Volume 106, Number 22 - May 29, 2009
brought to you online by Pinedale Online
by Jonathan Van Dyke
“He’s got that stature that you need to be a high school principal.” Nancy McGuire, librarian at PHS
For 16 years the students and staff at Pinedale High School have known one ultimate authority figure: Principal Richard Kennedy.
At 62, the lifelong educator will be hanging it up after this year and taking a break. Along the way he’s touched countless people as he’s helped mold the minds of Pinedale’s youth.
“It’s been a good run, that’s what he’d say,” said Brenda Kennedy, his wife of 21 years.
For many years, Kennedy has remained aloof, emphasizing a reign outside of the spotlight — something officials attributed to his study of law and history — and has repeatedly declined to comment for any memorial of his time here, although he’s hinted at quite the graduation speech.
Yet, ask colleagues, students and family about him, and they have no problem conjuring up an image of a passionate educator.
“Kids: He loves them. There isn’t anything he likes more than imparting knowledge. He loves the ‘light bulb effect’ when a child learns something.”
Brenda Kennedy, wife
Kennedy started his career in South Dakota, where he taught history and government for 11 years. As Brenda points out, it was clear “he was not in it for the money.” His salary after 11 years had only crept to $13,000.
But there was a desire to do more, to serve these kids more admirably. That drive comes from a love of children, and that stern commitment to excellence comes from a man who served this country in Vietnam.
After an eight-year stint as assistant principal in Powell — where he met Brenda — Kennedy became a full-fledged principal in Gunnison, Colo. However, he wasn’t happy with the way Colorado education was run, so when an opportunity came up in Pinedale in 1993, he took it.
“Straightforward, you knew where you stood with the guy,” said Mike Cothern, counselor at the high school who was well into his 30-plus-year tenure. “He was very supportive of staff. Black and white; not many gray areas with him. From my personal knowledge, just a great guy to work with.”
The newly minted principal had great plans early on, and looked to implement programs throughout his career that would help make Pinedale High School’s achievements known throughout the state — even now, as the landscape of education continues to evolve.
“Mr. Kennedy has had a tremendous amount on his plate,” said Doris Woodbury, superintendent of Sublette County School District #1 these last three years. “Being a high school principal is one of the hardest jobs there is in the field of education. You're very visible and the implications of your decisions has a lot of weight for kids.”
Repeatedly, Kennedy was commended for his work in bringing PAWS test scores up and for his ability to step up as a crisis manager and decision-maker.
“My little joke for him when he first came, I told him we put the principal’s name on Velcro, so we could more easily take it on and off.”
Mike Cothern, counselor
Before Kennedy, schools in Pinedale had more of a turnstile feel in the front office. Principals may not have left after only one year, but getting them to stay beyond the five-year mark was uncommon. This seemed different.
“He loves expectations,” Brenda said. “He believes if you expect something from someone, generally you get it. And he really believes that in kids.”
Each year, Kennedy will demand more from his students. He helped implement a Silent Sustained Reading program to help with Language Arts skills. He meets with his juniors before the PAWS test to let them know that he expects excellence. He’s worked with Cothern to make Pinedale’s scholarship programs of the more envied in the state — again with the expectations that these kids should have every shot at a college education.
“I think a lot of things we have in place, he brought,” said Jeff Makelky, associate principal for the past two years. “I don’t think anyone fully understands how much responsibility goes with being a high school principal.
“I think he really excels in crisis situations, where someone needs to step forward and provide leadership. He’s really good at stepping in and making decisions that have to be made quickly.”
“He looks tough, but he’s just like a big teddy bear.”
Zach Barta, senior student
Perhaps the biggest struggle of any principal is staying grounded — something Kennedy gets in just 90 minutes a day teaching American Government.
“I think he’s probably one of the best government teachers in the state,” Cothern said.
Despite the mountains of paperwork and the constant staff needs, Kennedy has remained true to his teaching roots — a move that’s probably helped him stay sane for 16 years.
“He knows the laws very well,” McGuire said. “I see that as a real strong suit. He would have been a great attorney, because he can get up there and really woo them with what he knows.”
Kennedy, the teacher, is always looking to impart knowledge on the executive, legislative and judicial branches. It’s also a way to keep in close contact with his students.
“As a principal he’s pretty strict when you come in as a freshman, but when you’re a senior he’s laid back and cool,” said Kelsea Vickrey, senior. “As a teacher, you learn lots. He’s a great teacher.”
Even though he’s retiring right now, that teaching bug probably won’t let him stay away too long, Brenda said. Substitute Kennedy anyone?
“And he’s not leaving until he gets his two library books checked in.”
Nancy McGuire, librarian
The one thing that retirement will afford — aside from some time to recharge — is the ability to spend time with a large family: seven kids and 13 grandchildren.
“He’s all about being a father and a grandfather,” Brenda said. “Those are the two things he loves outside of the school best.”
Fielding school and life questions from grandkids is routine in the Kennedy household, but the future retiree wants some more in-person time with his large family.
When not hanging out with his significant others, you might just find Kennedy on the golf course.
“He’s a great golfer,” Woodbury said. “Ask him about that.”
Word is, Kennedy bought a season pass.
“His strong point is driving,” Makelky said. “He’s a great driver off the tee box. His chipping leaves a little to be desired.”
“A lot of the time he’ll bring that up at a staff meeting, reminding us of the five p’s: Prior Preparation Prevents Poor Performance.”
And so with that last bell, Principal Kennedy will walk out that door, principal no more. He still went forward with his usual plea to seniors to be careful this summer — even going so far as to encourage them to call him if they need a ride home from a party where there’s been drinking.
It’s the little stories that sift out after 16 years on the job, it’s the little things that will be missed and it’s the people that will miss him.
“I don’t know if he’s gotten all the credit he deserves, but he’s really set up Pinedale High School to where it is today,” Cothern said.
Photo credits: Jonathan Van Dyke
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