to another on the way.
“I’m still part of the parish,” she said. “My husband is part of the choir. I have grandkids in the school. I’ll just have a different role now.”
MARY PAULA SCHMITT
Schmitt started teaching religious education at St. Louis Parish in Princeton while she was still in high school. When she went off to Illinois State University to become a teacher, Father James Culleton, pastor, said there would be a job waiting for her when she graduated.
He was true to his word. She started with third grade and would go on to teach second, fourth and sixth grades. When she ran out of grades, she sent herself to the principal’s office and has been there for 21 years.
“It will be kind of hard to leave,” she said, noting that she’s been at St. Louis for a total of 33 years. “I’ve spent my life here. I live a mile from the school on the same street. It will be hard to back away from it.”
Nevertheless, she is looking forward to spending time with her grandchildren, seeing the country, and letting go of the stress that comes with the job.
“I’ve never regretted a day going to work, but I’m ready for a change,” Schmitt said. “I get out of my bed every morning, ready to work. I don’t know where the time went.”